What is Public History?
The National Council on Public History offers a capacious definition of the practice:”[…] Putting history to work in the world […], fostering critical reflection on historical practice, and publicly advocating for history and historians.”
In concrete terms, public history spans public, federal, and private sectors: positions can be found in museums, archives, historical associations, National Trust or National Park Service, the Office of the Historian at the State (or other) Department; even corporations (Wells Fargo) and international organizations (International Monetary Fund, for example).
Fields of specialization range from conservation to land management to curatorship and development (fundraising), preservation (which may require landscape or architectural knowledge), and programming.
Where to look?
National organizations provide the most comprehensive overview of the field, along with information on conferences, publications and resources, and job listings.
Begin with the National Council on Public History’s site (http://ncph.org/cms/)
Other key sites include Public History Commons (http://publichistorycommons.org/) and its blog, History@Work.
USAjobs.gov; the National Park Service http://www.nps.gov
For museums, see the American Alliance of Museums: http://www.aam-us.org/
Why Public History?
- Academic and public history, while proximate, have traditionally not intermingled. In fact, academic historians typically have little understanding of who public historians are, how they’re trained, and what they do — with good reason: the category encompasses the (large) nexus of historical practice and public engagement.
- However, the turn to digital platforms in scholarly communication and cultural institutions’ public engagement has eroded the boundaries between the two fields. The intersection of the two is rife with possibilities, some of them for jobs that haven’t yet been created.
- It’s a cross-cutting field: the practices and experiences applicable here will apply to other professional vocations (business, non-profit, etc).
In recent years, positions focused on public engagement have grown. These are typically situated at the intersection of digital, institutional, and cultural knowledge; in short, they link the institution with its public, whether through educational materials, public programming, or research resources. With a focus on research skills and wide-ranging historical knowledge, these positions stand alongside (rather than compete with) staff specialised in preservation, conservation, or archives. Indeed, the majority of these jobs mention the Ph.D. as a required or preferred qualification.
What can academic historians contribute?
Academic historians stand to a make valuable impact. The field needs historically-informed actors working in preservation, libraries, museums, and archives:
1) To help guide initiatives with thorough research and understanding of key issues; to provide the evidence-based, critical and contextual thinking to evaluate the scope and impact of policies.
2) These roles are vital to the understanding and management of cultural and historical resources.
Post-doctoral fellowships as path to entry
– CLIR – for robustly digitally-engaged scholars
– ACLS Public Fellows – a remarkable and growing program for PhDs in the humanities and humanistic social sciences (includes history).
– For federal agencies, and the National Park Service in particular, the NPS Pathways Internship. It targets historians from college to graduate study,.
– Presidential Management Fellows
– Brown Public Humanities Center, along with other Humanities Center now embracing public scholarship, such as University of Wisconsin-Madison and Portland State.
“Imagining America” is a consortium of public humanities centers and research institutes. See http://imaginingamerica.org/consortium/opportunities/public-humanities-institute-centers/
How to position yourself as a publicly-engaged historian now?
Thinking about research in multiple dimensions – scholarly and public – is a valuable exercise that can begin immediately. What public contribution might your research (or someone else’s) make? In what format? Consider translating research into a publicly-engaged format of your choice (devising a short course for non-experts; drafting exhibition notes; a community project, etc). Volunteering at a cultural institution also offers valuable insight into the nuts and bolts of the field. Many organizations find themselves understaffed and welcome interest.
Twitter is surprisingly vibrant. Search for the following hasthags: #twitterstorians; #publichistory; #altac; #ncph2015, and allow yourself to follow the twitter trail. The algorithm proposes fairly reliable related accounts to follow, or at least, orders of magnitude moreso than Netflix or your favourite shopping site. Hooray technology!
LinkedIn and informational interviews also provide good conduits for interacting with public history practitioners. For LinkedIn, consider joining the History Relevance Campaign group as a start, and see where it takes you. It gathers public historians committed to better communicating the significance of history to general audiences.
NCPH 2015 – The big one.
THATCamp – everywhere, year-round, it brings together practitioners from the academic and cultural sphere (museums, galleries, libraries, archives). Cheap ($20 fee), creative, cross-disciplinary, and very friendly to newbies.
“Telling Untold Histories” and other public history conferences.