What in the world is Public History?

Whenever I am asked “What do you do for a living?,” I brace myself for the look of confusion that I know I will receive once I provide an answer. I often feel as though I am speaking a foreign language, which I suppose in a way that I am. I explain that I am an Archivist and that I have a Masters degree in Public History. I automatically know the questions that come to mind first. What in the world is “public history” and what the heck do you do with that?! (The same goes for “Archivist”-although I have received some VERY interesting and comical guesses)

So, I thought what better way to answer those very valid questions than to introduce people to the definition of public history on The Local History Room blog!

The following are a few examples of how public historians define public historians and the profession in which we work. As a side note, I think I might get these printed up on cards to hand out the next time the question arises….just in case!

–Mona K. Vance
Archivist (public historian extraordinaire)

Public history most often refers to the employment of historians in history-related work outside of academia, and especially to the many ways in which historians recreate and present history to the public-and sometimes with the public. Thus, we find historians working in archives, museums, historic sites, state and local historical agencies, newspapers, businesses, trade and labor organizations, and in all levels of government. They work as editors, archivists, oral historians, administrators, curators, historic preservation specialists, writers, public policy analysts–and, lest we forget, as historians!

From the syllabus for Introduction to Public History taught by Michael Gordon at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Public history is…

a set of theories, methods, assumptions, and practices guiding the identification, preservation, interpretation, and presentation of historical artifacts, texts, structures, and landscapes in conjunction with and for the public.

an interactive process between the historian, the public, and the historical object.

the belief that history and historical-cultural memory matter in the way people go about their day-to-day lives.

Debra DeRuyver, Managing Editor, PHRC

The purpose of a public historian is to collect, preserve, and disseminate information on the past. Public Historians use such tools as photographs, oral histories, museum exhibitions, and multimedia to address a wide variety of historical issues and to present those issues to a non-academic audience.

Chelsea Paige Buffington “Public History–What Is It?”

The above definitions can be found at the Public History Resource Center website at www.publichistory.org

Published in: on December 30, 2008 at 4:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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