Intro to Public History Week Two: Public History In Theory

Intro to Public History
On the bookshelf:
  • Carolyn Kitch, Pennsylvania in Public Memory
  • Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past
  • Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970
  • Denise Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History

The overarching theme of the readings for this week seems to be that, despite a popular conception that Americans are indifferent to or ignorant of their history, people are in fact very interested in the past, consider it vital to present day understanding, and actively examine, shape, and interpret it for themselves. However, the past that is most often cited as important is not one that happens in a history classroom, but one that is more personal and experiential. This raises the question of how a historian ought to work in order to serve a public that feels disconnected with an academic, detached approach to the past that dominates historical scholarship.

The other takeaway is that the debate over what a historian should be is not new. The larger historiographical context for public history is elucidated in Ian Tyrrell’s Historians in Public and the prologue to Denise Meringolo’s Museums, Monuments, and National Parks. Although, as Meringolo points out, the professionalization of the discipline is relatively recent, credit for the conviction that history should be connected to wider audiences really belongs to the historians of the 1930s, and to Carl Becker in particular. Through New Deal programs, they expanded the reach of history-related programming in the United States in an unprecedented way. These readings dovetail very nicely so far with those that I have read for the historiographical methods course, particularly Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, which charts the 19th century creation of the history profession as well as the objectivist vs. relativist discourse within the historical community. Public history, with its approach of shared authority and collaboration, falls squarely into the relativist camp; just as polled participants in the national survey of Rosenzweig and Thelen’s The Presence of the Past indicated that history is most meaningful to them when it is personal, Carl Becker’s 1931 “Everyman His Own Historian” speech emphasizes that anyone has the ability to ‘do’ history, and that part of a historian’s job is to facilitate that process. Public history is public service.

Kitch’s Pennsylvania in Public Memory continues the line of inquiry by examining what history looks like when it is done in public and by the public. In the context of the other readings, it is unsurprising that she finds “heritage culture” (the way that the past is remembered and interpreted, often on a local basis, for a public audience) often serves the needs of memorialization, elegy, and the interpretation of the past in a way that informs or answers wishes of the present. As Rosenzweig and Thelen found, the past is “central to any effort to live in the present” (9).

Although I was surprised by the larger historiographical context for public history provided in the readings, Kitch’s findings resonated with me the most. I’m not from Pennsylvania, but I did grow up in the Rust Belt, in an area that has struggled with how to deal with the everpresent loss of its industry. This summer, I went back to my hometown in Ohio for the first time in 5 years, just in time for the annual heritage celebration, the “Grindstone Festival.” Berea, Ohio was home to a huge sandstone quarry, an industry that employed many and literally helped to construct the town. By the 1930s, the grindstone industry was winding down and quarries were allowed to fill with water and renamed “Coe Lake,” “Baldwin Lake,” etc. Reading Kitch’s text, I began to think about the way that this past is memorialized locally: grindstones are everywhere, and even a local elementary school (built on the site of my former elementary school in 2011) is called “Grindstone Elementary.” Despite this outward display of hometown pride and identity, the underlying story is one of loss. The grindstone industry is long gone, and population is steadily declining- in fact, the new elementary school was built to house the combined students from four others that were closed due to low enrollment. Interestingly, Berea is also home to a college that recently began to offer a public history undergraduate degree. When I visit again (probably in another 5 years), I hope to see the program’s impact on memorialization of local identity.

grindstoneberea City of Berea welcome sign, credit to Evan Gambill