A Definition of Public History

Public history is a term many everyday, non-historians don’t understand. However, it’s also a term that doesn’t have a clear definition even within its own niche community. Historian and author Ronald J. Grele wrote the obvious questions right in the title of his 1981 article: “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” (40)

To tackle Grele’s first question: “Whose public?” Grele makes it plain in his article that “[t]he use of the possessive case in this title is not an accident” (40). Asking a question like “Whose public?” feels akin to asking, “Whose air? Whose oceans? Whose universe?” I can only conclude that the answer is the historians’. While this sounds like a meaningless tautology, I’ll try to explain: specialists have long chosen the public they market to, whether intentionally or unintentionally. For example, as Denise Meringolo writes in Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, “In this [post-Civil War] atmosphere, scientists with an established track record of research on behalf of government interests joined forces with a new generation of American-educated naturalists and others.” In this case, scientists sought out the “public” in the form of people who could help fund their research, specifically in the federal government. These scientists recognized that they could not appeal to the broad, general “public” and thus sought to gain influence with a smaller section of the “public.” Similarly, historians’ “public” also consisted of policymakers, i.e., people who could help create and fund the Smithsonian Institution and educational programs within the National Park Service. While this approach to appealing to a smaller “public” may appear to go against the concept of inclusivity and outreach, I think it’s a very realistic goal. It’s unfortunate that “public” is somewhat of a misnomer, as it implies everyone, but the historians’ “public” still includes those who might never imagine studying history at a university or as part of a graduate program.

“Whose history?” Once again, I hate to pull out of circular answer, but my answer would be, “The public’s history.” I hate using these terms over and over, but I will try to defend my choice. In order to appeal to even a smaller section of the “public,” history has to abandon most of its pretensions: complex royal family trees, useless puffery in language (of which I am certainly guilty), and incessant date memorization. I’m not implying that the “public” can’t understand these things; I’m saying that there is no point to, unless one is writing a dissertation or trying to pass an exam in a specific subject. Most of those things don’t apply to everyday people, even people with an abnormal interest in history. The reason that 23.8%—the largest category—of self-described public historians in 2008 work in museums (Dichtl and Townsend) is because museums are the perfect example of history tailored to appeal to the masses. Whether it’s a home museum of an influential/innovative person or a historical behemoth like the National American History Museum, these museums contain histories that draw in tourists, passersby, students—not exclusively historians with PhDs.

“What is the goal of public history?” I think the goal not unrelated to the goal of academic historians: to study and preserve the past, and to reapply those lessons and observations to the present and the future. That is always a shared goal for any historian. However, public historians have another goal that is of equal importance: to present and share historical knowledge in a way so that it reaches unintended audiences. Naturally, to reach audiences outside of the academic historian sphere, one must mainly work with those who do not study history, or do not study it to the extent of getting a degree. The shifting goals of the National Park Service—from land preservation, education, tourism, to interactive exhibits and tours—perfectly exemplify the various goals at certain points of public history (Meringolo, 162-168). Today, I think it’s good that public history doesn’t have to be about just one of these goals. Historic sites can be preserved with new interactive exhibits added. A museum can help bolster tourism in a city, but it’s also teaching tourists important local and/or national history. Public history is a feedback loop: public historians teach the public, who in turn provide history for the public historians. It’s a symbiotic relationship between history and the public, which is appropriate, as history of people cannot happen without the people.

Works Cited

Dichtl, John and Robert Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.”Perspectives on History, September 2009.

Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 40-48.

Meringolo, Denise. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Note: I used MLA format, since I don’t know how to create superscript in the Visual Editor or with HTML.

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