The prologue to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History by Denise Meringolo sets up repeating them when asking whose public and whose history it is. She sets up two opposing forces: one which sees historians as affected by their environment and the other one which sees them as separate from their environment and applied consistent methodology.
In some ways the struggle and debates to define public history reminds me of the debates in defining digital humanities. There are books like Digital Humanities by Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner, and Schnapp which present an organized list of what qualifies as digital humanities and what does not. (1) However, Melissa Terras references Larkin in her blog post “Peering Inside the Big Tent: Digital Humanities and the Crisis of Inclusion” noting that trying to define the term brings “doctors of philosophy in their long coats running over the fields.” (2) There is even the potential similarity between digital humanities taking over the work of human computer interaction and public history taking over local history.
According to “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals” by John Dichtl and Robert Townsend, even people working in this field are not always sure about the definition and if it applies to them. (6). The National Council on Public History received 3,856 responses from people identified as working in public history, but 910 of them refused the public historian label. As noted, they were unsure of the definition and if it actually applied to them.
In reading the assigned articles and chapter, public history is placed in stark contrast to scholarly history. The scholarly history of academia is placed above public history which involved more practical applications of research methods and theory. I can’t help think that this does a disservice to the benefits that a focus on public history can provide. This divide can lead to missed opportunities to educate an audience. For example, Brenda Trofanenko addresses what she sees as a missed opportunity by many museums to fulfill their educational purposes in the article “The Educational Promise of Public History Museum Exhibits.” (7) According to Trokanenko, the museum curators and staff don’t provide the critical analysis that the audience needs to thinking more critically about the issues presented.
When search the library subscription databases for additional interpretations of public history (pun intended), I came across the article “From Private Story to Public History: Irene Rathbone Revises the War in the Thirties” by Genevieve Brassard. (3) Although not exactly on topic (since it is not focusing on the profession of a public historian), it does point to the need for multiple voices in telling history. Brassard argues that the renewed focus on Rathbone’s book We That Were Young provides another voice to the male narrative of World War I. In asking “whose public,” Ronald Grele argues that public historians can help individuals to tell their own histories. We suddenly see history have input from multiple sources instead of just one voice. (4) However, Grele appears to argue that there is one correct version of history with history statement “once a correct view of the past is reached, through the aid of benevolent, anti-corporatist public historians.” (5) In a way this seems contradictory to the idea that history requires multiples perspectives and viewpoints.
Looking at the questions “Whose History?” and “Whose Public?” it seems like it should idealistically be everyone’s. However, there are several problems with this approach. I’m reminded of the saying that “history is told by the victors.” If Germany has won World War II, our version of history and factual evidence would be very different. I’m also reminded of visits to museums and exhibits dedicated to the costume and the decorative arts. Often the items preserved and saved over time are those once owned by the wealthy. Items by the working and middles classes may not have been as well made, they may have been used until they fell apart, or they were simply not deemed important enough to preserve. As a result, we are given a limited view of history. However, institutions like the Tenement Museum and a variety of oral history projects seem to counter this bias.
In addressing whose history and whose public, the field of public history becomes interdisciplinary. It asks the audience to see historical events and objects within a larger context. It includes fields like politics, the economy, arts and culture, and psychology.
- Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. “A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities.” In Digital Humanities, 12227. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012. PDF ebook.
- Terras, Melissa.“Peering Inside the Big Tent: Digital Humanities and the Crisis of Inclusion.” Melissa Terras (blog), July 26, 2011.
- Brassard, Genevieve. “From Private Story to Public History: Irene Rathbone Revises the War in the Thirties.” Nwsa Journal. 15.3 (2004): 43-63.
- Grele, Ronald J. “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” The Public Historian. 3.1 (1981): 40-48.
- Grele, Ronald J. “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” The Public Historian. 3.1 (1981): 48.
- Dichtl, John and Robert Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.”Perspectives on History, September 2009.
- Trofanenko, Brenda M. “The Educational Promise of Public History Museum Exhibits.” Theory and Research in Social Education. 38.2 (2010): 270-288.