When I try to explain to people what I’m studying in graduate school, this question frequently arises, whether spoken verbally or through a look of confusion that tells me I’m not making any sense. When I clarify that I’d like to work for either a museum, library, the National Park Service, etc., the mental light bulb usually turns on.
The best way to describe the field of public history in a succinct manner is that it is history education to a public audience outside the traditional classroom setting, as opposed to history education that takes place in an academic setting inside the traditional classroom. The National Council on Public History describes public history as “history beyond the traditional classroom… applied to real world problems.”
I find this emphasis on applying history to contemporary, real world problems as something particularly exciting about public history. Throughout my educational upbringing, I was taught that history was separate from the problems of today, and I would surmise that most people still view history in this manner today. Growing up we all learned about the “three d’s” of history: Dates, Dead People, and Dust, and were told by our teachers that we held proficient historical knowledge and that we would get good grades if we mastered the “three d’s” of history and correctly answered all of our multiple choice, matching, and true/false questions.
I view public history as a means by which we can move beyond the “three d’s” and get closer to answering why history is important. Ultimately, history matters to us because it is connected to our world. Furthermore, the problems of contemporary society give the past its meaning because they determine the questions we ask of the past. It is no coincidence that the “New Social History” of the 1960s and 70s–which saw many historians shift the focus of their studies towards histories of middle-class people, women, African Americans, and other previously under-studied groups–emerged in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.
To be sure, the “three d’s” are important to historical study, but perhaps their importance in obtaining historical knowledge has been overvalued. If you came to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site and went on one of my tours while I was employed there, you would have learned the dates Grant lived at White Haven (1854-1859, roughly), that he fought for the United States during the Civil War and eventually became Lieutenant General of all Union forces by war’s end, and why White Haven is painted Paris Green (especially considering the fact the house is named White Haven!). However, you would have also learned about the importance of family to Grant, the role of slavery at White Haven and its broader causational relationship with the outbreak of the Civil War, and how the definition of “freedom” was contested in the 19th Century, just as it is today. I’d be impressed if you went home and remembered the “facts” of the former, but I’d be much more satisfied if you went home thinking and discussing how the latter affects you today. For me, that is what public history is all about.