Why Public History?

When you search Google for a definition of public history, this is one of the first things to pop up.

Picture from the NYPL**

My own definition of public history is very different from the one proffered in that piece.  Public history, as far as I am concerned, is not a bridge between academic history and the public.  It is not simply history for public audiences.  The field, in fact, is somewhat split between those who see public history as primarily public-facing and those who see it as, first and foremost, public-engaging.  There is no animosity between practitioners with these different orientations, at least not that I am aware of. Me?  Public-engaging all the way.  More fun, more interesting and for me, more meaningful.

I wrote "Why Public History?" seven years ago in an effort to set the tone for my public history work when I started at Salem State University.  While my thoughts and ideas have changed over time, as a whole, I think that the framework still holds:

Why Public History? 
by Margo Shea

I trace my interest in public history to a conversation held at a wobbly little table in a small trailer that served as the community space for a public housing project or “estate” known as Tullyally, on the Waterside of Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 1999.  It was long before I had ever heard the term “public history.” As part of a broader effort to improve community relations through local heritage projects, I was facilitating a meeting of the Tullyally Young Loyalists – kids ranging from ten to seventeen who had identified themselves as committed to their community and to their heritage as Protestants and as occasionally-militant unionists.  They had a stake in celebrating, communicating and perpetuating the history of Ulster and Northern Ireland as an integral and important part of Great Britain.  The young people with whom we met lived in a small publicly subsidized residential community that was predominantly Protestant and unionist/loyalist in a city whose demographics had leaned overwhelmingly Catholic and nationalist since the 1850s.  They represented the sticky and difficult realities of cultural and political conflict in post-Troubles Northern Ireland and we were there to explore how heritage, long a vehicle for conflict, could also be a way out of it.

During this particular meeting we talked about stereotypes. The kids were like most of us – eager to believe the stereotypes about the “other” while adamant about the incorrectness of those stereotypes directed at themselves.  Yes, Catholics were priest-ridden, brainwashed and bred like rabbits.  No, Protestants were most definitely not domineering, dug-in, narrow-minded bigots.   As we began to peel back the anxieties and suspicions that lent weight to invective, it occurred to me that many of the stereotypes were historically rooted.  When asked about the histories that had shaped and directed sectarian relationships in Derry/Londonderry, in Ireland and in the United Kingdom, responses were scattered, often incorrect, always incomplete.  The young people knew history passionately, but only partially, unevenly – investments in their identity shaped the ways they interpreted and understood the past.  History mattered to these young people only insofar as it explained the present and cleared a path towards the future; in that sense it mattered very much indeed.

I didn’t think much about this interaction until several years later, sitting at another table, this time in a graduate seminar in public history in a leafy western Massachusetts town.  We were discussing Robert Archibald’s A Place to Remember, specifically, a vignette Archibald told about Tony Lucero, an Isleta Indian, and the tribal narratives he recounted about the arrival of Spaniards in the valley they called home, just south of what is now Albuquerque, in the mid-sixteenth century.  When asked by an academic historian what the tribe recalled about this encounter, Lucero replied, “My people got on their horses and ran for the mountains because they were afraid.”  The historian was quick to discount the story, insisting that there were no horses before the Spaniards came because the Spaniards had brought the horses. (I’ve always imagined that the “duh” was silent.)

The graduate students in the room mostly agreed that ordinary people, left to their own devices, too often get the past wrong; they concurred that this story was a good example of the crucial role historians play in correcting the record, setting it straight and rectifying a dishonorable misuse of the past.   I found myself thinking about the young people from Tullyally whose historical interpretations and understandings were so radically different from (in fact, often in opposition to) my own and at the same time so central to their ability to stare down experiences of poverty and alienation and to stand up for themselves.  

I began to think that I might understand just a little about Robert Archibald’s reflection that correctness might not always be the best arbiter of utility when it comes to interpretations of the past.  How do we evaluate whose narratives are valid?  On what grounds?  Does the incorrectness matter if the story is successful at its aim – in this case, to bolster and bond a community?  Should the story that worked be discarded because it is inaccurate?  Are alienated minorities the only people prone to editing the past or do those in positions of power and authority do the same – and if that is the case, how much faith can we invest in the accuracy of the “historical record?”

These kinds of questions introduced me to the complex, occasionally frustrating and always engaging world of public history.  What continues to excite me most about public history has been its insistence on a both/and, rather than an either/or approach to both historical truth and its commitment to the processes through which individuals, communities and societies construct and communicate knowledge about themselves and their pasts. 

History as a discipline grew as an empirical one, sustained by fealty to evidence and a commitment to objectivity.  Historians commit to getting the past right, to seeing and understanding historical events and actors on their own terms without investing meanings derived from present circumstances and worldviews.  For the academic historian, what happened is inextricably connected to all the other things that happened (and didn’t happen,) when, why, and with what consequence.  Getting the past as right as possible and telling the story in a compelling way is the task and duty.  How ordinary people choose to understand or connect to the past is at best a guide towards untapped research avenues or fodder for anecdotal eloquence.  At worst, it is an object lesson in how much the world needs the professional historian. 

Public history recognizes that history itself is more than an intellectual pursuit; it also acknowledges that history is always processual, despite its appearance as a thing, an entity, a product.  It tries to build and sustain frameworks that engage myriad publics in many pasts while at the same time endeavoring to make meaning about our social, political and cultural investments in the past through an exploration of those very engagements.  It takes seriously the ideas and questions that shape and are shaped by public engagements with past.   Public historians are committed to working with and being a part of the public even as we interrogate and challenge the assumptions and motivations that drive the public (including, sometimes uncomfortably, ourselves.)

As Anne Whisnant Mitchell so astutely has observed, public history is history in public -- it encompasses all the places where historians and the public are in dialogue about history -- museums, archives, and libraries; at historic sites, national parks, battlefields, and historic houses; in corporations, historical societies or organizations, and in and with government agencies.   Public history is also history for public audiences or for the public’s behalf  -- it includes everything from documentary films to re-enactments of famous battles to history festivals to heritage tourism to historical work that addresses public policy issues.  Finally, public history is concerned with the relationships between the public and history  -- it investigates and analyzes public investments in the historical past, including controversies in memorialization, the relationship between history and memory, the complexities of heritage in multicultural societies and the challenges of engaging with the aftermath of violence through public displays, memorials and sites of conscience.

Public history can only grow and develop when its practitioners are in sustained, collaborative, active engagement with these processes.  As a form of inquiry, public history relies on collaborative work that recognizes that the past is never static and can be a tool for reimagining and shaping the future.  As such, public history invites and challenges us to see ourselves, and not just the past, from new perspectives. Sometimes this is invigorating, as when organic farmers strike up creative partnerships with historic sites to produce and market local food and educate the public about why it matters.  Sometimes it is deeply uncomfortable, as when we debate how to confront difficult and painful histories honestly and responsibly even when it means relinquishing a decidedly more sanguine regional or national self-image.