The question that people most-frequently ask a student who is working towards an MA in Public History seems to be “So what exactly is ‘Public History?’” After two full weeks of class, a little reading, and some discussion with other students in this program, the picture of what Public History is has begun to come together.
Phyllis Leffer and Joseph Brent have argued in “History and Its Audiences” that historians’ responsibility grew in the late-twentieth century to not just researching and writing about moments in history but also presenting this information to the public in a manner that makes the research significant. Rebecca Conrad and Noel Stowe have both proposed that public historians must be intentional in the way that they present historical information to the public. Public historians must continuously be reflecting about what they are presenting, why they are presenting this particular body of information, and how they are presenting it.
Public History is valuable as a distinct field of historical study because it focuses on the theory and practice of communicating ideas and evidence about the past to an audience and doing so in a compelling manner. Public History conveys the research of historians, which has been financed through tuitions, donations, and public funding, to the general public. Good Public History should create a bridge between the public and academics, whereby both groups can benefit from and enjoy the results of scholarly efforts. As such, Public History teaches revealing the inquiry process to individuals, and it challenges people to think about the information in front of them and to create their own interpretation of past events.
As I discussed in my previous post, there is a value in sharing History with others. The prospect of being trained as a public historian is exciting because conveying information about history to others is what this program is all about. This program teaches historians how to be accountable to their audience. There is an element of continuing to learn how to ask questions and conduct research in order to construct an argument; however, arguments are formed outside of the academic journal. There seems to be a focus on relating to an audience and finding opportunities to present historical material to this group. In presenting historical information, public history students are expected to begin to consider the impact of the information being offered and the reasons they have for creating a certain exhibit or program. This program teaches students to re-consider with each new situation how to best present historical information.
As a Public History student, it seems that I have a pretty big job as well. This is a solid opportunity for me to hone my team-working skills in a professional environment. If I choose to pursue further endeavours in Public History, I will be working with numerous groups; therefore, this program gives me the opportunity to be an intentional group member. It also seems important to expose myself to as many forms of public history as possible while I am a student in order to increase the number of ideas I have to draw on as a professional. Being a conscientious practitioner of Public History by interrogating the process and product of my efforts is probably the final element that I need to intentionally work towards. This means making myself aware of ethical and awareness issues related to the work that I do.
In writing this post, I was hoping to lay down some fundamental ideas regarding Public History that I could refer to throughout the year. I do not believe that I have succeeded in doing so today, but I think that this post does reflect my growing, if imperfect, knowledge of Public History. I will therefore leave the matter at that for now and hope for further illumination.