Contending with a Public Audience: Balancing the Content

When “doing” public history, there are numerous factors to consider. Of the many, the most prominent is the balancing of the content in relation to the audience engaging with it.

Public history projects exist to bring their historical content to the public in an accessible, informative, and engaging manner. The content is intrinsically linked to the audience it seeks to serve. While this can be said to be the case for the general discipline of history (or any other field of study), the difference lies in the fact that doing public history involves the audience to a higher degree that centers the public–the audience–among the content. It is not just meant to impart historical knowledge to the observer, but to facilitate the teaching of historical thinking. In this way, the public is being educated beyond a superficial informative manner. They are being taught how to see, interpret, and “do” the history they are being invited to engage with. And while the merits of entering the academy under the discipline of history can and probably will always be debated, it is clear why historical thinking is necessary for everyone and most assuredly the public: it helps people to “tolerate complexity, to adapt to new situations, and to resist the first answer that comes to mind.”¹

As such, I think that much of the goal with public history and those who practice it is still captured in the words of Ronald Grele, who asserts that the task of a public historian “should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events.”² This isn’t to say that the goal(s) haven’t evolved over time, for Grele certainly has an early view of public history work, but that public history at its core is collaborative and relies on the audience it seeks to educate. The public historian is thus accountable to the audience and should provide/curate content according to the needs of the public while helping them to engage with it themselves. This cyclical process then sustains the practice itself. In a more current sense, Rebecca Conard effectively argued that

‘public history can be defined as the reflective practice of history’ … public historians engage in active collaboration, constantly reframing questions and improving interpretations in conversation with themselves and with their stakeholders. In this way, public history requires both ‘shared authority’ and ‘shared inquiry,’ a dynamic collaboration that ensures far more complex outcomes than simply engagement with matters of policy.³

We can rest assured that the audience component of public history is then necessary to understand how public historians must develop the content. It needs to be considerate of those actively or passively participating in its presenting, working to collaborate with them when possible and always testing itself against their standards. Of course, public history must maintain academic rigor and the integrity shared by the academy, but it cannot neglect the presence of the element that defines what the field is: the public. Furthermore, the concerns of public historians presenting the content correlate to the public they serve: how to account for community experience/consciousness as it relates to historical discourse.4

Theory & Example

In public history, the concept of “shared inquiry” helps to set the theoretical parameters that has often been present in the work of early public historians, but was only formulated when it was clear that public history was emerging as an act of its own. This concept is defined as being a combination of “reflex and response … in which practitioners and stakeholders [join] in give-and-take discussion to set mutually acceptable questions and to find mutually satisfying answers.”5 This shared inquiry between practitioners and stakeholders (your audience/the public) identifies how public historians need to meet our audiences where they are at if projects, activities, or inquiries are to be sustained.

As a prime example of this, I would like to highlight my own experiences being a moderator for the largest online public history forum known as “AskHistorians.” This is a pure public history outreach project in where members of the public are invited to post their questions about history to the forum and then hopefully receive an answer from someone with appropriate subject-matter expertise. Not all people who provide answers are professional historians or have an educational background explicitly in history (though many are and many do), but the resident experts–referred to as “flairs”– do have the characteristics of public historians and have demonstrated the “chops” to provide accurate historical information in accordance with the historical method. This is a genuine experiment into allowing the public to both engage with those involved in the academic discipline while allowing them to experience that kind of world and even become part of it to a degree. It brings together laypeople and professionals alike to serve the public in an engaging and valuable way without the barriers imposed by institutions or organizations. It provides a foundation to the beginning of historical thinking and caters to the very inquiry that public historians share with those desiring to not just learn about history, but to participate in its doing.

As I would hope is clear by my description, AskHistorians demonstrates the nature of the shared inquiry and why it is important that public historians are aware of the relationship between the audience and the content being provided. On AskHistorians, the audience, known as subscribers, provides the questions that then promote the flairs to write essays and conduct research. One cannot exist without the other, for without the questioner, the inquiry might not exist. Likewise, without the contributor providing answers, the inquiry could very well become dead in the water. In the case of AskHistorians, without the public to define the content we provide, the “public” aspect of being a public historian disappears. And with that, so does the “historian.”

Footnotes

1. Same Wineburg, “Thinking Like a Historian,” Teaching with Primary Sources Journal.

2. Ronald Grele, “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 47.

3. Denise Meringolo, Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xxiii.

4. John Kuo Wei Tchen, “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment,” in Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, edited by Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 285-326.

5. Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. (Dick) Mille, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28.1 (2006): 18.

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