Public History

The start of 5 years of Civil War 150th commemorations is a really interesting time for public history, so this week’s class feels quite timely.

First, what is public history? Public history is history as practiced by people trying to make the past available to various publics. It includes national parks, historical sites, museums, archives, nonprofits, historical societies, and the like. See the National Council on Public History, or the Public History Resource Center for more discussion of the scope and goals of public historians (see also http://beyondacademe.com). The latter site offers this definition (from NYU’s grad program in public history website):

Public History is history that is seen, heard, read, and interpreted by a popular audience. Public historians expand on the methods of academic history by emphasizing non-traditional evidence and presentation formats, reframing questions, and in the process creating a distinctive historical practice… Public history is also history that belongs to the public. By emphasizing the public context of scholarship, public history trains historians to transform their research to reach audiences outside the academy.

This week we are looking at who public historians are, and how they go about making the past (often the past of a particular place like a building or a battlefield) usable to the people who use their site–or their website. How do you balance the needs, capabilities, and agendas of the different “publics” who need to know about that past? How do you create a shared sense of the past that acknowledges the complexity of what happened “here and then”?


Williams Ch 17 is our reading for Tuesday’s class on 4/19 and we’ll lay out the main concepts and considerations of public history, using Williams as a jumping-off point for our discussion.

On Thursday 4/21 we will apply these concepts to two case studies: 1) the Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in 1993-1995, and 2) the current (this past week!) debate and reframing of the start of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. What does it mean to “commemorate” something? How is that different from “celebrate” or “mark”? What is the purpose of a memorial? Who is “the public” and what does it mean for history to be “public”?

Reading: Michael A. Elliott, “Our Memorials, Ourselves,” American Quarterly March 2011, 229-240.

Links for Thursday’s class: explore at least some of these before class to get a flavor of each controversy and be prepared to talk about what the stakes were and who were the stakeholders

Enola Gay Controversy
You can also read the AHA’s formal protest against a later exhibit in 2003 – see also the writeup and links on the History News Network

Fort Sumter’s Website
150th Anniversary of the Civil War Fraught With Emotion” PBS NewsHour, April 12, 2011
Charleston’s Whites-Only Civil War Centennial,” Charleston City Newspaper, April 11, 2011
Few Blacks Attend Fort Sumter Anniversary Events,” Charlotte Observer, April 16, 2011
Fort Sumter: How the Civil War Began with a Bloodless Battle,” National Geographic News, April 12, 2011
Lone Mortar Shell in Charleston Opens 150th Anniversary of the Civil War,” USA Today, April 12, 2011

Image: 2 newly-released stamps from the US Postal Service, commemorating the battles at First Bull Run (but: that’s “Battle of First Manassas” from the Confederate side) and Fort Sumter, courtesy of the Washington Post

Update: One more link: “What’s the Point of a Museum Website?” Koven Smith, from the “Ignite Smithsonian” event, April 11, 2011