My formal research explores the social and cultural origins of public history practice . I am particularly interested in the ways in which grassroots political activism and unrest have influenced the direction of the field, both in terms of its core narratives and habits of work and in terms of its material culture. I draw attention to the ways in which histories of the field have limited our understanding of its goals and practices and constrained our ability to fully analyze its value effectiveness. The broadly accepted historiography 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. The accepted history of the field, provides no foundation for understanding and analyzing this aspect of its contemporary practice. Is there a way to trace this alternative history?
My first book, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (University of Massachusetts, 2012) examined public history’s origins in the federal government in an effort to identify a tradition of service. Yet, the book reluctantly concludes that the desire for legitimacy and authority framed federally located public history as largely conservative, motivated to control audiences rather than engage them.
My second book, Radical Roots: Civic Engagement, Public History, and A Tradition of Social Justice Activism, is an edited volume for which I have served as primary investigator, lead editor, and contributor. The project began as a Working Group at the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History. Over time, I have brought together more than two dozen public history scholars and practitioners whose work sheds new light on a variety of radical impulses that have shaped on the field. We have engaged in lively discussion and debate about the mission, practice, and relevance of public history. Together, we have produced a diverse collection of essays, interviews, and transcribed conversations that aim to shed new light on the field’s origins and to facilitate better analysis of the relationship between contemporary public history practices and social justice activism. Very early versions of some of this work can be found on History@Work, including these posts by Linda Shopes and Amy Starecheski, Rachel Donaldson, Will Walker, Judith Jennings, Elizabeth Belanger, and me. The book is currently under review. We anticipate it will be published on an open source digital platform by Amherst College.