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History is Everywhere
Public historians engage the community
Exhibit detail of the timeline marking the life of W.E.B Du Bois.

Students are going into the field of public history taking as their bywords the contemporary imperative of community engagement.

If you want to pursue your love of history but teaching in a classroom’s not for you—or you don’t relish spending months on end alone in archives with solitary writing to follow—what’s the solution? Answer: look to public history for exciting ways to share your passion.

Professor Marla Miller, director of UMass Amherst’s 25-year-old Public History program, confirms the wisdom of that choice. “We’re now reaching a thriving time, an acceleration. We’re expanding exponentially in every direction!” she says. So not surprisingly there’s no one neat definition of this fascinating field and what public historians do. Founding director Professor David Glassberg, who began his professional life working for the National Park Service, comes up with a quick one.

David Glassberg
History is becoming more inclusive, he explains, spreading out from obvious sites linked to famous people and events to include things overlooked, or less noted, and voices hitherto unheard. Also, public history is not a matter of bringing history down to the public, he continues. Rather, it’s a process of listening and dialog, and using professional skills to help communities tease out their own histories—often from unexpected places and sometimes in ways that challenge established historical thinking.

Public history is a burgeoning field with satisfying career prospects that has developed enormously since the History Department first began planning over 30 years ago for an ‘applied history’ program to better prepare graduates to work in museums, archives, and government agencies. Yet over the same period, public attendance at small, traditional museums and historic sites has dwindled as visitors seem to have lost interest in worlds apart—of artifacts-under-glass and roped off spaces. And various surveys, including the latest National Report Card, continue to reveal that most school children have a hazy sense of history—and they tend to forget the little they know as they grow older.

Marla Miller
On the other hand, websites like ancestry.com are thriving as people discover the addictive pleasures of researching family history and activities that involve learning about history are proving popular. Clearly, new connections to the past are being made today.

On campus, the two-year Master’s in Public History program has indeed been preparing students for the careers envisioned, with the more recent addition of a “Writing History” component for those who aim to reach broad audiences. But what most excites Glassberg and Miller is the cutting-edge quality of today’s program.

“Our graduates have to be good historians, with all the necessary skills—plus people skills,” explains Glassberg. “And those are tact, diplomacy, and patience, both to work with the public and collaboratively with colleagues,” adds Miller. This means taking both graduate-level history courses and training courses relevant to individual interests. Glassberg sees it, especially in the museum course, as rather like medical students doing clinical rounds.

So recent graduates and current students are going into the field of public history taking as their bywords the contemporary imperative of community engagement. Trained to look for history everywhere, they grapple with the big questions—what’s the role of history? how do we ‘preserve’ it? what’s authentic? how do we involve people? It’s time to meet some public historians.

“Becoming a son of Great Barrington: W.E.B. DuBois” is an exhibit that opened in the spring of 2011 in a corner of the lobby of the town’s Triplex Cinema. Emily Oswald, Erik Ingmundson, and Jess Monti, students in Professor Glassberg’s Museum and Historic Site Interpretation course, had the task of telling the story of Du Bois in his Massachusetts hometown, a little about his legacy, and also something of the resistance in the 1970s from residents who didn’t want him commemorated. Oswald reports that the team’s research resulted in a succinct commentary carried on a four-sided kiosk, a four-panel timeline, and several additional panels designed to capture the interest of intentional and casual visitors, who can view the highly accessible exhibit for free.

With help from the Du Bois Library, the team selected newly digitized photographs and manuscripts from the university’s Du Bois Collection. These high-resolution images helped make for a “really sharp-looking product costing well under three thousand dollars,” Oswald notes, stressing that field work is a critical component of the Public History program. “It’s a great experience locating supplies, working with a designer and printer—you can’t learn that in the classroom,” she adds.

The display will remain at the theater indefinitely as part of a long-term effort to boost visitation and activities at the nearby Du Bois homesite, owned by the university. While visiting the exhibit this summer, University of South Carolina history professor Patricia Sullivan, an authority on Du Bois, found herself taking notes right away. It’s a brilliant achievement, she says, showing how vital it is to experience this towering figure on his home turf.

Helen Wise

Reprinted with permission, UMass Magazine Fall 2011