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So, What Is Public History?

Posted on: September 4th, 2018 No Comments

By Nolan Cool.

“So…what is public history?” Folks attending Adirondack Architectural Heritage’s day-long tours ask me this all the time. My sarcastic answer is “it’s the opposite of private history,” followed by a more serious explanation that public history is applied history out in the world. A still unsatisfied, confused look prompts me to further explain that historic preservation projects, working with communities, public stakeholders, and local governments, museums, nonprofits, and other institutions on any project with history at its core qualifies as public history. My work as AARCH’s Educational Programs Director falls under this umbrella through public programming centered on architecture, history, historic preservation, and conservation, as well as institutional outreach toward communities both large and small.

As a public historian, I am used to telling people that defining the field remains tricky. Just as anyone working to use or reuse pieces of the built environment may be a preservationist, anyone using proper methodological processes, interpreting primary and secondary sources, and drawing on wider contexts to create content for varied audiences may serve as a public historian. However, some recent scholars have worked to define public history as a practice. In her work on the early history of National Parks and public history as a profession, Denise Meringolo explains that public history retains its earliest roots in historic preservation. Mid-nineteenth century elite white women formed the core of the preservation community through the establishment of organizations like the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association [1]. In his recent textbook exploring the field, Thomas Cauvin explains that public history emerged professionally during the 1970s. Practitioners initially defined “public history” as history practiced outside of the academy. However, this definition lacks the context of working inside and alongside of the academy out in the public. Cauvin concludes that while public history remains hard to define, “We may all become public historians, but it requires training and awareness of the challenges we can face while working in and for the public” [2]. Like defining oneself as a preservationist working in any capacity to reuse the built environment, defining public history remains in the eye of the beholder. After an AARCH outing, each participant becomes a preservationist and gains the insight to better understand the past in a wider context. They have the tools to explore deeper histories through architecture and become public historians themselves.

Public historians working in preservation are also tasked with mediating the balance between history and the landscape. In the case of an organization with more of a preservationist and advocacy bent like AARCH, promoting the preservation of place itself is as important as conveying the stories that structures convey. For me, negotiating the boundaries between interpreting accurate historical contexts through a particular structure or piece of the built environment is what public history is all about.

Just as our expert hosts discuss during AARCH’s summer outings, the built environment in the Adirondacks provides a window in the story of human interaction with the environment. In an era of observable climate change across the globe, understanding the Adirondacks as a space where humans’ interaction with diverse landscapes and environments proves crucial. Providing a history to preservation practice in the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park places the region in a larger context of understanding how communities and environments continuously interact with one another. Built structures and nature exhibit long, interwoven histories across the North Country. Everyone within the Blue Line, both resident and visitor, can gain the ability to become public historians in their own communities through exploring historic structures, buildings, memorials, and other pieces of the built environment.

Ultimately, as a practicing public historian and preservationist, my goal remains to task attendees and Adirondack communities to research, experience, and share their own histories. Simultaneously, I hope to use history as a base for cultivating a strong preservation ethic among regional communities supporting adaptive reuse, green projects, and interpretive progress across the North Country. This is public history and preservation in action. Each borrows from the other. Just as public historians are often preservationists, preservationists practice public history.


Nolan Cool is currently Educational Programs Director at Adirondack Architectural Heritage. This blog post is also cross-featured on the University of Massachusetts Amherst History Department’s blog past@present, available at umasshistory.wordpress.com.

 

[1] Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xiv; For more on early preservationist groups like to MVLA, see Patricia West’s Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums (1999).

[2] Thomas Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook in Practice, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 10-11.

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