Defining Public History: Is It Possible? Is It Necessary?

Robert Weible, March 2008

For all the talk of public history that we have been hearing for more than 25 years, it is a little awkward that historians are still uncertain about what "public history" might actually mean. Even the National Council on Public History (NCPH) has had difficulty defining the term. After considerable internal discussion, NCPH board members recently suggested that public history is "a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public." That only triggered further debate among members. Everyone, it seems, has a different definition.1

Academics tend to think of public history as a field of study, like one of the nearly 300 specialized subjects that the American Historical Association lists when it asks its members to identify their research and teaching interests. More socially engaged historians, on the other hand, consider public history a calling designed "to help people write, create, and understand their own history."2 Still others believe public history should influence the formulation of public policy. But a majority probably just defines the field by the workplace: academic history, they assume, is practiced within the university, public history elsewhere. So perhaps it is fruitless to seek consensus on a single definition. When all is said and done, public history may even be like jazz or pornography: easier to describe than define, and you know it when you hear it or see it.

Chances are, the term "public history" would have seemed superfluous when the American Historical Association was founded in 1884. At the time, the AHA sought to professionalize history, make it more scientific, and build and serve audiences among local historical societies, teachers, amateur historians, and just about anyone who was interested in the past. This changed when the AHA evolved into a more strictly scholarly association, leaving the business of communicating with the public to museums and historic sites, community organizations, history buffs, and of course the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), which split from the AHA in 1940. The birth of the public history movement in the 1970s was, arguably, a response to the rift that had grown between historians and a call for the profession to return to its more public roots.3

However we define or describe it, public history seems to have established itself in just a few short years—certainly on college campuses, where many diverse public history programs have helped invigorate a profession arguably at risk of becoming overly self-absorbed and even irrelevant. Graduates of these programs, and of history programs generally, have found more and more work outside the university: in the historic preservation and museum fields, in community history projects, in government agencies, even in private businesses—and wherever they have gone, these young historians have raised professional standards and enhanced the way people understand the past.

Thanks in part to university-trained historians in the National Park Service, for example, the agency now interprets Civil War battlefields in the context of the war's causes and effects, not just as hallowed fields of valor on which military strategists competed against each other in deadly games of chess.4 In New York, Philadelphia, and Providence, private and public institutions have teamed with community activists to let people in on the news that slavery was once a very real part of their cities' histories. Preservationists have worked to preserve cultures as well as buildings and expand their audiences beyond the privileged few. Rapidly changing technology has enabled historians, especially younger ones, to work with electronics experts, graphic designers, educators, and others to bring good, professional history to a public that would have been hard to envision even a few years ago.

The question is: if historians in and out of the academy are trained in the same institutions, if they share an educational mission, and if they produce work that holds up to professional scrutiny, then what is the difference between public historians and more traditional ones? Perhaps it is simply the fact that public historians work with and for people outside the profession, and academics, particularly the ones in places that only accept a narrow definition of history-related work as a factor in tenure and promotion decisions, toil mainly among themselves. This would, however, miss the point. The relationships that historians have with their audiences are not so simple. Many would rightly agree with Michael Frisch, who once famously suggested that historians and their audiences learn from each other and share authority for creating a more meaningful and usable past.5 On the other hand, some public historians cede too much authority to the public. John Durel and Anita Nowery Durel, for example, recently suggested (in an essay published in History News, the newsletter of the AASLH) that nonprofit historical organizations such as museums and historic sites adopt a business model based on meeting audience expectations. In their view, audiences would be composed primarily of institutional members and affinity groups. Instead of historical interpreters, sites would employ "facilitators" of peer learning to help members experience the "spirituality" of historic places. Proponents of "civic dialogue" contend that, just as there are many valid feelings about a work of art, then so are there many historical "truths." Everyone, they assume, understands the past as authoritatively as everyone else—and, in AASLH Chair Barbara Franco's words, the "role of the historian or scholar in civic dialogue must be focused on creating safe places for disagreement rather than on documenting facts or achieving a coherent thesis."6

This notion appears generously democratic to its advocates, but arguably a historian's professional expertise does not limit democracy. It enables it.7 That is, in a rational society in which we take "from each according to his ability" and give "to each according to his need," people may be equal, but they do not all have the same abilities. Physicians tend to the sick, for example, architects design buildings, and historians research and interpret the past. There are many different kinds of historians, of course, but the good ones recognize that in a democracy understanding, interpreting, and communicating history brings with it a heavy burden of responsibility. One has only to recall Orwell's insight that "he who controls the present controls the past; he who controls the past controls the future."

Consider for a moment that most historians know that the Founding Fathers were more influenced by the Enlightenment than by the Bible, that the Holocaust really happened, and that Saddam Hussein never planned the attacks of September 11th. There are, of course, lots of people who understand things differently. Why? Possibly because they are influenced by those who interpret the past more loudly—if less rationally—than others, often on radio, television, and the internet, or in churches, bars, and political campaigns. If we have learned nothing else in recent years, it is that history is very powerful and can be dangerous in the wrong hands, whether in local communities or the nation's capital. It seems that in an idealized marketplace in which everyone is his or her own expert and all ideas are equal, self-proclaimed champions of democracy can legitimize their potentially unlimited authority, not by grounding their truth in objective, scientifically determined facts, but by concocting and selling self-serving histories that play on public fears, prejudices, and greed. Of course, not all ideas are equal. Historians know this, and from time to time one wishes that they would be more willing to do the hard work it takes to establish the same authority with non-historians that they hold among themselves. In an ideal world, historians could help sanction and limit social and political power by ensuring that the understanding of the past on which the public shapes its future is factual, accurate, comprehensible, meaningful, useful, and resistant to cynical manipulators who sell snake oil as historical truth.

None of this provides us with a single definition for public history, although it does suggest that, in a democracy at least, the discipline's practitioners are educators who neither deny their expertise nor keep it to themselves. Whether they work in classrooms, museums, or historic sites, they listen respectfully to the people with whom they share authority and learn from them—but in the end, they take responsibility for making the final edits on a community's (or a nation's) historical narrative. Isn't this what those 19th-century historians had in mind when they founded the American Historical Association? Isn't it ironic that the public history movement will have succeeded when we return to a time when the need for a definition of "public history" is once again superfluous?

—Robert Weible, a former president of the National Council on Public History, is state historian and chief curator at the New York State Museum.

Notes

1. Cathy Stanton, "'What Is Public History?' Redux," Public History News 27:4 (September 2007).

2. Ronald J. Grele, "Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?" The Public Historian 3:1 (winter 1981), 46.

3. For a glimpse into early relations between academics and state and local historians in AHA, see Ian Tyrrell, "Good Beginnings: The AHA and the First Conference of Historical Societies, 1904," History News 59:4 (autumn 2004), 21–24. The Organization of American Historians, meanwhile, was not the predominantly scholarly group it is today when founded as the Mississippi Valley Historical Society. It, too, promoted close relationships between scientifically and nationally minded academics and regionally oriented historical society members. See Ian Tyrell, "Public at the Creation: Place, Memory, and Historical Practice in the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, 1907–1950," Journal of American History 94:1 (June 2007), 19–46.

4. See Dwight T. Pitcaithley, "Public Education and the National Park Service: Interpreting the Civil War," Perspectives November 2007.

5. Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).

6. John Durel and Anita Nowery Durel, "A Golden Age for Historic Properties," History News 62:3 (summer 2007), 7–15; and Barbara Franco, "Public History and Civic Dialogue," OAH Newsletter 34:2 (May 2006), 3.

7. See Kevin Mattson, "The Book of Liberal Virtues," The American Prospect, 17:2 (February 2006).