I am currently working on a collaborative research project designed to re-frame the history of public history. The broadly accepted historiography of the field suggests gathering, protecting, and interpreting the past has been a conservative cultural project, designed to restrain social change. Yet most public historians argue that our work can serve disenfranchised communities and help to promote social justice.
In other words: the accepted history of the field, provides no foundation for understanding and analyzing its contemporary practice.
In order to address this problem, I am leading a group of public history scholars whose work sheds new light on radical impulses and influences on our field. Together, we are working towards a collection of essays that will open up new conversations about the origins of our work and facilitate better analysis of the ability of contemporary public history practice to foster social justice.
In addition to organizing and leading this collaborative project, I am also contributing original research. My project is designed to help us rethink the origins of public history education. Typically, the creation of public history as an educational track in higher education is traced either to the emergence of applied history programs during the early 20th century or to the establishment of the first named Public History program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the late 1970s. However, because these origin stories assume public history is a sub-field of the larger discipline of history, neither fully explains the rise of civic engagement as the centerpiece of public history education. History education tended to rest on the “noble dream” of objectivity. Professors and teachers who saw their work connected to activism or advocacy could not appear legitimate in this context. My research suggests that identifying educational initiatives that took shape through creative collaborations across various departments and institutions is crucial for exploring the origin and value of civic engagement in public history education.