The Role of the Public Historian

The fact that the term ‘public history’ has yet to be defined by those working in the field should be taken as a sign of its multipurpose function in the role in sharing with the general public the role that the past has shaped the present day.

Honesty about the past is crucial. Whether it be at a battlefield, museum, or other historic sites, public historians have the responsibility to open up about both the history of the site and the institution. Shared authority is another important aspect of the public historian’s role. We must acknowledge the fact that many interpretations and memories can be associated with one single event. Although public historians most often times see themselves as historians first, recognizing that the general public and the non-academic historians have a legitimate role in shaping our understanding of the past is necessary to keep dialogue open between the two groups.

Public historians provide context when, perhaps, the traditional way of doing so is not available. For example, Rebecca Amato and Jeffrey T. Manuel both provide history tours that go beyond architecture to frame discussion about the local history. Instead they look to the law and its application as a theme to interpret the way various laws are used to justify both the good and bad of urban development in their respective cities.

Prior to this class I thought public history meant reaching out and informing the general public about historical truth. It was a means to let the public know what the academic historians were writing about and that our understanding of the past came from the work they have done. Over the course of this semester I have broadened my understanding of public history as not only informing visitors of the work being done those historians, but also to interpret to the visitors the role historical memory has played in remembering. The way in which we arrive at our beliefs has been an interesting topic to me throughout this semester as well.

A recurrent theme over the course of the semester has been not having a definite answer to most questions. I think this is due to the fact that as public historians we have to be flexible and adapt to the many different types of visitors we encounter. In other words, instead of looking at the facts and coming up with a single interpretation, we should look at those facts and understand that others may not draw the same conclusions. We have to be open-minded and have a sense of willingness to at least except that others may not feel the same way.

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