Public History

AHA Establishes Task Force on Public History

Linda Shopes, September 2001

At its January 2001 meeting, the Council of the AHA, on the recommendation of the Association's Professional Division, voted to establish a Task Force on Public History. The task force is charged with identifying ways the AHA can more effectively address the interests and concerns of public historians both within the Association and at large, as well as ways of deepening an understanding of and appreciation for the activities of public historians within the profession. In particular, the task force is to report to the Council on the following matters:

  • the size and nature of the current membership of public historians in the association;

  • the extent to which degree offerings in higher education institutions, including undergraduate as well as graduate programs, adequately take into account the role public history can and does play in the nation's cultural life and within the profession;

  • the professional needs voiced by public historians that membership in the AHA could and should address;

  • the degree to which various professional standards and practices published by the AHA adequately reflect and serve the ends of public historians; and

  • the ways in which the AHA could cooperate on public history issues and initiatives with other organizations, particularly the National Council on Public History and the Society for History in the Federal Government.

AHA Council member Linda Shopes, who works as a public historian at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, is serving as task force chair. The public historian elected to the Council this year will join the task force as cochair in January 2002. Members include Michael Frisch, professor of history and American studies at the University at Buffalo–the State University of New York; Marie Tyler McGraw, currently an independent historian and most recently on the staff of the National Park Service; Maureen Murphy Nutting, professor of history at North Seattle Community College; Noel Stowe, professor and chair of the History Department at Arizona State University; and Jamil Zainaldin, executive director of the Georgia Humanities Council.

The AHA has long demonstrated regard for the practice of public history: for example, Perspectives includes reviews of exhibits, films, and other nonacademic forms of presenting history as well as articles of more topical interest. AHA divisions and committees routinely include public historians among their members. The recently promulgated "best practices" document, "Encouraging Research Excellence in Postsecondary History Education," clearly recognizes that historical research can credibly be disseminated in a variety of formats and occupational settings.1 And most recently, the AHA has affirmed the Standards for Museum Exhibits Dealing with Historical Subjects, originally developed by the Society for History in the Federal Government, in communicating to the Smithsonian Institution its concerns about the scholarly integrity of the proposed "Spirit of America" exhibit, to be funded by the Catherine D. Reynolds Foundation and mounted at the National Museum of American History.

To build on these and other accomplishments, the Professional Division agreed that it is an auspicious time to examine more carefully the relationship between the AHA and public historians. In recommending the task force, the division stated: "We believe that it is to the mutual benefit of academic historians and public historians to find ways of making the Association serve the needs of public historians better. Many public historians believe that the AHA needs to support them more in their role as professionals. Many historians in college and university settings would profit by attention to the contributions of public history in at least two ways: first, it would broaden appreciation, understanding, and evaluation of their own public activities; and second, the issues of interpretation and presentation that face colleagues in settings like museums and parks are ones that enrich research and teaching generally. Finally, public history offers a route to employment for historians and, especially as the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education proceeds, it is important that issues related to training for public history positions be taken into account."

The task force has been charged with completing its work by June 2003. It is currently refining its agenda and developing a plan for effecting its charge. It will report on its work to date and listen to historians' concerns during an open forum scheduled for Saturday, January 5, from 12:30 to 2 p.m., at the AHA's 2002 annual meeting. Meanwhile, task force members welcome comments from colleagues about the professional lives of public historians, the practice of public history, and ways the AHA can better address both. Communications can be directed to Linda Shopes at lshopes@aol.com.

—Linda Shopes, a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, is a member of the AHA Council.