by Prof. John Kneebone
I always began my Public History classes with the hard question, What IS Public History?
It is tempting to join the National Council for Public History’s website in throwing up my hands and quoting the Justice of the US Supreme Court who defined obscenity by saying, “I know it when I see it!”
One problem is that we don’t always “see” public history/public historians at work. A pedestrian in a historic district would likely not know of the consultant’s report that justified the district’s status. Nor would the researcher using a finding aid need to know of a processing archivist’s hard work to find the shape of a disorganized collection of documents. And, readers of an informative label at a museum exhibition would hear no echoes of the editorial debates among curators/historians that settled on that particular text.
One common move toward answering that big question is to declare that Public History is History practiced outside the classroom. That claim slights teachers’ ability to engage the public, in the classroom and outside it, and it throws shade on the many historical educators—public historians all—at museums, historic sites, etc.
To be sure, public historians’ practices do differ in some important ways from those of academic historians. They are more likely in their work to collaborate with others—both with fellow historians and with a variety of specialists, such as architects, urban planners, curators, designers, archivists, etc. They are more likely to engage with a wider, diverse public, and in engagement that is interactive and responsive (practice often summed up by the term “shared authority”). For that reason, internships and other means to gain experience with those practices are part of the Public History curriculum.
Even so, rather than trying to separate the work of public historians from that of other historians, it seems to me better to follow the observation of novelist Thomas Mallon, regarding historical fiction, that “nouns trump adjectives.”
For me, that means that all historians—public and otherwise—must meet the same high standards for scholarship. We should expect that an exhibition on, say, the Underground Railroad would be accurate, founded on documentary evidence, and aware of relevant scholarship, as well as visually appealing and intellectually engaging.
For all these reasons, then, academic preparation as a historian is as fundamental for Public History as for any other sort of History practice.
There is another reason for academic preparation. Public History practice tends to focus on local history, albeit the application of large themes to small places, and at work one tends over time to become a local expert. All is well and proper until one’s partner gets a great job in another state. Your academic preparation and skills and abilities as a historian, not your local expertise, will enable you to find new opportunities there.
One last thing: doing Public History is fun and fulfilling. But, don’t tell anyone else!
-John Kneebone teaches public history and the history of the American South