Writing in 1981, Ronald Grele pointed out that the debate about how to define public history had created “turf” wars over “the uses of history in the culture and the processes by which historical consciousness is formed and expressed” (Grele 40). As a result, the conversation was bringing about “a major redefinition of the role of the historian” (48). According to Grele, these debates threatened the public history movement in its “infancy” raising concerns that the diverse possibilities of public history could devolve into gimmickry (48).
Grele, an oral historian speaking as recently as 2017, continues to voice concern about this potentiality, lamenting the “populism combined with sentimentalism” that creates a “naïve approach to our work” in projects such as StoryCorps. Instead, he says, “You’re supposed to be doing something called history” (Scholars).
This sentiment echoes Grele’s statement back in 1981 when he wrote that “the task of the public historian . . . should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events” (Grele). It seems that it’s not the public that Grele finds problematic; it is a naïve public unguided by professional expertise.
Since Grele voiced his early concerns about defining public history, the conception of public history has grown to encompass a wide variety of projects and professionals, from the legacy of those serving the federal government from early in the twentieth century, to museum professionals and archivists, preservationists , educators and traditional academics as well. However, as Dichtl and Townsend point out, the problem of definition remains. Some respondents to the NPC’s 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals prefer to distance themselves from the moniker of historian at all, claiming instead the role of archivist, administrator or preservationist. Others opted for a big tent understanding, writing that “[a] historian is a historian whether working in government, academia, or private industry” (Dichtl and Townsend).
So, who are public historians? Grele is clear that too narrow a definition is problematic (48), yet does the big tent understanding of the 2008 survey leave too much room for a lack of training?
It seems that Denise Meringolo finds a middle ground, noting that public history professionals coming from all walks of life is not necessarily a negative; in fact, public historians can be bridge builders between “stakeholders” in a variety of disciplines and a variety of publics (168).
And, it is here where I find the work of public history so important as an educator and in what RRCHNM describes as the work of “democratizing history.” In fact, Grele himself voices this mantra when he answers for himself “whose public? whose history” in touting a “democratic declaration of a faith in members of the public at large to become their own historians and to advance their knowledge of themselves . . . . mak[ing] historical consciousness a reality in American life” (48). Historical thinking is a learned skill, and the public will not learn it only in the public space of the university classroom. They will not learn it only in the national park or on the radio or at the local cemetery or even at the many museums on the National Mall. Many different publics will learn historical thinking skills in all those places. And sometimes, the public I teach will learn those skills by practicing being historians themselves by collecting and interpreting their own family stories. In the process, they might become “a new group of historical workers interpreting the past of heretofore ignored classes of people” (Grele 48), or, as Meringolo writes, a generation of “twenty-first-century public historians” who just might be able to “ease fears regarding the future of the nation” (168).
Dichtl, John and Robert Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.”Perspectives on History, September 2009.
Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 40-48.
Meringolo, Denise. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
“Scholars, admirers detail oral history contributions of Ron Grele.” Oral History Association, January 18, 2017. Accessed January 26, 2018.