Category Archives: Public History

Public History Series: Memory

I could not think of a better post to conclude the Public History series with than one on Memory because it plays into EVERY aspect of the discipline.  The key word in public history is “public.”  We create a link between academic history and the public by making history accessible by everyone.  Memory, in this case, is not a singular term, but a collective term.  The term most often used is “American Memory” and it is very important for public historians to understand.  The knowledge that slavery was bad and immoral is pretty common, and it is a negative memory within the American population, but that does not make it, and other controversial topics, easy to display.

Slavery, and other controversial topics are difficult to deal within a museum.  A museum that chooses to ignore the topic tends to enrage a portion of the population, but those that demonize slaveholders anger yet another part of the population.  Presenting such a controversial topic has been done in many ways.  One way, which causes a great amount of publicity, took place a few years ago at Colonial Williamsburg.  They held a mock slave auction in the town square.  This would have been a common occurrence in the Colonial Era, but was not something the public was interested in in the early Twenty-First Century.  It caused a lot of controversy and they have not attempted to do it again.  Slavery is still discussed within Williamsburg and they even offer a tour that focuses specifically on slavery within a colonial town.

Enola Gay

The other, and more famous, example of a controversial museum display was the Enola Gay.  In 2003, the Enola Gay went on display at the Smithsonian and was presented in such a way that angered those who were against the use of the bomb as well as Japanese-Americans.  The Smithsonian did correct the display, but the results upset veterans whose lives were, arguably, saved by the use of the atomic bomb to end World War II.  The Smithsonian solved the dilemma by taking down the display and leaving the aircraft on display with no interpretation.  The Smithsonian took the easy way out.  The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is controversial, but they have not close their doors in response to protests.

The key to remember when it comes to memory is that there are two sides to the same story.  The Civil War is a great example of this.  It is nearly impossible to make everyone happy when displaying any controversial topic in history; therefore, it is important to display the history in a way that is truthful and unbiased.  Allow the visitor to draw his/her own conclusions.

Memory is such a great topic to complete the series because it really does play a key role in how we present the history in all the sub-disciplines of Public History: local/regional history, oral history, historic preservation, documentary editing, museum studies, documentary film and visual arts, historical archaeology, and archival work.

It is important to remember that Public Historians are ultimately working to educate the public and should be wary that some events could be painful or offensive to a portion of the population.  This does not mean, however, that it should be brushed over or ignored.  This is, I believe, where public historians differ from academic historians.  Academic historians write for each other, and there are not many within the public that read academic journals or books.  It is important for public historians to use the academic techniques to present history to the public in a way that is accurate and unbiased.  That is the goal of myself and the goal of Public Historians.


NOTE:  This is the tenth and final post in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.


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Public History Series: Archives

One may wonder what the difference is between an archivist and a documentary editor, and that is a fair question, but there is a clear answer.  Documentary editors often spend their entire career dealing with the papers of one individual, whereas archivists tend to work with large collections of documents relating to a variety of topics.  There are many types of archivists, but I am going to focus on three.  They are city/county archivists, business archivists, and governmental archivists.

City and county archivists control a vast amount of information.  They tend to be in county court houses or city halls, and they are the people to see when you are searching for land records or deeds.  There are very complex systems of tracking land ownership and, it seems, every city and county handles it differently.  It is, therefore, nearly impossible to begin your work without the assistance of the local archivist.  There are other types of archives at the local levels, and they really fall under the category of Local/Regional History.  Families tend to donate documents from their grandparents or parents after they pass away and these are often donated to local museums.  These documents may or may not contain important information to the museums, but they do for genealogy and those records may be important when filling out forms for the National Register of Historic Places as well as a wide variety of other research.

North Carolina State Archives

Business historians are becoming more and more prevalent in the business community.  Large corporations produce a vast amount of paperwork (memos, quarterly reports, etc.), but many corporations also hold a large number of Patents and Copyrights.  Research into this area becomes necessary when Copyright or Patent claims arise.  This is a growing profession and should be considered by those with an interest in archives as well as business.

The most common type of archivist, however, works for the government.   There are many different positions available for an archivist within the government.  The military employs historians (usually civilian) on EVERY base to keep records and produce reports for the commanding Generals.  The National Park Service employs archivists to work on historic sites and in museums.  The most popular job within the government, however, is working for the National Archives.  There are a wide variety of jobs within the National Archives and the most important thing they do is the declassification of documents.  This requires the skill of interpretation that a historian possesses.  Documents are placed in boxes according to subjects and each document must be read and placed in its proper location with the possibility of cross-referencing (meaning it deals with more than one subject).  This process is tedious and may explain why the National Archives is behind in brining declassified documents to the public!

I have had some archive experience when I worked at the George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Missouri.  There is nothing like reading through documents that have not been seen in decades.  Archivists do this on a daily basis and it makes for an interesting career.  Many public historians choose to go this route since there are a wide variety of options within the field.


NOTE:  This is the ninth in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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Public History Series: Historical Archaeology

Historical archaeology is not a complicated subject.  It is much like regular archaeology except it involves digging at historic sites.  The key with historical archaeology is looking for the artifacts left behind by those who occupied the land.

Historical Archaeology can be pretty technical.  Like typical archaeology, digging is done in squares.  Artifacts are carefully removed and documented as to their proximity to buildings and landscape, but also their depth in the ground.  The depth is specifically important because it is possible to use that depth to determine its age.  Stratigraphy is a branch of geology used to determine the age of layers within the soil.

The artifacts found can also help in understanding who was there and when.  One of the most common and widely studied artifacts are pipe stems.  It sound strange, but pipe stems can help date a site to within a few years.  This then brings in another key term: terminus post quem.   This Latin term roughly translate to “the date after which.”  It essentially means that nothing found in a specific layer can be older than the oldest artifact.  While this all sounds complicated, it is rather simple.  If you find three artifacts and Artifact 1 is from 1850, Artifact 2 is from 1870, and Artifacts 3 is from 1905, then we know the site cannot be older than 1850.  This is true for more than historical archaeology.  This is also true when determining the age of a house by looking at the specific building materials and construction techniques.

Archaeology at Montpelier

Historical archaeology is important because it uncovers artifacts of everyday life as well as bones of animals.  Extensive studies have been done on plantations in the South, and James Deetz found, in his book In Small Things Forgotten, that slaves ate different types of meats.  This has been determined by studying the remains of animals near slave cabins.

Historical archaeology is ongoing at many sites within the United States.  One project that I am familiar with takes place at Montpelier.  They are excavating in search for items from the Madison era.  Things have been discovered include: remnants of slave cabins, kitchens, and artifacts once owned by the slaves on the property.  The work is ongoing as the property at Montpelier is quite large.

There is a need for students to work on these projects.  Montpelier has a summer internship program that allows college age students to assist with the archaeological projects.  While not all of them are public historians, several are.  It is a great opportunity to do field work and not spend all the time in an archive or museum.  It is one of the most exciting sub-disciplines within public history.


NOTE:  This is the eighth in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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Public History Series: Documentary Film

While museums are a very common way for the public to experience history in the field, they experience history in their living rooms by watching historical documentaries.  These are often produced in cooperation with historians and public historians to ensure their accuracy.  There is, however, a very special technique required to take history from a book and put it on PBS or the History Channel.

Historical documentaries can come in two forms.  The first is the traditional “Based on Historical Events” film.  These films are a nightmare for historians because while historical sources are used in the production of the film, there is a creative twist to it that detracts from its accuracy.  In a film about George Washington, for example, he may be depicted talking with the members of his Cabinet.  We have an idea what was discussed, but we do not know the full dialogue, so that is filled in.  Other issues, architecture, costuming, etc. all add up.  If done correctly, everything would be period, but that is not always the case.  This is a popular form of documentary and they are effective at engaging the public.  They encourage a small portion of the audience to do further research, but the majority take the documentary film as fact.

The other type of documentary is the kind you are used to seeing on the History Channel or PBS.  That is the story of an event being told using actual images or videos from the event with historians commentating.  Perhaps one of the most famous filmmakers of this type is Ken Burns.  His series on the Civil War changed the way people thought about documentaries.  He used the right mix of reenactment, interpretation, and historical images to bring the Civil War to life.  That is not to say that every historian loves Burns’s work, in fact, a lot of historians hate him.  However, he does make entertaining films, and does it without sacrificing integrity.

So the next time you are watching a documentary on PBS or the History Channel, pay close attention to how well it is at telling a story and whether or not they are allowing the history to tell itself.  Also, watch the credits and notice how many historians worked on the project.  The History Channel and PBS have historians on staff to review the films before they are aired, but each project will have its own historians involved.  Be aware, all documentaries have some form of bias and that is usually easy to detect.  Once the viewer looks past the bias, there is an important story being told and it is up to historians and public historians to ensure the stories are told accurately.

NOTE:  This is the seventh in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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Public History Series: Museum Studies

Many Public Historians choose to work where the public is most likely to encounter history, museums or historic sites (I will use the general term “museum” through out the post, but the same is true for historic sites).  There are a wide variety of positions available in museums from curator to interpreter.  There are also several types of museums from private to those within the National Park Service.  No matter which museum you choose, you present history to a large audience.

The different positions available within a museum is numerous.  Aside from administrative positions, historians often occupy many of the major positions.  At the top is usually  curator and an advanced degree in history usually required.  The curator oversees all tasks within the museum, but most of the front-line work is done by other staff members.  Behind the scenes there are archivists at most museums.  A typical museum has a large collection of artifacts, and it is not possible to display them all at once.  The archivists job is to keep inventory of the museums collection.  There are also collection specialists that work on this as well.  Many museums will also employ preservationists/conservators to ensure the documents and artifacts are properly preserved.

One the front lines within the museum there are those who design the exhibits.  Exhibit designers usually are not employed by a museum, but they are hired by the museum from outside firms.  Smaller museums may have their staff design the exhibits, but this is often done by a group of professionals.  The most important members of a museum are the interpreters.  Most often they serve as a guide for visitors through the museum.  What the visitor remembers will most likely be what they are told by the interpreter.  There are many different kinds of interpreters.  The Park Service uses rangers and many small museums use volunteers to guide visitors.  The museums that get the most attention, however, are the ones that use interpreters and re-enactors.  A great example of this is Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.  All the interpreters are in period costume and work to create a living city environment for the visitors.  Williamsburg is not the traditional museum, but it is very effective.

The city street of Colonial Williamsburg

The different types of museums are also important to take into consideration.  Private museums are more common than public museums, but both do well at interpreting history.  The main difference between the two is funding.  Private museums are often funded through donations and that can cause issues with what is displayed in the museum.  As I discussed in the post about Local/Regional History, a local museum relies heavily on donations and if a prominent family gives a substantial amount, they may want their family’s history displayed in the museum or not displayed depending on the family’s past.  Public museums, like the Park Service, do not rely as heavily on donations, but they still have to be concerned about offending the public.

All museums have to be concerned about how they present history.  It is nearly impossible to display artifacts from an event without angering a portion of the population.  This is especially true when displaying artifacts from controversial historical events such as slavery, the Holocaust, or the use of atomic weapons on Japan.  These topics are difficult to begin with, but displaying them in a way that does not offend is nearly impossible.  I will discuss this more in a later post about memory.

Museums are the most important and most common way that the public comes into contact with history.  That is why it is important that the displays be accurate and tell a clear story.  Even if the topic is difficult for the public to deal with, it still needs to be told.  Public Historians often work in museums and many work for the National Park Service.  While in school, museums are a great place to intern and get a feel for life in a museum.  The Park Service has excellent internship opportunities and I interned for them last year.  Museums are important because they tell the story in a way a book cannot.  Bringing the pubic into contact with the artifacts is key to allowing them to understand history.

NOTE:  This is the sixth in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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Public History Series: Documentary Editing

Documentary editing does not refer to television documentaries, but to documents. When you conduct research on a historic figure, you go to the library and look for a volume of that particular person’s writings. You find what you are looking for, check it out, and use it in your paper. Have you ever wondered how those collections of documents are created? Very often what you have checked out is an edited collection of papers, not a complete volume.

Documentary editors seek ALL the papers related to a specific person. That does not mean, however, that they wish to publish every paper. What they will often do is release volumes of papers that are thematic such as, “The Presidential Papers of…”, “The Letters of…”, or “The Writings of…” These volumes are only a fraction of the correspondents or documents written by the historical figure. These volumes are very important to historians conducting research and the documentary editors themselves are often Public Historians. They have to have an interest in the subject matter, however, because it often takes decades to complete such a project. They also have to make the difficult decision of what gets published and what does not. There are volumes that include everything, “The Complete papers of…,” but most often only a selection of documents are published and that makes for difficult decisions.

That brings about some negative aspects of documentary editing. The fact that it can take a long time means that the projects often eat money. The research required very expensive and time consuming. Today, the National Archives and University Libraries have become a repository for these types of documents. Universities can use students or interns to go through the papers and make them available. With new technology, however, documentary editing has become an online project. The University of Virginia is working on the Papers of George Washington. A project that has been going on for decades. What they are doing today is making many of his documents available online. This saves the cost of printing and eliminates the difficult decision as to what gets published and what does not. With online archives, everything can be scanned and placed online for the reader/researcher to sift through.

There are drawbacks to online documents, however. Most common is credibility. Sites with the suffix .edu or .gov are usually safe and reliable but sites that end with .com and .org require a little research into the organization running the site. Bias can dictate what documents are published and what documents are not. Be wary of ALL sites and do some research into who is running them before using or citing them as a source.

Documentary editors have a difficult job in collecting the papers of an individual and determining what should and should not be published; however, new technologies, are making it possible for the documents to be published as a complete collection in an online format. This allows greater access to documents, but can create a credibility issue. Nonetheless, documentary editing is extremely important to historians and should be considered by those interested in conducting research.


NOTE: This is the fifth in a ten part series on Public History. The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6. A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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Public History Series: Historic Preservation

I have written about Historic Preservation in a previous post, but I wrote about the course I am taking and how we work to preserve buildings.  There are, however, different types of preservation.  The areas of preservation include buildings, books/documents, and artifacts.  I will go through them one-by-one.


As I mentioned in my previous post about HIST 593, in order to preserve a building, you must first learn how it was constructed.  This will allow you to identify the period in which the building was constructed, but will also help you determine the areas that may be the weakest structurally.  When preserving a building, it is important to maintain its character.  Putting aluminum windows or siding on a historic brick building would be inappropriate and would make it ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places.  The key to preserving any historic building is insuring the preservation of its character.

There are many aspects to preserving a historic building including replacing the building materials with traditional parts, decorating the house as it would have originally been, and preserving the outer appearance of the property.  That is the key for the National Register.  They understand that the inside will have been modernized (bathroom, kitchen, etc.), but the outside of the house should look as it did when the structure was constructed.

So how do we determine whether or not a house is eligible for National Register?  First the building has to meet one of the following qualifications: 1. significance by date (e.g. Plantation House), 2. significance by person (e.g. Monticello), 3. cultural affiliation (e.g. Slave cabin), or 4. significant architect/builder (e.g. Falling Water).  One of those qualifications must be chosen on the National Register Application, but that is not enough to justify the listing of a building.  The building must maintain integrity in several aspects including: 1. location (has not been moved), 2. setting (the landscape has not changed significantly), 3. design (no major additions that detract from the building), 4. materials (cannot be aluminum siding), 5. feeling (must convey a feeling of being historic) and 6. context.  None of these categories are concrete, of course, so it may be possible for a structure that has been moved if it maintains other forms of integrity.

Preservation and the National Register are not exact sciences, but there are a series of steps to insure the process is done correctly.  First, the National Register nomination is submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office (yes, every state has one!).  They research the building and insure the facts are accurate.  If they are, the structure is added to the State Register.  A committee than decides if the building is worthy of listing on the National Register.  If so, they send it on, but there is not guarantee that it will be listed.  The process is very long and requires someone with specific knowlege to research, and Public Historians fit the bill.


Declaration of Independance as it appears today

The preservation of books and documents are equally important and are very specialized.  These techniques often require certification and/or and degree in Library Science.  However, many Public Historians seek this type of degree or certificate after completing their Master’s Degree.  This is a very technical process, one that I have little experience with, so cannot elaborate too much on the subject.  Archives and libraries often employ paper conservators to ensure their collections are properly preserved.  One of the best examples is the National Archives.  They are responsible for some of the most important documents of our nation’s history: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Both are old documents and require regular maintenance, but they also require someone with specific knowledge to ensure that they do not degrade further.  This is a very important task and one that often begins with Public Historians.


As with books/documents, I have limited knowledge on this subject, but it is equally important.  Historians often specialize in knowledge of clay pots, etc. when they work on archaeological sites.  Their job is to responsibly clean artifacts that have been unearthed.  They may also have to piece together many pieces of a clay pot to get an idea of its shape and, therefore, its significance.  At Montpelier, there is an archaeology department that are working to uncover items that belonged to the Madison’s and their slaves.  They have archaeologists and conservators on site, but they also use students from JMU.  This gives the students hands on experience with artifacts and the processes involved, but is also moving the project forward at a rapid pace.

Preservation is a multi-facited sub-discipline within Public History that requires specialized knowledge.  I am sure there are others types of preservation that I have not included, but these are the most common.  Preservation is an important part of history because it ensures an objects survival for future generations.


NOTE:  This is the fourth in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.

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