Public History: History for Everyone

The Indiana State House. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Indiana State House. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I had an interesting learning experience at work today. While giving a tour of the Indiana State House to a school group from a small, rural Indiana town, one of the teachers came up to me and thanked me for giving her students this tour. I got the impression that she was sort of thanking me for taking these rural kids seriously as learners and scholars, which makes me sad that others don’t. Most of these kids, she said, had never been outside the boundaries of their hometown, so this was a special experience for them. She then went on to explain that for some of the adult chaperones on the tour, this was their first time at the State House since the fourth grade. For others, it was their first time at this building, ever.

These comments really struck me. For one, I find it fascinating that despite our ability to travel almost anywhere on the globe within roughly 72 hours, many people spend their bulk of their lives–if not their entire life–in one area, town, or city. Much of this is undoubtedly due to economic constraints, but much of this is also due to personal choice.

Second, it provided a new insight for me about public history. In my graduate classes, we often speak of the need for public historians to address multiple audiences. Different audiences have different learning abilities, different questions, different perspectives, and different things they want to learn from public historians. But this tour was unique. Since many of the adults had never been to the State House, they were learning about the building alongside their fourth grade children. They had little prior knowledge of the building’s history, nor did they have much understanding of how state government functions, I’d assume. Everyone was sort of on an equal learning level, so it was a rare tour in which my “audiences” blended into one “audience.” One of the great things about public history is its potential to teach history to people of all ages, and with this tour it was a special experience in which adults and children learned about the past together. How often do adults and children get a chance to learn together, beyond watching something on TV? These sorts of moments are rare, but they are one reason why museums, National Parks, and other public spaces hold such an important place in our culture (I’d like to think so, at least).

When I first started working at the State House, there was definitely a “wow” factor that captivated my attention and excited me. As time has gone on, however, it has gotten easier for me to take the building (and my employment there) for granted. I’ve gotten used to coming to work at this building, and while its beauty and history continues to amaze me, my amazement has taken on a different meaning that is hard to explain in words. In sum, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to replicate the feelings I had when I first walked into the building and realized this was my workspace.

As a public historian, I must always remind myself that the people and audiences who take my tours are oftentimes experiencing the same feelings I had when I first started working at the State House. For them, this experience is new, unusual, and awe-striking. Additionally, this may be the final time these people will ever come to this building. Although I interpret a space that I interact with and experience on a frequent basis, I must capture the excitement and energy of my first-experience audiences and turn those feelings into constructive learning opportunities. Although I may sometimes tire of giving the same tour or be distracted by something not related to work, I must be mentally prepared to give my “A game” every time, because it’s the first time for the audience. It all reminds me of a touring rock band. Yes, you’ve played the same set repeatedly, but your audience is seeing it for the first time. What are you going to do to capture their attention?

The people who are taking my tours have entrusted me with a small amount of time in which to teach about and give meaning to the past, and that is extremely important to me. Seen in this light, we can see that public historians have an awesome responsibility to their audiences, a responsibility that challenges us to constantly brainstorm for the best ways to effectively engage our audiences and inspire them to learn more about the past on their own. It doesn’t really matter whether you work at a state capitol, the Gettysburg battlefield, or a small historic home. We owe it to our audiences to give them our best tours, which includes doing historical background research, experimenting and tweaking tour presentations, and asking our audiences the right questions.  These tours may be the only time our audiences visit these places. For adults, this may be the only post-education instance in which they learn about history.

When we blend good history with good storytelling and good presentation, we create history that has the potential to show our audiences the importance of the past in our daily lives.