The Public Historian, Challenges, Insights and Opportunities

This is a short (500 word) writing assignment about Public History.

The Public Historian, Challenges, Insights and Opportunities

By Tom White

Public historians today face many opportunities and unique challenges. Public historians are defined much differently than the professional historian of academia. Public historians are instead comprised by a myriad of professional identities which can be found in museums, within the National Park Service, National Archives, at historic sites, corporations, and historical societies. One of the best ways for defining a public historian can be found by examining their audience. The audience of the public historian is made up by the general public which stands in marked contrast to the professional historian of academia, whose audience is comprised entirely of students and other academic colleagues. Ultimately in practice the public historian strives to share with the public an understanding of “historical knowledge of the past”[1], so that members of society “can have an impact on their environments”[2]. The public historian shares their knowledge of the past by presenting historical material that utilizes non-traditional primary sources in a distinctive manner which best benefits the general viewing public.

Becoming a public historian before the advent of formal university public history programs often took a “traditional academic B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. history [path]”[3]and then went “’public’ through on-the-job training as site interpreters at National Parks, as processing archivists at state archives or historic societies, [or] as curators or registrars at local museums…”[4] Today formal university graduate programs which began in the 1950’s, and became well established “by the 1970’s [have become] the preferred basis for becoming a professional in museum, archival, and other cultural agency institutions”[5]. In fact graduate programs in museum studies “are increasingly the preferred entry to the museum profession”[6]as are other graduate programs geared toward preparing future public historians.

The public historian faces many challenges, one of which has been has been the mixed acceptance of public historians within the historical profession. Many within the historical profession would argue that the scholarship of public historians “was less rigorous, their audiences less discerning and their work environment less protected from the intrusion of other agendas”[7]. Organizations such as the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History have sought ways to overcome these differences between the academic and the non-academic historian believing that the general public would be much better served if such differences could be resolved.

 Still a far greater challenge faced by public historians is the impact that emerging electronic media and the internet will have for research as well as reaching “new audiences.”[8] Public historians find themselves faced by this unique challenge, and how the public historian community responds to the unique challenge will have “far reaching consequences”[9] on their future.

Public historians face many unique challenges, but the potential opportunities make this a rewarding profession. 

Bibliography

 

Mooney-Melvin, Patricia. “Professional Historians and the Challenge of Redefinition,” from Public History: Essays for the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia Malabar: Krieger Publishing Company, 2006

Schulz, Constance B. “Becoming a Public Historian,” from Public History: Essays for the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia Malabar: Krieger Publishing Company, 2006


[1] Patricia Mooney-Melvin, “Professional Historians and the Challenge of Redefinition,” from Public History: Essays for the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia (Krieger, 2006), 17

[2] Ibid

[3] Constance B. Schulz, “Becoming a Public Historian,” from Public History: Essays for the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia (Krieger, 2006),  24

[4] Ibid

[5] Schulz, “Becoming a Public Historian,” (Krieger, 2006), 29

[6] Ibid, 26

[7] Mooney-Melvin, “Professional Historians and the Challenge of Redefinition” ,(Krieger, 2006), 10

[8] Schulz, “Becoming a Public Historian,” (Krieger, 2006), 38

[9] Ibid

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