“Whose Public? Whose History?”

Ronald Grele begged the questions “Whose Public? Whose History” What is the Goal of a Public Historian?” in 1981 and the questions are still struggling to be answered today.

Academics, historians, analysts, and technicians alike all vary in their definitions of what encompasses public history and when it began as a field.  Some argue that public history existed long before the National Council on Public History (NCPH) with historical organizations and museums, while others argue that it was a new and emerging field in the 1970s, when the concept of “public history” was being thrown around in academia. An ambiguity in the term “public history” also exists, with individuals not even being sure that they practice within that field themselves. In John Dichtl’s and Robert B. Townsend’s 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals, many found the term too confining, and they felt that they lacked the qualifications to be considered an historian, saying they were not traditionally-trained as such. Dichtl and Townsend chose to define who public historians were by those “who either defined themselves as public historians or were employed in a historical activity outside of academia.”[1] Dichtl and Townsend also examined where public historians were employed: museums; colleges and universities; local, state, and federal government; historical organizations; nonprofits; consulting firms; and even those self-employed or semi-retired. From this survey’s perspective, public historians are those who work within the field of history and disseminating it to the public. In order to do this, public historians must work with one another.

Collaboration has become a repetitive theme in discussions about public history. Working with multiple groups of people within the field of history and the humanities: librarians, archivists, technicians, analysts, historians, curators, etc. In order to help shape the public’s understanding of history and their impact on it, public historians must collaborate with one another under the big umbrella of public history. Denise Meringolo wrote, in “Prologue” and “Conclusion” to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, how the field of public history has three major points in its collaborative efforts. First, acknowledging that the field is highly collaborative in and of itself. Second, authority of public history is not merely limited to historians themselves. It is shared with audiences and the historians’ employers, but also with colleagues of different disciplines. This shows where the umbrella definition works best. Public historians work so much with one another and with the public, but they must also collaborate with other disciplines in order to make the history truly encompassing. Third, within the collaboration of public history, there is a divide over emphasis on the “public” or the “history.” This debate has been around since the inception of the field. Some people claim they do not work with the public directly; therefore they are more on the history side of things. Others work more with the public, but less in the nitty gritty details of history. The question needs to be begged, however, does it really matter which side of the debate you land on, when it all can work together and make one big picture?

Over time, the definition of “public” has come into question. It began as simply a term to describe academic peers, undergraduates, graduate students, and other students of history. It has evolved to include anybody with a remote interest in history, thanks to the widespread inclusion of history on a mainstream level. Turn on television at any given time and there are multiple History Channels, as well as historical fiction television programs (The Tudors, The Borgias, America: The Story of Us, etc.). Obviously, there has been a demand for programs and channels of that nature, which points to the idea that not just traditionally-trained historians are watching and paying attention. The definition of public has expanded to include anybody with a remote interest in any type of history. Ronald Grele pushed this point even further in his article “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” from 1981. Grele noted the history of public history, and how it has grown since its inception, while also continuing to evolve.

In addition, what we know about public historical activities as they now exist points to a similar correctness in Carl Becker’s view that every man can become his own historian; that relatively ordinary people can seek and find knowledge of the world they have made or that was made for them, and that since history always has a social purpose-explicitly or implicitly-such knowledge shapes the way the present is viewed. Thus the task of the public historian, broadly defined, should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events. Sometimes this merely means helping to bring to the front the information, understanding, and consciousness that is already there. More often it means a much more painstaking process of confronting old interpretations, removing layer upon layer of ideology and obfuscation, and countering the effects of spectacularized media-made instant history.[2]

Grele argued that everybody can be an historian, and it is the job of the (trained) public historians to help guide the general public in honing that knowledge and understanding.



[1] John Dichtl and Robert B. Townsend, “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results of the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals,” Perspectives on History (September 2009), accessed January 20, 2016, http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2009/a-picture-of-public-history.

[2] Ronald Grele, “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” The Public Historian 3, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 47-8, accessed January 22, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3377160.



Dichtl, John and Robert B. Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results of the 2008 Survey of Public HistoryProfessionals.” Perspectives on History (September 2009). Accessed January 20, 2016. http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2009/a-picture-of-public-history.

Howe, Barbara J. “Reflections on an Idea: NCPH’s First Decade.” The Public Historian 11, no. 3 (1989): 69-85. Accessed January 21, 2016. http://ncph.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/NCPHsFirstDecade.pdf.

Grele, Ronald J. “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” The Public Historian 3, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 40-48. Accessed January 22, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3377160.

Karamanski, Ted. “Reflections on the founding of NCPH.” Public History Commons, February 13, 2015. Accessed January 21, 2016. http://publichistorycommons.org/reflections-on-the-founding-of-ncph/.

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


Photography has helped capture moments in time since its creation over 150 years ago.  A baby’s first cry, the first kiss of a married couple, a killer shot on a goal by a hockey player, or a family’s last photo together, all can be captured by a photograph as a lasting memory of an event, item, place, or person.  While that photograph may trigger memories for individuals, such as feelings, touch, smell, weight, or taste, when it comes to the photographing of objects for museums, libraries, schools, etc., they are not able to capture those same memory triggers.  I can assume that since I am looking at an image of a copy of the Gutenberg Bible that I would be smelling the scent of old paper and old ink, combined with the staleness of the air surrounding it in order to preserve it.  I could also assume the feeling of frailty of the pages if I were ever to be able to touch it.  But I do not know the exact flavors or textures without being able to handle the object myself.  These are some of the limitations to digital representations of humanities objects.

As of right now, it is impossible to taste, smell, or touch images of the Mona Lisa, the Gutenberg Press, or the Star Spangled Banner.  We are simply able to take pictures from every angle possible of the objects, and then turn it into 2-D or 3-D photographs.  We have been able to create 3-D printers in recent years, which could probably print out a representation of the Gutenberg Bible, but it would not convey the exact same feelings or smells.  It’s also very difficult to get a full representation of all sides of an item.  For example, it would be incredibly hard for me to get a representation from underneath the feet of a Gutenberg printing press.  There are ways to get as many angles as possible, but the question of safety for the preservation of the artifact comes into play.  Is it too dangerous to try to get a photographic representation of the bottom of the feet of a Gutenberg printing press or is it something worth doing?  Would resources be better spent on getting the best digital representations of other objects than focusing on that one small part of a larger item?  These are questions that digital historians must address when it comes to approaching digitization of objects.

In terms of the appropriate kinds of digitization, books and other forms of written objects are best digitized by scanning and/or photographs.  It may make sense to make a 3-D scan of an old book, such as the Gutenberg Bible, but it does not make sense on a larger scale.  When it comes to paintings and other flat artwork, again, scanning and/or photographs would probably be the best option.  As to artifacts and objects that are 3-dimensional to begin with, such as a statue, it depends on the resources available.  If it is a smaller museum with fewer resources, they may not have the capabilities to have 3-D renderings of the object.  It also comes down to the worth of the item and whether or not it is worth it to digitize it in a 3-dimensional format.  Does every Tiffany lamp need to be digitized in 3-D, or will a 2-D photograph from multiple angles suffice?  The more important the 3-D object is, the more likely it should be mapped in 3-D.

Working with digitized representations allows us to get a little more up close and personal with artifacts that we, otherwise, may not have the ability to come in contact with, due to the condition of the artifact, location, or lack of credentials.  The likelihood of the average historian, student, or amateur researcher would get to handle the Michelangelo’s David is incredibly slim, but being able to visualize it, up close and personally, so to speak, with 3-D representations, or even photographs from every angle, is incredibly helpful to an art historian looking to study representations of the human figure from the Renaissance period.

It is also incredibly helpful so that, as researchers, we don’t have to visit every library or no longer wait for that inter-library loan to come in and we are able to research much more effectively than even 10 years ago.  We can view the digitized content instantly, or nearly instantly.  I can quickly do a database search and see if there are any articles or books on the topic of Michelangelo’s human anatomy study to better fit my research needs, and then pull them up in real time to be able to study them.  As technology evolves, so do the research and digitization methods, which help to disseminate the information to more people and allow more collaboration to happen, which may not have happened otherwise.

Defining Digital Humanities

Digital humanities represents the combination of the analog humanities with the ever-evolving technology involved in our world.  This field combines many different types of intellectuals and scholars in order to present the best of every field.  Computer gurus and historians can combine their talents for a digital version of a project that can be distributed amongst the masses while opening it up for further collaboration and communication.  Digital humanities encompasses so many different disciplines, but the goal remains the same: sharing, interpreting, analyzing, communicating, editing, and so much more, of the information and data that makes up each discipline.

Digital humanities has been a collaborative and a team effort since its inception.  It combines the efforts of technology and web specialists with the efforts of scholars and educators to disseminate information to the public, while also creating an open system of communication between the intellectuals and general public.  The field itself is vague because there are so many different facets that create it.  The projects that digital humanities fields and creates include many different disciplines and key players.