The Many Pasts of Public History
Robert B. Townsend, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
William S. Walker, State University of New York at Oneonta
For too many in the history discipline, the term “public history” is defined by what it is not—employment in academia. Part of the challenge for the field is the many types of work that fit under the label, and the various venues in which it takes place. As a result, questions of definition can become entangled in particular aspects of a workplace or the relationship between the historian and a specific audience.
Drawing on three recent studies of early work in settings now recognized as public history, the participants in this session will explore some of the different workplaces in which the field grew up and found a home. Denise Meringolo looks to the National Park Service and emphasizes the opening to the public and new methods. William Walker explores the ways history intersected with anthropology, folklore, and archeology in exhibitions and public programs at the Smithsonian. And Robert Townsend considers groups defined out of the American Historical Association in the 1930s (archives and historical societies) and the effects of professionalization.
With these presentations as a starting point, we hope to engage the audience in a more thoroughgoing conversation about the many pasts of public history, and how they shape our understanding of the field today.