I’m going on a public history picnic, and I am going to bring…Herr’s Pretzels and Hershey Kisses.

This week’s readings provided a wealth of content on the founding and approach to public history as well as public history’s sense of place, especially in Pennsylvania.

Denise Meringolo’s historical perspective on public history as an idea and field anchored the readings. Meringolo grounds the field’s past with Robert Kelley’s definition of public history on page xvii as “employment of historians and historical method outside of the academia…that was largely political.”  Meringolo also builds the conversation on “what public history is” with 2003 NCPH President Rebecca Conard’s definition of public history on page xxiii as “the reflective practice of history.”

In Pennsylvania in Public Memory, Carolyn Kitch illustrates that “making” has been crucial to Pennsylvania’s industrial history not just in terms of economics and social development, but also in museum structures. She vividly depicts (in Chapter 6) factory tours as not just about seeing the making, but about being part of it.  She impressed this point by sharing that the most loved factory tour experiences were credited as those museum tours where people actually participate in the process of, for instance, stretching a pretzel.  The audience wonders if because industry was prominent in PA’s past, moments of making are cherished and reconstructed in Pennsylvania factory museums.  Has “making” become a path to remembrance because it was part of the state’s history?

Kitch serves well in concert with Ian Tyrrell’s “Place in Creation,” which clearly outlines the sense of place in the production of public history.  Tyrrell explains on page 21 that the development of the MVHA “was intellectually stronger because of… its sense of place and memory.”  Also of note regarding Tyrrell was his designation between history and memory, in which memory extrapolates no sense of time. (For those currently in Historical Methods, I am wondering if this distinction between history and memory here sounds like the distinction between history and myth discussed by Finley?)

Glassberg also addresses the definition of memory in multiple terms and isolates issues while defining them.  On pages 10-11, he offers oral history as a use in understanding the history of families and friends, but also highlights the idiosyncratic nature of oral history when using it in larger context.  He also warns that a nationalist or religious construction of public history has the ability to “overlook… dissenting voices.”

In reading Tyrrell, I was also acutely aware of his mention on page 21 that “women played subordinate parts in the MVHA’s formal academic programs, and the group’s cohesive traditions could be oppressive to younger members who sought a more urban (and urbane) orientation.”  As a young female public historian focusing on urban neighborhoods, it is hard not to be concerned about any of these lines in the field.

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s afterward in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History could arguably be the most useful piece of the book in terms of general practice theory in public history.  Firstly, they speak to public history as a vehicle for addressing immediate needs of a community of memory through dinner table-esque conversations.  On page 178, Rosenzweig writes “…the most powerful  meanings of the past come out of the ways the past can be used to answer pressing current-day questions about relationships, identity, immortality, and agency.” On page 81, Rosenzweig also gets to Michael Frisch’s “fruitful metaphor for the relationship between history professionals and popular historymakers… a shared authority.”  This brings the conversation back to Glassberg, for he ends with the Frisch too.

Considering all of the readings, there is much to digest.  I’m left wondering the following: Is the key to enjoying time on the checkered blanket of a public history picnic as simple as sharing?

Resources

Carolyn Kitch, Pennsylvania in Public Memory (State College: Penn State Press, 2012).

Rosenzweig and Thelen, The Presence of the Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970, Chs. 1-2.

Denise Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, “Prologue:  A New Kind of Technician—In Search of the Culture of Public History.”

Moses I. Finley. “Myth, Memory and History,” History and Theory 4 3 (1965): 11-25

David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory.”

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