In search of public history's "threshold concepts"

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doorwayWe are interested in applying a new theoretical approach to public history, and we need your help.

The theory is called “threshold concepts.”  Jan Meyer and Ray Land (both education specialists) developed threshold concepts as a way of explaining how students grasp (or don’t grasp) particular disciplines.  Their work is usefully explained here.  Each discipline, Meyer and Land explain, has a core set of ideas that one must master to become an expert practitioner.   These ideas are so fundamental that they become a habit of mind to those within the discipline, which often makes them difficult to explain to students and other outsiders.

A key element of threshold concepts is that they are “troublesome knowledge.”  While completely familiar to those within a field, threshold concepts appear counter-intuitive to outsiders.   How many people can explain the concept of the limit in calculus, the idea of signification in cultural students, or the theory of imaginary numbers in a way that makes sense to a novice?  For historians, one common example of a troublesome threshold concept is the notion that there is no unitary account of the past.  Historians understand that history is full a competing narratives that differ, in part, because of the different life experiences and perspectives of historians themselves.   That’s troublesome for many students or the public as a whole, who are more comfortable with textbook approach to history.

Because threshold concepts are so troublesome, mastering them involves differing degrees of understanding.  The metaphor of the threshold is powerful here; threshold concepts are a portal or pathway that students move back and forth across in complex ways.  Threshold concepts explain why students can get so much right, but completely miss the boat the next moment. Understanding and mastery often takes time and repeated exposure.   This makes sense.  Threshold concepts, after all, are not pieces of knowledge, but rather fundamental ways of thinking.  That’s why threshold concepts (once fully mastered) are transformative and irreversible.  Once somebody fully understands that history is consists of competing narratives, for example, movies such as “Gone with the Wind,” “Glory,” and “Lincoln” are not just entertainment, but arguments about the meaning of the Civil War.  That’s a particular interpretive lens that historians can’t leave behind.

Our fundamental question is simple: what are the threshold concepts of public history?  And here is where we need your help.  As disciplinary ways of thinking, threshold concepts are embedded with communities of scholars and professionals.  And threshold concepts themselves, it turns out, are sometimes contested as well.  Economists, for example, believe that the concept of comparative advantage is a threshold concept of their discipline, but they often have subtly different interpretations of what it means.   Given their basis in communities—and in their sometimes contested nature—threshold concepts cannot be adequately defined by a practitioner or two.  We would like to invite all members of the public history community—either here in the comments or in emails to us—to give your definition of public history’s threshold concepts.    We’ll summarize the results (and give our two cents) at the next meeting in Ottawa and in subsequent posts.  A number of questions and issues occurred to us that might be helpful in stimulating thinking and debate:

  • Are the threshold concepts of public history different than the ones of academic historians?
  • Do the various subfields of public history each have their own threshold concepts that interact in useful ways?
  • Should museums and other public history sites stress threshold concepts—general ways of thinking about the past—or particular types of knowledge about the past?

We think this exercise in locating the essential, troubling, and transformative ideas embedded in public history will us better define the discipline.  And we think that public historians are naturals for the community-based approach to scholarship this project seeks to promote.  The field’s recognition of publics’ participatory engagements with the past, and interest in understanding and promoting those engagements, should make public historians particularly valuable contributors to the exploration of threshold concepts.  We very much look forward to your responses and reactions.

~ Randy Bergstrom is editor of The Public Historian journal and Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  He can be reached at [email protected].  John Majewski is Associate Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts and a Professor in the Department of History at UCSB.  He can be reached at [email protected].  Click here for a previous article on threshold concepts in writing and history co-authored by John Majewski.

Image:  “Doorway, Cincinnati, Ohio” photographed by John Vachon, 1939, for the U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.  Source:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


  1. Erik Greenberg says:

    Thanks so much for this piece. I think a threshold concept that most public historians share (though surely not all) which their academic counterparts do not, is the fact that text alone cannot communicate ideas to everyone. We know through anecdote, studies, and intuition, that few museum visitors read text and that as museum professionals we must rely on other cues to communicate our messages. At the very least, public historians must either reduce the amount of text they use, or find ways of “tricking” visitors into reading that text.

    By comparison, our colleagues in the academy rely almost exclusively on written text. I experienced this recently when I viewed an exhibition curated by an historian from the academy who had little or no understanding of museum practice. When I observed how the exhibit was awash in text and lacked other approaches to communication, he explained to me the many reasons why a museum exhibit demands more text, not less. That gap in his understanding represents his inability to accept the troublesome knowledge of this threshold concept of public history (or at least history as practiced in museums).

  2. Liz Almlie says:

    This post brought to mind the concept of ‘multivocality’ (even before you mentioned something similar in the text), which I compare to dividing by 2 to approach zero – it gets you closer to a full understanding but we’re limited to an incomplete knowledge by the vastness of detail and interpretation – adding any voice ascribes meaning far beyond a play-by-play sequence of events.

    And, second, the concept of ‘cultural landscape,’ which sounded a lot simpler before I started a public history degree. Now I try to approach every historic place this way–the connections not only to physical surroundings, but the human experience of being in and moving through the space, the cultural meanings we give with our voices (see first concept), what aspects of history are given value within that space, etc. Learning ‘cultural landscape’ gave me clarity of purpose and perspective, but gets murkier the more I try to pin it down (or define it for the National Register of Historic Places)–and its very difficult to explain it as an approach instead of a defined property type to the uninitiated (and even more difficult to the public).

    In my training, I was with traditional-track academics, historic pres, museums, and archives students–multivocality was definitely a cross-concern, but cultural landscape was more for those who looked at specific historic places. I still have the hope as a new professional that thinking, talking, and planning with such threshold concepts will shift (even incrementally) how museums, historic sites, and offices present history to the public and how the public learns to understand. Maybe not a matter of “should stress” with the public, but of us as practitioners keeping them in mind so that our interactions and products reflect these approaches.

  3. Matt says:

    I’d have to say that the classic “Shared Authority” concept strikes me as a threshold particular to the field of public history. Taking in the viewpoints, experiences and memories from the actual people we are developing a project for/with–especially as we work our way into an ever increasing digital public history age–seems to me to be a core concept within our field. This may also be “troublesome knowledge” to those outside of public history who generally would think that exhibits, projects, books, etc. all come down from the historian alone.

  4. I was not familiar with this terminology, and I find it enormously illuminating and helpful. As I read the third point – should museums and other public history sites stress threshold concepts? – I thought immediately of a long-standing personal campaign to get historic sites and national parks to be more self-consciously reflective about the recent preservation history at their properties. It seems to me that the history of an historic property since it was acquired by the agency/organization that manages it today is a chapter of its history that ought to be both acknowledged and interpreted. To my way of thinking, the interpretation of the recent past is an intriguing and essential part of the larger interpretation of the “real history” that happened there. How were the decisions made on what to interpret or not interpret? Why are some layers of history selected for interpretation and others not? How do hands-on preservation decisions shape site interpretation? (This is one of the challenges of interpreting slavery at some plantation sites.) In addition to acknowledging this often-neglected layer of history at historic sites, this perspective creates two important opportunities to explain to public audience (1) the fields of preservation, site interpretation, etc. and (2) the fundamentally interpretive nature of history as a discipline. Archaeologists have long done a great job with #1 when they invite the public to inspect the on-going work at an historic California mission, for example. Engaging #2 would go a long way to address the kinds of issues that exploded with the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian years ago: members of the public and professional historians have such different, even competing, views on what history is, as John Majewski’s and Randy Bergstrom’s essay articulates so well. Plus, members of the public love to get behind-the-scenes at museums and historic sites. Why not take advantage of this general curiosity and use it as an additional educational opportunity? I can think of a handful of sites that have tried a version of this approach. I think many of us would welcome hearing of other historic sites that choose to be self-consciously reflective about their preservation and site interpretation history.

  5. adina says:

    I love Bob Weyeneth’s suggestion that museum’s and other historic sites add an element of reflection to their site interpretation. An enormously popular site near me that lacks this variety of interpretation is Greenfield Village, Henry Ford’s collection of historic and folks structures from 19th and early 20th century (mostly) America.

    To the conversation about threshold concepts, as a corollary to Erik Greenberg’s comments about text alone being an inadequate communications tool for public historians, I would add that public historians readily read historical evidence in images, audio records, and material culture. Knowing how to understand the information conveyed in and context of these non-traditional documents is essential to the public historian’s craft.

  6. Christopher Clarke says:

    I was not familiar with this terminology either, but thirty years of public history practice in and with museums have repeatedly reinforced the insights it offers. The threshold concept to which several commentators have alluded above is the multiplicity of non-written sources in which historical information is embedded. Museums confront this issue first and foremost via the interpretive use of objects, but the same concept pertains to the many other sources that have been mentioned.

    The issue in public interpretation is not simply that the interpreters need to understand how to work with these diverse sources of information and meaning – it becomes most useful when members of the public audience also engage these sources and bring their own experiences to bear. Effective museum and public interpretation experiences can offer the audience an opportunity to do so, and the array of strategies for facilitating this dialogue has expanded enormously since I began doing this work in the early 1980s. The result of this kind of engagement is the give and take that can make visits to museums and historic sites as exciting and captivating as we know they can be. The failure to offer these opportunities has contributed to some well-known disasters, but even more instances where a potentially engaging exhibit or presentation became, from the perspective of the audience, either ho-hum or irrelevant.

    Bob Weyeneth’s comments on incorporating preservation history into the interpretation of historic sites is a reminder that those sites can be understood and read as “objects” or sources of information in their own right, revealing the changing attitudes and understandings that the sites’ interpreters have brought to the places and the events they are intended to commemorate. Many such sites have (often inadvertently) preserved vestiges of previous iterations of their public interpretation (often cast in some form of heavy metal, and dragged from their formerly prominent location to a nearby basement or barn). These artifacts, and others like them, can tell a tale about how the interpretive thinking about a site has evolved – and how it is likely to continue evolving in the future.

  7. I think museums operate on a basic threshold concept that remains little understood by the public: the constant tension between protection and public access. As someone who shifted from the world of contemporary art curating to the museum world, this concept certainly illuminated my understanding of museums as institutions, and how they differ from non-collecting art galleries.

    Many questions and frustrations that visitors face—why are museums so cautious and slow-moving? why is that guard so aggressive? what am I allowed to touch? why is this room so dark?—could be addressed by better communicating these constantly competing roles of the museum, which museum professionals often take for granted.

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