Tona Hangen

Exhibit A: Public History

Last week was the time to level with my methods course students. No, you won’t all get academic or teaching jobs, even if you wanted them. And let’s be honest: history learning happens in many settings that aren’t classrooms. Let’s not pretend that history classes are the best place for history learning. They’re certainly not where most people learn their history.

With those bold admissions out of the way, we could tackle several more interesting questions: where do people learn history? And how can historians position themselves to be part of that learning? Where might professional historians encounter their various publics?

The whiteboard filled quickly.

Websites – Wikipedia – Museums – Libraries – Historical Societies – National Parks – Archives – Art Galleries – Cemeteries – Churches – Historic Districts – Historic Sites – Walking Tours – Plaques – Public Monuments – Nonprofits – For Profits – Television – Especially that So-Called History Channel – Music – Radio – Popular Magazines – Newspapers – Books – Reenactments – Calendar Events – Movies – Festivals, Fairs – Commemorations – Guidebooks – Maps – Tourist Sites – Continuing Education/ Workshops – Speeches – Attics & Basements – Auctions – Antique Stores – even (as one of my former students recently told me about) Gun Clubs – just to name a few

Each of these is a site for public history, an opportunity to bridge academic history—which is often inaccessible because of jargon, specialization, pay firewall, or [fill in generic dire prediction for humanities here]—with the public thirst for things connected to their past. I was completely up front that not all academic historians are capable of, or interested in, this kind of shuttle diplomacy, and I took pains to stress that the work of public historians, in the vast number of settings in which it happens, is critical cultural work that deserves training, resources, respect, and even celebration. I also put in a plug for #alt-ac careers, and for the unsung work of improving Wikipedia (the go-to public history source these days, like it or not).

In the second session of the week, we read that great review article from the most recent issue of American Quarterly by Michael A. Elliot, titled “Our Memorials, Ourselves,” and in class split into groups to brainstorm about museum exhibits on giant sticky-note pieces of paper. The case studies included the Enola Gay exhibit controversy of 1993-1995, the current exhibit/commemoration being mounted at Fort Sumter to mark the 150th of the start of the Civil War, and an exhibit mounted by a local for-profit museum in our area called “Castle Quest” which aimed to provide an “interactive experience” of medieval castle life. (That last one’s not necessarily controversial, but still – somewhat tricky to pull off tastefully). If we had enough people for one more group I would have had them circle back to the Jefferson-Hemings findings from earlier in the term and created ideas for an exhibit based around that. See links in the original post for readings, details, and video.

One other interesting thing we did which I should note. Our career services person recently gave me one of their standard handouts called something like “What You Can Do with a History Degree.” It listed the “transferable skills” which a history major teaches, gave links for history-related job listings, and provided a list of careers that might be suitable for people with history degrees. My students and I looked it over, edited & marked it up, added some ideas, and brainstormed a little, sending our suggestions back to career services so they can improve their resources. Hopefully the conversation expanded their thinking a bit about what it’s all good for. I also keep in my office a lending copy of the book Great Jobs for History Majors, which is nearly constantly lent out to one of my advisees (I think I need a second copy). Highly recommended (wish I’d read it as an undergraduate!)

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Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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