Publication Date

April 1, 2011


Public History

Historiography, or the study of history and how historical interpretations change over time, is a concept fundamental to professional historians. We study how major historical voices introduced and interpreted relevant sources and provided insights about the significance of the topic. We compare and contrast their arguments and techniques and examine how they reflect the broader context of the times in which they were published. If all goes well, we come away with a deeper understanding not only of the specific issues within the topic but also with important knowledge of how and why historians’ approaches to it and their conclusions about it have changed over time.

Understanding historiography does not always come easily to undergraduates, who tend to see history as a collection of facts and do not see the relevance of studying how historical interpretations change over time. A concept as critical to our field as historiography should be made more relevant and appreciable to undergraduates and even advanced high school students. Working with public history sites can give undergraduate interns a concrete example of historiography by examining the process of creating museum displays and tours. Studying changes in historical presentations at public history sites can capture historiography in real time and enliven the topic for students by illustrating changes in historical interpretations and the reasons for them.

My case in point revolves around a section of the practicum of history course I teach, which requires students to work as interns in public institutions such as historical societies, museums, archives, and other history venues. In conjunction with work in the field, students research a historical topic related to their experiences for a final course paper. Last spring semester, I worked with a number of undergraduate students who had secured an internship for the semester at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Archive in Yorba Linda, California. They arrived at the library at a most opportune moment to learn about historiography in real time. In the end, their class discussions and final course papers all indicated that their practical experiences with historiography prompted a deeper understanding of history as a changing body of materials and interpretations. They each expressed great satisfaction with both seeing historiography in action and actually participating in historiographic changes themselves. They most certainly will carry these experiences with them into their own graduate school and professional lives.

To begin with, the setting for these internships was unique. The students began their internships as the Nixon Library was undergoing its transition from a privately run museum—the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace—to a public branch of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as a full fledged presidential library and archive. The site’s history as a private institution began in 1988, as Nixon and his family planned the museum and birthplace location to honor the Yorba Linda boy’s success culminating in his rise to the presidency. This institution was not by any means analogous to other presidential libraries because the site did not house the papers of the president. Those papers had been seized by Congress in 1974 when members learned that Nixon had struck a deal with the General Services Administration that would have allowed him to destroy some records. Under the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974 (PRMPA), Congress stipulated that Nixon’s papers must remain within 50 miles of Washington, D.C., and they were housed at the National Archives, first in Washington then at the new building of the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. The Yorba Linda museum contained a small birthplace home and exhibits of Nixon’s history as a California congressman, senator, vice president, and president of the United States. The highlight of the museum was the foreign leaders’ room housing statues of important figures Nixon dealt with while he was president. These include Leonid Brezhnev and Chou En Lai.1 Such a display was in keeping with Nixon’s own agenda to elevate his record in foreign policy while downplaying the Watergate affair, which was not, as you might imagine, a major aspect of the displays. In fact, the private museum described the events of Watergate as a coup by Nixon’s enemies rather than any fault of the president himself. While Nixon was alive and when his heirs controlled the museum, Nixon’s version of history remained on display.2

After Nixon’s death, Congress revoked the 50-miles from D.C. stipulation of PRMPA, opening the door to establishing a new Nixon Presidential Library. In July 2007, the Nixon foundation handed over control of its museum site to NARA. The new Nixon Presidential Library Director Tim Naftali began to oversee changes that would include the transfer of 46 million pages of presidential papers from College Park to a new archive building on the Yorba Linda site. At the same time, the museum began to revise exhibit materials. One of the first alterations was Naftali’s meticulous dismantling of the old Watergate exhibit to provide a more balanced account of the events.3 A new Watergate exhibit, that opened July 1, 2010, presents a timeline of events and oral history excerpts that viewers may listen to, and covers infamous events such as the Saturday Night Massacre and the “Smoking Gun” recording.

The student interns had the opportunity to help with moving in the new materials and preparing them for use by researchers in the new facility. Working with the documents taught students how vast the historical record is, and that not all documents are equal. Some seem to contain mundane information while others are more useful to researchers. Working with staff cataloguing items, curators selecting elements for an exhibit, tour guides teaching students about the displays, and researchers focusing on their topics of interest showed the interns how different users decide which documents are significant. What these users understand according to their own experiences and education and how they choose to present the information to the public are the processes through which historiography is made and remade.

The physical changes at the Nixon Library have been accompanied by transformations in the historical interpretations of the site materials in the public tours and events. Indeed, these historiographic issues became an integral part of the interns’ day-to-day experiences and the subjects of their papers. The students worked individually as tour guides in the museum area. They were trained by NARA staff but also worked alongside docents who had previously worked for the Nixon Foundation. According to the students, the tours could vary widely depending on who was leading the group. Foundation docents focused on the highlights of Nixon’s early career and his foreign policy achievements as president. Some blatantly ignored the emerging Watergate exhibit. One student remarked upon seeing a docent linger over the first part of the museum and avoid the Watergate section, saying to his tour group, “Sorry, we are out of time, so we are going to skip this part.” “I honestly could not believe my ears,” the student stated. On the other hand, NARA staff added discussions of the emerging Watergate exhibit.

Students also saw the items and the placards within the museum space evolving during the weeks they spent at the site. One of the Vietnam War exhibit displays that had been constructed by the Nixon Foundation had a panel about the Kent State shootings, which painted a picture of students throwing rocks to provoke guardsmen into firing on the crowd and implied that students were at fault for the killings. That panel has since been replaced with a new one. Now visitors see a time line of the days leading up to the incident and a map of the site where the events unfolded. Rather than simply blaming students, the new presentation includes more information about the actions of both the students and the guardsmen, allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions. The shift of interpretations was immediately apparent to the student interns. “This is one of the examples of history NARA has rewritten,” commented one of the interns. They understand that museum displays are not “just the facts” but reflect historical interpretation. Different messages have been displayed as museum curators with different interpretations of the events have shifted. As one student intern observed, the layout of the museum reflected “the way Nixon was viewed at the time the museum was built. His achievements and events that reflect his grandeur typically were the bigger exhibits. In contrast, events such as Watergate or his failed run for governor of California [contained] little information . . . . NARA has constantly been updating information that the foundation had skewed.”4

The particular situation involving interns at this historical site is but one example of how students can learn about historiography by working in public history sites. These institutions play a critical role in education of the public and, as such, can be locales of intense debate over the interpretation of history. Students can see how the information at these sites reflects current historiography and, in turn, helps to shape it. What many students struggle with in books alone may be seen literally on display and in motion at these sites. Such internships also engage students with staff at public history sites and may play a part in helping to bring more connection between history teachers and workers in those institutions who also teach history.

Comparable experiences might be had at any historical site that gives public tours. Students may examine the items on display and the docent tour information for changes over time. This may also be done without spending an entire semester as an intern or conducting research into site materials. One way to accomplish the comparison on a much smaller scale would be to have students visit a public history site at two different times with different guides and analyze how the interpretation of the materials or events changes over time as well as according to the person in charge. This simple exercise brings home the notion that history is not static and information may be altered by the interpreter. Students must ask why that is the case and what influences particular people to look at history in different ways. Those conclusions serve as the basic building blocks of historiography. Upon that foundation, history teachers may build more sophisticated lessons, including having students work individually or in groups analyzing multiple books on a similar topic to reach a fuller understanding of historiography. Students benefit from and appreciate practical approaches that will allow them to advance as historians. As teachers and historians, we all gain from that shared knowledge.

Donna M. Binkiewicz teaches U.S. history in the history department at California State University at Long Beach. She is the author of Federalizing the Muse: United States Arts Policy and the National Endowment for the Arts, 1965–1980. Her current research focuses on California politics and culture.


1. Nixon so wanted his China policy to be remembered as a glorious element of US foreign diplomacy that a plaque commending Nixon for his China initiative and détente are located near the birthplace home on the site. One of the student interns noted that the plaque seemed out of place, commenting “Oddly, China and détente have nothing to do with his birthplace home. In order to bring a fair and balanced perspective on the historical subject of President Nixon, the National Archives and Records Administration has changed the physical layout of the museum.” Justin Klippel, “Nixon’s bold Trip to China in 1972,” History 494 paper, May 19, 2010, 12.

2 Benjamin Hufbauer, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 142. See also the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Archives web site, “Materials History,”, (accessed June 15, 2010).

3. Tim Harper, “Restoring Nixon’s Warts: Expat Canadian takes reins of library with aim of giving realistic view of former U.S. president,” The Toronto Star, July 11, 2007, A03.

4. Robert Olguin, “Recreating History: NARA’s Impact and Portrayal of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum,” History 494 paper, May 19, 2010, 9.

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