The Foundations of Public History

The readings for the first week of class focused on the establishment of public history as a methodology, debates surrounding what constitutes public history, the roles and professions of public historians, debates over the definition of “public” and the various ways public historians must engage with that public, the contributions of public history to the discipline, and the founding and establishment of the National Council on Public History.

The definition of public history and its contribution to the discipline are one way in which the actors in these texts represent their work and the significance of the field. Robert Kelley, in the 1978 article “Public History: Its Origins, Nature, and Prospects,” defined public history as “the employment of historians and the historical method outside academia.” (Kelley 16) Three years later, however, in “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of a Public Historian?,” Ronald Grele asserted that “those of us who work in the field have not clearly defined what it is we do, why we do it, and why it is an alternative to other forms of historical effort.” (Grele 41) Charles Cole noted that there was still no explicit definition of public history in the 1994 article “Public History: What Difference has it Made?”

Grele attributed the origin of the public history movement to “the thought that ‘maybe’ historians could be useful in policy formulation,” (Grele 41) although other scholars have attributed its beginnings to more engaging and noble pursuits. Howard Green, in the 1981 article “A Critique of the Professional Public History Movement,” argued “it is this contradiction between a crisis in academic history and a boom in popular history that helps account for the rise of a public history ‘movement.’” (Green 164-165). Green also asserted that public history “is an attempt to recapture for the academy a place in the public arena.” (Green 165) Other authors argued that public history was the result of the new social history movement, which champions the history of the individual rather than the formerly glorified political history and the “great man” theory of history.

Grele noted that “the task of the public historian…should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events.” (Grele 47-48) In the same vein, Howard argued that the main task of public historians should be to bring awareness to the ideas of Marx and Carl Becker, respectively, that “people make their own history” and “everyone is a historian.” In addition, public historians should “help people find their own histories…and aid them in understand their roles in shaping and interpreting events.” (Green 169)

The importance of the public and effectively engaging with the public is a topic of great debate among the authors of this week’s readings. Kelley conceded that in public history, historians have to answer questions posed by others rather than creating scholarly inquiry themselves. Grele noted that historians have always had to answer to a variety of publics, and detailed the specific audiences historians have engaged with previously. In Katharine Corbett and Howard Miller’s article, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” published 2006, they state that “the operant word in ‘public history’ is public… public history requires a genuine commitment to engage.” (Corbett and Miller 37)

Power and authority are negotiated in different ways in the field of public history as discussed by the authors of this week’s readings. The authors who best discuss power and authority are Corbett and Miller. Public historians that are new to the field and previously practiced their craft in traditional academic settings should understand the notion of shared authority. Corbett and Miller discussed shared authority in the context of oral history interviews and stated that the “interviewer and interviewee share ownership of an oral history because they share agency in its creation.” (Corbett and Miller 20) The authors noted: “Sharing authority is a deliberate decision to give up some control over the product of historical inquiry.” (Corbett and Miller 20) In addition, they asserted that since public history is situational and messy, the “essential element is agency: the key questions for practitioners are who has legitimate power, who is willing to share it, and under what conditions?” (Corbett and Miller 38) In order for power and authority to be negotiated to the most advantage of both historians and the public, then both actors must equally share power and authority.

Public historians have power only if they can effectively work with the public they are attempting to engage, and that public often wields its own authority and power in ways that are sometimes unexpected. Corbett and Miller described Meet Me at the Fair, an exhibit on the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, designed with the intention of inquiring into the ways in which that event continued to permeate the history of the area and civic identity. The exhibit creators expected and hoped to provoke a discussion of the ways in which people “rehearse” the past. Visitors, however, did not analyze the event in the ways in which the exhibit creators had hoped. “Visitors walked in with all the authority, and kept it… [they] controlled the conversation.” (Corbett and Miller 36) The authors noted that despite their efforts to have the public engage with the theme of public memory and the World’s Fair, “visitors left as they had come, chatting about collectibles that reminded them of the glorious summer when St. Louis was the center of the world.” (Corbett and Miller 36) This idea of shared authority is a challenging one for traditionally trained historians to grasp, as such historians are used to asking their own questions and not seeking to engage with a public that is outside of the academy. In public history, historians have to accept and work with a public that often wields significant power and authority. But the opposite also holds true: the public also has to accept and work with a historian that is both used to and commands power (in terms of their institutional position) and authority (in terms of their academic credentials). To be effective in their engagements with the public, public historians must align themselves with a version of social roles based on claims of equality.

Taken together, the majority of this week’s readings form a historiography of the field of public history: the beginnings of the public history movement, the evolution of what constitutes public history and what public history means, the impact of public history on the historical profession, critiques of public history, best practices, and the creation and then assessment of the National Council on Public History and its accompanying publications. While the readings were comprehensive, it would be useful to read a more recent assessment of the field—something similar to Charles Cole’s 1994 article “Public History: What Difference has it Made?”

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