“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.

 

Footnotes:

[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.

 

Sources:

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.

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