Much of the discussion at the closing plenary session of the National Council on Public History conference centered around the future of the field. In particular, we discussed how to communicate what public history is to those who don’t see themselves as public historians. For us personally, public history is more than just history outside of the academy—it is really any history work done within the public arena, including activities in archives, curatorial and education efforts, and of course historic preservation.
So what makes preservation public history? In the closing plenary the discussion focused on looking at history in terms of place and space, something that preservationists are more than familiar with. As preservationists, we also often use personal narratives to demonstrate the importance of saving a particular historic building, landscape, or site. Public historians also work to preserve historic sites and buildings, just as preservationists do, and both groups hope to have a positive impact on the community around them by fostering civic engagement.
One of the sessions that we attended was entitled “America’s Historic Sites at a Crossroads,” based on a 2007 conference at Kykuit and later documented in an issue of our Forum Journal. Jim Vaughan, Vice President for Stewardship of Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Harriet Beecher Stowe Center Executive Director Katherine Kane spoke at length about the future of America’s historic sites, something that public historians are deeply concerned with. The session made it clear that those of us working in public history wear many hats; we are preservationists, educators, historic site managers, and advocates. We believe that both preservationists and public historians need to start using these designations more fluidly, and think of themselves in new ways. By allowing for flexibility in terminology and identification, both groups can expand their toolbox and resources to better accomplish our goals.
Katherine Kane stressed the importance of staying passionate, and that in doing so our work as public historians will demonstrate the importance of our activities in our communities, organizations, and beyond. Hopefully, by recognizing common goals and utilizing new strategies, preservationists as public historians can continue to have a positive impact on the world around them.
-- Priya Chhaya and Leah Suhrstedt
Priya Chhaya and Leah Suhrstedt both work in the Forum office in the Center for Preservation Leadership. They are both preservationists and public historians. You can read more about the 2009 NCPH conference in Providence on the conference blog. For more information about the National Council on Public History visit the website at www.ncph.org.
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