NCPH 2013 Book Award: Public history’s surprising roots

Categories: In the Academy, NCPH
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Editors’ Note:  This series showcases the winners of the National Council on Public History’s annual awards for the best new work in the field.  Today’s post is by Denise Meringolo, whose book Museums, Monuments, and National Parks:  Toward a New Genealogy of Public History is the winner of the 2013 NCPH Book Award.

Photo:  Michael Miles

Photo: Michael Miles

One of the most important arguments amplified in the joint report on Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian is that scholarship is a process, not a product. Public historians don’t “own” this idea, but we have more easily embraced the notion that research is more meaningful when we can frame questions, analyze sources, and offer interpretations by engaging in a collaborative process.

That holds true even when scholarship is packaged in a traditional product.

Like many academic monographs, my book–Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012)–began as a dissertation. But the transformation from graduate school project to published work involved more than “repackaging.” It required a complete reframing of the driving questions. For me, that meant connecting my research to both the challenges faced by my colleagues in the field and to the concerns–and misunderstandings–expressed by my students in the classroom.

Originally, I believed I was writing a history of the “professionalization” of public history. As a graduate student, I had been led to believe that public history professionalism began when the field replicated the traditional milestones of maturation: creation of graduate programs, establishment of a professional association, and publication of a journal. I wanted my dissertation to demonstrate that public history had a past distinct from that of the larger field of history, but the language and expectations attached to the word “professionalization” proved sticky. The more I tried to take readers down a different path, the more I found I was either trailing off into mucky theoretical language or forced to retrace tiresome and old fashioned debates about the presumed difference between “heritage” and “history.”

After completion of my degree in 2005, I put the dissertation aside for a long time. I re-immersed myself in the field. And I listened. At the National Council of Public History, an attempt to craft a definition had opened up debates about the relative emphasis on “public” versus “history.”  Are public historians simply HISTORIANS or have they developed methodologies and practices that distinguish them? At the Accokeek Foundation at Piscataway Park (where I worked for a year), innovative staff members–including an American Studies PhD, several volunteer educators, an actor, a naturalist, and an organic farmer–debated how to connect, evaluate, and explain their various functions in the context of a much larger and longer process of change on the historic landscape. Can a site without a traditional historian on staff be said to practice public history? In my graduate level “Introduction to Public History” classroom, students struggled somewhere in between their desire to uphold professional standards and their growing awareness that public sector work changes the nature and calculation–though not the commitment–to standards. Are disciplinary frameworks the best way to measure of success in the public sector?

When I finally returned to my dissertation, it no longer made any sense to me.

It realized I had to work backwards from an understanding of public history that was emerging organically from my interactions with colleagues and students. Rather than tracing a predictable trajectory of professionalism, then, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks argues that the multi-disciplinary, service-oriented, politically engaged work that we now recognize as public history has unique and complicated historical roots. Through this lens, I could see the relationship between budding naturalists in the 19th century and newly minted PhD historians hired by the Park Service during the New Deal. Between roughly 1840 and 1940, a diverse group of scientists, policy makers, educators, and historians ushered in the possibility of a profession called “public history” by actively asserting the immediate public value of their research.

My book draws attention to the fact that public history was born multidisciplinary, that it has been profoundly connected to questions about the nature and reach of public service, and that it has always occupied an unstable position relative to authority. My hope is that these observations will give us a new foundation for assessing our development as professionals and open up new conversations about our contemporary goals and entanglements.

~ Denise Meringolo is Associate Professor of History and Director of Public History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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