Historian takes a mobile approach to oral history preservation

Erin Bernard, a public history graduate student, modeled her thesis project off food trucks.

Kaycee Itohan Osadolor conducts an oral history interview inside Erin Bernard’s truck. | COURTESY Jill Saul
Kaycee Itohan Osadolor conducts an oral history interview inside Erin Bernard’s truck. | COURTESY Jill Saul

Erin Bernard was passing a string of food trucks on Main Campus when she was struck with an idea for her master’s thesis project.

Bernard combined her passion for history with the concept of Philadelphia’s famous food trucks to unlock the untold stories of the city’s residents.

With a truck, Bernard could travel around selected neighborhoods and conduct oral interviews with residents.

“[But] I had this idea, and I didn’t even have a truck,” said Bernard, a graduate student who is currently completing her master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history.

 Bernard discussed the idea of a history truck with her advisor, Seth Bruggeman, director of the Center for Public History at Temple.

With Bruggeman, Bernard proposed traveling around selected neighborhoods via truck and conducting oral interviews with residents about “family life, neighbors, [and] stuff going on in the city.”

Bernard planned to use the stories to create exhibits for her mobile history museum.

“One thing I absolutely hope [the] History Truck does is help those who live, work and play within Philly places and spaces to choose how they wish to be remembered,” Bernard said. “[The] History Truck stands the chance to not only preserve the often marginalized voices of our city in Temple’s archives, but also to turn the cog in the social change wheel.”

 Bruggeman, who immediately liked the idea, began working with Bernard, and the two were able to attain an $85,000 annual grant from The Barra Foundation for the History Truck, which ultimately funded the project.

“I thought it was a great idea from the outset,” Bruggeman said. “It had a clear precedent in Philadelphia’s own public history past, but also modeled new ways of thinking about the intersections between exhibit space and public memory.”

“What excited me more than the project, however, was [Bernard’s] enthusiasm about it,” he added. “From the get-go, [Bernard] clearly had the vision and energy to make this project a success.”

Bernard soon met Jeff Carpineta, the former president of the East Kensington Neighborhood Association and provider of the project’s all-important truck.

 Before Carpineta bought the truck from Craigslist, it served as a water ice truck and even a post-office truck.

 In June 2013, Bernard manned the history truck for the first time and made her way to Carpineta’s neighborhood of East Kensington. It was then that the Philadelphia Public History Truck’s journey began through its community partnership with the East Kensington Neighborhood Association.

 Soon, the history truck workers began conducting interviews and delving into community issues, like Kensington’s existing racial tensions and the history of buildings catching fire in the community.

 Bernard continued recording the neighborhood’s history well into the fall. She then began planning to display the History Truck’s findings in an exhibit, which she has described as “a weird fusion of history and art.”

 The exhibit opened for gallery display at Little Berlin in April 2014 and was then condensed into mobile form and taken to the streets.

“What is critical about this project is that it serves as an example of how public historians, artists, and museumists can work with people to develop exhibitions,” Bernard said.

 Throughout its North Philadelphia travels, the History Truck has focused on topics like community gardens and has acknowledged “community displacement” as a result of university expansion.

The History Truck also became more expansive by partnering with Tree House Books. During its summer camp, Bernard led a public history workshop through which campers interviewed local residents.

The History Truck’s art partner, Theodore A. Harris, who is also a collagist and poet, worked with the History Truck on the project.

 “Part of being a good collaborator is knowing each others strengths … at certain points [Bernard] hands the baton to me,” Harris said. “I [taught] the campers how to create visual art from the oral histories they recorded from the neighborhoods around Tree House Books.”

There will be one more event before the North Philadelphia exhibit showcases the team’s findings in the spring, Bernard said. This event will be held on April 11 at the Wagner Institute of Science from noon to 5:30 p.m.

The Philadelphia Public History Truck will be showing “Unedited Philadelphia,” which is a composition of clips from past Philadelphia newscasts. After viewing the footage, community members will discuss the events as they personally remember them.

 Following the conclusion of the North Philadelphia exhibit, the History Truck will begin preparations for their next cycle, which will start in June 2015 and focus on Chinatown, where Bernard said she hopes to tackle issues surrounding homelessness.

Jenny Roberts can be reached at jenny.roberts@temple.edu

CORRECTION: A version of this story that appeared in print misstated that Seth Bruggeman introduced Erin Bernard to Jeff Carpineta. Bernard reached out to Carpineta herself. 

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