Public History Defined?

At its annual meeting in Santa Fe, which took place April 12 to 15, the Board of Directors of the National Council on Public History announced that it had crafted a definition of public history as: “a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public.”

Members of the H-Public listserv have been discussing the proposed definition. Kathy Corbett and Dick Miller question whether there is an identifiable public history “methodology.” Though certain types of research, such as oral history or object research, have been closely associated with the field, public historians use all of the tools of the professional historian. They also question whether, after 30 years, it remains accurate to define public history as a “movement.”

Listserv discussion suggests that community engagement and collaboration are at the core of the public history enterprise. The NCPH board notes that public historians are committed to making history “accessible and useful to the public,” while Corbett and Miller suggest this working definition of the field: “Public history practice is a multidimensional effort by historians and their publics, collaborating in settings beyond the traditional classroom, to make the past useful in the present.”

In casual discussion, historians often fall back on a definition of public history based in vocation—public historians are historians who don’t teach in universities. Perhaps this is because of the difficulty of pinning down a more satisfying definition. However, in certain situations, such as developing a curriculum for training future public historians, a satisfactory definition is key to success. Those interested in following the discussion may access the H-Public discussion log at http://www.h-net.org/~public/.

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