Broadening our understanding of the roots of public history education

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Camp Woodland Photo Credit: SUNY Albany Archives

How closely is public history tied to academic history? Judging by the historiography of public history, it would seem that the answer to that is “very”; after all, the generally accepted view is that the field came into its own in the 1970s directed by formally trained academic historians. While we all know that the methodologies of, and audiences for, academic and public history differ, public history—particularly the pedagogy of public history—has nevertheless been treated as essentially a branch off the tree of scholarly history.

Yet, how can this be, when our field is inherently interdisciplinary? In fact, interdisciplinarity is one common thread that I could find running through every US graduate program in public history, both in programs that stand on their own and in those run through history departments. While some graduate programs in academic history encourage students to take courses in other departments, interdisciplinarity is not the norm of the field; historians are trained in the disciplinary specifics of history.

Public historians, however, come from a variety of backgrounds. When I entered the field through training in historic preservation after earning a PhD in history, I was (pleasantly) surprised by how few of my colleagues came from a historical background. For the first time, I was able to truly engage with ideas and approaches in anthropology, archaeology, American Studies, vernacular architecture, urban planning, and material culture, to name just a few. Perhaps, then, in addition to emphasizing the historians who moved into the public realm as the vanguard of public history, we need to pay closer attention to the figures from a variety of fields and scholarly backgrounds whose activities reflected an early form of contemporary public history practice well before the first graduate program in public history began.

My own work focuses not on the applied history programs of the early twentieth century, but rather on the significance of another applied field: public folklore. In the US, before folklore became a discipline of its own, most folklorists were trained as scholars in anthropology or literature. Although they were not really tied to history departments at all, many of them focused on the past, interpreting folklore as a key part of American history and heritage. Unlike their academic counterparts, public folklorists presented their work, including their understandings of how and why folklore provided critical insight into social history (as key public folklorist Benjamin Botkin described it), to a public audience. Public folklorists, particularly during the New Deal, disseminated their work through radio programs, craft and music festivals, and popular books. While many directed their message to a general audience, others focused on teaching children how to appreciate, collect, and conserve folk traditions—not only because they were vital aspects of their shared heritage, but also because they were important traditions that continued to serve a function in their communities.

While this education often occurred in schools, it was not tethered to the traditional classroom setting. This is where, in my view, the story gets interesting. A cohort of public folklorists in New York, several of whom were traditional educators, began teaching children the rudiments of what we now recognize as key facets of contemporary public history in summer camps. A primary example of this effort was Camp Woodland in the Catskill Mountains. Every summer, from 1938 until 1962, the staff at Camp Woodland—none of whom were trained historians—taught campers how to conduct oral interviews with local residents in order to understand local history, took campers on field trips to collect examples of tangible and intangible folk culture, and engaged the local community through public performances and a museum of work tools. Through these activities, Woodland introduced schoolchildren to local history in addition to teaching them rudimentary methods of applied folklore, material culture conservation, and oral history—all of which would become foundational for the emergence of public history pedagogy programs of the late twentieth century.

By shifting our focus from history to other fields like folklore, we can trace an alternative origin of the ideas and practices that would come to form the core of public history. We can see how the pedagogical practices of these fields shaped the development of public history training that would come to the fore in the later decades of the twentieth century. Furthermore, we can locate here the methodological roots of the field—as well as its radical roots. Many of the camps steeped in public folklore like Woodland were tied to the Communist Party during the 1930s and 1940s. Although Woodland was not directly affiliated with the party, its founders and staff members shared the same progressive social and political views that the Communist Party USA espoused throughout this period. The camp staunchly supported cultural pluralism, racial integration, and civil rights both during times when these ideas were acceptable in mainstream society and when they were not.

Even if this were all there was to the story of Woodland, it would make the history of this camp important to our historical understanding of twentieth-century political radicalism in the United States and the cultural history of the country during the early Cold War. However, there is also an important tie between the camp and the history of public history. In surveys conducted in the late 1990s, many campers, several of whom actually became public historians, responded that their experience at Woodland profoundly shaped both their political views and their careers, further tying Woodland to the genealogy of the field and to the development of its political identity.

By broadening our understanding of how the field of public history developed, as well as our appreciation for how early aspects of what now form the core of public history practice were taught both inside and outside of the classroom, we get a much richer—and much longer—view of the ideas, approaches, and politics that have undergirded the field in both its past and present forms.

~Rachel Donaldson is an assistant professor of public history in the department of history at College of Charleston, in Charleston, South Carolina. She holds a PhD in history and a masters degree in historic preservation. She has two books on the folk music revival, “I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity (2014) and Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s co-written with Ronald Cohen (2014). Currently, she is revising the Labor History theme study for the National Historic Landmark program.

  1. May have roots together, but academic history has too often become politicized and ideological in ways public history has not (thank God) and could not survive if it did.

    1. Rachel Donaldson says:

      Thanks for your comment, William. This post is about my contribution to a larger project that explores the political underpinnings of early public history (even though the political angle was not the focus of this blog post). If you are interested discussing this issue, the members of this project are having a symposium at the upcoming NCPH meeting that you might like to attend.

      1. Jon Taylor says:

        Hi Rachel:

        When will your session be held at the upcoming NCPH conference? I do not want to miss it. Thanks.

        1. Christine Crosby says:

          Hi Jon, The Radical Roots Mini-Symposium is on Friday afternoon of the conference. You can see more details on page 17 of the preliminary program at

  2. John Dichtl says:

    Really interesting, Rachel. Thank you! Broadening our understanding of how public history developed by including public folklore reminds me of Denise Meringolo’s work on public history emerging from federal government programs of the early 20th c., particularly the Park Service, which was/is a pretty interdisciplinary organization. And of course when “public history” emerged from university history departments in the late 1970s, it was an act that put a name, reinvigorated, and refined the methodologies of something that history folk (of diverse academic training) had been doing in historical societies, museums, historic sites, and in many archives and libraries for many decades.

  3. Rachel Donaldson says:

    Thanks, John! Yes, Denise Meringolo’s work definitely helped me in drawing the connections between early public folklore and the rise of public history. I think we are in an interesting moment now with exploring–and broadening our understanding of–the origins of the field. (This is what “Radical Roots: Civic Engagement, Public History, and a Tradition of Social Justice Activism” is about.) I also think Richard Rabinowitz’s new book, Curating America, provides an interesting, personal reflection on the ways in which scholar-practitioners shaped the field from the 1970s on up.

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