Over the course of the Spring 2015 semester, I have arrived at the following definition of public history: Public history is the incorporation of multiple narratives in a factually grounded interpretation of history that educates and engages the public. Successful public historians accomplish these aims through shared authority, public service, and by working collaboratively. This definition is based primarily on my impressions of Andrew Hurley’s Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, Letting Go?: Sharing Authority in a User-Generated World edited by Bill Adair et al., and the “Memorialization and Democracy” report from the international conference in 2007. I also found the class discussions relating to the definition of successful public history and defining the audience of our final projects especially beneficial.
Although I found Andrew Hurley’s Beyond Preservation “self-congratulatory” by necessity, I found his practical model useful in developing my understanding of public history. Public history is well-suited to collaborative efforts, as demonstrated by Hurley’s combination of oral history and archaeological evidence in order to construct the history of a particular site. Hurley provided a limited definition of public history as encompassing “all history delivered to nonacademic audiences.” While engaging in discussions with my fellow public history graduate students, I concluded that public history is so much more than simply the delivery of history; successful public history encourages the public to become engaged in the history of their community. Hurley himself provides an example of this inherently democratic process. In St. Louis, residents worked alongside university students in archaeological digs and contributed their own items to a community museum, thereby solidifying their attachment to the project and to the history of the community itself. This model of inclusivity and collaboration is essential for the practice of public history.
Letting Go?, particularly the chapter addressing curators, caused me to question the purpose of museums as public history institutions and solidify my belief that public history necessitates shared authority. Museums carry the stigma of being a space where the curator is the expert and the visitors are mere “novices in need of guidance.” If museums claim to act as public history institutions, they should belong not to the curators but serve as a space of shared control between the museum staff and the community. For instance, at the Brooklyn Historical Society, museum staff shares curatorial authority with the community of Brooklyn. While the community conducts research and designs Public Perspectives projects, the museum staff retains control over the format of the exhibit as well as the permanent collection. In this case, the museum is able to share multiple narratives of Brooklyn’s history by actively encouraging community engagement. Since the purpose of the museum is to share the history of Brooklyn, demonstrating an interest in current Brooklyn residents’ perspectives is a model for successful public history initiatives.
On a related note, “Memorialization and Democracy” reminded me of the importance of both educating and engaging the public. While Letting Go? specifically addressed shared authority between professional staff and citizen participants, “Memorialization and Democracy” takes this concept a step further by addressing how participation from a wide variety of stakeholders actually defines public memory. The memorial, like the museum, serves as both a tool and an opportunity to engage in democratic processes. In particular, memorials provide a defined space that could incorporate “personal mourning, spiritual solace, private reflection on the one hand, as well as civic engagement and democratic dialogue on the other.” The multiple functions served by Sites of Conscience, which are not only places of memory but also “open public dialogue about confronting contemporary legacies” provides yet another ideal of how public history works in a public space. Public history sites serve multiple functions, both to educate about the past and, through interpretation by public historians, provoke dialogue about the present.
I found that the final project was the most useful learning strategy for this course because it forced me to test my definition of public history. The fact that the project was ongoing, as I continued to learn about the practice of public history, meant that the project constantly challenged me to apply my historical research skills to the task of opening up dialogue about the role of public art on this ever-growing campus. My classmates’ discussions about successful public history reinforced my impression that public history should include multiple narratives but most importantly should involve stakeholders throughout the process of interpretation, and I applied this directly to my final project. For instance, on February 11, 2015, my classmates discussed how successful public history projects should not only empower the community but also remain community-focused on a relevant issue. Although this discussion was in connection with From Storefront to Monument by Andrea Burns, I was able to apply this theory to my final project about UMBC.
While researching my site stories about Forum and the True Grit statue, two prominent works of public art located on the UMBC campus, I strove to ensure that the voice of the student body shined through in my writing. In both cases, I emphasized how the students themselves defined the purpose of the public artworks and their function within the larger university. In keeping my writing community-focused, I contextualized my writing within the upcoming fiftieth anniversary celebrations at UMBC. I continuously involved one of the stakeholders, UMBC Special Collections, using documents relating to UMBC’s founding and growth as primary sources for my research. In keeping with my definition of public history entailing multiple narratives, I also intertwined relevant contextual history about the uses of art in public spaces. By referring back to my professor’s advice, class discussions, and course readings about the importance of highlighting the voice of the local community in public history, I found a clear focus for my research report and later my site stories designed as app content for Explore Baltimore Heritage.
Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities (Temple University Press, 2010), 189.
 Ibid, 32.
 Ibid, 93.
 Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski Letting Go? Sharing Authority in a User Generated World (Philadelphia: Pew Center, 2011), 70-71.
 Ibid, 116.
 Sebastian Bret, et al., “Memorialization and Democracy: State Policy and Civic Action” (report of the international conference Memorialization and Democracy: State Policy and Civic Action, Santiago, Chile, 20-22 June 2007): 3.
 Ibid, 6.