The opening reading of my “Digital Public History” course cut right to core methodological and theoretical concerns in Ronald Grele’s 1981 “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?”1. As I read his article, followed by excerpts from Denise Meringolo’s 2012 Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History2 I was struck by how familiar the debates between vetted university historians’ and government works’ claims to legitimacy felt to those I’ve experience in archaeology. The concerns were also remarkably similar in regards to the questions, “Whose Public? Whose History?” I was quickly reminded that the stark separation of archaeology and history is unique to America, and that I what I think of as Public Archaeology is essentially Public History.
I first want to consider the question “Whose History?”. Both authors outline the struggle between academic historians, federal employees and amateurs. Grele feels the field of public history challenges the assumption that history is owned by experts who write it, “[Public History] promises us a society in which a broad public participates in the construction of its own history.”3 Meringolo charted several answers to this question throughout the formative years of Public History. In the late nineteenth century, the first local historians emerge claiming ownership from the traditional keepers in academia4. The Park Service, under the New Deal, granted government claim to the keepers of history as federal historians guided the public through the history contained in the parks. After World War Two and the growth of suburbia, the public history of the Park Service came to cater to the history of white middle-class visitors5. In her concluding remarks that public historians, “come from a long line of public servants,” she suggests that everyone owns history and the job of the historian is to assist in the construction of that past6.
I was confronted this question in my very first “Introduction to Archaeology” course seven years ago, but phrases as “Who owns the past?”. The issue was even stronger in my “North American Archaeology” course. I think the idea of owning the past is more tangible in archaeology because there are physical objects at stake that individuals, communities, and institutions have custody. The laws governing material cultural ownership are so voluminous that several institutions offer Master’s degrees in Cultural Resource Management Law, and those only take domestic law into account. As I progressed through school there seemed to be the idea that everyone owns the past, just some more than others. Having finished my graduate studies, entered into the private sector, and finished these introductory readings, I currently think that the past is owned by whoever cares to own it. Although I believe as a professional involved in history interpreting that everyone has an ideological stake in the past, I’ve come to understand that, practically, only people who really seek history have defendable rights to it. Perhaps one of the jobs of the public historian is to convince parties that should be interested that history is theirs.
The question, “Whose Public?” is a novel one to me. I have honestly never thought of anyone possessing a public, and the question made more sense to me when I replaced “public” with “audience.” If am the expert, then potentially other historians who do not know the material as well as I do are my public. I sense an understanding that “public” really means “people do not have expertise.” I rather like this idea of public, because it includes the often intellectually marginalized amateurs7. I think of my public as anyone how might be interested in my work.
Grele identifies the historian’s three main publics: the “literary middle class” (traditionally termed “the public”), undergraduate students and other historians8. In Maringolo’s historic narrative, the public is largely National Park visitors. Reading through their concepts of “public” I realized that anytime I consider the term I unconsciously assume Americans, even though I study North African archaeology. The realization that I feel more comfortable inserting myself into a Tunisian town for five weeks- then writing about the artifacts in English, in venues that the French speaking Tunisian academics, let alone the boys who carried buckets along side me, would find difficult to access- than identifying ceramics of my home country, was a humbling and rather embarrassing thought. It certainly motivates me to practice my French.
Finally, the million dollar question, “What is the goal of Public History?” Maringolo has quite the grandiose vision for the future, “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.”9 Grele’s answer is less poetic, but takes on a similar optimistic tone, “Thus the task of the public historian, broadly defined, should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events.”10 I very much like Grele’s response and wish I had thought of it. Seeing as only 16.6% of historians work in university settings (according to a 2008 survey by Public History Professionals), historians are in a good position accomplish this task. I think public history is achievable only when the practitioners are actively engaged with the public and not isolated among their peers (whether they be fellow academics or federal employees).
1.The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 40-48.
2. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
3. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981):48.
4. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012: xiv.
5. ibid. 164.
6. I learned more about Native American material culture and how to identify it from the two amateur archaeologists assisting the dig than I did from the graduate student supervising us. Who else teaches budding archaeologist what a “leverite” is? (leave ‘er right there- it’s just a rock.)
7. ibid. 168.
8. Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981):42.
9. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012: 168.
10. Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981):47-48.