In his 1981 piece “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?, Ronald J. Griele notes “we must define what we mean by ‘public’ and how we as historians have related to and continue to relate to that public” (40). He goes on to discuss the history of the field, and the audiences that historians have written for, noting trends of historians writing narratives for the “broad, generally educated lay public,” writing history for other academics, writing history for undergraduate students, and interacting with individuals involved in local history projects.
Near the end of his essay, Griele argues: “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” (47-48). He also mentions that “it promises us a society in which a broad public participates in the construction of its own history” (48). Since Griele wrote in 1981, his vision has become much more of a reality.
In the Prologue to her 2012 book Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: toward a New Genealogy of Public History, Denise D. Meringolo notes that “During the 1990s, a significant survey of American attitudes found that a majority of those surveyed placed museums and historical societies among the most trustworthy sources for exploring the past” (xv). While we do not know exactly who was surveyed, it is evident that many people looked to museums and historical societies to learn.
By that decade, museums were telling the stories of many more groups of people, allowing visitors to see exhibits relating to them and teaching many people about histories that they had not learned in school. For example, in the mid-1980s, the Smithsonian Institution had a traveling exhibition on Women at Work in Industrial America. As it traveled around the country, local museums and historical agencies added local components. While a senior in college, I contributed to the research for the local component and accompanying written work, Women’s Work: The Worcester Experience, which highlighted the history of women in Worcester, Massachusetts. During the early 1990s, I viewed a fascinating history exhibition, “Mining the Museum,” which utilized the Maryland Historical Society’s collection to focus on the experience of African-Americans. I recall the large crowds at the museum that day and the intriguing insights that the exhibition provided me with. As Donald Garfield notes in “Making the Museum Mine: An Interview with Fred Wilson, ” Wilson, an artist, selected a title which could be interpreted in several ways, including searching the museum for relevant artifacts, creating a provocative exhibition, and presenting an exhibition that many people could relate to and identify with.
Within her prologue, Meringolo discusses NCPH’s definition of history as “a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history” (xxiv). She notes of the collaborators: “Public historians share authority not only with their audiences and employers but also with colleagues from a variety of disciplines.” (xxiv). She speaks of the process of collaboration, the mutidisciplinary nature of public history work, and about questions relating to how public history should be done. Later, in her conclusion, she notes, “”Public historians can produce original interpretations that connect scholarship and everyday life by respecting the ways in which their partners and audiences use history and by balancing professional authority against community needs” (168). The Worcester and “Mining the Museum” exhibits are just two of many examples of this aim in action. As John Dichtl and Robert B. Townsend,’s 2008 essay “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the Survey of Public History Professionals” explains, many public historians are working in museums as well as academia, and the demographics are changing somewhat. For example, as more women are involved in public history, perhaps there will continue to be a greater focus on the interests of women in the viewing public.
Today’s public historians have the opportunity to fulfill the goals of both Griele and Meringolo. Audiences have a wide variety of opportunities to engage the public with many different types of historical sources.
For example, C-Span’s Book TV tour of cities presents the public with glimpses of objects and landscapes, broadening knowledge of both the history and geography of the United States.
Technological advances such as the Internet and social media present additional opportunities for the public to interact with and contribute to history.
Digital genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com have allowed people to learn about their ancestors and to share information they have gathered with others. The availability of primary sources through museum sites and avenues such as the Digital Public Library of America, American Memory and Chronicling America at the Library of Congress, and Making of America Cornell and Michigan, provides audiences from schoolchildren to adults the opportunity to learn about history. Now, many visitors to museums and historic sites have the option to utilize their cell phones to learn more about exhibits and landscapes.
The collaborative spirit is alive and well in the public history world. While people have been volunteering as docents at historic sites for many years, they now have the opportunity to contribute to knowledge by sharing their experiences through oral histories and by contributing to projects such as Trove and The Papers of the War Department.
Public history is history prepared for many different audiences and often created by a large group of professional and non-professional collaborators . It includes museums, historic sites, libraries and archives, television and radio programs, local histories, oral histories, landscape and mobile histories, social media interactions with historical sites and objects, and digital collections related to groups of people and their histories.
While public history often has a strong narrative component, the best public history projects provide tools for the users to utilize the collections as they wish to, combining them to answer questions and to create stories that are relevant to them. As the create public history projects, public historians should be collaborative, creative, flexible, and open-minded.
Public historians should strive to create both on-site and online exhibitions which engage their audiences and encourage critical thinking about the material people are learning about. In addition, wherever possible, they should invite the public to be active participants in public history projects, sharing their stories through oral histories and public events, working as volunteers at museums, libraries, and archives, and contributing to digital history projects.
Donald Garfield, “Making the Museum Mine: An Interview with Fred Wilson.” https://msu.edu/course/ha/452/wilsoninterview.htm
Ronald J. Grele. “Whose Public: Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1981), 40-48).
Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2012). (Prologue and Conclusion)
John Dichtl and Robert B. Townsend, “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the Survey of Public History Professionals,” Perspectives on History, September 2009.