Public History through Pedagogy and Practice

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 Preservationself-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.[1] Hurley provided a limited definition of public history as encompassing “all history delivered to nonacademic audiences.”[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.”[8] 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.


[1]Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation:  Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities (Temple University Press, 2010), 189.

[2] Ibid, 32.

[3][3] Ibid, 93.

[4] Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski Letting Go?  Sharing Authority in a User Generated World (Philadelphia:  Pew Center, 2011), 70-71.

[5] Ibid, 116.

[6] Ibid.

[7] 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.

[8] Ibid, 6.

Forum, 2014


The Forum, courtesy of Susan Philpott.
The Forum, courtesy of Susan Philpott.

     Artist Thomas Sayre designed Forum, the newest work of public art on campus, as a marker for one of the major entrances to the recently-constructed Performing Arts and Humanities Building (PAHB). Funded by the Maryland State Arts Council by a state mandate sponsoring public art, Forum symbolizes both Maryland and UMBC’s commitment to the study of the arts and humanities. Out of earthwork sculptures and granite, Sayre intended to create an ambiguous space whose purpose and function would be determined by members of the UMBC community. The series of partial arches creates a focal meeting point between the PAHB and the rest of campus, linking the study of arts and humanities to all the university’s academic endeavors. As UMBC continues to expand its enrollment and construction projects, the students, faculty, and staff will define Forum’s place within the campus environment.

True Grit Statue (Retriever Statue), 1987


     The story of the True Grit statue or the UMBC Retriever statue begins with a student vote in 1966, when the first incoming class selected the Chesapeake Bay Retriever as UMBC’s official mascot. The statue symbolizes both the voice of thestudent body as well as the creativity its artist, alumna Paulette Raye. In the design of this bronze statue, Raye sought to capture the “alertness” of the student body with a life-size, fully upright model of a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. Raye designed and crafted the statue for almost two years before its unveiling on December 7, 1987. During the unveiling ceremony, UMBC Chancellor Michael Hooker instituted a new tradition for the young university: rubbing True Grit’s nose for good luck. The statue has emerged as a landmark on the UMBC campus. Once it returns to its original location in front of the Retriever Activities Center (RAC), it will welcome the entire community in the newly reconstructed campus entrance.




UMBC Chancellor Michael Hooker predicted a UMBC tradition of inserting UMBC ephemera into True Grit’s mouth on special occasions. Top: True Grit in Graduation Garb. Bottom: True Grit with the Retriever in its Mouth. Office of Institutional Advancement, University Archives, Special Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


Victims and Inclusivity in Public Memorials

“We face a challenge in using memory and our sites to build bridges between people but also to raise issues of social justice, ” claimed Yasmin Sooka, the former Commissioner of the both the South African and Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.[1]The international conference Memorialization and Democracy: State Policy and Civic Action suggested that the memorial acts as a pedagogical tool to educate and engage the public.[2] Ultimately, its broad scope and attempts to create a singular narrative of worldwide memorials backfired because the conference failed to arrive at any definitive conclusions or “firm resolutions” as to how memorials contribute to a democratic society.[3] The report raises questions about the incorporation of victimhood and multiple narratives into the design of public memorials. The report itself poses and attempts to answer far-reaching questions addressing the success of memorials, attracting new generations of visitors, and how to balance inclusivity with human rights and democratic values.

As a student of history, especially Holocaust studies, I found myself drawn to the mentions of Holocaust victims. In the case of memorializing the Holocaust, the conference asked the wrong questions. Instead of asking, “how could objects, signs, or buildings represent or contain the dimensions of that horror?”[4], the appropriate question is, “What exactly is the role of the victim in democratic memorialization processes?” Surprisingly, the idea of an all-inclusive narrative raised the question of including Holocaust deniers, apologists for race discrimination, and other hateful groups. In their quest for truth, the members of the conference resoundingly agreed that yes, memory should discriminate “when it comes to human rights and democratic values.”[5] A blanket statement denouncing human rights abusers, however, does not so easily answer the question of victimhood in the process of democratic memorialization. Inclusion of victims extends far beyond the mere act of mentioning them, as the Terezin Memorial failed to accomplish in 1947.[6] In the case of Germany, the role of victims in The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is unfortunately shaped not by active remembering, but by a process of forgetting. Germans collectively avoid the subject of genocide – but not World War II, for which public memorials already abounded – and seem to be waiting for another generation’s “change of consciousness.”[7]

When I visited the memorial in 2010, I found myself bewildered as to how it could possibly represent the Holocaust. Upon further research for an art history course in 2013, I discovered that I was not alone. Architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold deliberately omitted any literal references to the Holocaust, creating a deliberately ambiguous memorial in the center of Berlin. Although the members of the conference do suggest creating a memorial space that provokes thought, in no way does German citizens using a Holocaust memorial for picnic tables imply that they are seriously considering the victims remembered at this memorial. In the case of this memorial highlighted at the conference, the role of the victim is passive. This contradicts the rhetoric of the conference, which suggested recognizing victims’ people who “fought for life and survival” in the narrative of victimhood.[8] Yasmin Sooka argued that memory is only the first step towards action.[9]  Remembering victims as passive, then, is a missed opportunity akin to creating no memorial at all – as in the case of Chile’s delay in creating a memory museum on the site of ESMA (Navy Mechanics School).[10]

The author, Jen Wachtel, navigating the narrow passageways of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, June 2010.The author, Jen Wachtel, navigating the narrow passageways of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, June 2010.

Despite my misgivings about the conference’s treatment of victimhood in memorialization processes, the report’s emphasis on broad inclusivity is useful understanding the practice of public history. Public historians strive to incorporate multiple narratives in a factually grounded interpretation of history. The report raised the question of how memorials incorporate these multiple narratives, and in what ways this process encourages an engaged public. Most importantly, inclusion of the stories of victims, underrepresented minorities such as women, and acknowledgement of the role of tourists allows memorial sites to achieve their missions and promote dialogue. At its core, inspiring an engaged public boils down to the memorial planners’ definitions of democracy. While some argue that, “the essence of democracy is an inclusive public space open to dialogue from multiple perspectives in which ideas are consistently debated,” others claim that democracy “cannot exist without justice based on a single incontrovertible truth, free from corruption and denial.”[11] This entails acknowledging that building a memorial does not guarantee “Never Again,” but rather encouraging dialogue on how to confront the ongoing contemporary legacy of past atrocities.[12] Inclusivity, then, offers not only the opportunity for all stakeholders to have a voice in the interpretation of sites of memory but also offers the opportunity for ongoing discourse an reinterpretation.


[1] Yasmin Sooka, “Foreword,” From Memory to Action: A Toolkit for Memorialization in Post-Conflict Societies, International Coalition of Site of Conscience 19 April 2015): 4.

[2] 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): 2.

[3] Ibid, 27.

[4] Ibid, 18.

[5] Ibid, 3.

[6] Ibid, 21.

[7] Ibid, 14.

[8] Ibid, 11. This is in reference to the Santiago Women in Memory monument, erected in December 2006.

[9] Sooka, 4.

[10] Bret, et al., 9.

[11] Ibid, 8.

[12] Ibid, 27.

A Practical Model for Academic Public Historians

In his self-congratulatory Beyond Preservation, reporting on his collaboration with Timothy Baumann involvement with the Community History Research and Design Services (CHRDS) at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, Andrew Hurley prescribes a model for future work curiously based on his own methods. This model, broadly interpreted, is actually useful in some regards for the upcoming public history project in HIST 705. For instance, Hurley explicitly states that graduate students conducting archival research on “topics of interest to the community” who have “higher workload expectations” are ideally suited for public history projects (152).  Hurley offers specific advice for aspiring public historians such as myself as well as educators confined to the semester-long model. In order to foster truly shared authority, for instance, Hurley cites the example of the successful “marriage of archaeology and oral history” (86). What is truly striking is that oral history allowed community members of Old St. Louis to contribute their knowledge of the hometown to the historians’ interpretation of the site and, most importantly, retain ownership over the collective historical memory of their space. Hurley, while reporting on the successes and failures of his multiple public history-public archaeology projects in St. Louis, used this report to suggest a model for future academic public history work.

Hurley’s work raises questions about the ways public history overlaps with other fields. How can public historians incorporate archaeology and environmental history into narratives about space and place? In particular, Hurley shows how historic preservation through public history revitalizes inner-city urban neighborhoods. Beyond Preservation suggests that public history is unique in its capacity for collaboration.

Chapter 5 presents several case studies of the intersections between public and environmental histories. For instance, the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing in St. Louis capitalized not only on the rich local history of the abolition movement and slavery but also the development of the community over the following two centuries (137).  The initiative achieved success by “creating meaning directly from the site’s topography and viewshed [sic]… standing at the spot where Meachum launched the skiff, visitors can gaze eastward … and appreciate the river’s role as a boundary and the land beyond as a horizon of hope” (138).

Hurley also claims that public archaeology presents a crucial opportunity to involve local residents in the “retrieval and interpretation of archaeological evidence” (188). If public historians’ purpose is to make history more democratic, then including community members in the interpretation of their own historical artifacts presents a vital opportunity for collaboration. Rather than limiting archaeology to the experts, Hurley argues for including community members in certain components of vital community projects such as the selection of the site, on-site digging, and providing companion oral histories (189).  In this way, community members retain ownership of their community history, while public historians and archaeologists can attest to the integrity and accuracy of the research.

Hurley’s focus on inner cities in particular raises another important question about the role of public historians themselves in inner city environments: What unique challenges do public historians face in the inner city?  By necessity, answering this question is only possible on a case-by-case basis. For the case of St. Louis, where Hurley conducted his research and executed his projects, productive public history necessitated specific areas of concentration down to the street or neighborhood-level. A self-proclaimed “participant-observer” (X), Hurley’s CHRDS found itself in the middle of a debate between the Scott Joplin State Historic Site’s former administrator and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Although the debate ostensibly referred to whether or not Scott Joplin owned an outhouse or installed indoor plumbing, the true debate encompassed the socioeconomic status of African Americans. Due to the tight-knit nature of that community, debate between the former administrator and the new administrator could potentially spill over into public relations (172-173). In the worst-case scenario, if not handled properly, this situation would tarnish the image of the historic house as the state’s only designated African American heritage site. This challenge was unique to the specific geographic place of the historic site, and CHRDS’ handling of the scenario provides useful insights for future public historians.

By reaching out to the neighborhood history committee, the public historians left control of the local history in control of the local residents. They implemented professional methods such as oral history and documentary evidence in order to best inform the history committee (173-174). This approach is useful because it not only allowed the community itself to reach a consensus, but it used valid historical evidence – including maps, census reports, and corroborative oral testimony – in order to provide a historical basis for the community’s conclusion. Using a variety of evidence and remaining in constant communication with community members is a particularly apt model for future public historians to follow, not just in inner city environments but also in any community.

Hello world!

This website started life as my blog for the Introduction to Public History Course (HIST 705) at UMBC. As a member of this class, I explored the evolving relationships and responsibilities that compose public history.  The first posts are responses to assigned readings, which served as jumping-off points for class discussions. I also posted drafts of content that will appear in an app sharing site-specific stories about UMBC – part of a collaborative effort in sharing the history of the university based on archival research and partnership with Explore Baltimore Heritage.

I am excited to see where the next stages of the website will take me.