Audience and Public History

In her book Museums, Monuments and National Parks: Towards a New Genealogy of Public History (2023). Denise Meringolo documents the evolution of public history during the 1920s and 1930s in the form of the National Park Service history program. This story  illustrates the divisions between academic a public historians and the long struggle of the latter to legitimize their work. According to Meringolo:

Public historians are not to blame for persistent disciplinary divisions. They may, however, be able to build important bridges in the larger historical landscape. In the same way that nineteenth-century scientists worked to temper the anxiety generated by social change, so too can twenty-first century public historians ease fears regarding the future of the nation.1

One could even argue that, given the increasingly fragmented and complex information landscape, the work of twenty-first century public historians is central to the evolution and survival of the historical discipline at large. Now, more than ever, it is important for historians to work towards educating the public not solely by disseminating the knowledge and interpretations they produce, but by providing the resources, spaces, and opportunities for the public to become better historical thinkers. 

The work of Sam Wineburg on history education2 has demonstrated that the most valuable contribution that historians make through their work is to promote historical thinking. However, academic publications, the main products of historical scholarship are great examples of historical thinking, but are not, by themselves, the best tools to teach others how to think historically. Moreover, communities and members of the public have little opportunities to participate in historical research and hone their historical thinking skills. It is here that the work of public historians becomes most valuable, by expanding access and opportunities for communities and individuals to contribute, evaluate and interpret sources, develop meaningful narratives, and debate their ideas with other community members and professional historians.

Thus, public historians are not just translators who seek to communicate the work of academic historians to the public. Instead, they seek to work WITH the public facilitating greater access to communities and individuals seeking to take part in the production and interpretation of history. The work of the public historians is guided by the dual goals of “shared inquiry” and “shared authority.” 3

But it is precisely in pursuit of these goals that public historians often find themselves alienated from their academic peers. Developing mechanisms for shared inquiry and shared authority highlights some of the questions that public historians of the 1920s and 1930s faced in relationship to their academic historians. Questions such as how should we balance the needs and wants of communities with the obligations of historians to be objective and rigorous? Who determines what are relevant questions and/or acceptable answers? Where do we draw the line between advocacy and scholarship? How should the interests of non-professional stake holders, be it the government or members of the public, influence the “scientific” or “objective” study of the historical past?

Creators of public history projects such as those described in “Creating the Dialogic Museum” by John Kuo Wei Tchen; or in “Sharing Public History’s Authority within Communities.” by Serge Noire4 show that there is no single or simple answer to these questions. But they also illustrate that how the tensions embedded in the relationship between public historians and their audiences are fertile grounds for the cultivation of historical thinking. The creators of the China Town History Museum and the September 11 Digital Archive saw their projects not as works of finished scholarship but as spaces where historians the the public could meet to define the questions, sources and parameters for scholarship. Some conversations proved more successful than others, but what mattered most was not to agree on a single meaning for the historical past, but to develop the space and the language by which people could, on the one hand, build a meaning about the past for themselves, but also learn to respect the meanings built by others.

By engaging with audiences, public historians create the spaces where historical thinking can happen even if it does not always succeed. What is most important, however, is to be presented with the opportunity to participate, to converse, and to ask oneself what this past means to me and what it mean to others who are not like me. If Historical thinking and History are the means by which we learn to walk in the shoes of peoples different to us, it is through the work of public historians that we open that opportunity to the public.

  1. Meringolo, Denise. Museums, Monuments and National Parks: Towards a New Genealogy of Public History (2023) ↩︎
  2. Wineburg, Sam. “Thinking like a Historian: Historical Thinking: Memorizing Facts and Stuff? in Teaching with Primary Sources Quaterly (3), (1), (2010). ↩︎
  3. Corbett, K.T. and Miller, H., “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” in The Public Historian, (8), (1), (2006): 15-38. ↩︎
  4. Tchen, John Kuo Wei, “Creating the Dialogic Museum. The Chinatown History Museum Experiment” in Museums and Communities: The Politics of Culture (Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992): 285-326. and Noiret, Serge. “Sharing Authority in Online Collaborative Public History Practices” in Handbook of Digital Public History, edited by Serge Noiret, Mark Tebeau and Gerben Zaagsma, (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2022): 49-60.  ↩︎

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