Public History: An Inclusive Discipline

A year and a half ago my understanding of public history was exceptionally limited. Considering its name, I first assumed that this branch of history focused primarily on professional historians sharing their knowledge in nonacademic settings. I believed that public history was the medium through which people who share similar characteristics (e.g., nationality) came to understand their collective past. Although the latter is partially true, in the last several months I have come to realize that public history comprises much more than that. Through collaboration, inclusion, and shared authority, this field allows people from different socioeconomic and professional backgrounds the opportunity to contribute as well. These dynamics provide diverse audiences with the tools necessary to engage in substantive dialog and analysis. It also provides a channel where various aspects of the collective past (particularly the most controversial) are carefully disseminated to create a better understanding. Similarly, public history offers a voice to the neglected segments of society. In particular, those whose accounts have been distorted or dismissed deliberately by people who prefer to highlight the less contentious narratives of the past. With that in mind, I would tentatively describe public history as an interdisciplinary social discipline that analyzes and combines the various narratives surrounding a particular event, place, or person. This field provides a more inclusive interpretation of the past to close historical gaps, connect individual narratives to broader movements, and elevate the voices of the forgotten. But more importantly, in my view, public history affords professional historians the unique opportunity to engage in the often-controversial practice of activism.

After reading The Presence of the Past by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, it became apparent to me that public history is actually innate in us all. This field of study is not necessarily exclusive to those who have become professional historians by trade. Actually, popular historians (i.e., everyday individuals) have the potential to construct, record, and conserve the past while contributing to a larger understanding of history as well.[1] These objectives may be achieved by taking photos, sharing experiences, investigating family histories, working on hobbies or collections, or by merely taking part in groups interested in the past. [2] This excellent book and study exemplifies the notion that people from different backgrounds also have an affinity for learning about and preserving history. It also shows that people tend to be more aware and interested in historical events when they have closer connections to them (e.g., family and friends). In fact, I would argue that the closer people are to historical events, the higher the likelihood that they become more interested in preserving its history. Evidence of the latter is the growing number of individuals and organizations in Maryland that are collaborating in preserving the narratives surrounding the Baltimore Uprising.

Another book that captured some of the important aspects of the influence of public history is From Storefront to Monument by Andrea A. Burns. Although the book also sheds light on some of the problems that arise when museums professionalize, the author demonstrates just how important people from the community are in the process of creating spaces of identity and self-worth. Focusing on the history of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, for instance, the author explains how this museum provided members of the African American community with a venue to highlight the group’s experiences and history. John Kinard (director of the museum at the time) perceived neighborhood institutions “as entit[ies] that encompass the life of the people of the neighborhood.” [3] Undoubtedly, Kinard was making the argument that people in overlooked communities “are vitally concerned about who they are, where they came from, what they have accomplished, their values and their most pressing needs.” [4] Through collaboration and shared authority, public history serves as an instrument to empower “forgotten” communities while instilling a sense of self-sufficiency. Similarly, what Andrea Burns demonstrates in her book is that activism plays a key role in the development and interpretation of collective narratives.

Because of the educational value and social responsibility that public history has with the audience, it is often challenging to create meaningful narratives without being biased. During the semester-long project, which focused on the examination of the history of UMBC in the past 50 years, I found it somewhat tricky to craft the stories of different pieces of art on campus.[5] The difficulty arose not because of a lack of research or a lack of existing literature on the two sites (although there was not a lot). Instead, it was the often-natural instinct to tell people how to perceive the sites and emphasize why it is important to learn about them. These challenges are what made me understand even further what renowned interpreters like Freeman Tilden have indicated: The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.[6] It became evident to me that the primary objective of public history is not to define what is significant or to tell people how to understand history. Instead, the central purpose is to identify the different narratives about the past and bring them together in a collaborative and inclusive manner.

Overall, my understanding about this still evolving field has developed considerably since I first showed up to History 300 – Introduction to Public History in 2014. In fact, throughout this semester, I had a chance to experience some of the many difficulties and advantages of this fascinating branch of history. It is truly a rewarding, yet complicated field where people can contribute to the community as a whole. More importantly, public historians (particularly those who focus on social issues) have the ability to induce social change.

[1] Rosenzweig, Roy, and David Paul Thelen. The presence of the past: Popular uses of history in American life. Vol. 2. Columbia University Press, 1998

[2] Ibid, 23

[3] Burns, Andrea A. 2013. From storefront to monument: tracing the public history of the Black museum movement. (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 15.

[4] Ibid, 16

[5] My research focused primarily on the Mnemonic sculpture (1976) by the Arts Building and the Bio Mural (2013) by the Biological Sciences Department. Fellow UMBC students produced these two pieces of art, which contributed to providing the University with a sense of relative uniqueness.

[6] Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting our heritage: Principles and practices for visitor services in parks, museums, and historic places. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 9.

Source: Public History: An Inclusive Discipline by Yamid Andres Macias

A Healthy Dose of Humility

In almost every class this semester, we have talked about different communities where many people have lost trust for most public history institutions.  Many of us offered our opinions on why the erosion of trust has happened.  We struggled, however, to find answers to how trust and collaboration could be achieved.  In this blog, I can, similar to our classroom discussion, offer no satisfactory plan.  The one bright point I continue to reflect on was in Presence of the Past, “the story often told by professional historians — is most alive for those who feel alienated by it”[2]  I think the people most interested in history are the people who have been served the least by traditional narratives.  Yet, this certainly isn’t reflected in museum audiences.  I think the introduction of better historical narratives by public historians in addition to more humility and shared authority with other organizations will lead to a brighter future for the field.

I believe the main theme of this course has been defining public history and discovering how it works at its best and how it works (or fails to work) at its worst.  Reading Jessie Swigger’s book History is Bunk, I was exposed to Greenfield Village—a confusing historical experience park conceived and implemented by Henry Ford, the enigmatic industrial tycoon.  While the park was historically themed, it was not public history.  It did not tell stories with integrity, it did not serve or encourage participation of the local audience, and it did not invite the audience to engage in the process of historical inquiry.

Freeman Tilden’s iconic work, Interpreting our Heritage, laid a groundwork for interpreting history to a public audience.  His six principles provide a very basic set of guidelines by which interpretation can be evaluated.  While Tilden’s principles are invaluable in evaluating or designing interpretative schemes, I found myself wondering about audience.  Is it doing good public history if I just interpret history FOR an audience?

In Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument, we saw that as the museum staffs professionalized, they lost touch with their original audiences.  The museums began to struggle when they were no longer a place people went to be included in the interpretation of their own stories, and were instead professionalized institutions where history was interpreted for their audience.

Conversely, professionalization of the field and expertise are not always bad things.  In Amy Tyson’s The Wages of History, it is clear how damaging history can be in irresponsible or ill prepared hands.  So, what then is the balance between expert authority and inclusion?

In Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s book Presence of the Past, “the public” were described not just as consumers of history but as “historymakers.”[1]  This concept has stuck with me.  Throughout our readings I have seen that one of the most important lessons for a public historian is humility.  It’s easy to assume the role and arrogance of an expert, however, assuming such a stance can alienate partners and corrode trust.  As we discovered in Ari Kelman’s book Misplaced Massacre, it is better for a public historian to be a listener than it is to be an expert.  One of the greatest errors of the park service was underestimating the knowledge of the Native Americans and making important decisions without their consent.

I found similar questions about authority, institutions, and expertise arising in my semester project on UMBC.  Similar to the park service in Ari Kelman’s book, UMBC, although well intentioned, has continuously failed to consider its role of service.  I found that the design, location, and goals of the campus have done more to serve more privileged communities.  The project became an excellent opportunity for me to investigate UMBC in the same way I found myself scrutinizing public history institutions throughout our class readings.  Its not shocking, but it is disappointing how frequently institutional choices based on expert counsel, rarely consider the dynamics of power and influence they reinforce.  In Jessie Swigger’s examination of Greenfield Village, Henry Ford’s narrative did not overtly assault the history of slavery, it just silenced it by substituting a narrative of agriculture and hard work as the American ideal.

I feel lucky to have the opportunity to read and discuss theories, and then have the opportunity to apply them in real projects.  It seems like the only way to learn public history.  While reading and attending classes, I feel more knowledgeable and confident in my expertise, but this makes me uncomfortable.  I do not want to become arrogant or sterile!  Our UMBC 50 project keeps me honest I think.  Unlike in most classrooms, my writing is not for an audience with my same educational background, and I am not evaluated by academic standards.  I wish that I could get even more direct feedback from users of the B’more Heritage app, but I am happy to at least receive varied feedback on my project at all.

I hope public history continues down a road of self-reflection.  I think the field will look very different in 20 years, not because things are bad now, but because we can do better, and I have met so many people who want to do better.  Humility is what allows people to change, and I think public history takes a healthy dose of humility.

[1] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 3.

[2] Ibid, 13.

Edited from Source: A Healthy Dose of Humility by Michael Stone

What Is Public History?

What is Public History? This is the question that I have asked myself since the first day that I began my studies at UMBC. (It also happens to be a very popular question for people who learn what I am studying in graduate school). Over this first academic year, and especially during my Introduction to Public History course this semester, I have struggled to find an answer to this question for myself. To me, Public history is defined as the study and interpretation of history in order to facilitate its use by persons outside of the academic historical profession. It is the transformation of history into something that can be used today, not just facts and dates.

How this knowledge is used is where the major challenges of public history come into play.

In their book (and study) The Presence of the Past, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen investigated the ways in which Americans interacted with history and “the past.” Personally, I found this text to be one of the most interesting that I studied this semester, as it provided information on how people see themselves interacting with history, not just how “experts” believe that they do. The conclusions reached by Rosenzwieg and Thelen show that, despite what many have said previously, there is interest in history for the “average American.” In particular, they identify that history or “the past” becomes more meaningful when there is a personal connection. This is an important conclusion for those who work in the public history field, as one of the major struggles is to make history meaningful. Public history institutions and historians can teach people facts and tell stories, but without a personal connection, the stories and lessons will not be remembered.

Rosenzweig and Thelen found that in order to create these connections, there must be an understanding of trust between the historians or institutions presenting the information and those who will use it. Unfortunately many people cannot trust the traditional museums, historic sites, and written histories because their stories are absent or marginalized. Although great strides are being made to incorporate the voices of more people into the historical narrative, it is often not enough. Merely acknowledging the existence of other stories or adding anecdotes from minority or disenfranchised groups is not enough to build trust. Control over narrative and power in the interpretation of the past need to be shared. A significant, and challenging, concept that we have studied this semester is the idea of shared authority. The challenge of “letting go” (as Adiar, Filene, and Koloski aptly named their text) of authority is difficult, as we as historians so often want and need control over what we present to an audience. We want to make sure that the correct message is heard and that the audience understands what is important. But who is to say which message is the most important?

The traditional American history narrative is one that is very exclusive. It follows the stories of the “great men” that built America into what it is today and is triumphant and patriotic. Many early historic sites were built exclusively around this narrative as a way to control people and “Americanize” them. One such institution was Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, a history attraction developed by Ford in Dearborn, Michigan through the collection and curation of specific buildings and objects that fit into his idea of an idealized, agricultural America. Jesse Swigger’s History is Bunk is a critical look at the decisions made throughout the development of the site and its focus on shaping people, especially new immigrants to the United States, into what Ford believed that an American should be. The major issue that Swigger identifies at Greenfield Village and many other sites like it is the question, “who is in control?” and who should be in control of the narrative?

Traditionally, historic sites are very controlled in terms of their interpretation and narrative. Today, however, historians and history institutions are beginning to collaborate and share the authority of the narrative with others. Ari Kelman’s Misplaced Massacre is a case study of the ideas of collaboration and sharing authority as seen at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Kelman’s investigation into the interpretation of this site and its bloody history show the ways in which groups must collaborate and work with each other in order to tell a meaningful story, especially a painful story like the massacre at Sand Creek.

In our semester project, the UMBC at 50 stories for Baltimore Heritage and UMBC Special Collections, we have all struggled with the concepts identified and discussed in these texts and case studies. I personally have struggled throughout this project to write a story that would be interesting and relevant to my audience. Coming from a background in architectural history, it has been a challenge for me to remember who my audience is and what will be interesting to them. I find myself often having to stop and remind myself that not everyone would want to read a story that is merely an architectural history of UMBC’s campus, even if that is what I would want to read. Although challenging (and sometimes frustrating) I have found this project to be one of the best ways to understand the concepts that I have studied this semester. The readings and class discussions allowed me to understand the concepts and theories on an intellectual level, it wasn’t until I actually tried to apply them to a real-world project that I began to understand them on a practical level as well. Throughout this semester, and in a larger sense my first year at UMBC, I am now becoming more comfortable answering the question of what is public history. I feel that the most important lesson that I have learned is that I, as a public historian, must remember that I work for the people that will be using history and the past in their daily lives and so I must be responsive to the needs and wants of the audiences that I will serve. I must strive to create a dialogue, not just a lecture.


Adair, Bill, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. 1 edition. Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.

Kelman, Ari. A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. 1.12.2013 edition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Rosenzweig, Roy, and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Swigger, Jessie. “History Is Bunk”: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

Source: What Is Public History? by Jacob Bensen

What Public History is To Me

I struggled to find the words to create my definition of public history. I spent more time this semester delineating differences between public history and traditional history, instead of clarifying what public history is for me. After a lot of thinking and notetaking, I drafted an initial, working definition of public history:

Collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature, public history challenges traditional, singular narratives of historical events. Public history seeks to construct plural narratives that help people understand their past and present.

As I reflected on both this new working definition and my work this semester, I realized that as much as I desire to broaden the historical record to make it more inclusive and useful for understanding the world around us, this goal cannot be accomplished without collaborative and interdisciplinary work. Historians are well known for being “neither natural nor trained collaborators”.[1] As a result, many individual historians are able to exercise exclusive inquiry and authority. On the other hand, shared inquiry and authority are considered cornerstones of public history work. The depth to which all public historians exercise shared authority and inquiry is a topic for a separate blog post; here, I simply make the point that in order for public history to successfully work for the public good, it is essential for the public historian to collaborate across communities and disciplines.

In Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, Andrew Hurley asserts that “inner-city communities can best turn preserved landscapes into assets by subjecting them to pubic interpretation at the grass roots” (italics mine).[2]  Collaboration on these projects rest on examining and laying bare assumptions, motives, and goals in order to find common ground. Although Hurley refers to archaeology and oral history as “alternative research methodologies” rather than legitimate disciplines in their own right that can be used in conjunction with traditional historical approaches, he concedes that all three can help uncover the history of places, even transmitting “narratives up to the present”.[3]

One of my favorite readings this semester, Ari Kelman’s Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek tells the compelling story of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, a site that would not exist without collaboration—and contention. Native American tribal groups, local landowners, historians, and the National Park Service had to work together in order for the site to be realized. While reading, I was particularly struck by the consequences of relying too much on one set of assumptions when the NPS presented the draft map of the massacre site.[4] I could feel the tension as if I was in the room. Whereas the NPS relied on that which was observable (archival research, archaeology) to create the map, the Sand Creek descendants relied on their cultural practices (oral tradition, veneration, and spiritual guidance) to know the boundaries of the massacre site in their souls.[5] The development of the Sand Creek massacre site—one which challenges the traditional narrative of the Civil War—was a long, arduous and interdisciplinary process which also utilized archaeology, oral history, as well as geomorphology (the study of landforms and the processes that create them).[6]

Roy Rosenzweig noted in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life that the audiences for our work are in fact ready for the complex, plural narrative. Our job as public historians, then, is to figure out “how we can talk to—and especially with—those audiences”.[7] One way to talk with our audiences is by sharing, or even giving up authority within public history institutions. The entire premise of Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World is that the process of sharing authority does not equate to an institutional loss of historical training or expertise. Instead, institutions lose only “the assumption that the museum has the last word on historical interpretation”.[8] In the chapter on community curators, Kathleen McLean suggests that institutions abandon the binary of “expert” and “novice”; visitors (both real and virtual) should be viewed as “…”scholars” in the best sense of the word—people who engage in study and learning for the love of it”.[9] I especially enjoyed reading about the “Cool Remixed” exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California. It was the successful product of collaboration with local teens after interacting with works in the art gallery. The museum’s placing of the exhibition as a local contrast to a traveling exhibition served as a reminder as to why I am studying public history: to begin a new career at a museum or historical society, focusing on community outreach and education.

At the same time I was reading, discussing and learning about collaboration, I had the opportunity to practice it. This semester, my class worked in collaboration with UMBC Special Collections to research and develop content for a digital tour of UMBC, which will be part of Explore Baltimore Heritage. In the first half of the semester, I worked in a group to create a research report, placing specific buildings and spaces in specific historical contexts. My group was interdisciplinary in background: one group member had an extensive background in architecture and historical preservation, and the other had experience in historical interpretation at Fort McHenry. Our interests and experience helped us to divide and plan the work fairly easily. I think we might have been a bit tentative in our attempts to collaborate with each other, but overall, I attributed any difficulties as practice for public history work outside an academic context.

What I have appreciated most about the project—and really all of my assignments—this semester has been receiving feedback that forces me to reconsider my own operating assumptions. Having been initially trained as a traditional historian, I was anxious about blogging my thoughts and receiving feedback. Once I realized that I needed to share authority and inquiry in order to become the public historian I want to be, I found myself looking forward to receiving feedback to revise my approach or understanding of texts, my sections of the group research report, as well my site stories. Where I may have been tentative in my group, I was open to collaboration with the class, my professor, and our service learning partners. I am appreciative of having engaged in this process, and I am looking forward on building on my experience—and perhaps, my definition of public history[1] Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” The Public Historian 28 (2006), 36.

[2] Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 2.

[3] Hurley, 184-185.

[4] Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2013), 135.

[5] Kelman, 139-141.

[6] Kelman, 276-77, 279.

[7] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia, 1998), 189.

[8] Bill Adair, Bejamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), 13.

[9] Kathleen McLean, “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), 71.

Source: The Reflection: What Public History is To Me by LaQuanda Walters-Cooper

So What is Public History?

Public history invites everyone into a conversation about the past. It meets people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives where they are and honors what resonates with them. To be a public historian is to respect the connections that communities and individuals already have with history while also challenging them to see the past in another way, to recognize new perspectives. At its best, public history stands in the midst of tension and conflict and does not push for resolution. Instead, it shines a light on the multitude of paths and decisions that have contributed to the events and struggles of history and seeks to open a dialogue. Public historians do not claim to have the answers; they have learned how to ask the questions that solicit deeper responses.

Public history is radical social engagement.

There is a distinction between the willingness to remain in the liminal space created by the practice of public history and any claim that practitioners can be “unbiased” or “objective.” Public history has a preference for the marginalized, the silenced, and the unrecognized. It disputes the dominant narrative when that story accepts the tropes of the powerful and ignores the voice of those excluded from power. The courage and conviction that this bias for the bottom requires was exemplified by Alexa Roberts of the National Park Service and David Halaas from the Colorado Historical Society in their work with the Arapaho and Cheyenne during the process of determining the boundaries of the Sand Creek Massacre site. As Ari Kelman details in A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, each were determined to stand up for the authority and validity of the Indian perspective in opposition to the voice of experts, even when it resulted in accusations of bias or a lack of professionalism.[1] (Thank you to Michael Stone for discussing this so eloquently in your blog post.) Sharing authority and valuing diverse perspectives can be a balancing act, however. It is important for the public historian to give weight to her own convictions while at the same time listening to other stakeholders in a project. Even though Fred Wilson is an artist rather than a historian, his commentary on this process resonated with me. “I don’t think people should share authority to the degree that you devalue your own scholarship, your own knowledge. That’s not sharing anything. You’re not giving what you have…You have to be realistic about your years of experience, what you can give, and what others can give.”[2] At its best, public historians employ their authority and training in the service of expanding the discourse; they invite their audiences and their project partners to reconsider old assumptions.

Working on the project for Baltimore Heritage and Special Collections reminded me that, beyond these worthy ideals, doing public history means creating a product for a specific purpose. For a project to make it to an audience, it has to “benefit our partners,” as the course syllabus indicates. The perspective of the client must be a component of the creative process. As I researched my assigned sites and created content for the smartphone app, it was important to keep in mind the intended audience of the product as well as the reason it is being developed. My research raised issues that were of interest to me—for instance, the nature of art and the role of the audience in its creation—that were not relevant to goals of the project. There were no deeply held principles at stake in the shift in focus away from a discussion about the definition of art and towards the role of community connection it its creation and use; it is merely a matter of personal preference. Working on this project reinforced the importance of being an advocate for the cause of our partners. I am also learning to craft my narrative so that it poses questions rather than draws conclusions. The interpretive work of public history, in the words of Freeman Tilden, is to “reveal meanings and relationships” for the audience to consider.[3] I am still developing the skills of inviting reflection rather than offering instruction.

Although I began graduate school with some experience working in the field of public history, I did not have a true understanding of the mission of public historians and the vital role that they play in society. This class has awakened me to the importance of public history in society and solidified my commitment to its practice. Our class discussion about the Baltimore Uprising and the application of public history philosophies in the midst of a crisis clarified my desire to do this work. I want to be one of the champions of those whose perspective might be discarded. I want to join hands with the people and institutions, both present and past, who are in danger of being discounted and say: Your story is important. How can we ensure that your voice is heard?


[1] Ari Kelman,  A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 134, 152-153.

[2] Fred Wilson, quoted in “Mining the Museum Revisited: A Conversation with Fred Wilson, Paula Marincola, and Marjorie Schwarzer,” Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2011), 237.

[3] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 4th ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 163.

Source: So What is Public History? by Susan Philpott

Public History through Pedagogy and Practice

Over the course of the Spring 2015 semester, I have arrived at the following definition of public history: Public history is the incorporation of multiple narratives in a factually grounded interpretation of history that educates and engages the public. Successful public historians accomplish these aims through shared authority, public service, and by working collaboratively. This definition is based primarily on my impressions of Andrew Hurley’s Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, Letting Go?: Sharing Authority in a User-Generated World edited by Bill Adair et al., and the 2007 “Memorialization and Democracy” conference report shared on the website of the International Sites of Conscience. I also found the class discussions relating to the definition of successful public history and the process of defining the audience for our final projects to be particularly beneficial.

Although I found Andrew Hurley’s Beyond Preservationself-congratulatory” by necessity, I found his practical model useful in developing my understanding of public history. Public history is well-suited to collaborative efforts, as demonstrated by Hurley’s combination of oral history and archaeological evidence in order to construct the history of a particular site.[1] Hurley provided a limited definition of public history as encompassing “all history delivered to nonacademic audiences.”[2] While engaging in discussions with my fellow public history graduate students, I concluded that public history is so much more than simply the delivery of history; successful public history encourages the public to become engaged in the history of their community. Hurley himself provides an example of this inherently democratic process. In St. Louis, residents worked alongside university students in archaeological digs and contributed their own items to a community museum, thereby solidifying their attachment to the project and to the history of the community itself.[3] This model of inclusivity and collaboration is essential for the practice of public history.

Letting Go?, particularly the chapter addressing curators, caused me to question the purpose of museums as public history institutions and to solidify my belief that public history necessitates shared authority. Museums carry the stigma of being a space where the curator is the expert and the visitors are mere “novices in need of guidance.”[4] If museums claim to act as public history institutions, they should not belong to the curators. Instead, they should serve as a space of shared control between the museum staff and the community. For instance, at the Brooklyn Historical Society, museum staff shares curatorial authority with various communities in Brooklyn.[5] While the community conducts research and designs Public Perspectives projects, the museum staff retains control over the format of the exhibit as well as the permanent collection.[6] In this case, the museum is able to share multiple narratives of Brooklyn’s history by actively encouraging community engagement. Since the purpose of the museum is to share the history of Brooklyn, demonstrating an interest in current Brooklyn residents’ perspectives is a model for successful public history initiatives.

On a related note, “Memorialization and Democracy” reminded me of the importance of both educating and engaging the public. While Letting Go? specifically addressed shared authority between professional staff and citizen participants, “Memorialization and Democracy” takes this concept a step further by addressing how participation from a wide variety of stakeholders actually defines public memory. The memorial, like the museum, serves as both a tool and an opportunity to engage in democratic processes.[7] In particular, memorials provide a defined space that could incorporate “personal mourning, spiritual solace, private reflection on the one hand, as well as civic engagement and democratic dialogue on the other.”[8] The multiple functions served by Sites of Conscience, which are not only places of memory but also “open public dialogue about confronting contemporary legacies” provides yet another ideal of how public history works in a public space. Public history sites serve multiple functions, both to educate about the past and, through interpretation by public historians, provoke dialogue about the present.

I found that the final project was the most useful learning strategy for this course because it forced me to test my definition of public history. The fact that the project was ongoing, as I continued to learn about the practice of public history, meant that the project constantly challenged me to apply my historical research skills to the task of opening up dialogue about the role of public art on this ever-growing campus. My classmates’ discussions about successful public history reinforced my impression that public history should include multiple narratives but most importantly should involve stakeholders throughout the process of interpretation, and I applied this directly to my final project. For instance, on February 11, 2015, my classmates discussed how successful public history projects should not only empower the community but also remain community-focused on a relevant issue. Although this discussion was in connection with From Storefront to Monument by Andrea Burns, I was able to apply this theory to my final project about UMBC.

While researching my site stories about Forum and the True Grit statue, two prominent works of public art located on the UMBC campus, I strove to ensure that the voice of the student body shined through in my writing. In both cases, I emphasized how the students themselves defined the purpose of the public artworks and their function within the larger university. In keeping my writing community-focused, I contextualized my writing within the upcoming fiftieth anniversary celebrations at UMBC. I continuously involved one of the stakeholders, UMBC Special Collections, using documents relating to UMBC’s founding and growth as primary sources for my research. In keeping with my definition of public history entailing multiple narratives, I also intertwined relevant contextual history about the uses of art in public spaces. By referring back to my professor’s advice, class discussions, and course readings about the importance of highlighting the voice of the local community in public history, I found a clear focus for my research report and later my site stories designed as app content for Explore Baltimore Heritage.


[1]Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation:  Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities (Temple University Press, 2010), 189.

[2] Ibid, 32.

[3][3] Ibid, 93.

[4] Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski Letting Go?  Sharing Authority in a User Generated World (Philadelphia:  Pew Center, 2011), 70-71.

[5] Ibid, 116.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sebastian Bret, et al., “Memorialization and Democracy: State Policy and Civic Action” (report of the international conference Memorialization and Democracy: State Policy and Civic Action, Santiago, Chile, 20-22 June 2007): 3.

[8] Ibid, 6.

Source: Public History through Pedagogy and Practice by Jen Wachtel

The Goals of Public History

As an undergraduate, I took pride in the fact that I was getting my Bachelor’s degree in history, but I loathed the response I often received when I told people my major. Family members, friends, and random people I’d never met usually responded to my life’s passion with, “History? Why? What are you going to do with that?” Being the ambitious and excited young student I was, I confidently replied, “Well, I’ll go to graduate school!” Then, I got to graduate school and found that the question didn’t go away. In fact, it only got worse when I decided I wasn’t ready to continue on to a PhD. When I discovered Public History, I knew I’d found a career path that was a surprisingly good fit for me— problem solved! Or so I thought. But, as it turned out, everyone still asked me “what are you going to do with a Master’s Degree in history?” This time, I said as confidently, “Well, I’m going to be a Public Historian.” This response only resulted in baffled faces. It turns out; the term Public History isn’t as self-explanatory as it sounds. So what is Public History? And what does one do as a Public Historian?

After taking an Introduction to Public History course and doing some deep soul searching, I discovered that Public History is not as easy to define as other careers because it encompasses so many responsibilities and contains many changing variables. What I realized is that rather than a single definition, Public History is better defined by a set of goals. Public Historians should first of all see themselves as employed in public service. Therefore, public historians should foster a sense of agency among marginalized populations, provide opportunities for public discussions of difficult issues, instill a passion for historical discovery, and most of all to help individuals become thoughtful and empathetic citizens. Public Historians then, have to ask themselves a series of questions to evaluate their success in achieving these goals.

The first thing for service minded public historians to remember is that history and historical education/outreach are, above all, about people. People make history, perpetuate historical memory, and look to history to understand their current situation. Who then, do public historians represent if they don’t represent the people who have a need and use for their historical knowledge? As Kathleen McLean concludes in her essay “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations,” expert historians tend to define themselves, as “the source for expert knowledge” while their lay audience is simply “the recipients of that expertise.”[1] McLean argues that it would be better for public historians to make scholars out of an audience.[2] The people who use it then, should be active participants in creating a historical space.

As community service, Public historians have to listen to their community members and uncover the wants and needs of the people for whom they advocate. As Freeman Tilden points out, historical interpretations must be relevant in order for them to matter.[3] Take, for example, the movement among African Americans in the Civil Rights era to build museums to tell their story— the way it hadn’t been told by the white mainstream. These nonprofessionals attempted to address a specific need in their community using their history.[4] People are more likely to come to a place where they feel ownership. And since public historical places are primarily intended for education, individuals who engage with these spaces will be more likely to learn from each other. A lively space like this, a place dedicated to community building for and by said community will build a sense of agency, promote historical discovery through relevancy, and promote empathy when people are at the core.

As community advocates, public historians have to encourage challenges to the traditional narrative that open up space for the voices who have been misrepresented or completely left out. Public Historians therefore have to be skillful interpreters of the past and tell a story that is both provocative and meaningful. Getting people to care is perhaps key to this job. Unfortunately, individuals often think that the narrative they receive is created by someone else and is either something they have to buy into as non-experts, or something from which they feel completely excluded often as a result of characteristics like race, class, or gender.[5] Historical understanding is therefore strongly tied to identity. How then should public historians represent people whose history defines the traditional narrative, especially if that narrative is crucial to the American identity of progress and superiority? At Sand Creek National Historic Site, it these two narratives came to blows. One told the story of American progress while the other told the story of a massacre of Native Americans at the hands of the United States military. But by sponsoring for voices form the forgotten narrative, public historians were able to tell a local story with national significance and an opportunity to open discussions.[6]

These are goals I’ve kept in mind while writing about the Spring Grove Hospital and Baltimore Manual Labor School for Indigent Boys— both correctional institutions that sat on the current UMBC campus before the school was constructed. How did the narrative that survived about these institutions overshadow the lost narratives from the people who lived through them and how might those narratives differ? Were these institutions beneficial or were the exploitative and overly concerned with a wayward definition of reform? In light of the publicized unrest in Baltimore in the recent weeks, I hope that readers will understand and question the connection between the history of their city, reform movements, and how powerful sections of society dealt with what they saw as urban vice both then and now and how their narrative has been carried on into the present day.

[1] Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User- Generated World (Philedlphia: The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2011), 70.

[2] Ibid., 71.

[3] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage: Forth Edition, Expanded and Updated (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 18.

[4] Andrea A. Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 3.

[5] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 6.

[6] Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, 1.12.2013 edition (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013), 35.


Source: Reflective Blog: The Goals of Public History by Talbot Mayo