Sunday, January 6, 2008

Wikipedia article on "Public History"

I'm a big fan of Wikipedia and I've been known to edit the odd article or two, but I'm having trouble with the "Public History" article. As of the time of writing, I am the latest person to have contributed to this article, but it's still not very good.

I thought it would be easy to spout off a few hundred words on what a public historian was, what they did, and conversely, who is not a public historian, but when I sat down to write I found it rather difficult to summarize. Should I explain what public history is by defining it as different from academic history? Or is this even true? Are history professors not also public historians, spouting history to undergraduate students with little or no previous academic background on the subject?

Is Mel Gibson, who has portrayed historical figures in films, a public historian?

Do you have to be associated with a museum or an archive to be a public historian? Do you have to be a paid professional, or are amateur geneologists practicing public history?

Do you have to publish to be a public historian?

So, I'm sending out a call for help. Please contribute to the "public history" article on Wikipedia. With your help, I may soon have a solid answer to give every time someone asks "what's that?" when I explain I'm in a Masters of Public History program.


Mary Lee said...


I just graduated last week with a B.A. in public history, and you bring up some very good questions.

My understanding is that public history is anything where a historian interprets history for the public. *Note* that is a trained historian with a degree. I really like a term called "Hobby Historian." These people are those who truly have a love of history but by profession are accountants, doctors, managers, etc., but not historians. They don't know historiography, they don't know historians craft. Now I love all people who have an interest in history, in fact it excites me, but they should not be interpreting history for others.

Also, I think that public historians should get more respect and support from historical organizations. Often they are looked upon by "academic historians" as like a country cousin. When in fact, public historians are needed. There is a great demand for new knowledge about history through public venues, and people like Mel Gibson and hobby historians are trying to do it. Not good. Why should they be shaping the minds of and understanding of history for the rest of the public? Furthermore, I don't really see much of a dividing line between the two. Public Historians spend lots of time researching, they often teach, they publish articles.

Also, "academic historians" should be public historians, too. If the public can not be taught their work or can not understand their work, then what is the point? Former AHA President James McPherson, agrees that all historians should be public historians. He used to only be a public historian, but then dabbled into the public history realm, and he said it really helped him understand how to history. It changed how he did things and expanded his ability to do history.

This is just my opinion, and I hope it still gets you thinking. Where are you getting your Masters?

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