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Relinquishing Authority:

The Evolution of Public History in the United States of America






















Brad Miller
History 6510: Seminar in Public History
November 8, 2013






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The evolution of academic history and the emergence of public history in the United
States are inextricably linked by the American expectation of what defines history and how it can
be used for a greater good. Following the American Revolution history became a means of
defining the nation, a privileged white nation. The turning point for historical scholarship was the
advent of the New History and progressivism, through which history became a more diverse
tool that could improve society through a better understanding of the past. Academic historians
began to devise public organizations in attempts to unify the practice across state boundaries.
During the 1930s, in efforts to revitalize the nation, New Deal legislation provided the ultimate
grounds for historians to prove their worth, and professionalize their practice. History had
evolved into a useful tool for public education. More recently, public historians have begun to
relinquish authority in interpretive settings to promote a dialogue of historical understanding
beyond education. Gradually, academic and public historians have relegated control to and
fostered the growth of a fully aware public audience, and in doing so, have brought the utility of
history full force into a tool of self-awareness and balance of power. History within the United
States began as a search for identity in an elite-dominated discipline, but slowly developed into a
process fixed with the mission of education and eventually civic engagement through the means
of an evolved, self-reflecting practice developed by public historians.
Early American historical institutions were characterized by their privileged members
and amateur approach to the past. They were crucial for setting in motion the historical
consciousness of the United States, usually through means of patriotic celebration and identity.
State historical societies were among the first historical institutionsthe Massachusetts
Historical Society being the first in 1791formed to address the issue of recording and
collecting the past. Leslie Dunlap divulges the different reasons for the emergence of historical
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societies: pride for the state, respect for ancestors, self-interest of their founders, but
fundamentally the preservation of historical records relevant to society.
1
The variety of founding
principles explained the diverse collection habits practiced by regional societies. For instance,
societies located in the South and out West varied greatly because they concentrated on
preserving tradition rather than documented history.
2
Material culture remained ephemeral in
comparison to folklore and song. Historical societies began as private social groups initiated
through a desire to explore and preserve the past. Early historical societies up until the mid-19
th

century were dominated by privileged white men. These men were not academically trained in
history, but diligent research in personal interests developed an understanding of their respective
locality or state. Early societies were personal creations developed as a means of status, or
regional identity that highlighted the fragmented United States.
American historical societies also provided the first primary source research capabilities,
in which scholars were able to formulate the first histories of the newly founded nation. Dunlap
quotes an optimistic Maryland lawyer from 1855, who believed in the detriment of not
possessing a historical understanding of the United States and that the labors of the historical
societies will greatly lessen this evil.
3
However, the narratives produced by early historians
were biased towards the privileged white men. A later example from the turn of the 20
th
century,
the Mississippi Department of Archives and History led by Dunbar Rowland sought out
historical documents and artifacts that presented histories of white southern elites and sentiments


1
Leslie W. Dunlap, Establishment of the Societies, in American Historical Societies, 1790-1860
(Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1974), 12-13.


2
Ibid., 20.


3
Leslie W. Dunlap, The Writing of American History, in American Historical Societies, 1790-1860
(Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1974), 133.

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for the Lost Cause following the American Civil War.
4
Any history produced from its archives
would be partial to one interpretation of the past. Consequently, history became a source of
patriotism and celebration from both the triumphant histories of the American Revolution and
the need to formulate an American identity based upon the successes of democracy. Women-led
historic preservation organizations would reinforce the positivist view of America.
The 19
th
century roles of women in the United States were perceived entirely within the
domestic sphere of life: focusing on the responsibility to protect the personal welfare of fellow
Americans and their cultural identity. Women were held accountable to the ideals of republican
motherhood and its fostering of a unified American culture based upon the education of the
future generations. From this nurturing atmosphere sprouted the preservation efforts of the
Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA). Led by Ann Pamela Cunningham, the MVLA
successfully acquired George Washingtons house at Mount Vernon, in 1856, to preserve the
character of Washington engrained in the house.
5
Cunningham is considered a pioneer within the
historic preservation movement in America. William Murtagh attributes Cunninghams efforts to
setting the standards of preservation in her time: preservation of politically significant structures
led by female citizens, not the government.
6
All of these assumptions advocate women as the
gatekeepers to a storied past of brave and successful men. James Lindgren argues that the linkage
between material culture preserved by groups such as the MVLA, and the human experience, are
defined by a sense of personalism which placed importance on an artifacts ties to such values


4
Patricia Galloway, Archives, Power, and History: Dunbar Rowland and the Beginning of the State
Archives of Mississippi, 1902-1936, American Archivist 69 (Spring/Summer 2006): 82.


5
Barbara J. Howe, Women in Historic Preservation: The Legacy of Ann Pamela Cunningham, The Public
Historian 12, no. 1 (Winter 1990): 33.


6
Ibid., 34.
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as individual character, love of family, [and] respect for community.
7
The preservation efforts
of women were held close to their hearts because capturing the past was more than historical
understanding; it was protecting the origins of tradition and the very fibers that constitute
American identity. In fact, the same personalism can be attributed as the motivation for the early
historical societies. Prompted by this familial ideal, organizations such as the Daughters of the
American Revolution, the Society of the Colonial Dames of America, and the Daughters of the
Republic of Texas were founded as hereditary patriotic groups.
8
Personalism becomes much
more powerful when identity is threatened, as was the case with African Americans.
Depicting the past for African Americans provided unity, empowerment, and legitimacy
to other African Americans as well as white Americans who continued to discount the African
American narrative. These early efforts utilized history as a means of civic empowerment in an
emotionally charged nation where slavery persisted. Starting as early as the 1820s, Black
Bibliophiles as termed by Tony Martin, founded libraries and reading rooms to initially provide
evidence against pseudo-scientific racism and later to enlighten future generations of African
American struggles in order to foster an African consciousness.
9
Published material provided
a concrete fixture African Americans could point to for a sense of legitimacy. The early histories
produced by African Americans paralleled efforts to elevate the moral and intellectual faculties


7
James M. Lindgren, A New Departure in Historic, Patriotic Work: Personalism, Professionalism, and
Conflicting Concepts of Material Culture in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, The Public
Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 44.


8
Howe, Women in Historic Preservation, 36.


9
Tony Martin, Bibliophiles, Activists, and Race Men, in Black Bibliophiles and Collectors: Preservers of
Black History ed. Des Verney Sinnette, Coates, and Battle (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1990), 29-
31.

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of free blacks to justify equality among whites.
10
Approaches to African American history
emulated the heroic formulas of white history by celebrating their own heroes, most notably
Frederick Douglass, to demonstrate their equal right to achieve success. For example, the
National Association of Colored Women began their efforts in 1914 to preserve Frederick
Douglass house, Cedar Hill, because they viewed the site as an educational tool to be used in
creating race pride, correcting inaccurate portrayals of blacks, and promoting interracial
understanding.
11
Douglass was revered for his successes as an African American man who
transcended color barriers to combat slavery and a natural hero for African Americans.
12
African
American history remained an assimilated practice after the characteristics of mainstream white
history, marked by narratives of grandeur that only served the purpose of proving status.
However, standards of mainstream history were charged to change in the late 19
th
century.
The histories written by Western cultures within the 19
th
century were characterized by
the scientific nature of the eraa methodical means with an objective endthe content
restricted to military victories and political success. Frederick Jackson Turner recalled the
romance and tragedy of history through the brilliant annals of the few, but advocated the
opposing force of tragedy among the fourth estate, the great mass of the people.
13
The untold
stories of the fourth estate were capable of expanding history beyond the records of nations
and leaders into the realms of society. Inclusion of the masses was problematic because there


10
Fath Davis Ruffins and Jeffrey C. Stewart, A Faithful Witness: Afro-American Public History in Historical
Perspective, 1828-1984, in Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public ed. Benson, Brier, and
Rosenzweig (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 308.


11
Tara Y. White, Creating a Shrine of our Own: NACW and Cedar Hill in A Shrine of Liberty of Liberty
for the Unborn Generations: African American Clubwomen and the Preservation of African American Historic
Sites (PhD diss., Middle Tennessee State University, 2010), 96.



13
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of History, in Frontier and Section: Selected Essays of
Frederick Jackson Turner ed. Ray Allen Billington (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1961), 14.
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were now multiple voices in the overall narrative, which created conflict. At the turn of the 20
th

century, innovative and progressive thinkers began to reevaluate the complexities of history. One
point of focus was the synthesis of histories by the individual, and the power of memory that
would prove itself difficult as history began to merge into the public sphere.
History of the high-minded did not appeal to the masses; rather, the perceptions of the
past held by peopleself-produced memoryintroduced the plurality of ways in which the past
was, and could be, relevant for people. For Turner, history was the self-consciousness of
humanityhumanitys effort to understand itself through the study of the past.
14
History was no
longer a means of intellectual status, but a relatable thought process accessible to all. One of the
first advocates in this favor was James Harvey Robinson of Columbia University, who stressed
the utility of history. Robinson argued in his 1912 book, The New History, that we are almost
entirely dependent upon our memory of our past thoughts and experiences to better comprehend
the present.
15
Understanding of the past allows for a more informed action in the present,
fostering a more informed individual.
The concept of any individual practicing history within their lives was further expounded
upon by Carl Becker through his monumental piece Everyman His Own Historian. Becker
posited that history is the memory of things said and done; this is supported by his idea of a
specious present which provides the illusion of the present by only formulating archetypal
memories compiled from the past to create reality.
16
The perceptions of an individual are
absolutely necessary to synthesize a usable, personal history. The same argument of personal


14
Turner, The Significance of History, 26.


15
James Harvey Robinson, The New History, in The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern
Historical Outlook (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 18.


16
Carl L. Becker, Everyman His Own Historian, American Historical Review 37, no. 2 (January 1932): 223.
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perception and the functionality of history was made by Lucy Maynard Salmon, an innovative
historian appointed professor at the all-female Vassar College in 1887.
17
Salmons imaginative
essay entitled Backyard History encouraged readers to use their everyday surroundingsin
this case her backyardas historical sources to practice interpretation and connect proximal,
mundane changes to the larger narratives of history.
18
What then, was the purpose of historians?
Becker believed the products of his contemporary peers were only restating the past, just as
individuals created their specious present. By transcending repetition of the past to make use of it
and to rationalize the perceptions of reality created by individuals, historians would provide
society with functional history.
19
As an educator of women, Salmon also believed in the
application of history, because her students would be the intellectual mentors of the nations
youth and the providers of critical thinking skills. The education of the people to harness the
skills of critical thinking and the new emphasis of individual contributions to a remembered past
were all products of their time at the turn of the 20
th
century.
The emergence of academic history into the public sphere was undoubtedly paralleled by
the efforts to develop an informed citizenry through the educational goals of the Progressive
Movement. Formulated in the 1890s, progressivism was conceived as the need to maintain and
improve society to counter the ill-effects of industrialization and corrupt government. The
emergence of the New History, formally named by James Harvey Robinson in 1912, became a
major catalyst for change as a result of progressivism. Rebecca Conard purposes the New


17
Chara Haeussler Bohan, Introduction: Lucy Maynard Salmon, 1853-1927, in Go to the Sources: Lucy
Maynard Salmon and the Teaching of History (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 2.


18
Lucy Maynard Salmon, History in a Back Yard, in History and the Texture of Modern Life ed. Nicholas
Adams and Bonnie G. Smith (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).


19
Becker, Everyman His Own Historian, 235.

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History to encompass a wider spectrum of topics within historical analysis such as economics,
cultural attributes, and more generally, the smaller aspects of the everyday in an ever-changing
society.
20
An early practitioner of New History in the 1890s was archeologist and museum
owner Henry Mercer. Steven Conn analyzed Mercers belief that history should tell the stories
of common people and that it should provide easily accessible insights into the present.
21
It is
important to realize, however, that the New History did not necessarily advocate an African
American voice or a womans voice. According to Des Jardin, female historians of color were
devastated by the chauvinism and racism that existed at the turn of the century.
22
Nonetheless,
they were still able to use their perspectives from the margins to publish unique narratives that
developed the self-awareness and historical consciousness that coupled with the New History.
The narrow focus of scientific history was not useful in the present. The growth in
diversity of topics within the discipline contributed to the specialization of academic historians.
J. Franklin Jameson supported specialization through his powerful metaphor: history could be
considered a stately mansion for which historians were preparing the bricks; each historian
providing his own repertoire.
23
Although the symbolism of a mansion carries an elitist veneer,
the metaphor held true for the contribution of multiple topics that would both diversify the


20
Rebecca Conard, From the New History to Applied History, in Benjamin Shambaugh and the
Intellectual Foundations of Public History (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), 7.


21
Steven Conn, Objects and American History: The Museums of Henry Mercer and Henry Ford, in
Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 170.


22
Julie Des Jardins, African American Womens Historical Consciousness, in Women and the Historical
Enterprise in America: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Memory, 1880-1945 (Chapel Hill: The University of North
Carolina Press, 2003), 118.


23
Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2005), 27.

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historical narrative as well as enliven scholarship for an audience no longer interested in the
current histories.
This paradigm shift in academic history did not close the gap with the public or in
providing history with a marketable purpose. At the forefront of the academic historians new
found image was J. Franklin Jameson. He provided the scholarly counterpart to the political
Progressivism that sought to subordinate local commitments to the creation of a homogeneous
national state, through the creation of the American Historical Association (AHA).
24
Jameson
was the first academically trained president of the AHA and long standing editor for the
American Historical Review.
25
Jamesons development of a united historical front provided an
organized entity which academic historians could use to gain a grasp on the nations historical
consciousness. For too long, the local and state historical societies had created isolated pockets
of history, and the AHA wanted to unify efforts and bring scholars and societies together to
collaborate ideas and develop a national narrative.
26
Hubert Howe Bancroft is representative of
these isolated stories. Bancroft was unique because he was a businessman on the West Coast
who believed writing to be among the highest of human occupations, and began to produce
multi-volume encyclopedias about of the West.
27
The ability to connect these localized efforts,
Bancrofts among the leading literature on the topic, to the national narrative would be beneficial
to history.


24
Morey D. Rothberg, The Brahmin as Bureaucrat: J. Franklin Jameson at the Carnegie Institution of
Washington, 1905-1928, The Public Historian 8, no. 4 (Autumn 1986): 54.


25
Rebecca Conard, Prologue: The Last Dance, in Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations
of Public History (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), 2.


26
Conard, From the New History to Applied History, 22.


27
John Walkton Caughey, Hubert Howe Bancroft, Historian of Western American, The American
Historical Review 50, no. 3 (April 1945): 463.

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One exceptional contributor to the newly forming network was Benjamin Shambaugh,
the superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa (SHSI). Shambaugh was able to
provide history with a marketable purpose through means of his applied history. As described
by Conard, Shambaughs applied history was a belief in the efficacy of historical analysis to
shape and direct the progress of democratic institutions in the modern age.
28
The SHIS under
Shambaugh grew into a fixture of historical research as a means to enhance understanding of
contemporary policy issues for government institutions and the public. In his own words quoted
by Conard, state institutions, like high-minded citizens, should be dominated by a zeal for
public service.
29
History had an obligation, an indebtedness for unprovoked service. Through
Shambaughs work, applied history proved its worth for promoting an informed citizenry.
The unveiling of academic history within the public sphere challenged the position of
amateur historians and preservationists. The differences between Mary Wingfield Scott or Susan
Pringle Frost, and William Sumner Appleton, Jr. are an example of amateurs uprooted by trained
practioners. Scott and Frost represented practice defined by personalism and the desire to
improve communities and their residents. In 1930s Richmond, Virginia, Scott insisted that
preservationists should orient their work to human needs while Frost worked in South Carolina
where she rebuilt communities, reflecting the antebellum South, to retain the continuity of home
life.
30
Scott and Frost represented the preservation approach of personalism that was slowly
pushed to localized practice in exchange for professionalism and the movement of men into the


28
Conard, Prologue: The Last Dance, 5.


29
Rebecca Conard, A Deliberate Course: Applied History, in Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual
Foundations of Public History (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), 83.


30
James M. Lindgren, A New Departure in Historic, Patriotic Work: Personalism, Professionalism, and
Conflicting Concepts of Material Culture in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, The Public
Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 57-58.

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practice. Replacing these women were men like Appleton, the epitome of professionalism and
objectivity. Appleton was a wealthy, Harvard graduate who founded the Society for the
Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) in 1910 and carried with him the scientific
and objective basis of inquiry encouraged by progressivism.
31
Historical and architectural
accuracy gained precedent over the personal connections created by the women. This marked the
masculinization and professionalization of historic preservation that would make its full effect
felt through the implementation of New Deal legislation.
The New Deal caused a massive shift in historical practice to professionalism because it
provided the perfect formula of money and manpower paired with the strong foundation of new
history and progressive thought. The New Deal also marked the beginning of a long relationship
between historians and government, a partnership Tyrrell finds paramount when considering the
role of historians in public.
32
Charles Hosmers Preservation Comes of Age, the foundational
history of historic preservation, argues that the growth of professionalism was both a prerequisite
to properly handle the new situations inherent with the rise of the National Park Service and the
fulfillment of the Historic Sites Act of 1935.
33
Academic historians were disadvantaged in New
Deal work projects because their training prepared them for teaching and writing; they had not
yet foreseen the natural and built landscape as historically useful in academia. Historians could
also not compete with the systematic approach of architects and archeologists. However,
historians still provided important functions by providing context to sites, which would later be
utilized for interpretive programs. The reconstruction of Mission La Purisima Concepcion in


31
Lindgren, A New Departure in Historic, Patriotic Work, 52.


32
Tyrrell, Historians in Public, 155.


33
Charles B. Hosmer, The Growth of Professionalism, in Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg
to the National Trust, 1926-1949, Vol. II (University Press of Virginia, 1981).

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Lompoc, California, provides a great example as to why the New Deal affected public historical
practice in such a profound manner through the rise of professionalism. The federal government
provided the funding and the manual labor through the Civilian Conservation Corps which was
directed by the academically trained Works Projects Administration consisting of historians,
architects, and archeologists; all under the auspices of the National Park Service.
34
Collaboration
fostered professionalism, and in turn augmented practicing historians to value the approaches of
other disciplines in line with New History ideals.
A significant vestige of the professionalization movement which continues to affect
archival theory is the argument between historical manuscripts traditions and a records-
management approach to archives. Stemming from amateur archival practice or no practice at
all, was the historical manuscripts tradition. The advocates of historical manuscripts perceive
themselves as members of a community of humanities scholars and, by extension, as historian-
interpreters of the documents they preserve.
35
Grasping on to the purposes of early societies to
use documents in the formulation of historical scholarship, directly counters the professionally
detached approach of records-management. Differences have been reconciled by combining the
two schools of thought during the 1960s emergence of a professional standard set by the Society
of American Archivists.
36
The emergence of the hybrid approach to archives paralleled the
nostalgia craze of large corporations who began to actively seek out their own history.
37

Naturally, archivists were in demand to organize and appraise the value of a companys records


34
Hosmer, The Growth of Professionalism, 939.


35
Luke J. Gilliland-Swetland, The Provenance of Profession: The Permanence of the Public Archives and
Historical Manuscripts Traditions in American Archival History, American Archivist 54 (Spring 1991): 163.


36
Ibid., 169-170


37
Elizabeth W. Adkins, The Development of Business Archives in the United States: An Overview and a
Personal Perspective, American Archivist 60 (Winter 1997): 12.
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in order to utilize the past for a more profitable future. Records-management allowed for a large
influx of papers to be properly ordered while the historical manuscripts approach could interpret
collections veered toward the commercial profit of the company. Professionalism pushed
historians into the public sphere and proved history was a cost-effective venture.
Throughout the 20
th
century, the general public volunteered their time to historical
societies, dabbled in antiquarianism, preserved emblems of the nations founding, and most
readily served as an audience for productions of academic history. However, the intellectual
foundations established by the progressive minds of Turner, Robinson, Becker, and Salmon had
traveled full circle to once again stand true behind the abilities of individuals to practice and
contribute to history as a whole. The personalism practiced by the first female historic
preservationists that had been silenced and replaced by the trend of professionalism, has become
relevant for public historians. In fact, Page and Mason remind historians that preservation was
founded as a social movement, and should continue to act in that capacity.
38
Practicing
professionals are fully engrossed in attempts to not only educate the public, but fully engage
them through conversation and reflection of interpreted content, and raise awareness through the
process of popular history making.
The landmark publication of The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in
American Life by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, unknowingly revalued the ideals of
popularly produced history as a means of identity creation. The study, conducted in the early
1990s, was able to qualify what individuals perceived as doing history throughout their daily
practice, and how frequently they participated in these actions such as tradition and familial


38
Randall Mason and Max Page, Introduction: Rethinking the Roots of the Historic Preservation
Movement, in Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States (New York:
Routledge, 2004), 11.

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nostalgia. Conclusively, history was perceived as both formal and detached, while words like
heritage and tradition conjured up warm and fuzzy feelings.
39

As the title of the study suggests, the relatable past is very much alive in contemporary
American culture. The researchers were impressed with the presence of the pastits ubiquity
and its connection to current-day concernsrather than its frequently bemoaned absence.
40

Historians were out of touch with the historical labels the public applied to every day processes
and the fulfillment of their cultural traditions, or heritage. The personal work of Henry Fords
Greenfield Village reflects the individuals expectations from his retrievable past. Greenfield
Village is a haphazard collection of historic buildings from across the nation compiled into one
mock community. Ford addressed his mission as an attempt to help America take a step, even if
it is a little one, toward the saner and sweeter idea of life that prevailed in prewar days.
41
Fords
thirst for nostalgia created an alternate perception of the past in the shape of a fake community
he hoped would evoke similar emotions in his guests. The nostalgia of heritage has also been a
critical issue for public practitioners and academic historians because heritage is a cultural
conception driven by an almost religious passion. David Lowenthal defined heritage critically
because of its ability to uphold culture in times of rapid change and conflict, but when
embellished, heritage can become a wrongly guided conviction based in ethnic conflict or
racism.
42
Unfortunately, Colonial Williamsburg, an American symbol utilized as an attraction for


39
Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, Introduction: Scenes from a Survey. In The Presence of the Past:
Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 6.


40
Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Patterns of Popular Historymaking, in
The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 18.


41
Michael Wallace, Visiting the Past: History Museums in the United States, in Presenting the Past:
Essays on History and the Public ed. Benson, Brier, and Rosenzweig (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986),
143.

42
David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and Its Contradictions, in Giving Preservation a History:
Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2004), 20, 37.
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foreign heads of state did not discover slavery until the 1970s because it followed the ideal
American heritage of the white planter elite.
43
The public historian is now responsible for
interacting and engaging with the visitor in controversial settings, needing competency in both
professional practice and mediation of popularly held beliefs of heritage.
Public historians have become the professionals entrenched between the forces of history;
at the one end the academic development of histories and at the other end, the interpretation of
the past through the public audiences perspective. The process of which can be traced back to
the innovations of the New History and progressivism which advocated for empowerment
through the critical thinking skills of the common individual. While academic history has
certainly progressed in the past century to new levels of inclusive narratives and consideration of
the publics creation of history, public history has transcended the boundaries of power to a point
of shared authority between professionals and their audience. Reflecting upon his foundational
terminology of shared authority, Michael Frisch elaborated that the interpretive and meaning-
making process is in fact shared by definitionit is inherent in the dialogic nature of an
interview, and in how audiences receive and respond to exhibitions and public history
interchanges in general.
44
Whether at a museum, archive, or national park, the experience of the
visitor is transformed with the relinquishing of institutional authority and the realization that the
visitors bring with them important contributions to the historical conversation.
One of the earliest notions of shared authority can be found in the forward-thinking
publication A Plan for a New Museum written by librarian and museum director John Cotton



43
Wallace, Visiting the Past, 155.


44
Michael Frisch, From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back. In Letting Go?: Sharing
Historical Authority in a User-Generated World edited by Adair, Filene, and Koloski (Philadelphia: Pew Center for
Arts & Heritage, 2011), 127.

Miller 17

Dana in 1920. Danas plan advocated a museum driven by education, but more important
features included content relevant to the local community and student workers who brought a
willingness to learn.
45
With few exceptions, museums have witnessed an evolution from an
upper-class institution of status to and engaging environment for the masses. As noted by
Marjorie Schwarzer, museums in the late 19
th
century were predominantly places for the elite
and privileged to teach the nations working men and women what it meant to be cultured, civic-
minded Americans.
46
The authority resided in the class structure and the curators of the
museum. However, visionaries such as Charles Willson Peale of the Philadelphia Museum, saw
museums as a place of education. As a self-taught artisan, Peale supported the notion of self-
education and provided lectures and publications to accompany his exhibits.
47
Likewise, John
Dewey from the University of Chicago initiated an experimental school based upon the notion of
learning by doing, the foundation of interactive learning.
48
Education as the main mission of
public history institutions preceded the concept of shared authority, but Danas openness to the
communitys desire and the foresight to utilize staff that would talk with visitors and listen was
the essence of shared authority before the term was even coined.
The growing definition of truth also complicates the role of the public historian when
interacting with the public. The introduction of post-modernist thought into the discussion of
shared authority presents an interesting twist in the relationship between professional and guest.


45
John Cotton Dana, A Plan for a New Museum: the Kind of Museum it Will Profit a City to Maintain
(Woodstock, VT: The Elm Tree Press, 1920), 26, 47.


46
Marjorie Schwarzer, introduction in Riches, Rivals & Radicals: 100 years of Museums in America
(Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 2006), 3.


47
Gary Kulik, Designing the Past: Hiostry-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present, in History
Museums in the United States ed. Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 4.


48
Marjorie Schwarzer, introduction in Riches, Rivals & Radicals, 9.

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When applied to history, post-modernism complicates the truth of the past and presents any
understanding as both fluid and multi-faceted.
49
The multiple perspectives supplied through
shared authority provides a more wholesome understanding of historical knowledge. For this
very reason, Lois Silverman of Indiana University suggests that a museum visit made in
companyis likely to produce a richer harvest of meanings than a visit made by an individual
alone.
50
From the perspective of Katharine Corbett and Howard Miller, the need to listen and
converse with the public, not necessarily concede, is especially relevant if theirs [the publics
contributions] is comforting and ours [the historians] disturbs the peace.
51
Historical
understanding abundantly resides within the reservoirs of a community or culture, and therefore
needs to be tapped by historians, both academic and public, to forward the synthesis of history
between the popular and the scholarly. Dana brazenly disagreed with the elitist stand of historical
practice and believed that with the presence of practitioners who wanted to learn, the visitors did
not have to deal with an adept, self-isolated by consummate intellectual excellencies or an
expert conspicuously and inhospitably hall-marked.
52
These strong words emphasize the need to
listen to the audience.
Within the audience lies answers to questions that public historians have not yet
synthesized. Corbett and Miller perceived the power of the audience while they developed an
interpretive exhibit on the St. Louis Worlds Fair in 1904. The exhibit included photographs they


49
Mark A. Greene, The Power of Meaning: The Archival Mission in the Postmodern Age, American
Archivist 65 (Spring/Summer 2002): 53.


50
Stephen E.Weil, The Museums and the Public, in Making Museums Matter (Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 212.


51
Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry, The Public Historian
28, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 23.


52
Dana, A Plan for a New Museum, 49.

Miller 19

believed might be sensitive to Filipino Americans, but even after consulting with the local
Filipino community who urged against the action, the interpretive team included the
photographs.
53
As a result, relations within the Filipino community were shaken, serving as a
lesson to accept the input of the audience, especially when there are sensitive topics at stake.
Prominent museum director Barabara Francos provocative anecdote in the public program
From Education to Engagement: Transforming Visitors Experiences vindicates the need for
feedback. Franco was approached by a distraught museum patron and asked, What gives you
the right to make me think?
54
The question proved a successful exhibit because the
interpretation posed new questions for the patron, engaging them in deeper thought. Ellen
Rosenthal, President of Conner Prairie, similarly saw success at her living history institution
when it was decided to discard scripted monologues in favor of interactive conversations that
would engage the guests.
55
Public historians like Franco and Rosenthal have become innovative
contributors to historical institutions because they were not afraid to test new ideas and question
the status quo of practice.
The increased immersion of the historian into public settings demands a greater sense of
their own practice and product. Public audiences are no longer fixed receptors of information,
but rather critical partners who can readily challenge traditional historical knowledge, shatter
practicing theories, and portray their own histories. Public history continues to be challenged by
a fissure between theory and practice that calls to question its veracity. For example, museums


53
Corbett and Miller, A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry, 34.


54
David Thelen, Ellen Rosenthal, and Barbara Franco, From Education to Engagement: Transforming
Visitor Experiences (Lecture, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN, May 29, 2013), Accessed
October 22, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6xmEL04QqU.


55
Ibid.

Miller 20

stem from a diverse range of disciplines, and therefore theories. J. Lynne Teather reveals the
criticisms of academic historians who believe a standard theory should be a prerequisite for
practice, much like a science, instead of approaching the formulation of a museum as a
methodical process or technique.
56
Museum professionals now rely upon a more pragmatic
approach to enable them to adapt to a dynamic audience and ever-changing historical narrative.
On a conceptual level, Donald Schns model of reflection in action bridges the gap between
theory and practice. Schn detailed the importance of mental awareness and ability to synthesize
new approaches using past knowledge and simultaneous interaction in the work environment as
streaming feedback to analyze its success.
57
Public historians have been most successful in
creating theory through practice and reflection in action because they still apply overarching
theories to test new, situational theories. The importance of Schns cognitive dialogue has
become even more crucial due to the growing emphasis of shared authority and the increasing
need for historians to critically analyze their own work.
Historians have always been subjected to critiques of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in
their academic work. The ultimate ethical violation for academic historians has always been the
egregious practice of plagiarism. While public historians are also held responsible for intellectual
property, they are held to an array of interdisciplinary and legal ethics with the expectation of
fulfillment in any given situation. Conard defines the ethics of public historians as unique
because they are not allotted the same intellectual freedom that an academic would possess at a


56
J. Lynne Teather, Museum Studies: Reflecting on Reflective Practice, Museum Management and
Curatorship 10 (1991): 405.


57
Donald A. Schn, Patters and Limits of Reflection-in-Action Across the Professions, in The Reflective
Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 269.

Miller 21

university or research institution.
58
In most instances, public historians need to comply with
employers, consulted customers, or educational institutionsentities which expect a certain
product for a monetary exchange. Jo Blatti argues, financial backers have as legitimate interests
in deposition of their gifts as oral history narrators or any other donors do.
59
The decisions
presented by management and donors complicates historical practice and presents situations
where ethical boundaries are pushed. In the case of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshalls
papers, the Library of Congress complied with Justice Marshalls request to release the papers to
the public after his death even though there was an unwritten tradition to keep fellow justices
decisions private.
60
The Library of Congress made the ethical decision to comply with the will of
Justice Marshall and provide access for the American people even though there was public
outcry from the sitting Supreme Court justices. As Alan S. Newell reminds his professionals, a
personal ethical base trumps any ethical standard imposed by a profession.
61
The same holds
true for any audience or customer public historians may serve throughout their career because
ethics affects every individual who is invested in a project.
The advent of social history in academic history challenged historical precedent by
writing a narrative from the past of marginalized people beginning in the context of the counter
culture of the 1960s and 1970sstories which rightly belonged in public knowledge. Writing in
1995, Michel-Rolph Trouillot addressed the numerous and powerful steps in the process of
making history and their ability to quite literally silence the past in numerous settings. For


58
Conard, Rebecca, Editors Introduction, The Public Historian 28, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 77.


59
Jo Blatti, Harry Millers Vision of Arkansas, 1900-1910: A Case Study in Sponsored Projects. The Public
Historian 28, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 84.


60
Randall C Jimerson, Ethical Concerns for Archivists, The Public Historian 28, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 88.


61
Alan S. Newell, Personal and Professional Issues in Private Consulting, The Public Historian 28, no. 1
(Winter 2006): 110.

Miller 22

example, the planning committee for the American Jewish Historical was concerned with
portraying Judaism as overly pious, even though their faith is central to their identity.
62

Trouillots reflection on historical scholarship reveals the need for individuals to become aware
of their pasts and the history they are creating in order to gain an intellectual grasp on the truth,
to then utilize the power written within histories that are capable of molding society and defining
cultural and national identities.
63
History is a powerful device when used properly.
Professionals need to be self-aware of the consequences of their conclusions and the
presence of any silences that have manifested through the processes of history. Considering
Truillots call to reflect on the process of history, Conard advocates practice as the fourth
dimension of history because engagement with the historical process illuminates new avenues
for improvement, much like Schns reflection in action.
64
Public historians have become
especially aware of these processes because the release of authority to the public has
demonstrated others working through the historical process. The process of public individuals
participating in their own history making, as revealed by Rosenzweig and Thelen, has created an
enlarged responsibility for historians to analyze and attribute the popular perception of a past
event as considered content for analysis. At the very least, the acknowledgement of public
knowledge has revealed to historians the power of history, and more importantly the dangers
inherent in heritage. Bound to the complexities of the past and the standards of professionalism,


62
Elisabeth Kaplan, We Are What We Collect, We Collect What We Are, American Archivist 63
(Spring/Summer 2000): 142.


63
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press,
1995), xix.


64
Rebecca Conard, Public History as Reflective Practice: An Introduction, The Public Historian 28, no. 1
(Winter 2006): 11.
Miller 23

historians have evolved into public advocates responsible for interpreting the past and fostering
civic dialogue for a better understanding of the diverse identities which exist in America.

Miller 24

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