The professionalization of the public historian and audience-content creation: A Tale of Two Fronts
Scholars in the realms of public history agree on the complexities and debates involved in defining the concept public history. The lack of consensus as to what is and who does public history has proven to have direct impact over audience-content creation. Is it a movement, a field of study, or a practice? Some aspects of this definitional ambiguity seem to continue to this day, as confirmed by findings coming from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals (Dietchl & Townsend). But based on the literature, it has taken decades of contention and debate to come to terms with the complexities of public history and to redefine the concepts of “public”/audience and “history”/content in more collective and insightful ways.
It is known that relationships between public and content within this context have been largely shaped by factors like: the politics of the time, the actors producing the narrative, the marketplace, and historical events. Audience-content dynamics can be both defining and defined by environment where the “public act” (Grele, 2020) of representing and interpreting history takes place. The existential question of what is public history has been posed by multiple camps, but there are two main realms of thought that have assert themselves: the academic and the non-academic.
We are talking about two forking paths of public history professionalization and audience-content creation. Both of which have traced their beginnings to different points in “time” (one camp argues that public history began in late-19th century, the other one points to 1970s), witnessed their own movements, and have endured a coexistence mixed with antagonisms and alliances. Two paths that nevertheless, have yielded distinct audiences and forms of historical scholarship.
Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries: Audience
Grele dates this bifurcation back to late 19th-early 20th centuries, a period when the professional historian went from addressing a broader audience (i.e. grant agencies and literate middle class), to academics, in particular, historians and students. (Grele 42) In her prologue to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, Meringolo (2012) credits the early stages of this novel specialty field as one cultivated by Verne Chatelain and his “new kind of technicians” in the 30s, during their tenure in the National Parks Service. It was after this period that debates flourished over which realm will be responsible for creating the content and the new audiences it will generate (in this order). Will it be the “purist” public figure coming from the local sector, or the academically-train scholar, who is about to enter into the public sector?
According to Weible’s viewpoint (2008), this drastic shift took place “when the AHA evolved into a more strictly scholarly association, leaving the business of communicating with the public to museums and historic sites, community organizations, history buffs, and of course the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), which split from the AHA in 1940.” (1) The niche audience being produced by academia contrasts with that of the more “purist” public historian, one who now seeks a larger and more eclectic “ranging from the most reactionary local social elites, to grade-school children, to genealogists, to historical buffs, to preservationists.” (Grele 43) It is perhaps the tension between these two camps what unavoidably helped shaped and impact each other.
Audience & Content in the 1970s
It was not until the 1970s that academia redefined public history as a field of study. One interesting perspective as to how this field generated new publics came from the Journal of Archival Organization. Their Editorial Board attributed this success to efforts made by academics (first in Britain, then in the U.S.) to establish community-based relationships, stating: “It is also owed much to the rise of New Left scholars in the United States, who sought to link their work with working-class audiences, racial and ethnic minorities, and the social protesters who were challenging social and academic forms. Public historians at the time enthusiastically embraced new fields including popular culture studies, local and community history, visual literacy, and critical media analysis.” (95)
Meringolo claims that the historian from the public sector played an essential negotiating role when defining public history audience-content narrative. This became evident as academia needed to secure funding for public history programs and improve the marketability of their graduates during the economic recession, as Meringolo states: “Public historians have been in the forefront of a movement to reform university promotion and tenure guidelines.” (xv)
By the same token, the political assertion made by academic public historians had an impact in the way of appraising, curating, preserving, and interpreting historical materials in the public sector. This becomes even more complex as various tracks for professionalizing the public historian emerged. We can just look at the various and distinct degrees one can pursue, the types of journals to publish in, and the many conferences to attend and share/create new knowledge; one can see the inevitable creation of diverse publics. The unique nature of disciplines (and sub-disciplines), such as, archives, history, library science, among others, begged for different approaches to engaging with the community. But even though fronts were in many ways redefining each other, now more than ever we can see a two-way conversation (I should say multi-way).
As public history matures as a field and a practice, we see new forms of engagement between audiences and content. According to Meringolo, the public historian profession was finally legitimized in late 20th century. This became possible with new demands made by the public (take for instance, genealogy enthusiasts) and by public historians who are finally embracing their profession and taking new approaches to connect with communities.
Dichtl and Townsend (2008) did highlight on their preliminary survey report this shift in self-perception and identity as a public historian, an aspect that has taken decades to achieve, stating. “With the rise of graduate programs in public history creating MAs moving into other areas of activity, and better dissemination of the concept of public history into the wider historical profession, the employment picture has become considerably more complex.” (3)
Emerging technologies have expanded and transform the way collections will be created and accessed, in some cases, even user-generated collections. These venues offer opportunities for the general public to create and interact with materials. By the 2000s, members of the public, could join crowdsourcing projects and take a more participatory role in sharing stories and creating history, such are the September 11 Web Archive, and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, the ComunidadBNE (Spain), Trove (Australia), ARCAS (Argentina), and Transcribe Bentham, among tons of other great platforms.
Thanks to these innovative approaches and tools for collecting and visualizing data, civic engagement has taken new forms. There are even user-generated collections and projects that, not only promote collaborative practices, but also create new ways of doing scholarship and being part of the solution to local and global issues (i.e climate change, globalization, and human rights violations).
By reaching more consensus among public history stakeholders, continuing building collaborative platforms, and consistently and intentionally involving local (global) community members as agents of their own public histories, better digital collections have been created. It is now possible to find standards, best practices, frameworks, and guidelines that can help content creators start out sound projects with the appropriate publics in mind and engaged.
Dichtl, J., & Townsend, R. B. (2009). A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals. Public History News, 29(4).
Grele, R. J. (1981). Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of a Public Historian?. The Public Historian, 3(1), 40-48.
Meringolo, D. D. (2012). Museums, monuments, and national parks: toward a new genealogy of public history. Univ of Massachusetts Press.
Weible, R. (2008). Defining public history: Is it possible? Is it necessary?. American historical association.