Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Future of Public History - Where is it Going?

This week’s readings ask us to think about the future of public history. Just as the public we work with is constantly evolving, so too do public history professionals need to adapt to the different ways that people think about history and the world around them. While we need to be mindful of the specific needs of each place, “office” and public historians also need to be aware that the greatest immediate need is a nuanced approach to history.

            Several prominent historians including Gary Nash and David Thelen participated in a study on behalf of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) to examine the effectiveness of the National Park Service’s (NPS) history programs. What they found was shocking. While a large number of programs were living up to the expectations of what constitutes “good history,” these historians also found that respondents collectively agreed that history in the NPS is “endangered” (16). The historians who conducted the study argued that those working in the NPS profession need to be professionally trained in the academy. Additionally, “office” historians need to play more of a role in strengthening the NPS through collaborative work.

            In the same way that the study of the NPS called for much-needed changes, James Chung, Susie Wilkening, and Sally Johnstone envisioned the future of museums. As technology becomes ever-prevalent, women’s place in the work force is expanding, and the energy crisis continues, these events will all play a role, according to this study, that will shape how museums will contribute to the global community. These authors envision that future museums will play a role in helping people understand their role in societal shifts and “be oases of the real in an increasingly virtual world” (43).

            Major American cities such as Philadelphia have struggled to adapt to the very real changes in the nation’s cultural sector, particularly due to the Great Recession. The study did find that the most attended cultural institution was history, with over five million visitors. This says quite a bit about our role as public historians. With many Americans looking to major cities as a platform to learn both about national and local/urban histories, it provides hope that the desire to learn about the past is not gone. It also goes to assert the premise in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s The Presence of the Past that Americans are most trusting of museums when it comes to learning about history.

            Thus, Americans still continue to look to the public history sector as an important authority in how they understand their history. It is time that major institutions such as the NPS be more open to presenting historical nuances and controversies. The American public is certainly not given enough credit for their understanding of their own history. What I would like to see in the future is more of an emphasis on cooperation between museums in the international community. In an increasingly connected world, it only serves to the benefit of the American public history sector to create bridges with other institutions. It does not serve in our interest to become insular, for that leaves institutions and the public isolated from the nuance that is necessary to conducting “good history.” 

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