The elephant in the room: toward a more diverse profession

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Editors’ Note: This is the fifth and final post in a series on the findings of the Joint Task Force on Public History Education and Employment, an initiative launched in 2014 to study trends in public history education and employment.

The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd on May 25 focused attention on racial inequality in ways not seen in decades. Like many professions, public history has long recognized the need to bring more people of color and persons from marginalized communities into its ranks. Floyd’s death awakened many Americans to the fact that good intentions only go so far. Achieving meaningful and sustained change must now be a priority. How should public historians make their field less white, less middle-class, and more like American society as a whole?

The task force did not ask respondents to the employer and alumni surveys to identify their race, gender, or age. When the group devised each survey, we debated whether to collect demographic information about respondents. Ultimately, we decided not to for two reasons. First, the task force felt it was important to keep both surveys to a reasonable length to encourage responses. Second, we believed it could best achieve our mission by staying focused on the basic questions it was created to address. The wisdom of these decisions is, of course, debatable, but they seemed right at the time.

Even so, the data from both surveys refer to problems relating to diversity in several ways. Multiple comments from the alumni survey, for example, stressed the challenges associated with the cost of graduate school and the generally modest salaries typical of public history employment. These conditions undoubtedly dissuade people from poor and working-class backgrounds from entering the field. As one respondent commented, “museum professionals continue to be overwhelmingly white and upper/middle class because only a certain percentage of the population can attend college and even less can get an advanced degree.” Cultural barriers may also be a problem. It is not hard to imagine that at least some people of color may find the mainly white, middle-class character of public history unwelcoming, off-putting, or worse.

Based on these findings, the task force emphasized “the need for concerned efforts aimed at making it possible for people to study public history and move into viable careers.” Although the task force did not indicate what form these efforts should take and noted that significant resources, financial and otherwise, would be required, it observed that “without sustained and coordinated efforts, it seems likely that a combination of educational costs and generally modest wages will keep the field populated mainly by people from middle-class backgrounds.”[1] Given the events of recent months, asking what sort of systematic efforts NCPH and other professional organizations can undertake may be appropriate. Continued reliance on initiatives launched by individual organizations and institutions is unlikely to result in meaningful change, soon if ever.

Survey respondents also recognized the interpretive problems posed by the demographic makeup of the field. One noted pragmatically that “providing a richer, more diverse interpretation of place means more visitors.” Another emphasized the need to “appeal to more than Euro-American populations.” Respondents also mentioned that presenting inclusive histories alone is not enough. Without a diverse workforce, modeling those histories and building credibility with diverse audiences will be impossible.

At a time when racial inequality is understandably at the forefront of many people’s minds, it is important not to lose sight of gender. In commenting on a presentation of the task force’s findings at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Professor Ted Karamanski of Loyola University Chicago observed that he, like most public history educators, has long recognized that women consistently make up a majority of his students. In turn, the public history workforce reflects that imbalance. The well-known gender-based wage differential effectively devalues employment in the field and leaves public historians without the influence they deserve. Until a more equitable balance is achieved, public historians will continue to struggle against these conditions.  Further, it follows that making the field welcoming to people with non-heteronormnative gender identities will result in additional empowerment.

In sum, public historians have plenty of work to do. The path forward is uncertain and sure to be full of challenges, but some principles are clear. Diversity initiatives that fail to achieve meaningful results are not enough. Continuing to accept the status quo, in public history education and employment, will only perpetuate inequality. Moreover, change within the profession will be disappointing without commensurate progress in society. Public history is a long way from being a model of equity and diversity, but the gains to be made through committed efforts to achieve more should outweigh any apprehensions about the effort and resources that will be needed to achieve true progress.[2]

~Daniel Vivian is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Historic Preservation at the University of Kentucky. He has served as co-chair of the Joint Task Force on Public History Education and Employment since 2014.

[1] “Career Paths in Public History: Report of the Joint AASLH-AHA-NCPH-OAH Task Force on Public History Education and Employment,” March 2019, 14.

[2] For a provocative indictment of public history’s racial status quo, see GVGK Tang, “We Need to Talk About Public History’s Columbusing Problem,” History@Work, June 25, 2020.

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