The conundrum of capitalism and public history: a view from the NCPH Working Group on Economic Justice and the Ethics of Public History (2018)

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How can public historians help solve the problems of capitalism? Image credit: artist not credited, Industrial Worker, 1911 (Cleveland, Ohio: International Pub. Co.), via Wikimedia Commons

“So, how do we solve the problems of capitalism?”

This playfully-impossible question-to-the-room came from Catherine Fleming Bruce deep into the second hour of a far-ranging conversation among public historians convened to discuss ethics and economic justice at the 2018 annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH). We responded to the question with knowing laughter, but as Bruce named, and we all felt, the specter of capitalism lay at the center of all of our discussions about economic justice and ethics in public history. Most problems of our profession’s unsolvable dilemmas seemed to be born from capitalism’s constraints.

Some examples include:

  • In public history, providing history for a “client” pays the bills; money and power warp inclusive narratives and intellectual freedom in institutional and consultation settings.
  • Tuition dollars drive the universities and their history departments to create public history programs offering training for jobs that are in short supply.
  • In academia and at our NCPH conference, we preach amazing inclusive and empowering best practices that are not always welcome in the workplace—much less in a workplace that pays a living wage.
  • Even before this current administration and this 115th US Congress, budgets for the humanities across the nation and in many of the states have been stubbornly stagnant or have even declined.
  • Moreover, funding from private foundations and donors often comes with restrictions that inhibit truly transformative projects.
  • And profits from inclusive heritage tourism locales usually end up in deep pockets that have the capital to commodify the past, rather than with the communities that lived the history and would most benefit from the opportunity.

In a profession that values inclusivity and social empowerment, we are continuously forced to choose between our integrity and our livelihood. Anyone who is in this field has felt these tensions. We have sometimes worked for supervisors, stakeholders, or institutions who are more interested in palatable fables than rigorous truths—with some feeling as though our ethics must be compromised lest we lose our job. Many fight the good fight at great emotional, mental, and financial cost—a cost especially compounded for women, people of color, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized folks. We may feel pressured to pander to tourists and coddle local lore rather than rock the boat. We might pass by or abandon important community collaborative projects that don’t have financial backing. We sometimes work second night jobs at restaurants to keep working day jobs at the museum and pay off student loans. Under pressure from anxious students, parents and administrators, we cater to the notion that public history leads to good jobs. We lead quiet lives of desperation in full knowledge that despite our historically-informed perspectives, we are not outside capitalism’s peculiar power to obscure inequity, patriarchy, and racial discrimination as “natural market forces.” Like everyone else, we are trapped in its snare.

For a two-hour block at the Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel, NCPH Working Group #2 had bitten off more than we could possibly chew, but our overzealous ambition did not make the conversation any less important. With ten participants and a packed and engaged audience, we covered topics of shared authority in real time, public history training vs. work place practices, as well as economic and ethical realities of community history/heritage, among myriad other ethical conundrums of our field. We put words and experiences to the ugly realities of workplace ethics and economics that often lay silent behind our beaming professional self-talk of radicalism, social justice, empowerment, and inclusivity.

More important than this insightful conversation, we began to puzzle over solutions to the problems of capitalism in public history—including ideas about unionization and cooperative building, resources for practitioners navigating the ethical conundrums of the work place, and reframing public history as a liberal arts skill set rather than a sure-fire career path. We also laid plans for the future.

Coming out of #NCPH 2018 in Las Vegas, our working group on Economic Justice and the Ethics of Public History is keeping this crucial discussion going. We welcome folks to read our case statements at and, if you are interested in joining the group as we move forward, send an email to raaboyl[@]  We are working on a publication proposal to articulate the broad topics discussed in the working group in more useful and exploratory detail. Additionally, we hope to see you at #NCPH2019 where we intend to transition to action-oriented conversations on three fronts:

1) Developing peer resources for professionals negotiating the workplace and improved standards for ethical public history training.

2) Exploring alternative economic models for public history practice—like community or institutional co-operatives.

3) Creating a public history guild or union with standards for professional conduct and remuneration.

These actions are daunting in their scope, but “solving the problems of capitalism” is destined to be. If we believe in the power of good public history to transform the world, then such actions to sustain working public historians and our profession’s integrity are necessary steps. Short of that, we perpetuate the problem in pursuit of our own personal and institutional security rather than live up to the social imperatives of our field.

*The ideas and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors (Dan Ott, Rachel Boyle, and Stella A. Ress) alone; they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of all NCPH 2018 Working Group #2 discussants and facilitators.

~ Dan Ott is a public historian from Minneapolis. He has a PhD in history and has worked for the Minnesota Historical Society, the Immigration History Research Center, and the National Park Service

~Rachel Boyle is the Newberry Mellon Major Projects Fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois. She has a PhD in history and public history from Loyola University Chicago.

~Stella Ress is a public historian and assistant professor at the University of Southern Indiana. She has a PhD from Loyola University, Chicago and experience working in historic preservation and museums.

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