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  • Public History and The Big Tent Theory
  • Jennifer Dickey (bio)

Those of us who work in this field known in the United States as public history often struggle with how to explain what the term means to those outside the field. In 2007 at the National Council on Public History (NCPH) annual conference in Santa Fe, the NCPH Board announced it had arrived at a definition of public history that read as follows:

Public history is a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public.

The response to this proclamation was swift and, for the most part, negative. Conference attendees Kathy Corbett and Dick Miller, both of whom were well-respected, longtime professionals in the field, took decisive action to modify this new definition and, in a typical collaborative, public-historian fashion, asked other public historians to help craft a definition that offered a better description of "what we are and what we do." On May 21, 2007, they posted a treatise under the subject line "What is public history?" on the H-Public discussion board. Corbett and Miller argued that it was imperative for public historians to have "a description of public history that is realistic, succinct, and immediately intelligible."1 The definition proposed by the NCPH Board was, according to Corbett and Miller, none of these things. They questioned whether public history was "a movement, methodology, or even an approach," noting that none of those terms seemed appropriate. They declared the phrase, "embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible" as "especially unfortunate," explaining that the statement assigned public historians the role of "missionaries" and denied "lay people a creative role."2 [End Page 37]

In the true spirit of public historians, Corbett and Miller offered their own "description of public history," which read "Public history is a multidimensional effort by historians and their publics, collaborating in settings beyond traditional classrooms, to make the past useful in the present." They then called on their fellow practitioners to join in the discussion to help refine and polish this proposed description to reflect "the collaborative character of the enterprise and the shared agency of everyone involved."3

Corbett's and Miller's post kicked off a three-month discussion during which nineteen responses were posted to H-Public on the subject. Among the responders was Denise Meringolo, then an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland. Meringolo offered that "I've begun to think of myself as something akin to a community organizer," explaining that "I became a public historian when I began actively to look for ways to be of service, to listen and learn about the precise needs of a given community, and to gently challenge a community to push its own sense of boundaries and exclusiveness."4 Meringolo would go on to publish her award-winning book, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward New Genealogy of Public History in 2012 in which she reexamined the origins of the field of public history in an effort "to shift debates regarding public history away from matters of definition and toward questions regarding the larger value of history as practiced as public service."5

Carl Barna of the Bureau of Land Management and a twenty-five-year veteran of the historic preservation field endorsed Meringolo's statement stating "when I began to actively look for ways to be of service" as being "the best summation statement of what 'Public History' is that I have read on this thread."6 Public historian Jane Becker, a long-time practitioner in the field, reminded everyone that "What we now call 'public history' was often called 'applied history' in the past, but today the term 'public' incorporates some monolithic assumptions that go beyond a listing of places that history is created or managed outside of the academy."7

I watched this conversation on H-Public with a combination of interest and dismay. I was in the final throes of writing my dissertation in an effort to become the first PhD graduate from Georgia State University's public history program. [End...


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