What is Public History?

Defining public history is complicated, as the field itself has been somewhat undefined, or has lacked definition. As historian Ronald Grele puts it, “those of us who currently work in the field have not clearly defined what it is we do, why we do it, and why it is an alternative to other forms of historical effort” (Grele 41). In order to attempt to define public history for this blog post, I will try to answer the questions Grele asks in the article title: “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the goal of a public historian?”

Whose Public?

Grele begins to answer this question by examining who “the public” has been to historians in the past. He claims first that historians have always had a public, even from the earliest point in history (Grele 41). But from the mid-nineteenth century to today, historians have generally addressed “the literate middle class” (42). Then, as the profession of the historian expanded in the recent centuries, this definition narrowed to historian’s peers: other academics and students (42).

The study of history was once again altered, as historians began to encounter the local history movement (Grele 42). By working within the bounds of local history, the historian’s “public” was finally beyond the bounds of the classroom. Ultimately, I believe this is the “public” that is in the definition of public history: it is the non-academic world, the general public.

Whose History?

If, for so long, historians worked for other historians,  then it is fair to say that history was purely for academics. However, the public history movement suggests that history does not purely belong to the historians. It suggests that history belongs to everyone and that everyone has a right to understand and interact with history.

What is the goal of a public historian?

Grill suggests that the field of public history has changed the definition of the role of the historian (48). Public history, according to Grele, “promises us a society in which a broad public participates in the construction of its own history” (48).

I believe the goal of the public historian is to engage with the general public on history projects, and to help the general public become engaged with history.

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Though I can create a very broad definition of public history, it is also true that there is not a generally agreed upon definition of this field. As Dichtl and Townsend (2009) note, when surveying historians about whether they consider themselves public historians, many noted that they did not feel comfortable confining themselves to such a label, or noted that they had no official training in public history. So, in many cases, even public historians are unsure of a clear definition for public history.

However, because the definition of public history tends to be very broad, so is the variety of work public historians do. Public historians are often museum professionals, archivists, preservationists, cultural resource managers, curators, historical interpreters, and much more (National Council on Public History).

Sources:

Dichtl, John and Robert B. Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.” American Historical Association (2009)<https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2009/a-picture-of-public-history>

Grele, Ronald J. “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” The Public Historian,  3  (1981): 40-48.

National Council on Public History. “About the Field.” Indiana University-Purdue University. <http://ncph.org/what-is-public-history/about-the-field/>

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