By Jennifer Evans
Written and Mounted May
Revised September 2000
What is Public History? What sort of training
should Public Historians have? Where should they publish their work? How
should they be compensated?
In doing research for this section, I came
across many answers to the question "What is public history?" Rather than
synthesize these definitions into a single essay, I have chosen to present
a selection of these descriptions to the reader in the hopes of generating
responses and analytical thought not only about the contours of present
day public history but also about the potential and possibilities for the
One of the clearest explanations I found
appears on the New York University's web site for its graduate program
in public history. The following is a brief quotation; the entire piece
can be found at: http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/history/publichistory/main.htm
Public History is history that is
seen, heard, read, and interpreted by a popular audience. Public historians
expand on the methods of academic history by emphasizing non-traditional
evidence and presentation formats, reframing questions, and in the process
creating a distinctive historical practice....Public history is also history
that belongs to the public. By emphasizing the public context of scholarship,
public history trains historians to transform their research to reach audiences
outside the academy.
The following selections are arranged in
no particular order, and you may scroll down the page or utilize the following
history" means the presentation of historical knowledge to a general public
audience. Public history takes many forms--museum presentations, television
documentaries, historic preservation projects, collection and recording
projects, and the re-translation of traditional historical knowledge into
modern, micro-computer-based formats, to give some examples. As an academic
discipline it also focuses on the efficient and ethical management of our
nation's historical heritage and collective memories.
University of Baltimore
Public History web page
history most often refers to the employment of historians in history-related
work outside of academia, and especially to the many ways in which historians
recreate and present history to the public-and sometimes with the public.
Thus, we find historians working in archives, museums, historic sites,
state and local historical agencies, newspapers, businesses, trade and
labor organizations, and in all levels of government. They work as editors,
archivists, oral historians, administrators, curators, historic preservation
specialists, writers, public policy analysts--and, lest we forget, as historians!
From the syllabus for Introduction
to Public History taught by Michael Gordon at the University of Wisconsin,
history is history, practically applied. It is based on the understanding
that history is not taught solely in the classroom, but is learned in a
variety of places, and in a variety of ways. Public historians disseminate
historical information to a wide audience through institutions such as
archives, historical houses or societies, museums, consulting firms, history
libraries, and Web sites. They are providers of primary and secondary source
materials, and they often present information to patrons so that the patrons
can form their own ideas of history and historical events through exhibits
My particular experiences with
public history are diverse, and they have helped inform my definition of
public history. In providing historical information to visitors, public
historians give these visitors a chance to form their own opinions and
ideas about history and to create books, essays, dissertations, works of
art, and other products that in turn shape other people's ideas about history.
Practical and entertaining, applications of history are what set public
history apart from classroom history, and both have their place in the
overall process of teaching history.
Emma Wilmer, Emeritus Editor,
differences may account for some of the differences between American and
English historians. Public history in America seems to have gone down a
very patriotic pathway, supportive of conservative, middle-class values.
Public history in England appears to be an active, if sometimes flawed,
"people's history" understanding of public history co-existing with a redefining
of heritage (castles and monuments) to meet the commercial demands of cultural
or heritage tourism.
Graeme Davison makes some useful
observations on the difference between American and British public historians.
American public history presumes societal consensus; British public history
(People's History) presumes an environment of social conflict and injustice.
The work of the public historian, and the public history presented, proceeds
accordingly in these two societies.
Here in Australia, the public
history domain is perhaps shared by the needs of a settler society to give
itself historical definition or identity and the needs of indigenous Australians
to find political and cultural justice. These juxtapositions are perhaps
overdrawn and somewhat extreme, but the basic point is valid. Public history
not only reflects the history of the community it seeks to serve, but the
very history of that community will shape the nuances of what is understood
as public history by that community.
From the syllabus for Public
History 209 taught by Dr. Robin McLachlan at Charles Stuart University
[Michael Frisch] contends that what differentiates public history from
academic history is its focus on audience."
Stephen L. Reckon, "Doing
Public History: A Look at the How, but Especially the Why," American
Quarterly Volume 45, Issue 1 (March 1993): 188.
history refers to the employment of historians and historical method outside
Robert Kelley, The Public
Historian, Vol. 1 (1978): 16.
Historians, as opposed to academic Historians, work with and for the general
public. They work in archives, museums, public policy organizations, historical
societies, and in media. Public Historians are devoted to practicing History
outside of the classroom. Historians work for local, state, and national
groups including corporations and governmental institutions. The purpose
of a public historian is to collect, preserve, and disseminate information
on the past. Public Historians use such tools as photographs, oral histories,
museum exhibitions, and multimedia to address a wide variety of historical
issues and to present those issues to a non-academic audience.
Chelsea Paige Buffington
"Public History--What Is It?"
public history has evolved from a quest for "alternative careers" to a
way of understanding and practicing the craft of history, it has on the
campuses run headlong into the sacred trinity of research, teaching, and
service--with the greatest of these being research embodied in refereed
publications....Despite the peer review and many other strengths, the present
reward system has contributed to an unproductive "academic vs. public"
debate; encouraged a trend towards co-opting public history by defining
it as another specialized subfield and obscured the common ground shared
by the community of professionals who practice the historians' craft. As
historians, we all do research, we all analyze and interpret our findings,
and we all communicate the results. The primary difference between public
and academic history is in the area of communication--in the audiences
that we attempt to reach and in the products that we use to convey our
scholarship to those audiences.
Scarpino, Philip V., "Some
Thoughts on Defining, Evaluating, and Rewarding Public Scholarship." The
Public Historian Vol. 15, No. 2 (Spring 1993) 55-61.
a set of theories, methods,
assumptions, and practices guiding the identification, preservation, interpretation,
and presentation of historical artifacts, texts, structures, and landscapes
in conjunction with and for the public.
an interactive process
between the historian, the public, and the historical object.
the belief that history and
historical-cultural memory matter in the way people go about their day-to-day
Debra DeRuyver, Managing