I recently came across this post by Alix Green, the Head of Policy and Lecturer in History and Policy at the University of Hertfordshire. Green is a public historian who recently attended his first National Council of Public History conference. He came away from the meeting surprised at just how marginalized public historians are from the more traditional historians in academic history departments across the United States.
Here is a taste of his post-conference post:
I’d always thought of public history in the USA as a big field. I guess I’d just made assumptions based on the 150+ programmes on offer and the energy of the discussions online and in print. It was only going to the conference, and, in particular, the educators’ breakfast, that made me realise how atomised the field actually is in many respects. The single academic with sole responsibility for directing an institution’s programme is common: an additional colleague if recruitment is good. The public historian seems often to occupy a demarcated space on the edge of the history department, responsible for ‘saving’ it through strong graduate employment outcomes, but at the same time not entirely integrated into the culture. Maybe the worst place for a public history programme is in a history department, came one wry comment. It was clear that the laughs that followed were in recognition of this sense of disjuncture between ‘public’ and ‘academic’ history in universities….
…I can see why professionalisation of public history led to efforts to delineate its differences from the academic discipline. But I don’t think we do public history as field finding its identity and purpose, or ‘mainstream’ history (or indeed our students, institutions or external partners) any favours by partitioning it off. It shouldn’t just be the bolt-on – the public engagement phase formulated once the research project is complete, or the member of staff kept on the periphery of the ‘real business’ of the department.
Public history can be a vibrant and integral part of scholarship and teaching, and it can also be a topic for critical, historiographical and comparative study…A key question, it seems to me, is how to balance the need for a locus for professional identity with the need for a more integrated historical community of enquiry.