What Belongs in a Public History Course?

I’ve been mulling over the idea of putting together a public history course. We don’t have the resources to develop a major in public history, but by pairing a course or two with an internship and practicum, a minor might be a possibility. If we go through with such a change, I’m expecting that it will give our majors more career flexibility once they graduate.

Aside from working at The Hermitage and rubbing elbows with my fellow MTSU grad students in public history years ago, my only experience with that area was when I taught an independent study course on historical interpretation in 2006. The course was raw, and I’m not sure how much it benefited the two students who took it. In addition to asking students to serve as interns at historic sites in Concord, New Hampshire, I assigned the following books for the course:

  • Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Smithsonian Books, 2002)
  • Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (Vintage, 1993)
  • James Loewen, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (Touchstone, 2000)
  • Timothy B. Smith, This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park (University of Tennessee, 2004)
  • Mike Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory (Temple University Press)

A former student recommended some possible readings for a public history course, and I also found syllabi at the Public History Resource Center.

What say you, readers? Are these books appropriate for an introductory public history course? If not, what would you recommend?

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11 Replies to “What Belongs in a Public History Course?”

  1. I finished my M.A. in Public History at UNCG. I also, in my undergrad in Historic Preservation, take courses that dealt with public history and historical memory.

    I can only add that whenever I now hear “Enola Gay” I visibly shudder. Whenever the Enola Gay issue came up in college and graduate school, I was known for displaying an early 1800s engraving that had been converted to a .gif file with a man beating a dead horse with his walking stick. Unfortunately, I was beaten over the head with it so much between 2006 and 2010 that I honestly have been to museums since then and when I saw that the World War 2 section (rightfully) included this subject I walked on to the next bit of history. Which is an interesting take there I guess on memory (as I am choosing to know what happened in 1945 but choosing to ignore the controversy regarding the interpretation of the event by the Smithsonian).

    I say all that because I think there may be some articles in the Public Historian that may move us to other controversies more recent than that one. Of course, we need more people writing about things such as the I think our next “Enola Gay” in the Public History profession will be the effort to move past simply commemoration of September 11, 2001 toward historical analysis of that day and the events leading up to and following.

    On the other front I positively loved Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Smithsonian Books, 2002).

    1. Emmanuel,

      Thanks for commenting.

      I don’t have the same warm feelings about Representations of Slavery that you do. The jargon was off-putting, and it gets a bit repetitive. I did appreciate its sociological perspective, though.

    2. Emmanuel,

      You lost me on the Enola Gay reference. I think one reason you have controversies is that the history profession has done a poor job of educating the public about the nature of historical knowledge, the biggest fallacy being that there is one authoritiative interpretation that is good for all time. You’ve heard this expressed whenever a politician cliams future vindication by saying that history will judge such and such.

      Museum exhibits (also textbooks, documentaries, movies) should avoid pandering to popular prejudices or pushing elitist prejudices. An example of the former is “patriotic” history, while California’s new gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender (Did I include everyone?) history standards represent the latter.

  2. One thing I look for in public history sites is how they handle differences in interpretations. Some sites never get to that point and seem content with show and tell. Indeed, some folks I’ve met see history as a collection of “fact.” Unfortunately, some museums treat one interpretation as fact while ignoring other legitimate interpretations.

    The Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian in 1995 was a good case in point, involving as it did the question of the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan in World War II. The controversy is usually depicted as the enlightened scholars (the Smithsonian curators) vs. the yahoos who demanded patriotic history (the veterans’ organizations and conservative politicians). But the Air Force historian at the time, who had worked at the Air and Space Museum earlier, was very critical of the Smithsonian because he thought they were putting forth a particular interpretation as fact. Since he and I went to grad school together, I had several conversations at the time with him about the controversy.

    At the time I thought and I think it would have been possible to present the case for dropping the atomic bomb while also presenting a point of view that questioned the morality or tactic of dropping the bomb. There are a lot of things that could have been done to explore the whole question of the bombing of cities in World War II, especially how it looked then and how it looks now.

    For me the key to any presentation is whether you give the public the answers before you give them the questions. Giving them the answers first is propaganda and conveys a false idea of the nature of history. It’s better to give the public as much information as possible so that they can at least have an idea of what any controversy is about.

      1. What I think historians should do is expose the public to the complexities of history as opposed to usually simplistic memory (memories). Sometimes what some see as history is really a different version of memory.

  3. It would be helpful if students were familiar with the journal, “The Public Historian” as a reference work. It has provocative roundtable discussions of public history concerns, and a few articles about public representations of Native Americans, especially in museums and the courts.
    Edward Linenthal’s “History Wars” discusses the public memory battleground, particularly the debacle of the Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian.
    Finally, Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study, “Presence of the Past,” asks precisely how do Americans understand history? It’s both informative and a little frightening.

  4. I think those sound good. I’d also throw in at least a few articles or chapter on archives..I can recommend some. Also, for HP Donovan Rypkema’s The Economics of Historic Preservation: A Community Leader’s Guide (NTHP, 1994) is a staple piece that I highly suggest.

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