The Public History Opportunity

I just spent the last several days making some serious revisions to our public history concentration at Messiah College.  After much discussion with my colleague Jim LaGrand, some benchmarking work (made much easier by the National Council on Public History’s Guide to Public History Programs), and the tedious work of filling out the “change of curriculum” paperwork that Messiah requires, I think we are ready to bring the revisions to the Curriculum Committee.  If all goes well, we hope to have the revisions in place by the Fall 2013 semester.  I will be back later with the details.  Stay tuned.

With all this in mind, my encounter with John Dicthl‘s post “When Opportunity Knocks” could not have been more timely.  Dicthl, the executive director of the NCPH, writes about the “malleable” nature of a graduate degree in public history.  A taste:

I think one of the things that make the practice of public history such a fascinating enterprise is its porous borders, the way it mixes so readily with other disciplines, professions, and interests. On the one hand this might mean more competition for jobs. On the other, it indicates there is very wide terrain across which public historians can keep producing their own possibilities.

Founding editor G. Wesley Johnson launched the first issue of The Public Historian, after all, naming eight broad sectors “of the new Public History,” ranging from government to business, historic preservation to media. Certainly public historians have turned up more in the 34 years since. Across 20,000 pages of The Public Historian and the hundreds of sessions and workshops of 35 annual conferences is a vastly variegated practice of public history. We find new roles for ourselves. Last December in the NCPH newsletter [PDF], consultant Darlene Roth revealed an array of opportunities for public historians who learn to market their “skills of doing history [, which] are more frequently used, needed, and recompensed than the expertise of knowing history.” NCPH Digital Media Editor Cathy Stanton happens to run another blog (in addition to NCPH’s History@Work), called History at the Table. It’s dedicated to “emerging collaborations among working farms, local and regional food networks, and historic sites and organizations,” a burgeoning field.

Meanwhile, a recent article on the Museum of Vancouver’s blog, “The City as Museum and the Museum as City,” offers a bold blueprint for making the city museum and its staff central players in the creation of their city, alongside, even leading, the designers, politicians, bureaucrats, and private sector.

These malleable, versatile, inventive, entrepreneurial, venturesome approaches make me highly optimistic that public historians will continue to create opportunity.