“Whose Public? Whose History?”

In 1981, Ronald Grele wrote about the emergence of a new field in the historical profession. While the idea of engaging in historical based practices outside of academia was not new, using the term “Public History” or describing one’s self as a “Public Historian” was new and unfamiliar. In his article Grele prompts his reader to think about three questions: Whose Public? Whose History? and What is the Goal of Public History?. From Grele’s time up until the present, historians have struggled to define Public History — to decide what role public historians will play and what role the public will play, what audiences public historians will try to reach, who public historians will try to serve, who really owns history, and how public history differs from other types of history.

Many historians over the years have tried to define “Public History.” Robert Kelly described it as “the employment of historians and historical methods outside of academia.”1 Philip Scarpino from IUPUI believed that history and public history shared much in common (like doing research, interpreting data and presenting their findings to other people). But “the difference between public history and the rest of the profession,” he believed, “are found in the area of communication, in the audiences with whom we communicate, and in the methods that we use to communicate our scholarship to those audiences.”2 Wes Johnson at UCSB clarified that “Public History” was simply a new term, not a new idea. Rebecca Conard from MTSU agrees, writing that she “always believed that public history was much more than a response to the job crisis of the 1970s.”3

Grele himself writes that the concept of public history is not new; instead, it is simply historians “moving into fields long occupied by practicing non-academic historians.”4 More significantly, Grele believes that history really belongs to the public. He writes that “the task of a public historian, broadly defined, 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.”5 He was concerned, at the time of the article, that what was meant by “Public History” and the public that was actually being served was becoming narrower. He was worried that “only one public among many has become the public for public history.”6 Instead, he envisions “a society in which a broad public participates in the construction of its own history” and “members of the public at large…become their own historians.”7

Eight years after Grele, Barbara Howe’s article reflects on the strides being made in the Public History field, especially over the previous decade. She focuses specifically on the establishment, meetings, conferences and publications of the newly formed National Council on Public History. Howe is encouraged that more people are beginning to see Public History as a new field of history, instead of a conglomeration of “alternative” jobs for non-academicians. It is interesting to note, that even among the early leaders of the NCPH, there was much debate over using the term “public” or “applied” to describe the emerging field. Even though they apparently decided on the term “Public History,” it is clear that they still struggled to define and explain “Whose Public? Whose History?”.8  

Over twenty years later, Denise Meringolo confirms that “Public History” is still hard to define. While she thinks that it is easy for people to describe the type of work that public historians do, she believes it is hard to define what separates public history from academic history.9 Personally, Meringolo suspects that many times, the term “public” is simply used as a synonym for “other.” It describes an undefined audience. Meringolo believes that Public History should not just be history that is done in “public” but for the “public.” Like the governmental historians she describes in her book, public historians should really be focused on who they serve.10 She writes that “Public historians can produce original interpretations that connect scholarship and everyday life by respecting the ways in which their partners and audiences use history and by balancing professional authority against community needs.”11

Meringolo, like Grele, believes that Public History has a more complicated backstory that doesn’t begin with the job shortages faced by academic historians in the 1970s. Instead, she sees the roots of the Public History movement in the growth of historic preservation, state historical societies, historians serving in federal government, and later, oral history. Because of this, she sees Public History as encompassing many different types of work, being collaborative and largely interdisciplinary.12 

Data gathered in a 2008 study backs up Meringolo’s view. A 4,000 respondent survey revels that Public Historians are now employed in wide range of professions, with a majority of them working at museums, colleges and universities, and for federal, state and local government agencies. The surveyors were pleasantly surprised at the number of Public Historians in academia. The believe that digital history is playing an important part in this, providing “a new avenue for academic historians to enter the realm of public history.”13 The other surprising statistic is that women now make up about 2/3 of Public Historians, compared to 1/3 in 1980. In contrast to male-dominated academic departments, women seem to have found their place in Public History.

Not surprisingly though, the study showed that Public History is still hard to define. Some respondents who worked in fields contained under the Public History umbrella were hesitant to describe themselves as Public Historians. Some felt that they were not properly trained or did not have the credentials. Some preferred to use a more specific term like “preservationist” to describe their work. Others felt they have little public interaction and therefore dislike the term.14

These articles, books and blog show the ever changing nature of Public History. Public Historians still cannot seem to reach a consensus on the original questions posed by Grele, although they seem to be more aware of more specific audiences and the role historians can play in serving the public. Public History seems to have explained to include many different types of work and people (most notably women). It has grown from simple goals like providing alternative jobs to historians with shrinking job opportunities in academia to balancing professional historical scholarship with the methods and types of communication that serve the needs of a more specific public audience. Grele’s faith in the general public has not died; Public Historians seem to be striving to find ways to reach and serve the public, helping their audiences understand a history that belongs to everyone.


  1. Denise Meringolo, “Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xvii.
  2. Meringolo, xxi.
  3. “Reflections on the founding of NCPH,” Public History Commons (blog), February 13, 2015.
  4. Ronald Grele, “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 44.
  5. Grele, 47-48.
  6. Grele, 47.
  7. Grele, 44.
  8. Barbara Howe, “Reflections on an Idea: The First Decade of NCPH,” The Public Historian 11.3 (1989): 69-85.
  9. Meringolo, xvi.
  10. Meringolo, xxi, xxv.
  11. Meringolo, 168.
  12. Meringolo, xiv, xxiv.
  13. John Dichtl and Robert Townsend, “A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals,” Perspectives on History, September 2009.
  14. Dichtl.

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