What is Public History?
Most people figure out what a public historian does by the title. Some think (and correctly so, in a strange kind of way) that a public historian studies the public. I think of it more as, we serve the public.
Everyone from a tweed-clad professor to a city taxi driver has asked, “What IS public history?” I stumble because each answer has to fit the enquirer.
So I tell them:
To the tweed-clad professor: Public history is the application of history beyond the academy. It’s not all about the publication, but my public history work often results in one. Public history is research-driven and project based. It is collaborative, interdisciplinary, and inclusive.
You don’t have to be a professional historian to do public history—you could be a museum curator, an educator at a cultural heritage site, or a volunteer dressed in colonial garb telling visitors about “life back then.”
Historians need to make themselves and we need to make this creative, dynamic discipline relevant to the people we study. Public history does that.
To the taxi driver: Public History is the teaching “regular” people about the past. It could be an exhibition on street maps of New York over the past 300 years, or a forum on the cultural significance of tenement houses as part of a neighborhood awareness program. Public history is working with community leaders, government agencies and, of course, the public to educate and engage in conversations about how what happened “then” informs what is happening “now.”
Perhaps the coolest thing about public history is that anyone can participate. Go to the museum and read the labels. Document your family’s immigration history. Dress up in colonial garb, if that’s your thing. The market isn’t cornered on public history. There is enough to go around.