The Task Force on Public History: An Update

Linda Shopes and Debbie Ann Doyle, September 2003

The AHA's Task Force on Public History (TFPH) has spent two years considering how the Association can better serve public history. The task force has also debated larger issues, including how to redefine the entire profession's relationship to history as it is understood and practiced outside of the academy. Members agree that both the AHA and the profession need to improve services to public historians and demonstrate greater respect for public history. "'Public history,"' the TFPH argues, is not a subset of history, nor are public historians a subset of historians. Public engagement is a responsibility of all historians, wherever they work. Therefore, greater attention to public history and public historians is crucial for both the AHA and the profession.

The task force e-mailed a broad survey to all AHA members to help frame the final report it will present to the AHA Council in January 2004. Six hundred and seventy-six historians—approximately 5 percent of AHA members—replied.

The quantitative data revealed substantial interest in increasing the AHA's involvement in public history. Twenty-eight percent of the respondents agree that the profession does a poor job of serving historians outside the academy. Thirty-six percent believe public practice and public historians should be more highly valued and incorporated into the profession. Only 13 percent of respondents feel that the AHA should focus on the advancement of scholarship rather than on public practice. Eighteen percent are generally satisfied with the current academic/public history balance within the profession.

The survey demonstrated that many historians engage in both public and academic history. Eighty-five percent of historians affiliated primarily with an academic institution report occasional to substantial involvement in public history. Academics commonly listed writing and lecturing for general audiences, consulting on public history projects, serving as board members of public history institutions, and involving students in public historical work as their primary public history activity. A greater percentage of public historians (27 percent) reported substantial involvement in academic work, including research, teaching, and scholarly presentations and publications. Only 15 percent of academic professionals identified substantial involvement in public history.

Offered a list of possible ways to build connections between academic and public history, 46 percent of respondents called for increased public advocacy and the development of connections to other academic and nonacademic organizations (respondents could choose more than one category when answering these two questions). Forty-one percent suggest improving institutional services to professional historians both inside and outside the academy. Thirty-five percent of respondents call for greater involvement of professional historians in fields such as journalism, urban planning, and heritage tourism. Thirty percent advocate greater attention to public history in graduate training, curriculum, and career advisement.

In qualitative responses to open-ended questions, respondents focused on the need for the profession and the AHA to recognize, validate, legitimize, and reward the work of public historians. The survey confirmed the need to improve the relationship between public and academic history. Many observed that the dearth of academic positions will continue to lead more historians to careers in public history, a pragmatic reason for the profession and the Association to reach out to nonacademic historians.

Others advocated greater public and civic engagement by all historians. AHA members revealed a deep and passionate desire for historians to reclaim a role in public life. As one member noted, "'In these politically dire times, we need informed commentary by historians so that past mistakes are not repeated."' For some, this means giving historical perspectives on current issues; for others, playing a role in the formulation of public policy, especially as it relates to history. Many lamented that historians have abandoned writing for nonspecialized audiences, leaving venues like the History Channel to satisfy the "'public hunger for history because, as a profession, we are not feeding that hunger."' As another member put it, "'the profession is disconnected from nonacademics, leaving pundits and talk show hosts to fill the gap."' One respondent warned that unless academic historians find a way to reach a broader audience, the profession "'will continue to slide into irrelevance."'

Building on this idea, many respondents felt historians should promote intellectual integrity in public presentations of history. Many noted that the enormous public interest in history is, regrettably, often satisfied by work of questionable quality. Respondents expressed a desire that a more complex view of the past be presented to the public and that "'a sense of history, historical method, and background be injected into current debates and thinking."' Many pointed out that "'the art of public history involves distilling complex ideas into more straightforward ones"' accessible to a broad audience, and thus have greater access to a general audience, academics and public historians should work together to accomplish this goal.

The task force distributed a second, more focused survey to public historians via H-Public, H-Museums, and H-Local, and other electronic lists. Although fewer than one hundred public historians replied to the survey, a number of clear patterns emerged. While a few respondents are AHA members—as one noted, "'reading Perspectives and the AHR anchors me in the profession"'—most are not, several stating that their "'impression"' is that the AHA is an organization for academic historians with PhDs.

Public historians cited the split between academic and public history and between academic and public historians as a major career concern. Many attributed the problem to the undue emphasis on academic careers in graduate education. Respondents identified "'funding, funding, funding,"' as the overriding institutional challenge facing public history. Other concerns include dealing with popular misconceptions about history and historians and "'finding ways to be relevant to multiple audiences simultaneously."' Practicing public historians note that many institutions value administrative skills above depth of historical understanding when filling upper-level positions, which can result in managerial ignorance of "'the need and value of good history for the general public."'

Respondents describe the relationship between public history institutions and academic scholars as ranging from "'too many to list here,"' to "'lukewarm,"' to "'very little."' Links with scholars typically occur through consultancies and related involvements in program development, board membership, scholars' use of research collections, and student internships.

Asked to identify ways the AHA might better address the needs of public historians, respondents emphasized the need for vigorous advocacy for increased funding, the "'creation of revolving doors between the academy and the diverse worlds of public history,"' and publication of review articles "'that digest recent scholarship."' In part, the survey revealed that the Association, which is a major supporter of the advocacy efforts of the National Coalition for History and publishes several series of pamphlets providing brief overviews of recent scholarship, has not effectively communicated these activities to public historians.

The survey also revealed that many public historians wish the AHA would cultivate greater respect for public history and public historians within the profession. A particularly eloquent response is worth quoting at length: "'Public history, in many ways, is history at its most fundamental. . . . Public history is the connection between the ivory tower and the masses. Often, children (and their parents) are exposed to history through programs provided by local historical societies or field trips to historic sites which can ignite a life-long love of history and support for historical institutions."'

The Task Force on Public History will be reviewing the surveys in depth as it prepares its report to the AHA Council. The report will assess the profession's and the Association's relationship to the practice and practitioners of public history. It will recommend ways the AHA can better serve public historians both through new initiatives and the integration of public history into ongoing AHA activities and programs. The report will also suggest how to ensure sustained attention to public history within the structure of the AHA. In addition to data gathered in the two surveys, the report will draw on open forums at the 2002 and 2003 annual meetings, conversations with public history colleagues, a review of the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, and other information gathered by the task force. Perspectives readers are encouraged to share their thoughts about public history with the task force and may do so by contacting its chair, Linda Shopes, at

—Linda Shopes (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission) chairs the AHA Task Force on Public History, which was established in 2001.
—Debbie Ann Doyle staffs the task force. For further information, see Linda Shopes, "'AHA Establishes Task Force on Public History,"' Perspectives (September 2001), at