What is Public History?

In 1981, Ron Grele wrote an article for the National Council on Public History asking what Public History is, and what goals may exist for people within the field. Grele described wrote that there was no clear definition for the practice and aims of professionals within Public History, stemming from prior historians believing that there were no jobs for historians outside of academia. [1] Grele continued by discussing the origins for Public History in the real of local history and archives, and that the discipline has largely been described as any position not held in an academic setting.

The trend of believing history only being a part of an academic institution has been noted by numerous professionals, and originally had a basis of truth. Denise Meringolo described the role of several historians at universities who would work with outside institutions, such as a state court, to act as an expert in a particular field. [2] She went on to describe that the creation of the National Park System provided an avenue for historians to work outside of a university, which provided an opportunity for the public to realize that history existed outside of the classroom.

As Public History gained prominence as a discipline, the question of what Public History is, and what duties professionals performed, became widespread. The answer to this question continues to this day. A survey conducted in 2008 by John Dichtl and Robert Townsend showed that there is no one set definition for Public History. Their survey concluded that some professionals were unsure if the label applied to them, despise others in a similar position who did identify as a Public Historian. [3] Of those that Dichtl and Townsend surveyed, a vast majority were working at museums or government agencies.

The question now becomes, without a specific example of a Public Historian, what constitutes Public History? Some might say that stating Public History is any historian that works outside of a classroom. I feel that this is misleading, as many professors publish their research outside of their university and would not consider themselves Public Historians. Rather, I believe that Public History involves presenting historical research in such a manner that no formal training as a historian is required to understand the material. This can be anything from a formal exhibit in a museum, to placards at a historical site, to an online space providing information on a particular topic. The key is that the information is accessible to a wide range of people and backgrounds.


 

[1] Grele, Ronald J. “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” The Public Historian 3, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 41.

[2] Meringolo, Denise. “Prologue and Conclusion.” In Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. xvii.

[3] Dichtl, John, and Robert Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.” Perspectives on History, September 2008. http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2009/a-picture-of-public-history.

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