Book Review

Public History: From Preservation to Narrative, Part I

This is the start of a two-part review essay on recent books about public history. Considering the debates raging the last two weeks about Confederate memorials and public history, it’s quite timely now. Part two will be posted next Sunday evening.


Review Essay by Nick Sacco

Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Towards a New Genealogy of Public History (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012) 207 pages.

Robert C. Post, Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) 370 pages.

Teresa Bergman, Exhibiting Patriotism: Creating and Contesting Interpretations of American Historic Sites (Left Coast Press, 2013) 251 pages.

The evolution of public history in the United States seems like a simple enough narrative. Facing an economic downturn and a job crisis in the academy during the 1970s, professionally trained historians began seeking gainful employment in consultancies, government offices, museums, historical societies, national parks, and for-profit corporations not affiliated with a university. Although many of these institutions originated in the nineteenth century, it was only until this 1970s job crunch, we are told, that historians in the professorate started taking the public history idea seriously.

There are, of course, strands of truth in this popular narrative. Robert B. Townsend’s recent scholarship on the professionalization of history shows that although the American Historical Association’s (AHA) earliest visions for the field were at least partly shaped by school history teachers and practitioners outside the academy, differing standards and vocabularies for assessing good historical scholarship provoked a slow fracturing among professionals. Starting in the 1920s AHA annual meetings largely revolved around narrowly-defined historical topics designed by and catered to academics.[1] Facing increasing isolation within the AHA, history professionals outside the academy splintered into organizations that sometimes received limited support from academics, including the Society for American Archivists in 1936, American Association for State and Local History in 1940, and the National Council on Public History in 1980.[2] And it’s certainly true that economic downturns over the past forty years have sparked increased interest in public history, although employment outside the academy is still commonly referred to as “alternative” employment from “regular” history instead of simply “employment in history.”[3]

Public historians are historicizing and theorizing the origins of their field, however, and making new discoveries about the ways practitioners—whether or not they were trained in the academy—have historically used museum exhibits, national parks, and a range of other cultural mediums to represent and make arguments about history for public audiences. And rather than conceiving public history as an academic specialty born of the 1970s, many scholars today now acknowledge that the roots of public history date back to the nineteenth century. Equally significant, they also understand public history’s unique multidisciplinary framework, informed not just by historical thinking but also anthropology, archaeology, science, American studies, and theories of learning, education, and culture. Three recent publications illuminate these findings and represent a broader historiographical trend that interrogates the values underlying history and public service.

In Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, Denise Meringolo, a public historian and professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, argues that the roots of public history originate in the federal government’s interest in fostering scientific discovery and research through public funding during the Antebellum era. “Beginning in the 1830s,” argues Meringolo, “botanists, geologists, cartographers, and various naturalists worked to museumsetc.convince Congress that research collections were not simply markers of individual elite status. Rather, artifacts held important clues for establishing the economic and cultural wealth of the nation” (5). Despite the concerns of states’ rights politicians like John Calhoun who feared the expansion of the federal government into research and education, two crucial factors emerged to advance the case for public funding of science: British scientist James Smithson’s one-hundred thousand pound donation to the U.S. government (which led to the establishment of the Smithsonian in 1846) and an increasing desire to mobilize science for national defense purposes through topographical and geological surveys for planning roads, waterways, and military routes throughout the country.

In the years before and after the Civil War, surveys of the American West yielded fascinating cultural and natural discoveries that included Indian artifacts, geological structures, wildlife, and plant life. Alarmed by the number of “amateur” researchers and homesteaders threatening the destruction of these public lands, advocates of scientific research and landscape preservation argued that the federal government had an obligation to protect its resources. In addition to the Smithsonian, other federal agencies like the Bureau of Ethnology and the National Park Service (NPS) were established during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era to manage public lands.

The National Park Service’s creation in 1916 marked an important moment in the history of land preservation in the United States, but within a decade the agency was struggling with limited funds and a Congress skeptical of its mission. Almost all parks by 1925 were located west of the Mississippi River, and politicians from the east and south questioned the wisdom of using public funds towards projects that didn’t benefit their constituents. The agency sought ways to expand its holdings in the east and soon found itself eyeing sites with national historical significance. Meringolo argues that Park Service leaders soon “invited museum professionals, educators, and finally, historians, to help them establish standards to guide park selection” (86). History was deemed worthy of federal preservation, and in 1933 fifty-seven historic sites and seventeen national monuments were transferred to the NPS. Academically-trained historians like Verne Chatelain joined the agency during the Great Depression and oversaw the training of its first public history interpreters, museum curators, and historic preservationists, what Chatelain described as “a new kind of [history] technician” geared towards public service. The expansion of NPS holdings to the east ultimately allowed historians to join an already multidisciplinary field designed for the preservation and interpretation of public resources. “Tracing the gradual emergence of public history as a government job rather than as a specialty within the larger discipline of history,” Meringolo argues, “sheds new light on the complicated role public historians play in the institutions in which they work and among the audiences they serve” (155).

[1] Robert B. Townsend, History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Robert B. Townsend, “The AHA on the path to public history,” [email protected], March 9, 2015. Accessed April 22, 2015.

[2] Indicative of these splits were the sentiments of AHA Executive Secretary Samuel R. Gammon, who stated in 1984 that he would gladly welcome to “our learned society . . . those outside of the profession who are sympathetic to the profession—history buffs.” Gammon’s comment reflects an unfortunate public/professional dichotomy that narrowly defines history “professionals” as those working in the academy. Gammon quoted in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 520.

[3] Stacy Patton, “What Some Faculty Really Think About Nonacademic Careers,” Chronicle Vitae, July 8, 2014. Accessed April 20, 2015.; Rebecca Shuman, “‘Alt-Ac’ to the Rescue?,” Slate, September 18, 2014.

Nick Sacco HeadshotNick Sacco is a public historian and Park Guide with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. In May 2014, he received his Master’s degree in history from Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and recently published a journal article on the Grand Army of the Republic and Civil War Memory.