History 671: Introduction to Public History

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Also cross-listed as American Studies 671

Instructor: Dr. Anne Mitchell Whisnant (Twitter: @amwhisnant)

Fall 2015
Wednesdays, 5:15-7:45 pm 5:45 to 8:15 pm
Dey Hall 402
Moved to MURPHEY HALL 221

Contacting the instructor

What Is Public History?

This course introduces the history, theory, and practice of public history.  There are many definitions of public history, but we’ll think of it broadly encompassing historical work that:

  • Is conducted in public settings;
  • Is fundamentally engaged with public audiences or communities;
  • Addresses itself explicitly to current public issues or problems; or
  • Mediates between the specialized knowledge of professional historians and the historically-oriented preferences, expectations, and needs of various publics.

To elaborate, public history is a vast and diverse field that can embrace all of the following components:

  • History in public: the many arenas where historians work and where historians and the public are in dialogue about history, including online; in museums, archives, and libraries; at historic sites, national parks, battlefields, and historic houses; in corporations, historical societies or organizations; and in and with government agencies.
  • History developed for and with public audiences: historical works directed primarily at public audiences (e.g. historical exhibits mounted in any of the above venues, as well as documentary films, trade or popular historical books, historical dramas or festivals, and historical novels); historical projects co-created with, and responsive to, various publics.
  • History on the public’s behalf: historical work done for public benefit or at public expense (e.g. to measure or certify compliance with public statutes concerning historic preservation, cultural resources management, or planning; or to undergird policy decisions); done within government agencies by professional historians or contractors; or produced as part of a dialogue about current political, social, or cultural issues (e.g. historically-oriented analysis of current policy debates appearing in the public media).
  • The public and history: what the public wants and seeks from its encounters with history. Topics engaged here include history and “heritage”; history and “memory”; the relationship of history and tourism; grass-roots historical projects and local history; participatory history through such mechanisms as re-enactments or crowdsourced projects; regional or national controversies over history; and general issues of “shared authority” between professional historians and the public.

A Braided Approach

A single introductory course cannot possibly cover the full range of professional practice and scholarly activity that constitutes public history.  This course will, therefore,  introduce some major issues in public history through an approach that weaves together two major strands:

  1. Reading and discussing some of the best recent public history scholarship engaging questions of:
    • who is “the public” and what do they want or need from history?
    • how parts of the past are remembered or forgotten
    • why “history” is inevitably dynamic
    • the historical development of the public history field
    • how public history can and does deal with difficult topics and painful episodes in the past.
  2. Practicing public history by creating together, as a class, a digital public history project focused on the history of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.  The central position of this project in the course means that
    • we will focus on learning something about the history of the university
    • we will try to undertake a public history approach that is appropriate for a university campus (as opposed to a museum or historic site, for instance),
    • we will engage the the history-related issues that are live in our community right now (including talking with various stakeholders and presenting our work in a public forum at the end of the course), and that
    • we will pay close attention to what digital historical projects can offer to public conversations about history.

Key Skills

Through the approach outlined above, this course will expand your knowledge of some key ideas and issues in public history while building some specific skills:

Practicing critical reading and discussion of other historians’ work

  • Reading complicated texts carefully to understand the nuances of historical arguments
  • Thinking critically and analytically about what you’ve read
  • Learning to have an informed, grounded, and authentic discussion of what you’ve read

Conducting original historical research

  • Doing historical research, including asking historical questions and finding pertinent primary and secondary source materials in archival collections (both physical and online)
  • Evaluating, assessing, and drawing meaning from primary sources and historical evidence
  • Keeping track of your research in a way that allows proper citation and tracking of your sources

Developing an interpretation and presenting your findings to public audiences

  • Engaging with various perspectives about the particular histories we’re researching to identify major questions
  • Formulating and articulating cogent, well-grounded, well supported, and engaging narratives about what you have discovered through your research
  • Trying to determine what kinds of interpretive approach might be effective in the current environment
  • Planning and executing a compelling, accurate, well-researched, and user-friendly online exhibit that is both appropriate to the stories you’ve uncovered and relevant to current concerns
  • Working collaboratively as part of a large team
  • Developing and executing an interesting, substantive in-person public presentation of your work

Working with digital history tools

    • We’ll have to think about how to translate historical findings into “data” appropriate for use in a visualization tool.
    • Tools we’ll use include:
      • Trello (where we’ll manage both day-to-day class and project work)
      • WordPress in the web.unc.edu environment (where the class project will be built)
      • Google Drive (where some documents and assignments will be created and stored)
      • DH Press/Prospect (a WordPress plugin with which to build the interactive visualization piece of our exhibit)
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