January 16, 2008
By Debbie Ann Doyle
A standing-room only crowd that turned out for the Saturday evening reception co-sponsored by the AHA Professional Division, the American Association for State and Local History, the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the National Museum of American History, and the Society for History in the Federal Government testified to the increasing presence of public historians in the Association and at the meeting.
An earlier session on “Public History, Tenure, and Review” highlighted a new AHA initiative, collaborating with NCPH and the Organization of American Historians, to study current practices for evaluating public history work in tenure and promotion decisions. A joint Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship will develop a series of best-practices documents to advise history departments how to approach scholarship that does not take the form of a traditional monograph. This question will become increasingly urgent as more and more institutions develop public history programs. Discussion at the session revolved around how to evaluate projects such as museum exhibits and National Register nominations in light of the “talismanic power of peer review.” Participants also discussed the importance of giving faculty due credit for developing and administering the internship programs, a crucial component of public history education. Finally, attendees pointed out that historians involved in public history often bring in large grants and help raise the institution’s profile in the community, factors that should help convince university administrators of the value of their work.
The Professional Division’s annual Open Forum on Public History attracted a lively crowd that subverted the paradigm of the meeting room, arranging chairs in a circle for a more congenial atmosphere. Participants discussed the possibility of using Perspectives on History to increase communication and understanding between public historians and those in the academy. A wide-ranging conversation also touched on public history as a component of liberal learning for undergraduates and a way to engage students in the past through the history of their communities, ways the AHA can continue to distribute information about employment opportunities in the field, and how to facilitate collaborations between academic and public historians.