Public History as a Public Service

In Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, Denise Meringolo responds to the efforts of public historians and academics to define public history. She uses the establishment of the National Park Service as a lens through which to argue that public history did not emerge in the 1970s but rather was a movement that began decades prior when historians began to work in the public sector for the federal government. Meringolo writes: “This book seeks to challenge received wisdom regarding the professionalization of public history and argues that the effort to define public history will be improved by examining its emergence as a multidisciplinary government job.” (Meringolo xxvi) Her goal in writing is to “illuminate the cultural roots of the work we now call ‘public history’ so that we may more fairly and accurately define and critique it,” and examines “the process by which federal workers began to conceptualize the protection of landscapes and artifacts as valuable public work.” (Meringolo xxix)

Meringolo fundamentally disagrees with the common perception that was articulated by the authors of last week’s readings who argued that the public history movement began in the 1970s as a subfield and methodology of history as a discipline. Meringolo takes issue with this notion because, by articulating public history as an offshoot of the academic discipline, it “leaves us with an incomplete understanding of the challenges historians have faced in the public sector for decades.” (Meringolo xxvi) Public history “evolved, consciously and unconsciously, through trial and error as government workers began to put history to work for the public.” (Meringolo xxvi)

The public that federal workers seek to engage with has a larger and broader scope than articulated by the authors of last week’s readings. For public historians who work for the federal government, the public is not simply a target audience they seek to engage with through exhibits, but rather includes “civic space, government funding, political constituents, and, more broadly, the citizens for whom the government works.” (Meringolo xxvi) Meringolo notes that public history was originally practiced by men who were not professionally-trained historians, but were archaeologists, professors, businesspeople, and scientists. These men who shaped the emergence of public history became historians as a consequence of their work in the National Park Service and other federal agencies. By acknowledging this, Meringolo actively embraces and promotes public history as an interdisciplinary field. Meringolo seeks to describe the beginnings of public history as a public service. (Meringolo xxviii, xxxii)

Meringolo’s work is significant to public history because it broadens the understanding of the foundation, history, and evolution of the field. While it is an engaging read, there were certain aspects of the text that could have been expanded. The history of public history as a public service seems to be entirely white and male. As this is only the beginning of my foray into a greater understanding of public history, perhaps it is the case that public history’s origins are of great white men, but this seems suspect.

In addition, in various chapters throughout the book, Meringolo briefly touches on the gendering of preservation work. In the first chapter, she notes that historic preservation in the early to mid nineteenth century was seen as women’s work and an extension of the domestic sphere. She discusses the purchase of Mount Vernon by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1859, whose members hoped that the purchase and upkeep of the site would help preserve the Union. In the second chapter, Meringolo writes that in the postbellum era, women who worked in preservation participated in the redefinition of national unity as a privilege of whiteness. In the South, women worked to preserve the remains of life in the Old South and promoted the Lost Cause. She notes that the “hard” work of academic history was seen as masculine while the “soft” work of preservation was relegated to women. By discussing this gendering of the work of preservation further, she could have had a thoughtful analysis of the impact of gender on public history and the perception of gender roles in public history.

It is also curious that Meringolo chooses to stop her discussion of public history in the 1930s. There is hardly any discussion of the history of the field in the 1940s, 50s, or 60s. By extending her scholarship further, she could have created a more robust history of public history created and practiced by federal workers.

One of the more interesting sections of the text is the final chapter “Park Service Diggers: Public Historians and the Problem of Status” because it delves into a discussion of class, power, and authority. By the 1930s, National Parks were no longer simply destinations of the wealthy as a growing middle class acquired more disposable income and leisure time. FDR’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was concerned that the meaning of the parks would fundamentally change with the rise of visitors of the “limited class.” Despite these concerns, “tourists were consumers of America, and purchasing power gave them a measure of cultural authority.” (Meringolo 132) Thanks to the New Deal, more than three million unemployed workers signed up with the Civilian Conservation Corps, and they became workers and tourists at National Parks. They performed archaeological excavations and practiced collection management, and were able to take educational classes. Meringolo notes that “in this interdependent, dialogic relationship, a constituency of the working class exerted some influence int he evolving work culture of public history.” (Meringolo 143) In addition, there was concern over “the extent to which tourists could shape their own experiences in the parks,” which “raised questions about the legitimacy of the authority exerted by park staff.” (Meringolo 143) To remedy this, museums, guides and educational experiences created a “buffer between experts and audiences, [which limited] the kinds of dialogue that could shape the meaning and value of park landscape.” (Meringolo 151) This discussion of class, power, and authority is reminiscent of last week’s readings. The concern over audiences’ shaping their own experiences and exerting their own authority seems to always be met with a negative backlash in which public history practitioners attempt–and often succeed–in promoting their own views and experiences as the “right” views and experiences, thus limiting the engagement between the public and practitioners.

One Comment

  1. Beth Wolny


    Great analysis of Meringolo’s work – and much clearer writing than my own! I completely agree with the exclusive on white men as the historic players in her book. I’m aware of at least women who were collecting Native American objects (perhaps not the most laudable example of women in public history, but there it is). I felt that Meringolo left out a significant portion of the literature by failing to discuss the emergence of major museums during this time, and the part that World Fairs played in creating a (white) national narrative.

Leave a Reply to Beth Wolny Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *