Public History

It seems that public history has had its share of controversy on the road to becoming what it is and how it is perceived today. Questions of objectivity, awareness of environment, purpose, and credentials are all factor into what we may or may not call public history. According to John Dichtl and Robert Townsend, “Public history is one of the least understood areas of professional practice in history.” Robert Kelley from UCSB puts it in simple terms, “Public history refers to the employment of historians and historical methods outside of academia” (Meringolo, Prologue XX). Philip Scarpino made a point saying that “academia and public history shared a common ground” (Meringolo, Prologue XXI) in regards to research and analysis, but they differ in terms of what and how public historians communicate to the audience. Yet again, Rebecca Conard, professor of public history expanded on the perception of this field by leaving behind the question of professional standing to directing the focus to professional practices. Thus she concludes that “public history can be defined as the reflective practice of history” (Meringolo, Prologue XXII). As history presents itself in many facets, the understanding of a particular time period, place, event, or a person will expand and bring in new perspectives by being viewed through a variety of lenses and experiences. Thus strengthening the overall outcome and effect.

In approaching this debate, I see public history as a field rooted in a variety of history related disciplines and interests, such as curators, archivists, museums, parks, historic homes and buildings, companies, government entities, film producers and more.  As Ronald Grele states, “public history implies a major redefinition of the role of the historian,” and therefore includes a wider range of interested researchers, public or private interests, and the way in which they reach the attended public. These public historians, however, all share curiosity, passion, and commitment to making history useful and valuable in the public domain while connecting to its public with an immediate relevance. It is a service to communities while being a particular mission of the public historian. These mission can inspire social change or action as roles of the community and its members view themselves from a different perspective with a newfound knowledge of history. Thus types of practice the field should encourage may include, on one hand, research by public historians to include historic sites previously unnoticed, on the other hand investigate known history of a particular era, place, or person from a nontraditional perspective that may uncover new elements or understanding of the complexities of its nature or achievements.


Works Cited

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.

Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 40-48

Meringolo, Denise. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012


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