In several days, I go to the first of my classes in the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts. It has taken me almost two years to get to this point, browsing through course opportunities, studying for the GRE, compiling an application, waiting to hear of acceptance, and then, once accepting opting to defer for a year.
Throughout this journey, the most frequent and, ultimately, the hardest question I had to answer about my choice of returning to the classroom to study Public History has been, “What is that?” Or, “Isn’t all history public?”
After a career in public diplomacy, I am used to people not understanding what it is that I do. I found it easiest to translate with a code of lay vocabulary, like “press and culture exchanges,” or refer to an activity we managed, such as “we ran the Fulbright exchanges.” That begged the question of why we didn’t just call the function “press and cultural affairs.”
So, I did develop a bit of shorthand for the “What is Public History?” question. “It’s history for museums.” Or, if I had 20 more seconds, “It’s making history accessible to a broader public, beyond academia, like in museums, or commemorative events and sites.” Even though it is more than that, that seemed to satisfy my family and friends who would then move on to talking about the hot weather this summer.
If it is more than that, then what is it? I suppose it may take two years of a Masters degree program to be able to answer this, but here are a few things which some of the practitioners say about it:
— making history relevant to social concern (Charles Beard)
— helping members of the public do their own history (Carl Becker)
— bringing state and local history into the academy, or co-opting state and local history (Grele)
— history beyond teaching and research, entrepreneurial, collaborative, engaging business, government and other entities (Bookspan)
— a people’s history, which fills in the gaps of what we have chosen to ignore (Frisch)
— uncovering the history of the “ordinary,” or history for the people, with the people; people seeking knowledge of the world they have made or that was made for them, shaping the way the present is viewed (Grele)
They all make sense to me, and are in many ways inspiring, but also lacking in answering the question, how? In museums, in preserving, in archiving, in writing, in interviewing, and yes, in teaching and even researching.
I’d still like to boil that all down to 20 words or less, that make sense to the ordinary person, with whom we are supposed to be collaborating.