History 671: Introduction to Public History
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Instructor: Dr. Anne Mitchell Whisnant

Fall 2014 [2014 version of course under construction now--May/June 2014!]
Wednesdays, 5:00 to 7:50 pm
Graham Memorial Room 0035

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 (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 a hybrid, braided approach that weaves together three major strands:

  1. Reading and discussing some of the best recent public history scholarship engaging questions of the public meanings and uses of history, the historical development of the public history field, venues of practice (especially the National Parks), modes of interpretation, audiences, workers, and politics;
  2. Visiting, touring, and analyzing one National Park Service site, including talking with at least one person at the site who has responsibility for historical work there; and
  3. Practicing public history yourself by making a contribution to a developing digital public history project focused on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This portion of the course will be developed in concert with the staff at the Blue Ridge Parkway, and will thus encompass both the experiential, service-learning portion of the course, as well as the course research project.

Service-Learning and Research:  Digital Public History Project

In both your service-learning work for the course and your own individual research, you’ll be building content related to an online repository and exhibit hosted at the at the Carolina Digital Library and Archives (a division of the University Libraries).  The project, Driving through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway, is partly directed by the course instructor, Dr. Anne Mitchell Whisnant, and has grown from her 2006 UNC Press book, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History.

Work on the Blue Ridge Parkway digital project will take place in several phases, described in more detail elsewhere on this site.  The central position of this project-based work in the course means that we will focus especially heavily on issues related to public history practice in the National Park Service and in North Carolina and Virginia, and that we will pay close attention to certain issues involved in developing historical projects that live in the digital realm.   The course readings will support us in thinking about how technological tools and approaches are shaping the field of public history, how they change (and do not change) the questions and issues that must be considered, and how doing digital history in a public history context may shape considerations of interface, content, and audiences.

Knowledge, Skills, and Experiences

Through the approach outlined above, this course will expand your knowledge key ideas and issues in public history, allow you to practice and develop your own skills in working with historical materials (especially digital primary source materials), and provide an opportunity for you to consider some career options in fields that involve historical work.  Many of these skills are useful in other realms and will make you more critical and informed consumers of history in the public arena.

Key issues will include:

  • questions of “what is history?” and “why does history change?”
  • matters of historical representation, public historical memory, conflict, controversy and power
  • history practice in different institutional settings
  • the impact of changing political climates on the public sector and public history
  • the impact of commercial interests and pressures on historical interpretation
  • the role of historic preservation legislation and regulations in shaping public history practice
  • questions of audience, authority, and control

Key skills will include:

  • reading carefully and thinking critically about what you read, see and hear
  • doing historical research, including evaluating, assessing, and drawing meaning from primary sources and historical evidence
  • thinking about and practicing innovative techniques of engaging audiences (including your colleagues in the course) in historical conversations
  • practicing good “digital habits” in managing historical research
  • developing appropriate “metadata” for digitized historical materials
  • considering how visual and spatial possibilities offered in the digital realm can enhance historical interpretation
  • understanding the framework of laws and policies that impinge upon much public history work
  • formulating and articulating cogent, well-grounded, and engaging narratives about what you have learned
  • creating compelling online exhibits
  • considering the social utility of history and the meaning of history for various audiences
  • asking questions and engaging in dialogue with other professionals
  • working collaboratively with your colleagues

Career exploration will help you:

  • see the world of historical work as a lively landscape of contested interpretations, divergent interests, challenging dilemmas, and intriguing professional possibilities
  • discover some of the different professional arenas that are open to students of history and related humanities fields
  • understand the interfaces between history-related work and other fields such as library science, regional planning, geography, and education
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