Is Coastal History Public History?

Johnathan Thayer, who writes the guest blog below, will be known to many as one of our speakers at the ‘Firths and Fjords’ conference. He is a Visiting Lecturer and the Coordinator of the Archives and Preservation of Cultural Materials Certificate Program at the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, Queens College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Johnathan is also a doctoral student in History at The Graduate Center, CUNY, focusing on the legal, labour, and cultural history of merchant seamen in the United States, as well as the cultural geography of New York City’s sailortown. Thayer’s projects include “Mapping New York City’s Sailortown” at the New Media Lab, CUNY (more below), the Seamen’s Church Institute’s American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project, and the Seamen’s Church Institute Digital Archives [David].

As we have seen from Isaac Land’s post in this blog, “Coastal History: Who, What, and Why?,” coastal history, as we are coming to understand it, is inherently interdisciplinary. In his diagrams Land places coastal history alongside and overlapping with other fields, including maritime, naval, environmental, urban, and leisure history. The question that I intend to pose in this post both accepts and further questions this model. Specifically, I ask: is there also something inherently public-facing about coastal history? In other words, is coastal history public history?

This question first occurred to me in Dornoch, at the wonderful “Firths and Fjords” conference hosted by UHI. Like many other conference participants, I was inspired by the seamless integration of local public stakeholders into the conference program. From the start of the conference to its finish, we were greeted by local youths selling chocolates to raise funds for their school, as well as a miniature army of volunteers prepping lunches and snacks, local historians and heritage workers with information booths and book stalls, and a mixed audience of members from local communities. Amid this group, the presence of academics that one might expect to find at such a conference sometimes felt like a formality, or a sideshow to more interesting things happening and being discussed outside the confines of papers and PowerPoint presentations.

As both a PhD student and faculty member at the City University of New York (CUNY), I took these experiences of successful public engagement back with me to Queens. CUNY has a mandate to serve the public of New York City through its twenty-four campuses located throughout the city.  All too often, however, I feel that institutions of higher education, even a university system with such a public mandate like CUNY, turn their backs on those who we are expected to serve in favor of the insular, safely familiar confines of academic scholarship and discourse. Thayer

Coastal history seems like a perfect thematic platform upon which we, as an international, interdisciplinary group, can build a sustainable, public-facing community of like-minded academics, heritage workers, and stakeholders.

There does indeed seem to be something deeply engaging about the coast for all human beings. Consider the allure of the coast, and the dependency of coastal peoples on its food supplies, that have made human societies statistically a people clinging to the margins of our geographic worlds?[1] And, there is no denying the urgencies placed upon coastal dwellers by rising tides and extreme weather, both in historical and current contexts.[2] Then, there is the coast as a commercialized space, both as epicenter of commerce (ports), and as a booming site of real estate development and space of leisure and consumerism curated by retail businesses, developers, and commercial architecture firms.[3] Finally, there is the epic arc of romanticism and mythology surrounding Jack Tar and the sea as seen and consumed from the coast, in the literature of Melville, Cooper, London, Conrad, et al, as well as visual art, music, poetry, film, and any other form of cultural expression imaginable.

This list of concepts does indeed seem to translate into a real market for public programming that engages our shared coastal histories. In New York City, for example, there are a number of initiatives that I see as representing an encouraging swell in interest among the public in the history of our identities as urban coastal dwellers. Public programming at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, including excursions hosted by Turnstile Tours, lend historical interpretation to a site that has transformed from maritime industries to new types of urban industrial development.[4] The Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center at New York City College of Technology has recently hosted a conference focused on the theme of “Past, Present & Future of Manufacturing along the Brooklyn Waterfront,”[5] and the Brooklyn Historical Society is currently planning an exhibition on the same topic. In the waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, dedicated stewards of community history and culture work tirelessly against city regulations to preserve and maintain historic vessels like the Lehigh Valley no. 79 barge[6] and the oil tanker Mary Whalen. [7] In Manhattan, the South Street Seaport Museum works towards restoration of the historic Wavertree, as well as the debut in March of its first exhibition since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, titled “Street of Ships: The Port and Its People.”[8]

The project that I lead at the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, “Mapping NYC’s Sailortown: A Networked Digital Archival Consortium” recently received a federal grant from the National Park Service that will provide funding to build a digital platform and conduct workshops with maritime heritage organizations in New York to create a public-facing digital archive for the city’s maritime history.

Considering all of this, and reflecting on my experiences in Dornoch, I would argue that there are indeed very real connections between coastal history and public history. Practitioners in both fields would benefit from recognizing these intersections, and collaboratively plotting a course forward.

[1] See, among others, John Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Isaac Land suggests an expanded definition of “coastal squeeze,” a concept he attributes to coastal conservation scientist J. Pat Doody, to account for “recognizable human elements” within the “tug-of-war over values, resources, and turf” that occurs along coastlines. Isaac Land, “Coasts of the Anthropocene,” The Coastal History Blog, Port Towns and Urban Cultures, February 12, 2014, and J. Patrick Doody, “Coastal Squeeze—An Historical Perspective,” Journal of Coastal Conservation 10 (2004), 129-138.

[2] See, most recently, the “Keeping History Above Water: A Conference on Sea Level Rise and Historic Preservation,” held at Newport, RI in April 2016.

[3] James N. Lindgren, Preservation of South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District, (New York University Press, 2014). Lindgren documents the history of contestations over the Seaport’s preservation and development, from the era of James Rouse’s waterfront “festival marketplaces” to more recent battles involving the Howard Hughes Corporation.



[6] The Lehigh Valley Barge no. 79 is the site of the Brooklyn Waterfront Museum:

[7] The Mary Whalen is the site of PortSide New York and the program WaterStories:






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