My Public History Philosophy

My Personal Relationship with the Past

My family traveled a lot during my formative years. It seemed like every few years we would move, either to our home in Patagonia, Arizona or to a different Pacific island. First grade was split between the small town in the Sonoran Desert and the lush tropics of American Samoa. The second and third grades were back in Arizona. This is how it went for my family. Back and forth from Arizona to a variety of islands until I graduated from an Arizona high school while my family was living on New Caledonia, an island just east of the Australian coast. My very early years were spent doing weekend road trips with my family, discovering secret beaches on the islands, or exploring dusty ghost towns. We spent our social time celebrating birthdays at island cookouts or visiting my parents’ friends all over the state including the Hopi and Tohono O’odham nations. This early and ongoing exposure to different cultures not only gave me a wide worldview, but also nurtured a broader and more flexible understanding of communication, language, and education.
An engineer by trade, my father’s interests extend far beyond the scope of machines and electronics. He is passionate about history and our connections to each other and the spaces we occupy. My father is a teller of stories and he was my first history teacher. My mother is a librarian. I grew up around books and with a love of the written word. Because of them, I grew up with an appreciation for the value of stories, in both written and spoken word. Both my parents are drawn to storytellers as well, and during my early years, much of my engagement with adults included listening to their stories about the past. The most influential connection to history for me was these real-life storytellers. Through them, I found a personal relationship with history. It took me a long time to understand that this kind of “kitchen table” presentation of history is what truly fueled my early interest in the past and ultimately led me to study archaeology and eventually into public history. The next most influential means through which I developed a relationship with the past was in public history institutions like museums, publications like National Geographic, and documentary films, where I could link individuals and objects to stories. I learned about the larger context of subjects, events, and individuals that were isolated and disconnected in textbooks. The last thing that introduced me to history was through traditional public education. I experienced the common trope of the boring textbook with short paragraphs on each significant person or event, and the unenthusiastic teacher trying to simply make it through the module. History class was simply tedium to endure. The textbook memorization of names and dates scattered with dry facts and figures was not enticing to grade-school me. Had my only meaningful exposure to history been through grade school History class, I would never have found my connection to it. That said, this last experience helped me to understand one of the hurdles that historians face when attempting to engage the public in historical scholarship. In many cases, textbooks are the primary source of public exposure to the past and what they see as “history.”

Closing the Gap
One of the challenges of public history work is presenting history in a variety of ways, paying close attention to what audiences we wish to engage. The tone and pace of writing and presenting history for the public differ somewhat from the traditional presentation methods of history in academia. Academic historians can understand public historians’ presentations of scholarship, but not everyone can understand academic historians’ presentations. This gap in language and accessibility is unnecessary. I believe the discipline of Public History is uniquely suited to narrow the gap that separates academic historical scholarship and public understanding.

Making Space
Accessibility does not simply apply to the audience. Because of the broad range of work environments available to public historians, we often find ourselves positioned to open doors and provide space for underrepresented communities to share their history. By making space and highlighting the stories from communities underrepresented in traditional presentations of history, we help foster a broader public understanding of the world and the people in it. I believe that public historians’ responsibility in these positions is to make these spaces available and facilitate access for these communities.

Developing Meaning through Context
I believe it is critical for historians, and particularly public historians, to provide context in their work. People engage in history most when they feel a personal connection to the past. This connection develops when we include context between their historical subject and its relationship with the broader landscape. As an example, the concept of context in archaeology and in history isn’t that much different. Historical actors, structures, and artifacts are just like the sites and artifacts in archaeology. In archaeology, an individual artifact contains a small amount of information on its own. Its composition and design tell us a little about its environment and who made it, but very little else. Its relationship or context to the layers of soil above and below it, proximity to other artifacts, and geographical region create a much better understanding of its individual significance. I believe this applies to historical scholarship as well. While the characteristic details of the historical subject are incredibly important, the broader relationships significantly contribute to public understanding of the subject. I believe that it is an essential function of public history work to present historical subjects within a broader context to benefit an audience outside of traditional historical scholarship.

Peacebuilding with Historical Understanding
In the study of conflict mediation, understanding the historical context of a conflict can contribute to its resolution. By providing accessible historical scholarship, making spaces for communities to share their stories, and fostering a deeper public connection to the past, I believe public historians are an integral part of community peacebuilding. It may not be fair to say that those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it, but ignorance will always increase the likelihood of social injustices and conflict. Fostering the public’s connection to the past and each other through public history efforts can perhaps mitigate unnecessary injustice and conflict in the future.