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In his article, “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?,” Ron Grele writes that public history “promises us a society in which a broad public participates in the construction of its own history.”[1] This challenges us to look at the art of doing history from a broader perspective. There has been an unfortunate dichotomy between academic history and history done outside of the academic settings. As an academic historian, I will confess that I have in more than one occasion been skeptical of the work of government historians or some of the local historians. My skepticisms are rooted in my suspicion that their work reinforces a certain agenda or plays to the wishes and desires of the audience unlike my own research which I will consider ‘objective’ because I am not paid to do it. One wonders, how may a United States military historian write a history of the war in Iraq when he or she is paid by the government to produce such a history? The proverb, “History is written by the survivors” cannot be completely discounted. Even as recent as last year, a Texas textbook tried to present the transatlantic slave trade which is a horrific event in our modern history as something else. The textbook described these slaves as migrant “workers,” a terminology that may be more acceptable to the sensibilities of the community but does not really capture the event. As Denise Meringolo has rightly noted, “Many rangers and educators complain that audiences resist stories about slavery, labor, and protest, but the problem lies not simply in audience hostility but rather in the long trajectory by which public landscapes became infused with historical meaning.”[2]

The solution to this problem does not lie in academic historians trying to delegitimize government or local historians. In fact, they should be a dialectical relationship between academic historians and those who work outside of the academy. While their research methods might vary, they have a common goal to identify, analyze, interpret and contextualize historical events for the benefit of the society. The “public” for the two classes of historians has often been narrowed by the disagreements that exists within the historical profession. Academic historians for the most part have narrowed their audience to the history students who take their classes and other scholars in their field. On the other hand, historians who work with the general public find that their work has little or no consequences in the academia. Should it really be so? Historians who work directly with the public have found ways to collaborated with people of other disciplines such as archaeologists and anthropologists and also with their audience. This is a skill that academic historians could use in order to make their work have a wider impact on society.

This collaboration between historians who work in the academia and those outside of the academia challenges us to rethink or redefine what we mean by public history. Grele presents an adequate definition: “the task of the public historian, broadly defined, should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events.”[3] This definition puts the human actors in the middle of the historical narrative, after all, human beings play a vital role in shaping history. The public historian has the task of helping them understand this history and place it within its proper context. This sometimes means gradually challenging the people to abandon some cultural myths or folklores that are generally held as historical facts or truths.

Adopting the tools academic historians use and combining them with their own unique connections and understanding of their audience will help public historians produce original interpretations that are valid and acceptable to both academic historians and the general public.

Notes: 

[1] Ronald Grele. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981):48.

[2] Denise Meringolo, “Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History.Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 167.

[3] Ronald Grele. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?”47-48.