The past of public history can be traced along many different paths, but at least one runs though the American Historical Association. My interest in this question was first shaped at a lunch for the National Council on Public History at the AHA’s 1997 meeting. Much of the discussion circulated around two key issues–a catalog of personal slights by academics and an argument that the AHA was established for academics and making a false claim of authority over the entire history discipline.
In probing how and why there seemed to be this deep gulf between academics and public historians, the causes seemed to recede ever further in the past. Looking back at the papers of the early AHA, for instance, there were quite a few people circulating around in the leadership who looked rather like public historians: Reuben Gold Thwaites, the head of the Wisconsin Historical Society; Solon Buck, of the Minnesota Historical Society and later the National Archives; and Waldo Gifford Leland, secretary of the AHA and an early leader in the development of archival standards. Even some of the more traditional academics, such as J. Franklin Jameson at Chicago and Lucy Salmon at Vassar, were actively promoting documentary editing, historical societies, and other activities now widely recognized as public history. Continue reading