Challenges in Explaining Public History to My Friends and Family

I’ve been visiting with friends and family back in St. Louis for the holiday break, and, as is the case whenever I come back to town, I get questions about what I’m doing at IUPUI. When I tell them I’m studying public history, I usually get a variety of responses ranging from “what’s public history?” to “so you’re not teaching anymore?”

To be sure, academic awareness of public history, I think, is improving. Denise Meringolo’s wonderful book on Museums, Monuments, and National Parks demonstrates that the concept of a “public history” outside the classroom has existed in the United States since the late nineteenth century, even though scholarly attention to such a concept was lacking until well into the twentieth century. Amid a serious job crunch for new history Ph.D.s in the 1970s, scholars turned to the federal government, private businesses, historical societies, consulting firms, and museums for employment, prompting an effort by scholars (particularly those at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who started publishing the scholarly journal The Public Historian in 1978) to give public history a tentative definition (“public history refers to the employment of historians and historical method outside of academia”) and a set of best practices/professional standards by which to train prospective students for work in the field.

More recently, the past ten years has seen the number of public history programs in the United States increase dramatically, with some history departments turning to the creation of public history programs (or at least the hiring of one professor with a public history background) to address a declining number of history majors and the continually poor job prospects in academia (which in itself raises questions about the possibility of too many public history programs now in existence). There are now more students than ever who are choosing to pursue public history for a career, demonstrating that there is certainly no shortage of people interested in sharing the stuff of history to a public audience. Even better, the establishment of arguably the best public history blog on the internet, History@Work, provides more opportunities for audiences outside of the academy to learn about the latest scholarship and pressing questions in the field of public history.

Despite these gains, I still find myself questioning the extent to which non-academic audiences understand what public history entails and, in a greater sense, what it means to employ historical thinking. A few recent examples reflect my own concerns. A post by Jason Steinhauer at History@Work points out that the commemoration for the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in August was completely devoid of any remarks from a historian, to which Cathy Stanton deftly responded that the term ‘historic’ “has just become a kind of premium brand for any event or cause, rather than a way of seriously thinking about what happened in the past or what’s happening in the present and how they’re connected to each other.” Additionaly, a study in September found that museums of all types are experiencing serious attendance decreases, but that history and art museums–places where many public historians are employed–are dealing with particularly sharp declines: art museums have lost 5 million visitors since their peak levels decades ago, while history museums have lost 8 million visitors. For someone interested in working in a history museum such as myself, this statistic is quite alarming.

Not too long ago, when friends and family asked me what public history is, I used to tell them something along the lines of “it’s history outside the classroom.” While this is true to an extent, I now realize that this “history outside the classroom” definition may encompass activities like watching Nazi documentaries on the History Channel or participating in a battle reenactment . . . activities that may be considered public history and that may sometimes employ historical methods and thinking, but that no clear consensus currently exists as to whether or not they constitute “public history.” Nowadays I try my best to explain public history as history in an interpretive setting outside the classroom, places where audiences are presented with an argument about the past and challenged to think about a range of historical questions: causes and consequences of historical events, change and continuity over time, how people of the past viewed their world, and what we today can learn from the past.

I also make sure to explain that I’m still teaching, even if not inside a classroom. Philip Scarpino, the person who created the public history program at IUPUI that I now attend, captures this idea when he explains that “all historians conduct research; all historians analyze and interpret what they find; and all historians communicate their findings to others” (emphasis mine). The difference between history in the classroom and history in a public interpretive setting, he explains, is “found in the area of communication, in the audiences with whom we communicate, and in the methods that we use to communicate our scholarship to those audiences.” Public historians are teaching and communicating with audiences–just like academic teachers–but they frequently work with people of all ages, many of whom are not enrolled in a school and who do not engage in historical thinking on a daily basis. Who we’re communicating with may be different, but we’re all communicating.

I try my best to explain these particulars to others not in public history, but who knows if it actually makes sense. I think I can do better, and I’m curious as to how others communicate the essence of public history to their audiences. If you had between 30-60 seconds to explain what public history is to a friend or loved one, how would you go about doing it?


4 thoughts on “Challenges in Explaining Public History to My Friends and Family

  1. Nick,
    I get this question a lot as well, basically everytime I tell someone what my Masters will be in. My answer is “traditional history is teaching, writing books, giving lectures while public history is history museum, historic sites and national parks. Public history is interacting directly with the public.” That is my sound bite. If pressed further I might describe how you can analyze the Lincoln Memorial to show what it says about 1920s America rather than 1860s America.
    But it is a difficult question. And I too worry about an over saturation of the market for public historians. The declining numbers (which have been going down since the 1980s) are also a major source of worry. Are there too many public historians? Is public history becoming too insular, like academic history where the professionals talk about issues only other professionals care about? Or are they too many public history sites? Too many house museums, state museums and the ilk?
    I don’t have a good answer, but I think the watchword for public history (beyond shared authority) is accessibility. If we cannot be accessible as public historians then we are as worthless as ivory tour academics.

    As usual, great post. In fact, one of my favorites. It was a very accessible topic.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nathan. I like your description and think it captures a lot of the essentials of public history in a quick sound bite. In my opinion, I don’t think there needs to a public history program within every university history department, but there should be at least one professor with public history experience on staff. Bob Weyeneth talks about public history programs in depth here:

      Likewise, I don’t think there are too many public history sites, but I think there are too many public history sites not doing a very good job of engaging with their audiences and providing the sorts of interpretations I describe above. Too many sites are focused on collections instead of stories and experience building. This recent article argues that historic house museums need to innovate or many will die off:

  2. Love this part:
    “Public historians are teaching and communicating with audiences–just like academic teachers–but they frequently work with people of all ages, many of whom are not enrolled in a school and who do not engage in historical thinking on a daily basis. Who we’re communicating with may be different, but we’re all communicating.”

Comments are closed.