How to Make Public History for the Public

Planes, trains, and automobiles, no this isn’t just a name of a popular movie from 1987 staring John Candy and Steve Martin. It is also a list of possible items, model and maybe even full size in some cases, that any American may collect as a way for them to connect to the past. Other items include doll houses, coins, stamps, motorcycles, and countless others, anything and everything that can make anyone feel connected to history, public or

stamp-collection
Stamp collections are one way people interact with the past.

private. This information was discovered by a research team in the 1990s who were trying to figure out how big of a part the public played in public history. The research consisted of students calling and interviewing 808 random Americans, as well as 645 additional minorities, (Presence of the Past, 16) on how they thought they fit into public history. Some of the questions were along the lines of: have you read a history book in the last year, have you visited a museum or historical site in the last year, and have you participated in the preserving of history through picture taking or writing in a journal in the last year? The study recorded every single person’s answer to these generic questions as well as the personal stories that seemed to always follow them consisting of people’s collections, what wars their grandparents fought in, where their ancestry is from, and what their heritage means to them.

Some of the more interesting responses I read were about why a person looks into their family history or what their family history means to them. Many had answers along the lines of being the family’s record keeper because their parent had been before them, looking into history after the death of a loved one, or, my personal favorite, from an Albuquerque man who said, “I wanted to learn who my ancestors were because I feel as though I am a derivative of them and to find out a little more about who I am.” (Presence of the Past, 33) My first answer when people ask why I study history is that I like to know where we all come from, that I want to know what made us all us, and how we got to where we are. This is why I study both history and anthropology and I felt a deep connection with the man from Albuquerque.

family-tree
Family trees are a popular way for people to connect to their own history.

Other ways the public can feel connected to the past is through access of media. It is the job of historians to bring history to the public in a way that is interesting. Most members of society feel dread at the mere mention of the word ‘history.’ Many people who have been asked what word comes to mind when they are asked about their high school history class was “dry,” “boring,” or simply, that they “hated it.” (Presence of the Past, 31) So, historians take part in writing books, making films, and blogging to try to bring a more interesting perspective into the story of all of us. The problem that arises with this is that most times the public isn’t that into the completely true

titanic
Titanic is a great example of a historical fiction movie. The people in it did not actually exist, but it gave the viewer great insight into what life may have been like for an ordinary passenger.

history. They need extra, they need a little fiction to keep them interested. They don’t want the typical stories of the extraordinary men, they want the rare stories of the more ordinary men and women, people they can more easily relate to. So, since these kinds of people are the “under- documented ordinary people” (Public History 109) the historians have to get creative to fill in the blanks with what they know from the particular time they are looking into. However, “plausibility must rely on historical accuracy” (Public History, 109) meaning that even if the history isn’t completely true, it is all based in fact. This fiction is necessary to add “flesh to the bare bones [of] history.” (Public History 110) All to keep the public interested in what they think is a ‘dry’ subject.

This type of fiction is used to bring the public more in tune with history along with novels, reenactments, and blogging. This includes sites like WordPress and Twitter, a micro-blogging site. Free public sites are a great way to bring the public into full contact with history as our class is in the process of demonstrating with our own blogs and Twitter accounts. This reading made me realize that history, and studying history, isn’t just for who we typically think historians are. I study history both because I love it and because I go to school for it, but anyone who has a collection, looks at pictures, or watches a historical movie is, in a sense, a historian.

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One thought on “How to Make Public History for the Public

  1. Hi Lauren! First of all, I really liked how you introduced the subject this week! I also liked how you related the readings to how you feel about history, and why you study it. Also, how you mention writing for the public, and how as students of history or professional historians, we can sometimes forget that not everyone finds our interest to be “entertaining.” Great post, and just a side note, I love Titanic!

    Liked by 1 person

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