Today it’s official! With my internship complete, and my report marked and approved as of 11:30am, I have earned my Master of Arts in Public History. And big surprise, I’m waxing introspective.
As a newly-minted public historian I have all sorts of dreams about what my future career could be like. The funny thing is, none of them match what I would have pictured myself doing just a few years ago. I get lots of questions from friends, family, even old professors. “What is public history, though?” “I thought history was already public.” So what exactly am I taking away from a Master’s degree in a field that seems so little-known? Let me be a typical humanist and say there’s no quick one-size-fits-all explanation for what public history is and how I got here…
I discovered public history in the third year of undergrad.
It was an assignment for a Canadian historiography course. Our task: to research one Canadian historian and create an essay and presentation about their place in the discipline of history in Canada. I didn’t recognize most of the names on the list of historians. I had never been much of a fan of Canadian history; medieval Europe has always been more my style. So I picked a name at random, and started to look up their works in the university library.
Divine intervention must have been at work in that name selection, because the articles I found seemed like they were written just for me. In “The Labour Historian and Public History,” Craig Heron claims that academic historians have much to contribute in the public arena, and that the work of historians can “help to build a more democratic culture” (197). There are many of these manifesto-style publications out there, but Heron’s article was the first in which I’d read something like that. It gave words to what had been, for me, a long-held instinct. Why shouldn’t historians reach popular audiences? Why shouldn’t our work be meaningful and relevant to those outside the discipline? What a relief it was for the 21-year-old me who loved history, but couldn’t see the point in spending a career stuck inside the so-called “ivory tower.” It was the public engagement aspect of public history that I became so enamoured with. I wanted to know how I could make history as exciting to the public as it already is to me. And for me, community engagement is at the heart of public history, whether you practice it at a museum, in a library, behind a computer screen, or at the front of the lecture hall.
So suddenly I had this idea that I could become a historian who works with the public. But how? Should I get my PhD and work with the community alongside teaching and publishing? Should I go into museums? And soon afterwards the bombshell of digital humanities hit, and that presented me with a host of other innovative possibilities for narrating and interpreting the past – websites, databases, collaborative projects and more. After a stressful period of trying to decide on the right grad program, I spent an incredible twelve months with Western, where I’ve been able to explore the theoretical aspects of public history as well as put new skills into practice.
Cue my internship with the NORDIK Institute. Only three months into a year-long contract, and I’ve already had the opportunity to do so much. I’ve worked on 94 pages for an educational website and Trail Guide. I’ve given presentations, chaired meetings, worked on a Research Ethics Board application, spoken with community members, designed graphics, took photos, geotagged things and plotted them in ArcGIS…and the list grows every day. By far the biggest challenge has been trying to develop a plain-language writing style after so much time in university. But for me, the biggest reward I can get for my effort would be to see the public enjoying what we’ve created and learning to see their familiar city with new eyes. Of course I’m researching – it’s one of the core things historians do – but what a completely different kind of project this is from your typical research paper!
One public historian, three big ideas
My personal concept of what public history entails has definitely expanded over the past year. That being said, Western’s program has reinforced my interest in the aspects of public history which first attracted me to the field. It’s all summed up by three big ideas.
1. The distinction between public and academic history is pretty murky.
The work that I’m doing through an academic research institute has everything to do with the public, and there’s no reason why public historians can’t have an influence on academic work. Although they may have somewhat different audiences and engage in some different practices, public and academic historians have the same ultimate goal: to understand change over time, and to communicate that understanding for the betterment of human society. The discipline of history is enlivened by the work of all historians, no matter where or how they work. This is what I wrote about in my first blog post of the school year.
2. All historians have a role to play in the wider world, and especially in the community of which they are a part.
Big disclaimer: I’m not saying all historians should study local history. In fact, I never would have pictured myself studying the history of Sault Ste. Marie before I got the job with NORDIK. But I am saying that historians should take community engagement into account. Many historians are funded by public dollars, and this makes us accountable to the public. Our work should be accessible to people outside of our own field. More importantly, we need to remember that historical narration and interpretation is an act of power. Historians can play a role in bringing divergent populations together, contextualizing current events and ideas, influencing public policy, and bringing healing to those who have been historically marginalized. Doing these things isn’t easy, but this is a huge part of what it means to be a relevant historian in the twenty-first century.
3. New technologies can help historians have a bigger impact than ever.
I’ve been able to experiment with a lot of new technologies at Western (and at my previous jobs at Algoma University and Banting House, too). I’ve analyzed texts, created maps, built websites, designed exhibits, developed computer programs, populated databases, and programmed robots. I feel like I’ve only experienced the tip of the iceberg. There’s really no knowing what we’ll be capable of as the digital age moves forward. What is clear is that historians can use technology to create interactive experiences that communicate new things about the past to a wider group of people. Like public history, much of digital history is open-ended and collaborative. It allows us to gather information from all over the world and work with larger amounts of it. Digital humanities presents scholars with its own sets of challenges, but I’m very interested in the potential that technology has to offer. And why not? Look at all the amazing things that people are doing!
Goodbye grad school, hello world
So there you have it – yet another public historian’s autobiography/manifesto mash-up. Now it’s time to stop pontificating and start doing. I’m looking forward to another 9 months working at the NORDIK Institute, and from there, who knows? Perhaps more community-based research, or museum work, or a digital project. I could even imagine myself doing some freelance work. And I haven’t completely put to rest the idea of getting a PhD or pursuing my love of medieval history. These are possibilities for later on, though – upcoming priorities include getting the Hub Trail project finished and doing some personal re-branding with a new look for the website, business cards, online resume, etc. Putting yourself out there is a lot of work.
So onward and upward into a career of building relationships, creating community, and spreading a new appreciation and love of history. My trajectory may not be set in stone, but thanks to my time in London and Sault Ste. Marie, the future of this public historian is bright. Congratulations to all of my classmates-turned-colleagues…see you at graduation!