Introducing History Communicators

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tent with communicate sign

Photo credit: Simon Huggins

Just as science has Science Communicators, I’ve proposed that history needs History Communicators. The idea of History Communicators, and how public historians may fill these roles, will be discussed in a panel at the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Nashville.

History Communicators, like Science Communicators, will advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Public historians are well-positioned for this role, as we do much of this work already. Academic historians within the American Historical Association are also looking in this direction, and the recent AHA conference in Washington, DC, featured several panels on historians as public intellectuals, including Yoni Applebaum, Peniel Joseph, Eric Foner, and Michael Kazin. These historians frame issues of politics, race, power, and civil rights in a historical context. But while they may sometimes speak out against history that is oversimplified or dishonest (Foner, for example, was critical of the way that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln), they generally do not devote time to communicating the value of public history institutions to the public at large. They are also not in the business of conveying basic historical concepts to mass audiences. This is where History Communicators can make enormous contributions.

Many public historians do currently engage in public outreach of various kinds, of course. But the goal of such outreach is often narrowly-focused on increasing visitorship or engagement rather than aiming for larger, society-wide goals. History Communicators will focus their work on behalf of the field as a whole rather than just for specific institutions.

There is clearly much scope for action here. For example: at AHA, a colleague mentioned to me that she recently overheard congressional staffers in Washington ask one another, “What’s an archive?” She was appalled that the staffers helping to write the legislation of our country do not know what a modern-day archive is, what it entails, and what value it has to historians, policymakers, and the general public. She presumed they had never visited an archive, either. I would hazard a guess she’s correct and that this is also true of the great majority of Americans.

In our hearts, public historians feel passionately that part of our job is to ensure Americans do know what a modern-day archive is and how it serves its function–as well as what museums, historic homes, government history offices, and historical research have in service to history and the public. But what public history is, and that public history (and history more generally) is a space of interpretation, nuance, and continual reassessment based on new information, remains opaque to most Americans. Among the public, there remains a perception that public historians only safeguard antiquarian objects and perpetuate accepted narratives. Joyce Appleby’s observation in 1997 that historians who choose interpretation over perpetuation of traditionally held beliefs are chided by political and popular forces still rings true today. Part of History Communicators’ charge will be to evangelize and popularize our message. It is a natural extension of the work we already do.

people at whiteboard

Participants in a 2012 symposium at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are part of a growing movement in science communication. Photo credit: Virginia Sea Grant

The science community has cultivated a generation of such people–Carl Sagan, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Brian Cox, David Grinspoon, Bill Nye, and Alice Robert. Science also has invested resources to train a new generation of communicators. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is one example of such an investment, and scientists have teamed up with communications departments at universities to produce media training and communications protocols for scientists who wish to engage in public debates.

Public history should do the same. We have sharpened our methods over the years, but they can be sharpened further. We must strengthen media and communications training for public historians to enhance the receptiveness of our message. As NCPH President Bob Weyeneth said in his 2014 Presidential address, which sparked a discussion of these topics here on [email protected], we need to “let the public in on the trade secrets” that historians share and take for granted. We must develop household names and engaging personalities who communicate about public history in popular culture and who have credibility in communities beyond our own. We must develop a cohort whose specialty is not to communicate within public history, but on it, mastering all media available to us, television, YouTube, Vine, Podcasts, radio, music, print, social, and Web. This is part of the vision for History Communicators.

So are History Communicators actually History Mediators, as Jim Grossman and I wrote in November? Are they History Advocates? History Popularizers? History Evangelists? The answer is all of the above, in my vision. And if many questions feel unresolved in this short blog post, it is because they are. Is History Communicators simply an attempt to put a new, more intentional spin on the kind of work that public historians already do? Is it merely an advocacy campaign–and how does is it differ from advocacy work done by NCPH, AHA, the Society of American Archivists, and others? What actual positions can public historians hold in order to function as History Communicators? Shouldn’t academic historians be History Communicators, too?

These are among the questions we’ll debate in April. This post merely serves to open the conversation and to get us thinking about the possibilities. I hope the conversation expands in many directions and takes what is at present a germinating idea and turns it into a fully viable concept. I invite you to comment below with your initial reaction and to join us in Nashville to discuss further.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

~ Jason Steinhauer is a public historian in Washington, DC. He works and blogs at the Library of Congress, and he sometimes uses Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer.

12 comments
  1. What a splendid article, though it’s more than that. What a relief to finally put a name to what I do: History Communicator. Until now I’ve been feeling like an outsider…someone whose work doesn’t fit anywhere. And to realize that a community of like-minded souls is in the process of taking shape is breathtaking. I’ll be sitting in the front row of all conversations at the annual meeting in Nashville –in spirit anyway. And to all those persistent individuals attempting to bring the woman’s suffrage movement (1848-1920) to the attention of the public, like me, don’t give up. Let’s get together!

  2. Tim Grove says:

    Great article, Jason. I agree. I’d add that a dose of infectious passion should also be part of the equation and would help reach people that may have a negative view of history.

  3. Marla Miller says:

    Terrific article. Helps me think about what we are doing with our Writing Beyond the Academy track in our public history program at UMass Amherst — we have an annual “Writer in Residence” (guests have included Jill Lepore, Tony Horwitz, Robin D.G. Kelley) and a foundation course that helps students think about writing beyond traditional formats. Looking forward to the conversation in Nashville and how that will help us think more creatively about the course and the program. Folks interested in this might also check out the new posts re: social media and pedagogy on the HASTAC site.

  4. This is a great article and a great idea! We need to bring history to the public in relevant and engaging ways so they are interested and re-engage with history. Relevant is the key word here, we need to make history relevant to the public today so they see the value of participating in historical discourse, we need to show them how it impacts their daily lives. We’re working to do this at The Extreme History Project, check out our website at http://www.extremehistoryproject.org. I like the term, History Communicators, we facilitate and translate history, bringing it down from the ivory tower to the public in a meaningful way.

  5. Sarah Wassberg says:

    Yes, yes, a million times yes! One of the biggest challenges history faces in the US is a lack of interest and education (and I don’t mean grade school memorization) among the general population.

    We must fight against the “popularization” of American history through venues such as the “History” Channel, while still fighting to make history truly popular and populist.

    I think the main problem with this particular issue is that most respected and well-known historians are staunch academics, not public historians. We need people who can communicate academic-quality, accurate history to the general public in a way that is exciting and engaging.

    While having name recognition for individuals is important, I think museums can also play a role in helping to communicate the importance and excitement of history.

    1. Heidi Vaughn says:

      That is what museums do every day. 🙂

  6. Fred MacVaugh says:

    Agree wholeheartedly. As a National Park Service curator (public historian) with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, I can’t emphasize enough the vital importance for historians to bring more of the storyteller’s art into communicating history. Aaron Sachs’ _Arcadian America_ (Yale, 2013) is but one example that illustrates how scholarly/academic history can be enlivened and personalized with creative writing to engage audiences that otherwise dismiss the past as irrelevant. In more instances than not, in fact, individuals who often seem disinterested in history simply haven’t experienced knowledge of the past communicated in ways–e.g., through stories–that helped them “see” and feel (i.e., believe) it is personally relevant.

  7. Thank you, all. I love to hear these comments. It’s gratifying that we can now articulate something that was on so many people’s minds but that we had no common language for. With the language for this important aspect of the public history conversation now in hand, I’m looking forward to us putting History Communicators into action together.

  8. Peter Hinks says:

    As usual, Jason, your post is brilliant. Yes–History Communicators are needed; but–to repeat your emphasis, I would say that especially “Public History Communicators” are needed. We need to forward informed individuals from the community who can elucidate at large “what public history is, and that public history (and history more generally) is a space of interpretation, nuance, and continual reassessment based on new information.” By no means should we leave it to professional/academic historians alone. They do not necessarily know how to realize/fabricate the lively, informative, accessible, compact, and authentic that are the core components of the best public history. Good public historians are trained to integrate these attributes into their exhibitions of whatever sort. One way perhaps to elevate the prominence of Jason’s History Communicators is to project them into current popular discussions on historical movies such as Selma. Such informed historical commentary should not be left to academic historians exclusively. So much of what makes movies (and theater) effective as popular media for history–staging, blocking, lighting, sound, placement of objects/images/cases, etc–is also key to creating good public history. The best of public historians–along with being good historians–also know the sophisticated (and highly collaborative) craft of delivering that history to the public dramatically and visually. One could see critics and writers going to Jason’s Communicators rather than historians alone for insight into whether a historical movie works or not. Jason’s Communicators would “work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio.” Vital to how Selma, Amistad, 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln or whatever film succeeds as a popular vehicle for the dissemination of historical knowledge is its capacity to array the above “artistic”/craft components as much as it is the accuracy of its historical content. I would argue that the best of public historians are often better equipped to make these comprehensive evaluations than certainly are most academic historians. In forwarding the significance of “Public History Communicators,” we should allow the public to see “the trade secrets” that distinguish public historians from historians–and just how important they can be to enhancing public discussion of historical matters. We also have to recognize that movies and videos are much more a part of the realm of public history than we have tended to acknowledge. After all, think of how many of us have labored with film producers over videos over various length that were integral parts of exhibitions of various sorts we have helped mount. I could not agree more with Jason’s proclamation that we “must develop develop household names and engaging personalities who communicate about public history in popular culture and who have credibility in communities beyond our own. We must develop a cohort whose specialty is not to communicate within public history, but on it, mastering all media available to us, television, YouTube…” Thanks to Jason for raising such a timely issue.

  9. Hi Jason,

    This was more than article for me, but a call to action. There are many possibilities with the creation of History Communicators. I think one way of galvanizing such efforts would be to reach out to those who are active in educating the public on History. I am speaking of none other than the scores of History teachers across the US and the world. History education is perhaps the most direct method of communicating the importance of History to the general public. If you have not already done so, I would suggest perusing through the National Council of History Education’s “History’s Habits of Mind.” This may be a good starting point for communicating the value of history to the public. I am using them in my classroom even as we speak. I look forward to participating in any future projects involving the advancement of the study of History.

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