Public History, Pop History, Academia, and Jobs.

On the last day of the 2013 ASEH meeting in Toronto I had the opportunity to sit on a panel with two other public historians at a graduate luncheon and answer questions from graduate students about job opportunities outside academia.  The attendees asked some very good questions that ranged from “how do I get a job in consulting?” to “what skills do I have that could be useful outside academia and how do I market them?”  As panelists, we each drew on our personal experiences and, in the case of me and the other Canadian on the panel, spoke to the value of a Masters in Public History.

There was one question that has stuck with me because there was not enough time to adequately address it in the session and it speaks to a deeper disconnect between those with established careers in academia and the world outside the ivory tower.  The question asked us to address the tensions between university experts and public historians, which is a common enough inquiry, but the example given to illustrate the root of the question came from an American History Television program.  This showed a conflation of public and pop history that unfortunately plagues academic views on public history and is what I would like to belatedly address.

Public history can be defined in two ways.

1)      Public history is the presentation of historical knowledge to the public outside the confines of the traditional university setting.

2)      Public history refers to the historians employed outside the university in a position related to the field of history.

These two definitions are obviously connected and both allude to the places where public history takes place; museums, archives, websites, government ministries, tv documentaries, radio programs, etc.  Anyone trained as a historian and working in these fields is a public historian but that does not mean that all of them are trained in public history.  In Canada there are only a handful of universities that offer graduate programs devoted to the study and practice of public history – Carleton University and the University of Western Ontario are the most prominent.  This is important because the methodology, theory, and skills taught in public history programs is not the same as that taught in a traditional history masters and this disconnect is at the root of what many see as a tension between academic and public history.


The question posed during the ASEH graduate luncheon about tensions between academic and public history accused public historians of not keeping abreast of new findings in academic history and as a result creating historical knowledge for the public that fails to adequately address the current state of literature in a field.  My response was as a-political as possible, drawing on the different modes of presentation used in public history and considerations for the audience as part of why certain information is left out of exhibitions and similar presentations.  In the response I tried to convey that public historians, especially curators, do keep up with the developments in academia; professional development is part of their job, they are constantly researching to develop their collections, and they actively publish in peer-reviewed journals.  However, that depth of knowledge is not always reflected in the knowledge that is transmitted to the public for two very important reasons; audience and space constraints.

The audience for academics is other academics.  There is a level of assumed knowledge that come with writing for your peers that allows monographs and articles to delve into the minutia of a topic that is not possible in other areas.  Public history does not have the luxury of assuming a base level of knowledge at the masters’ level.  Instead, public historians have to convey the same information that would make for a great article without the use of footnotes to explain or reference back to supporting information.  The audience for public history is anyone from an elementary school student to a university professor and everyone in-between.  There is no assumed knowledge when writing for an audience this diverse so often the newest information academics would like included must be cut for the sake of contextual information that gives the public a necessary base from which to continue exploring a topic.

Space is the second constraint and it often has a greater impact on what a public historian can convey than their audience.  In a museum, for instance, each text panel is restricted to about 200 words.  The first paragraph of this post is 109 words!  Often a curator has 200 words to convey what an academic could devote an article to.  It is a challenge to any academic thinking it is easy to do public history to distill the information of an entire article into 5 panels, 200 words each, in language that is suitable for a grade 8 reading level and still maintain the crux of the article.

The emergence of professional training through graduate programs in museums studies and public history created a pool of people working in museums, archives, government ministries, etc with an understanding of what public history should be and the skill set to make what they do seem simple.   However, not everyone producing history for public consumption is trained in the field or attune to the best practices in presenting knowledge to the public.  This is where pop history and public history collide and too often those working outside public history judge it with a harshness borne of too many disappointing or frustrating interactions with pop history.

Pop history is analogous to pop music – it is light and easy to access and digest but without much substance.  It can also be seen as the tabloids of history in the tendency toward sensationalizing over accuracy and use of outdated or disproven information.  Most pop history is encountered in television programming – the recent series “Viking” is an excellent example – and distorts fact for entertainment value without providing the viewer with a disclaimer.  As a result when the general public watches pop history programs they leave with misconceptions of what happened and unwittingly perpetuate false information and assumptions about the past.  When academics encounter pop history the story presented is often so distorted that their frustration and anger at the public receiving false information is understandable.  Public historians have the same reaction to the programs as academics because like in academia the core mission in public history is to engage people’s interest in the past while providing the public with the most accurate and up-to-date information available.

There is a disconnection between public history and academic history but in my experience it is not coming from the public history side.  As a MA student in a public history program I worked with academics who understood what public history was, brought in practicing experts, and fostered connections between the university and public institutions to ensure the best possible history was presented to the public.  As a PhD student I sat in on graduate level course about public history that completely over looked the long standing journals and scholarship in the field, and listened too many times to academics conflate pop history with public history.  Upon leaving a doctoral program to pursue my passion for public history it became clear that the hesitancy of some public historians to work closely with academics often comes from false assumptions about what they do informed by conflations of pop and public history.  Public historians understand academia because to work in the field a minimum of a Masters degree is required, but most academics have never worked in public history and do not have the understanding of the field that can only come from hands-on experience.  It is encouraging to see academic associations beginning to embrace public history and the opportunities it presents to the graduate students they are training and gives hope that eventually the tensions and misunderstandings between academia and public history will disappear.

Assumptions about public history perpetuated within the universities do the greatest disservice to graduate students planning their entry onto the job market.  Academic positions are few and far between but too many graduate students are woefully under prepared to be competitive in the public history sector.  The increase in public history and museum studies programs means the competition for jobs outside academia is stiff and simply having a doctorate is not enough to get an interview, let alone a job.  Experience is essential, knowledge of collections management is mandatory for museums positions, and practical knowledge of how to adapt history for a public audience is important.  For graduate students trying to plan for the day they go on to the job market, degree in hand, it means tough decisions.  To get the experience needed for a non-academic job means a graduate student must give up some summer researching time to work in the field, or adding volunteering at a public history institution to an already busy academic schedule.  It also means making a difficult decision while still in the doctoral program – do you want to work in academia or do you want to work in public history?  Speaking from the other side of that decision I would encourage any graduate student to take preparing for a possible job in public history as seriously as they do the academic route.


About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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3 Responses to Public History, Pop History, Academia, and Jobs.

  1. Tina Loo says:

    Thanks for the post, Lauren. I agree with lots of what you say. One thing people might consider is that just as academic jobs are few and far between so too might jobs in museums. Funding for cultural institutions has been seriously eroded over the last decade – as you must know from working in that sector. I wouldn’t want people thinking of careers to go from one sector where jobs are scarce to another.

    Is there a way of thinking about different kinds of public history, like land claims research, for instance? That is presenting historical info outside a traditional classroom setting. It’s to a different and equally specialized audience, though. What other kinds of public history are there?

    • Great question Tina. This post used museums as the main example because it is the area of public history I am currently employed in but not the only area to look into. There are jobs that are looking for exactly the skill set a historian has but no where in the posting will you find the word “history”. For instance, government takes in a surprising number of history graduates for various department positions because they are able to research and write clearly. Consultation work relies on the same skill set as government but also looks for knowledge of specific ares, like land claims and treaty rights. Emily Greenwald from the American firm Historical Research Associates spoke to this area at the ASEH luncheon.

      I may have to make this a two part post and to get into more details about job opportunities and marketable skill.

    • I usually take the broader definition of public history (history as practiced outside of academia) in part because it better reflects my diverse experiences. While most of my “public history” work has been related to litigation support activities (i.e. research, summary report drafting, database design and administration, training on research and search techniques, electronic processing of document collections) that have analogues in other parts of public history (mostly archives, I think)–though the litigation context provides its own unique constraints and challenges.

      At the same time, I volunteer in research and programming for a small but worthy local museum and do part time consulting almost entirely for individuals, not institutions (which means anything from researching genealogy, military records, settlement records, to facilitating ATIP requests, etc). Although I don’t engage in it myself, I think we need to look to elementary, middle and high school history teachers as allies and fellow public historians as what they do everyday lies at the core of what “public history” is, in my definition. (Again, my research for my public history degree was on the teaching of history to children in a elementary school setting, so it has been a connection I’ve seen lacking.)

      I think the limiting factors in public history are, on the one hand, money (of course) and on the other hand imagination. As Lauren said, the skills taught in history and public history programs are eminently transferable. While jobs in explicitly historical institutions are few and far between, there are many, many allied fields that we, as history graduates, need to keep our eyes open for.

      Great post Lauren, and I look forward to Part 2!

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