On the Vocation of Public History

Contributed by Suzanne Fischer Associate Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford
May 07, 2011
publichistorian's picture
Part of the Cluster:

Vocations, Identities

I am a public historian.  This is not exactly a professional affiliation, but instead a broad affirmation of the value of the work history can do in the world.  Public historians have not only a particular kind of audience for our publications, exhibits, and other projects, but a duty to serve particular communities.  It’s history as social work.  It’s cracking open history as a democratic project, and doing it transparently, in public. If I sound impassioned, that’s because public history has convinced me that scholarship and historical work can be passionate, emotional, deeply involved in how the messy business of being human is worked out in communities.  It’s a meaningful alternate career for humanities scholars.

Though as “public history” the field has existed for less than half a century—our major professional organization, the National Council on Public History (NCPH), just celebrated its thirtieth birthday—historians have long sought alternate venues for public-facing work.  Public history happens in museums, historic houses, historic sites, national parks, libraries and archives, all levels of government, and through consulting work and on the web.  Public history does not have to be done by public historians; conversely, people who do history in public are public historians, whether or not they self-identify as such. It is done by PhD historians, community activists, digital historians, people with museum studies degrees, librarians and archivists, historic preservationists, genealogists, oral historians, volunteers at the local historical society, and even people with specialists’ degrees in public history.

Public history is difficult to define precisely. It is often easier, as I have just done, to point to practices and examples of places where public history work happens. In the late 2000s NCPH members decided, as a form of outreach, to expand Wikipedia’s definition of public history[1], but there is nothing so wearying as debating the slippery boundaries of such a field. Public history, then, very broadly, uses the methods of the historical discipline to facilitate the usefulness of history in the world.

I feel fortunate to have discovered public history, history museum work in particular, as a vocation.  When I was in graduate school studying the history of science, technology and medicine, I felt a disconnect between my academic work and teaching and the volunteerism and activism I was doing in my neighborhood.  I also felt drawn to analyze the material culture of medical practice:  how could I write about wax anatomical figures without seeing them?  A longstanding fascination with museums, both in a previous life as a scientist and as a historian of natural history and medical museums, led me to seek out museum volunteer work. Eventually, I sought employment in this field.  As a history museum professional, my work foregrounds visitor experience and meaning-making around historic objects and environments, a publics-based material culture practice that combines both my political and intellectual commitments.

Vocation is not a word I use lightly.  Cultural heritage institutions like libraries, archives and museums are mission-based.  Besides the particular mission of whatever museum I am serving (generally to collect, preserve and interpret a particular subject or region), public history has a mission:  to put history to work in the world, to facilitate a deeper understanding of the past for multiple publics.  “The life of a museum worker,” in the words of the 1925 first Code of Ethics of the American Association of Museums, “is essentially one of service.” The life of a public historian is also one of service:  good public history serves both historic stories and objects but also the multiple publics who seek meaning from the past.

Alternative academic professionals can put their skills and training to productive, satisfying use in public history.  Public historians do research on stories and artifacts to support exhibits, publications, or web products.  We consult, on our own or in firms, and do research on legal cases and other projects. We help governments understand their history and the historical impacts of their policies. We lead tours, give lectures, produce podcasts, do educational programs with schoolchildren and other audiences. We write everything from exhibit labels to popular history books, to (accurate!) historical fiction to monographs on highly specialized topics.

The idea of the public intellectual, a thinker who brings insight from the world of ideas to mainstream discourse, shares with our field only a common ancestor, since public history focuses on the work practitioners produce and facilitate in communities, rather than on the figure of the public historian herself: “you…know that your work is more important than you are.”[2]

Though historians have been working in public at least since the rise of history as a profession in the nineteenth century, public history as a field was born, appropriately or not, in the university. Spurred both by a rising commitment to the democratic potential of the new social history and by worries about careers for historians, in 1976 Robert Kelley and G. Wesley Johnson developed the first public history graduate program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.[3]  At the same time historians working in the federal government had begun to organize; the Society for History in the Federal Government was founded in 1979.  The first issue of The Public Historian was published in Santa Barbara in 1978; NCPH was founded the following year. Many of the historians involved in these projects had been galvanized by the leadership of Arnita Jones at the National Coordinating Council for the Promotion of History, a 1970s project of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.  This public history organizing work helped provide practitioners with supportive professional communities and venues for critical reflection on history work. 

Terminology and identity were and continue to be challenging. Another possible term for the field discussed in the early days was “applied history,” which has an unpleasant connotation of second-class history work. Some practitioners today insist that they are practicing historians, with no qualifiers, calling “public historian” “the professor’s euphemism for nonprofessional historians.”[4]A prominent federal historian says that “we…knew that our professional mission and purpose were not tied to the success of the public history movement in academia.”[5]  Historians continue to do public history work whatever their organizational affiliation.

Defining public history as history done by professionals rather than amateurs is a more recent point of contestation.  Much of the grassroots work at small history organizations is done by volunteers. The academic foundation of the 1970s organizing in many cases bypassed an important group of what I would call public historians: state and local historians with a diversity of educational backgrounds.  These practitioners were organized in the early twentieth century by another offshoot of the American Historical Association, the Conference of State and Local Historical Societies, which in 1940 would become the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).  Many historians at local historical societies remain quite outside of the academy.  The web’s ability to empower amateur historians to participate more directly in the historical enterprise continues to raise definitional questions.

Though a tension between academic and public history lingers in the field, historians of all stripes are increasingly finding common cause. Though the first generation of public historians created new academic programs and organizations to serve their needs, the rapid process of institutionalization since the 1980s has meant that a new generation of public historians has been trained in academic graduate programs that, in structure if not in theory, view public history as a subfield of “regular history.” As of 2010, there are fifteen universities in North America offering either PhDs in public history or PhDs in history with a concentration or certificate in public history, and fifty universities in North America similarly offering MAs in public history as either major field or subfield. What this training should include is a major concern for the field. However, in many corners ofthe public history world—particularly in small museums, whose staff have been underserved by the academic public history movement—experience is weighted moreheavily than training, and a model of apprenticeship or “serving your time” persists.I usually suggest that aspiring public historians, whatever their educational preparation,volunteer in the field as much as possible, both to acquire experience and to understand the diversity of working environments in public history.

From the other side of the public history/academic history split, public historians embedded in the academy have struggled to find respect for their work. An excellent development is the 2010 recommendation of the Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship, on the place of public history projects in promotion and tenure decisions for academics. This report, endorsed by the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the National Coalition on Public History, insists that contribution to public history is of import in evaluating a scholar’s professional work.[6]Public historians inside and outside the academy are working together to support the field.

Public history is a big tent. There’s room for everyone who is convicted of the value of historical critical thinking in the world. The field is still in development: the future of public history is in flux as new technologies change what it means to be public, what publics we engage and address and what counts as an object to be collected, preserved, shared and interpreted.[7]And like the academic world and the nonprofit world in general, public history has suffered from an economic crisis. History institutions often rely on contributed revenue, and with funding down from all directions, public history venues are not hiring at an appropriate rate to keep up with the current production of public history and museum studies graduates, or even with the pace of normal work. Public history is not a field to enter into because of worries about the academic job market. Become a public historian because you love the potential of history to change, enrich and help make sense of people’s lives.

[1] This Wikipedia entry, including the definition, is an excellent overview of the field; Also see Cathy Stanton, “What is Public History Redux,” Public History News, September 2007.

[2]Robert Weible, “The Blind Man and His Dog:  The Public and its Historians,” The Public Historian, Vol. 28, No. 4, p 15.

[3] See Barbara Howe, “NCPH’s First Decade,” The Public Historian Vol. 11, No. 3 (Summer 1989), pp. 69-85. 

[4] Jack M. Holl, “Cultures in Conflict:  An Argument against “Common Ground” between Practicing Professional Historians and Academics,” The Public Historian, Vol. 30, No. 2, p. 31.  This excellent contrarian essay speaks to the separate culture of practicing professional historians, particularly historians in the federal government.

[5] Holl, “Cultures in Conflict,” p. 49.

[6]Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship, “Tenure, Promotion and the Publicly Engaged Historian.” June 2010.

[7]The Forward Capture site solicited visions of the future of public history.