Negotiating Histories: Perspectives on Public History

Jannelle Warren-Findley and Leah Glaser, May 1999

The scholarship of public history includes, among other things, traditional historical monographs, sponsored studies of all kinds, nominations to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and other historic site listings, museum scripts and label copy, interpretative talks, legislative analyses, and web sites. Materials address issues of memory and heritage, the landscapes and material culture of the past as well as "official" histories, and how-to-do it studies for interdisciplinary fields like cultural resource management and heritage tourism. Victoria Harden, whose article, "What Do Federal Historians Do?" appears in this issue, discusses how the scholarship of public historians is prepared and presented. Often public historians themselves become the focus for examination. The joint winners of the 1998 G. Wesley Johnson Prize, Cary Carson of Colonial Williamsburg and Giselle Byrnes of Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, who writes of the Waitangi Tribunal, for example, present finely crafted, deeply complicated discussions of institutions and the roles that historians play in them.1 We hope to feature in this column discussions of scholarship based in public history efforts as well as professional discussions of strategies for creating applied scholarship.

Those strategies play an important role because, like all good teachers and textbook writers, public historians often find themselves taking their own sophisticated theoretical studies, based on primary documentation, and presenting them in a range of formats in much simpler language and more direct description of the contents than the monographic or scholarly journal format allows. Those who practice in the public sector also recognize that "the negotiation of diverse histories" (as an Australian museum conference flyer, "National Museums: Negotiating Histories," puts it) shapes the practice of historians in public institutions.2 These negotiations, whether embedded in narrative history, memory studies, multicultural explorations, or cultural ecologies, have replaced the monocultural authority of public institutions with varied conversations that frequently compete for attention. Issues of exhibition, interpretation, collection, repatriation, and authenticity frame the stories told in public places, and affect the choices made by professional historians. The historical profession needs to be involved in these contemporary discussions in a very self-conscious way, both as those who train historians to work in a range of settings and those who identify, select among, and interpret historical data to a public hungry for historical information. We anticipate publishing columns that address these issues from the perspective of all historians, not just those in the trenches of public institutions. But we are also committed to giving a voice to those historians—curators, education specialists, interpreters, preservation office staff, and others—who face museum management, boards of directors, diverse and contentious audiences, and skeptical funders, and who must try to negotiate among competing priorities to present historical narratives. We will welcome submissions that explore the ways that historians can present solid, critical historical analysis to the audiences that public institutions attract, as well as discuss ways that professional historical organizations and historical colleagues can support that effort.

History departments around the world are beginning to prepare historians to be public practitioners as well as future faculty. The Guide to Public History Programs, published by the North America-based National Council on Public History, now lists more than 65 programs run by history departments in the United States, and many more departments have a course or two for applied training. In the beginning, as discussions like those carried in the early years of The Public Historian make clear, American public history practice focused primarily on policy formulation and analysis and business applications, which included both institutional histories and archival applications related to records keeping and litigation support.3 At the same time but rarely closely connected to the new university public history programs, many social historians in the United States and elsewhere attempted to move their theoretical work beyond the university into the communities they studied, and projects like the American Social History Project and the Power of Place projects in Los Angeles combined documentary research with oral histories and examination of cultural landscapes to restructure the history of people and places to include ordinary people and everyday experiences. Fields like historic preservation, long dominated in the United States by architects and urban planners, attracted a few historians who could read and understand such elements of material culture as the built environment and physical artifacts. Historians also became more involved in the peer discussions of interpretations presented to the public in museums and historical societies, and by government agencies such as the U.S. National Park Service. That involvement has produced notable clashes over the notions of celebration and commemoration in public discourse within the institutions involved and between those institutions and segments of the American public. As a result of these changes and developments, history department programs have enlarged the range of courses and internships available to students who wish to practice history beyond the classroom. For this column, an examination of programs and such changes would be welcome, as would descriptions and evaluations of programs run outside of the United States. New initiatives, such as the Woodrow Wilson Foundation's program to help "unchain" humanities scholars from U.S. universities, deserve our attention as well.

As editors of the Public History column, we are following two hard-working colleagues, William Willingham and John David Smith. We thank them for starting the column three years ago. We ask for their help as well as that of the readers of Perspectives to send us materials for the column over the next three years. We can be reached at jannelle.warren-findley@asu.edu or leah.glaser@asu.edu or by telephone at (602) 965-5775. The mailing address is Graduate Program in Public History, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2501.

We look forward to hearing from you soon.

Jannelle Warren-Findley is associate professor of history and co-director of the Graduate Program in Public History at Arizona State University. Educated in the American Studies Program at George Washington University, she is the author or co-author of numerous studies that identify and analyze issues of policy and practice in public history. These include a congressional report, "Technologies for Prehistoric and Historic Preservation"; a documentary history of the space age, "Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program," Volume 1, "Organizing for Exploration"; and a number of articles in journals published in the United States and abroad. Her current work focuses on international public practice and the strategies through which cultural institutions negotiate the histories to be identified, documented, exhibited, and interpreted to contemporary audiences of residents and tourists worldwide.

Raised in Alexandria, Virginia, Leah S. Glaser received her BA at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in history and art history and her MA in public history from Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. She has published an article in the Journal of Arizona History based on her master's thesis entitled "Working for Community: The Yaqui Indians at the Salt River Project" as well as an essay in the National Park Service publication CRM, "'Nice Towers, Eh?': Evaluating a Transmission Line in Arizona." Glaser has enjoyed a variety of employment opportunities as a public historian with museums, a utility company, and city and federal agencies writing context, policy, and site histories. Her dissertation, "In the Modern Tradition," will address the delivery of public utility services to Native American communities.

As the new contributing editors of the Public History column, we anticipate receiving or soliciting a range of statements about public history theory, scholarship and strategies of interpretation, training, and issues of public practice. The field known formally as "public history" is now 20 years old in the United States, and is equally established in many other countries. Discussions of public issues, policies, and practices around the world now have the context of experience over at least two decades in settings that differ both culturally and geographically. Public practice is, in fact, thoroughly "globalized" with internships and professional exchanges promoted by international bodies like the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and international audiences for journals like the North America-based The Public Historian and the Australian Public History Review.4 Additionally, a range of texts and collections of articles that describe the work of professional historians in a variety of public settings are being produced in a number of countries, and discussions of that historiography both for practitioners and for classroom use will be welcomed here.

Notes

1. The G. Wesley Johnson Prize, sponsored by HMS Associates of Santa Fe, is given yearly by the National Council on Public History to the best article published in The Public Historian. Cary Carson, "Colonial Williamsburg and the Practice of Interpretive Planning in American History Museums," The Public Historian 20:3 (summer 1998), 11–51; Giselle Byrnes, "Jackals of the Crown? Historians and the Treaty Claims Process in New Zealand," The Public Historian 20:2 (spring 1998), 9–23.

2. The conference, sponsored jointly by the National Museum of Australia; the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, Australian National University; and the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy, Griffith University, will be held in Canberra, July 12–14, 1999.

3. A good discussion of the early days of public history in the United States can be found in Graeme Davison, "Paradigms of Public History," in Richard and Spearitt, eds., Packaging the Past: Public Histories (Melbourne: Melbourne Univ. Press, 1991), 4–15.

4. The Public Historian is published quarterly for the National Council on Public History by the University of California Press. Public History Review is published annually by the Professional Historians Association NSW, Inc.