Public history and sustainability: An overview and invitation

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people at riverbank

As part of a 350.org demonstration of the effects of climate change, people in Mongolia point out a drought-diminished river. (Photo: 350.org)

Public historians have long engaged with environmental topics and environmental historians to explore the long-term material effects of the decisions, actions, and conceptions of people in the past.  As we move toward the 2014 NCPH conference, with its theme of “Sustainable Public History,” this is a good moment to take stock of some of those disciplinary conversations and to think about how to move them forward in a time of accelerating environmental challenges and crises.

For well over a decade, many groups involved in preserving and interpreting the past have addressed issues of sustainability.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has appealed to developers and planners to recognize preservation’s key role in supporting and advancing the values of sustainability. The Trust’s arguments focus on energy savings, material recycling, and high density urban planning. Preservation programs grounded in architecture, such as Cornell‘s, have been on the forefront of exploring this issue.

Since about the 1990s, historians began to criticize the National Park Service for sacrificing its ecosystems in favor of tourism.[1] In 2001, Rebecca Conard wrote an article for The Public Historian about the conflicts in managing natural and cultural resources. She encouraged collaboration between cultural preservationists and environmentalists in development projects and in educating the public about the relationship of humans to the natural world. On the eve of the first joint meeting of the National Council on Public History and the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) in 2004, Conard asked, “How do we make ‘sustainability’ and ‘stewardship’ compatible parts” in an American culture that celebrates change and development?[2]  Since the publication of Martin Melosi and Phillip Scarpino’s Public History and the Environment that same year, the buzz word “sustainability” has served as a way to unite these two sub-fields of historical practice to work towards political, economic, and social influence and action.

But there is much more that can be done.  A broader approach to undergraduate and graduate training can provide historic preservationists the language and skills for influencing policy-makers, while our practices of narrative, shared authority, and collaborative partnerships position public historians to enter the national conversation on sustainability. How might public history’s approach help educate the public and influence policy on this environmental issue?  What impact should sustainable environmental management practices have on our practice of public history, specifically historic preservation and interpretation?

The following summarizes three conference workshops organized from 2010-2012 to examine ways for public historians to contribute viable solutions to support and advance the sustainability movement.

  • In 2010, I organized a working group at the joint ASEH/NCPH conference in Portland, Oregon with the goal of exploring the role of historic preservation as a tool for sustainability.  Our group of SHPOs, academics, and consultants agreed that making historic preservation more interdisciplinary by cross-listing courses with other departments would improve communication among architects, planners, and the emerging “deconstruction” movement. But the sticking point to moving forward was defining sustainability. The international Bruntland Commission created what is now the general definition of sustainable development in 1987 as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs,” but in practice, the term has been used in a very wide variety of ways, some of which are in tension or conflict with one another (for example, to promote economic growth as well as to argue against the idea of growth-based economic models).
  • The following year, ASEH held its conference in Phoenix, Arizona specifically around the theme of “sustainability.” In his keynote, incoming American Historical Association President William Cronon adeptly deconstructed the word “sustainable” as a politically productive new vocabulary word. So what should public historians mean by “sustainability” in our practice? At a roundtable the next day, we tried to address that question. Jannelle Warren-Findley of Arizona State University and I spoke about how sustainability needs to become a standard theme in graduate and undergraduate public history curriculum, especially in relation to historic resource management and interpretive programs.  As educators for the workforce, public historians in the academy need to train historians in both the humanities and the sciences enabling them to work alongside planners, architects, and natural resource specialists.                                                                 The panel also discussed the importance of local historic sites to maintaining stable and more environmentally sustainable communities for an increasingly mobile and transient public. Public history projects can create a sense of place and help to educate new residents about the environmental conditions in which they live. Sahuaro Ranch Park, for example, is a city park on the site of a late-19th-century farm in Glendale, Arizona. With citrus groves, day palms, irrigation infrastructure, ditches, and grass, it is hardly the definition of sustainability. Panelist John Akers, then the site Director, argued that public historians are in a position to contribute to a discussion of “sustainability” by exploring these kinds of historical antecedents. Likewise, panelist Carol Palmer argued that a community’s local history can guide its sustainability initiatives and educational programs. Her local history of the “boomburb” suburb Surprise, Arizona revealed that the Depression-era migrant farm workers who founded the town faced economic challenges and supply shortages when building family homes.  Recycling and conservation were not only prudent strategies for the present but constituted an important part of the town’s sense of heritage and identity.
  • Finally, at the National Council on Public History meeting in Milwaukee in April 2012, our Working Group focused upon articulating the public historian’s role in sustainability initiatives. We produced a point paper as a starting place for NCPH members to consider this relationship more formally, and the NCPH Board established a task force, which will present a white paper at the Monterey Conference in 2014.  Angela Sirna and Chuck Arning also led a discussion for their working group at the 2013 Ottawa conference focusing on climate change issues at the national parks.

Over the next several months, the Public History Commons will be collecting related materials and examples of sustainability-related research and projects.  These will include case statements presented at Working Groups, panels and roundtables in the past.  There will be a survey inviting public historians to weigh in on different ways to address the issue and concrete examples are welcome as part of the survey or as an e-mail submission to [email protected] to publish online. We also encourage workshops and other session proposals for the Monterey conference–due July 15, 2013.

~ Leah Glaser is Associate Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, chair of the Public History and Environmental Sustainability Task Force, and co-chair of the 2014 NCPH conference program committee.  She can be reached at glaserles[at]ccsu.edu.


[1] Richard Sellars, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History (Yale University Press, 1999).

[2] Rebecca Conard, Applied Environmentalism, or Reconciliation Among “the Bios” and “the Culturals,” The Public Historian, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Spring 2001), pp. 9-18; Rebecca Conard, “Spading Common Ground: Reconciling the Built and Natural Environments,” Public History and the Environment, edited by Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company), 2004.


5 comments
  1. John Dichtl says:

    Intriguing and motivating. Thanks, Leah. It’s helpful to see some of our field’s and organization’s history with regard to sustainability.

  2. What can we think and do about sustainability and public history? Well, reading the last news from Turkey, I think it is really possible to approach this by the boarders of urban planning. It is interesting see the wide movement of cities revitalization around the world and how, in different manners, it is bringing a loss of historic awareness, but at the same time, an importante gapto discuss sustainability in History. In Rio de Janeiro we are under transformations for the World Cup and Olympic uncomming games… there is a lot of work to do!

  3. What can we think and do about sustainability and public history? Well, reading the last news from Turkey, I think it is really possible to approach this by the boarders of urban planning. It is interesting see the wide movement of cities revitalization around the world and how, in different manners, it is bringing a loss of historic awareness, but at the same time, an importante gap to discuss sustainability in History. In Rio de Janeiro we are under transformations for the World Cup and Olympic uncomming games… there is a lot of work to do!

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