Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Roots, Issues, and Themes of Public History

This week's readings provide a fundamental framework to understanding the relationship between the general public and the public historian, particularly in how this relationship has transformed over the course of several decades. These selected texts emphasize the role of public history in constructing public historical narratives - that their voices are a very real force in crafting the fluid and perpetually changing memorialization process.

We are introduced and guided through these ideas quite convincingly in Rosenzweig and Thelen's The Presence of the Past. Their analysis of a national survey demonstrates that the American public forges very personal relationships with the past, whether through the media, museums, books, family, etc. This study was fundamental in debunking the idea that Americans are passive participants of the past, a tenant that may have emerged from the general passivity attributed to traditional history teaching in American classrooms.

These personal relationships to the past are fleshed out and given a focalized study in Carolyn Kitch's Pennsylvania in Public Memory. Kitch's examination of Pennsylvania's industrial history raises questions of how local identity and history intersect in the establishment of industrial heritage sites. In much the same way that heritage sites consider the regional identity in their narratives, such a process, "reframe[s] local identity for the people who live in it, creat[ing] a rhetorical bridge between regional character and nationality..." (42).

Similarly, Tyrrell's study of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA) highlights the organization's shifts throughout the early twentieth century - ones that focused on regionalism and its connections to a broader American identity. While not without its tensions, the MVHA forged relationships between professional and amateur historians, a service of collaboration among regional experts.

Collaboration between the public and historians is explored in Denise Meringolo's tracing of the beginnings and meanings of public history's major tenants. Rather than attempting to legitimize the field as others have done before her, Meringolo seeks to trace the field's roots.

Together, these texts highlight the important themes and issues that arise in the practice of public history. As demonstrated in Kitch's study, the memories and connections of a group's past to their region is often in tandem with how heritage sites and memorials derive their meaning. This displays the active role that the public plays in constructing and voicing their history. For me, this raises some questions as to the ways in which public historians connect to the communities they serve. First, public historians and Americans are not immune to larger national narratives. A positive, negative, or ambivalent response or attitude to this narrative is nonetheless a response. Thus, how are public historians to reconcile local histories with broader themes? Rosenzweig and Thelen address this issue in regards to minority groups whose history has been largely ignored and misrepresented in American history and life. This issue is incredibly relevant to this semester's oral history project with select residents of Mantua. In witnessing these members actively tell and engage us in their history, who and what do we represent as young public historians in the process? Furthermore, how and to what level are bridges of trust created? In reading Pennsylvania in Public Memory, these were just some questions that I hoped would become clearer in Kitch's study as well as we grow throughout the semester's discussions and projects.

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