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What is Public History?



What is Public History

By Jennifer Evans
Written and Mounted May 8, 1999
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 field.

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:

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 links:

University of Baltimore Public History web page

Syllabus for Introduction to Public History taught by Michael Gordon at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Emma Wilmer, Emeritus Editor, PHRC

Syllabus for Public History 209 taught by Dr. Robin McLachlan at Charles Stuart University in Australia

Michael Frisch

Robert Kelley

Chelsea Paige Buffington "Public History--What Is It?"

Scarpino, Philip V., "Some Thoughts on Defining, Evaluating, and Rewarding Public Scholarship."

Debra Deruyver, Managing Editor, PHRC

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Descriptions and Definitions of Public History

"Public 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

Public 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, Milwaukee

Public 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 and research.

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, PHRC

Cultural 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 in Australia.

"He [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.

"Public history refers to the employment of historians and historical method outside of academia,"

Robert Kelley, The Public Historian, Vol. 1 (1978): 16.

Public 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?"

As 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.

Public history is...

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 lives.

Debra DeRuyver, Managing Editor, PHRC



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