Public history: yours, mine, & ours

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Editor’s note: The post is the fifth in a series commissioned by The Public Historian that focuses on essays published in TPH that have been used effectively in the classroom. We welcome comments and further suggestions! If you have a TPH article that is a favorite in your classroom, please let us know. You can send your suggestions to [email protected]

WVU students completing a HABS documentation project in Beverly, WV.

WVU students completing a HABS documentation project in Beverly, West Virginia. Photo credit: Jenny Boulware

Day one of each semester is always one of my favorites. Not only do I learn what inspires students, but I also learn why students are taking my Introduction to Public History course. Some students are familiar with the field but many are hopeful that the class will resemble History Channel episodes. While I do incorporate popular history studies during the semester, I begin with a foundational reading of Ronald Grele’s “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of a Public Historian?” (The Public Historian 3, no. 1 [Winter 1981]: 40–38) This initial reading lays the groundwork for semester-long discussions. Grele’s article also exposes students to our peer-reviewed journal, The Public Historian.

In 1981, when public history was in its infancy, Grele addressed the status of the field by outlining its development and foreshadowing its trajectory. He closed with a call to action to “make historical consciousness a reality in American life.” Thirty-six years later, public historians have successfully effected positive change and reached beyond the confines of academia. Our work in the classroom and within communities has bridged gaps, embraced the local and encouraged inclusiveness and thoughtful inquiry.

We also review Grele’s list of new approaches in public history. These approaches are no longer new; they are the norm. First, the study of local history has been actively embraced and pursued. Collaboration on numerous exciting and useful community history projects is standard, semester-long work. From documenting neighborhoods to developing content for museum exhibits, students and communities gain practical, tangible public history products.

Secondly, students explore, write, and create their own history. Realizing the power of the local in training future public historians, I utilize what Grele would likely label a “gimmick”—Clio. Far from a gimmick, David Trowbridge’s digital platform has become a powerful tool in making history relevant. For their final assignment I task students with identifying and researching a historic site and developing an online entry. This assignment is easy to complete in one semester, yet its usefulness extends beyond a traditional research paper. Students often select a site within their hometown, which encourages them to see their communities anew. Why isn’t this historic church or theater on Clio? Why is this random historic marker here? How did this neighborhood change over time? Community becomes an actual research laboratory. Through this exercise, students’ place of origin, their current residence, or their favorite community space becomes more valued. One student recently declared: “this whole Clio project has been very fun for me. . . . I’m going to do a “Clio sweep” of [my hometown] during the summer.” This, this is my ultimate goal—inspire exploration beyond classroom requirements. Also noteworthy is Clio’s role in generating unique partnerships and jobs. Organizations are incorporating this website to plan ambitious, long-term projects that cover larger areas and require extensive research while Convention and Visitors Bureaus are hiring local historians to create entries.

Additionally, my students have partnered with local historic landmark commissions and consulting firms to complete neighborhood survey work. Class structure has allowed the educational process to seamlessly blend with a modified professional internship format. I have required students to evaluate vernacular architecture, trends within the neighborhood, and period policies (e.g. restrictive covenants). Fieldwork like this is rewarding for all involved. Consultants appreciate student involvement, community agencies appreciate in-kind work, and students appreciate the ability to add practical work to their resume. These experiences reinforce ideals and goals taught in the classroom, especially shared authority in a collaborative process.

Lastly, while corporate and government work remains important, Grele’s assertion that this one public is the public is no longer valid. Workshops and guest speakers enable students to see the exciting and diverse job possibilities in archives, libraries, museums, and preservation. It is not just about corporate and government work.

Elizabeth Satterfield presenting her summer research on Sunnyside during WVU's SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience).

Elizabeth Satterfield presenting her summer research on Sunnyside during WVU’s SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience). Photo credit: Elizabeth Satterfield

Grele’s article helps students compare public history’s past with the present—what are the trends in the field today? How can we heed Grele’s advice to not become too narrowly focused? One of our undergraduates, Elizabeth Satterfield, completed her first introductory class in public history this past spring. She immediately fell in love with the notion that history can be interactive and relatable to the public. What follows is her assessment of the field and the importance of local projects.

For years, I have heard many people remark that history is boring, impersonal, and frankly pointless to learn. But why do millions flock to museums and historic sites every year? Why are historical movies and books so popular and profitable? Even though the public may say they do not like history, they love public history. People love to learn about their great-grandparents, anecdotes about beloved historical figures, scavenger hunts at museums and the history of their neighborhood. In my university’s town, each neighborhood has a unique history, often treasured and preserved by locals.

One community, however, transitioned from an agricultural landscape to a thriving immigrant and industrial neighborhood to what is now a student rental area, losing much of its original charm and cultural memory along the way. When I was given the opportunity this summer to conduct research on the community in cooperation with my university, I jumped at the chance. Graduate students in the university’s public history program had already researched over thirty properties, which I edited into a public-friendly document with photographs and maps. Now that a substantial narrative has been established for the neighborhood, we are eagerly looking forward to more interactive projects that both engage and educate the public through scavenger hunts, walking audio tours (possibly through Clio), augmented reality smartphone applications, photo exhibits, and school curriculum supplements. In pursuing these project ideas, we hope to collaborate with other departments at the university, local entities such as the historic landmark commission and historical society, educators in local schools and residents.

These types of public projects are modeling purposeful, exciting connections to the past and to people long forgotten—all while shaping confident budding public historians.

~ Jenny Boulware has been working with communities for twenty years. She currently teaches public history and cultural resource management courses at WVU. 

~ Elizabeth Satterfield is a native of West Virginia and a junior history major at WVU. She is hoping to pursue a career in historic preservation after graduation.

1 comment
  1. This is a great article that I enjoyed and shared with my wife. I was also excited to learn about We travel the country and explore local histories where I volunteer at some of their institutions. I will use The Clio and spread the word of its utility. Thanks

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