Public History Blog

During this semester, the class often discussed the role of the museum and the role of public historians within the community at large. Like most things in the modern era, the field of public history continues to go through immense and rapid changes. Within the past two decades alone, public historians have had to expand their occupations to account for new circumstances. From revolutions of the digital age, to the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes in social consciousness, public historians have had to adapt–and often deviate– from traditional methods of practice.

Moving into the future, this ability to change will become critical to preserving public history. While incidents such as COVID-19 may be a temporary hindrance for public historians, technological changes and social consciousness create more prominent obstacles for historians.

Since the twenty-first century alone, technology has entered a period of rapid advancement. Media, graphics, audio, hardware, and technological capability are just a few of the largest changes. Though these changes have changed the way that individuals consume media, it also has drastically changed how they consume media. Physiologically and psychologically, the digital age has changed how the human brain processes and engages with information. In the modern area, individuals experience immense pressure to multi-task which can lead to the impression that attention spans are shorter. Though that is not the case, public historians will need to find ways to account for changes in consumer engagement. In the future, historians will also have to find ways to create a balance between digital history and more traditional methods.

The shifts in social consciousness is something that will be more difficult, but none the less necessary, for public historians to adapt and account for. Increasingly, gaps in existing narratives are becoming apparent. From the exclusion of certain voices and individuals, selective narratives, collective memories, and changes in moral opinion, public ideas are changing. One of the responsibilities of the public historian will be interpreting these pieces to created updated and more inclusive narratives. Outside of determining whose voices are selected within a narrative, their efforts will also have to take a more proactive role. Their efforts will also concern selected artifacts, highlighted displays, special programs, literature, and even becoming more outspoken on certain political matters. Two such examples are the controversy within the collections housed at the British Museum as well as the monument debates in the United States. As tensions increase, public historians will not be able to afford to remain passive and silent on certain issues as many have been in the past.

A third change that organizations will need to account for are the changes to economical conditions. Within public history, budgets have generally been small. Outside of larger institutions and collectives, organizations are often reliant on patrons, public support, grants, and gift shop sales to support their collections and staff. These already tight budgets have been increased by both political shifts as well as COVID-19. Though the economic effects of the virus have been felt across practically every aspect of society, many establishments have had to permanently close. Because of these economic hits, funding will be even tighter. Patrons, donors, and grant givers will also experience their own economic struggles. These struggles will translate directly to the benefactors in the public history sphere. Self supporting organizations, or those funded by consumer interactions, are receiving less–to no–income from visitors which is placing strains on reserve funds and future budgets. These economic effects will be felt for years to come.

The world is a complex place and it is impossible for organizations to make contingency plans for every future circumstance. Overall, the future of public history will rely on organizations, and individuals, abilities and willingness to adapt to a changing world. New technologies create not only new potential means of outreach, but new concerns for engagement. New social climates will require extended representation in preexisting narratives as well as engaging with new consciousness. Public history organizations are dependent on economic foundations for normal occupational practices but with strained budgets looming on the horizon, establishments will need to be able to prepare and account for more limited resources.

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