Historically, historians working in universities looked askance on individuals who worked in government service, museums, and parks – places today recognized as public history sites (Dichtl and Townsend, Figure 1) – for several reasons. Individuals working in public history sites often did not have advanced degrees in history. Their research and interpretation sometimes did not involve written documents, instead relying on material objects or oral histories (Meringolo, 167). And, perhaps most scandalously among history professors, audiences were potentially uneducated or unappreciative of historical scholarship, or had politically partisan interests in what public history site individuals could say about the past (Meringolo, 161). These prejudices worked against recognition of public history as an equally or even more impactful form of historical work until roughly the 1970s, when the emergence of social history and the jobs crisis in higher education coincidentally prodded historians to see new validity in public history’s opportunities to study the history of ordinary people and of local or regional communities. Likewise, the argumentative turn in historical scholarship at the time, which questioned assumptions about the “neutrality” of history, shrank the supposed distance between academic and policy-supporting history: all interpretations of the past sought persuasiveness, all were arguments utilizing selected content, pitched towards particular audiences (Grele, 44) .
Still, today there remain some important differences between academic and public history in terms of cognizance among their practitioners of the importance of audience and content. Academic historians seek to reach undergraduate or graduate students, and scholarly communities principally composed of other academic historians. Academic historians design their content in a lecture to reflect recent historical scholarship, and in an academic conference to contain original research or at least to revise prior scholarship. On the other hand, public historians design their content in an exhibition, website, or tour somewhat more diversely: to reflect mainstream historical understanding of a topic but also show its connection to a local audience; and to invite audiences to help produce or contribute to as well as learn from an exhibition, website, or tour (Meringolo, xxiii). The latter aspect, grounded in the appeal of Progressive historians of the early twentieth century as well as, to an extent, the social history of the 1960s, is likely the clearest difference in the role of content and audience between academic and public history (Grele, 43, 47).
Dichtl, John and Robert Townsend. “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals.” Perspectives on History, September 2009.
Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 40-48.
Meringolo, Denise. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.