The Relationship Between Audience and Content in Public History Projects

Public historians face several challenges when they think about the relationship between the content of their projects and the audiences that will experience them, which academic historians focused on classroom teaching and production of cutting-edge revisionist scholarship do not face. On the other hand, public historians’ priority to think about audiences’ questions and needs in developing history projects lends itself to lessons adaptable from the business world, and in a way responds to a challenge offered in the early twentieth century by a prominent leader of what has become the leading professional association of academic historians.

Effective public history projects normally have carefully considered their target audience and developed a focused message that answers questions or meets needs that that audience has. Public historians may take lessons from strategies in the world of business marketing that develop products according to carefully researched customer types and niches (Goltz, “A Closer Look at Personas”). Academic historians generally do research and publish in response to perceived “gaps” in historiography, or to correct its “errors,” and emphasize that even digital history projects prioritize “current scholarship” and have an “original” interpretation (McClurken, Journal of American History “Digital History Reviews”). Meanwhile, public historians think carefully about what questions potential audiences have. Of course, successful academic scholarship gets read by public as well as academic audiences. But the public’s reception of a journal article or monograph isn’t, often, the primary concern of an academic. To put it perhaps schematically, in other words, academic historians converse with other academic historians; public historians converse with public audiences.

To be sure, there is some interdisciplinarity between academic history and public history, although it is generally one-way. Effective public history events, exhibitions, or projects often draw on academic scholarship and methodology. On the other hand, perhaps because of an unfortunate professional or disciplinary gap between academic and public historians that likely has widened since the  formal establishment of public history as a profession in the 1970s, the content of work of public historians, with a few exceptions, far less frequently provokes or shapes the content of academic history. One factor likely shaping this incongruity is that public history has traditionally provided work for and encouraged collaboration among people without formal historical training (Grele, “Whose Public?”). This occurred in both traditional forms of public history in museums and historical societies through the 1970s, and even in the early days of the National Park Service, when individuals of miscellaneous backgrounds proved to be the most effective interpreters and guides on natural and environmental history (Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks). More recently it has occurred in a slightly different form in the re-invention of museums and historical sites to make them open to participation in “history making” by visitors, volunteers, lay people with direct historical experience, and other stakeholders, effectively blurring the distinction between producers or authors of public history and its consumers, or audiences (Frisch, “From a Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back”).

In 1931, the president of the American Historical Association Carl Becker gave a speech, “Everyman His Own Historian,” a somewhat strange tale about a man who faced a dilemma of not knowing which coal company to pay for delivering his coal.  Mr. Everyman initially remembered incorrectly, but when he went to his customary supplier, the honest coal man reminded him that he had not supplied the most recent delivery. Mr. Everyman then searched again, found a bill from the replacement supplier, and paid for the coal. Becker meant to emphasize the pragmatic ways that many or most people outside the academy “use” history: knowledge of the past is valuable when it solves a problem, or answers a real question that they face; and the measure of effective history – Mr. Everyman getting it sorted out about what coal man he needed to pay – is when people use the past to change their present behavior. Becker issued a warning to history scholars who scoffed at the pedestrian purpose to which Everyman put the past to use: “Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research.” Public historians’ concern for their Everyman audiences in developing content is a long-term response to Becker’s warning, which, conversely, for academic historians at the turn of the twentieth century, who faced increasing scrutiny over the “relevance” of the discipline of history in higher education, may have served as a prediction.

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