- Public Historians: Histories, Communities, and Controversies
When I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, the Confederate flag was flying over the state capitol building just a few blocks from campus. At the time, debate was swirling over whether or not it was appropriate for the flag to fly there. Those who thought the flag should come down were appalled by the flag’s historical association with slavery and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Those who supported the flag argued that it represented “heritage, not hate”; they believed it paid tribute to the sacrifices of their ancestors during the Civil War. This controversy was highly charged because the capitol is the home to the state government, and as such represents the community of all South Carolina citizens. Thus, the debate over the propriety of the flag was in part an argument about what constituted the “community” of South Carolina—how is it defined? Who defines it? As a community, what stories do we want to tell about ourselves? Do those stories include the Confederate flag?
For me, a student about to embark on a career in public history, the flag battle was the perfect illustration of how the distant past and contemporary politics can intersect. Moreover, it demonstrated that different communities can view their shared past in dramatically different ways. History is not just another classroom topic. It can be something deeply felt by Americans, particularly as it becomes intertwined with issues of personal identity. Public historians (a catchall term given to all historians operating outside of the academy) are acutely aware of how potentially explosive these debates can be. The most [End Page 680] basic tool of the historian—storytelling—is, of course, available to anyone and requires no professional training. What separates historians from storytellers are their professional obligations: historians tell their stories with (hopefully) judicious scrutiny of evidence, theoretical sophistication, and literary skill. Public historians have additional challenges, since their work is closely connected to the community they are serving rather than told from the distance of academic contemplation. If a community balks at hearing uncomfortable history, the historian can be caught between professional obligations and common understandings of the past popularized in the community.1
The two books under review here both consider the task of public historians working within particular communities. The term “public historian” encompasses a wide range of activities: digitizing paper archives, preserving significant buildings, designing museum exhibits, or performing research for a government agency, just to name a few. The term seems odd when compared to other fields of inquiry—I’ve never heard of a “public chemist” or “public anthropologist”—but public historians are often defined in opposition to their academic counterparts. Of course, public historians do have academic training, but public historians have spent decades fighting for professional legitimacy. For public historians within the academy, it has meant working to get their off-campus work to count for tenure; for others it has simply meant seeing their careers acknowledged as something other than a disappointing alternative to the “real” job of teaching at a research university.
Denise Meringolo’s Museums, Monuments, and National Parks goes a long way toward correcting this characterization of public history, largely by rewriting public history’s past. Rather than seeing the development of public history as the result of university-trained historians casting about for work as teaching opportunities evaporated, Meringolo situates public history’s growth within the history of the National Park Service (NPS). The result is a story that has much deeper roots and that demonstrates the multidisciplinary beginnings of this particular branch of the profession. Meringolo begins her story in the antebellum era, when debates were ongoing about the appropriate limits of federal...