Saturday, October 3, 2009

Struggling to Define Public History

This past summer I mentioned to my local historical resource review board that I was preparing to head to UWO to pursue my MA in public history. When asked the seemingly inevitable question “What exactly is public history?” I found myself at a loss to explain it. I remember mumbling something inarticulate about archives, museums and heritage sites, but it reinforced in me the notion that I was embarking on an educational experience I couldn’t readily explain.

I have recently read several articles attempting to define public history and its relationship to academic history and was relieved to discover I was not the only one struggling to establish a succinct and easily explainable definition of public history. Of the numerous definitions and explanations I came across, I would like to share those which, to me, seemed the most intellectually approachable.

Margaret Conrad, in her article “Public History and its Discontents or History in the Age of Wikipedia” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 18,1 (2007): 1-26 defines public history as “applied heritage” and the “adaptation and application of the historian’s skills and outlook for the benefit of the public and private enterprises.” She also quotes from Debra DeRuyver, main editor for the Public History Resource Center, who lists the following as main elements of public history:
· “theories, methods, assumptions, and practices guiding identification, presentation, interpretation, and presentation of historical artifacts, texts, structures and landscapes in conjunction with and for the public;
· the interpretive process between the historian, the public and the object; and
· the belief that history and historical-cultural memory matter in day-to-day life.”

Rebecca Conrad in her article “Facepaint History in the Season of Introspection” (The Public Historian 25,4 (2003): 9-24) also mentions public historians’ acceptance, or even their embrace, of shared authority in interpretation. She goes on the explain that public historians do more than simply disseminate the knowledge of academic historians to the public, and that public historians do not work solely in museums, archives and historical sites. She contends that public historians distinguish themselves from academic historians not by where they practice history, but by how they practice it. Citing Donald Schön’s idea of “reflective practice”, Rebecca Conrad states that public history is practiced first through a foundation of historical knowledge and past experience. Using this foundation, public historians identify the problem (whatever it may be) and design an appropriate intervention, creating a scholarly defensible answer to a real world problem.

Based loosely on my own experiences, an example of this might be the case of a rural fire department (not to disparage rural fire departments) who want to burn down an old schoolhouse to allow them to practice fire-fighting, but the local historical association is up in arms about the potential loss, and a county meeting is held to debate the issue. A public historian is invited to mediate between the two sides, and to develop an answer to what to do with the building. Like an academic historian, the first job of the public historian would be to steep themselves in the history of the area and the particular site. This would also be an opportune time to speak with the community and discover why they value the site – its history and significance from the public’s perspective. From this base knowledge, the public historian could explain what would be lost should the building be destroyed, and, based on their prior experiences with similar projects, what might be gained should the building be saved and rehabilitated.

After my first, albeit brief, foray into the world of public history, were I asked again by the review board, just what is public history, I would have a vastly different response, and while I know it would not be perfect, it might go something like this:
“In many ways public history is similar to academic history, in that both disciplines research, write and publish on historical topics. However, public history is different because it includes working with the public with non-traditional resources such as material culture and oral history, to identify, interpret and present their past in a way that is both meaningful to them and academically defensible.”

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