Reading Log #1

This weeks reading focused primarily on the public history field and public history as a whole. While that seems vague, the selections from “Museums, Monuments, and National Parks Toward a New Genealogy of Public History by Denise Meringolo” focuses on the creation of public history and attempts by public historians to redefine the field throughout its history. This piece also discusses the ways public historians have fit in with more traditional historians and the ways government historians have found both access to and barriers to their involvement in the field. This selection is very much a history of the discipline of Public History. While not the most dynamic read, it was very helpful for me to understand the origins of the field and its development. It has become apparent to me that public history growing, but I have also witnessed some animosity by more traditional historians to the field. This history really helped me place both of those trends in context. The selections from “Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970” was more focused on the development of American history. This was particularly interesting because it was put in context of national mythology and the role history has in shaping it. It is also put in context of Eugene Genovese and the “culture wars” that developed surrounding political correctness as a reaction to the “New Social History” and the inclusion of minorities and women into historical narratives. While slightly different in character, this discussion reminded me of recent debates about censorship, trigger warnings, and political correctness in the classroom. While this article was discussing events of the 1980s and 1990s, we are seeing incarnations of these debates focused on modern day issues.

After the prologue, this selection primarily focused on how History in its current form developed as a career. All of the changes to the field and the varying stages of development of the field had come down to the question “What is the job of the historian?” Historians are still debating this issue, but shifts in methodology, focus and questions about the usefulness of the Ph.D have existed as long as the profession has.

While the first two readings focused on the development of history as a career, The Presence of The Past by Rosenzweig and David Thelen and Pennsylvania in Public Memory: Reclaiming the Industrial Past both engage with the ways the public engages history. Rosenzweig and Thelen used surveys to assess the ways Americans of different racial and ethnic heritages engage with the past. While many Americans have poor associations with history classes, many more are interested in family history and geneolgy. Others are interested in family stories, museums, local historical sites and forms of history. Rosenzweig and Thelen use their work to challenge assumptions about who is a historian and who engages with the past.

While focused on public engagement with the past, Carolyn Kitch’s Pennsylvania in Public Memory: Reclaiming the Industrial Past does so with a different focus. Kitch focuses on the industrial and rural heritage of Pennsylvania and the way this is interpreted across the state. In many ways, the people Kitch focused onare seen as more “professional” than those studied by Rosenzweig and Thelen. These people are active in creating and interpreting local historic sites, giving tours, or benefitting from the tourism industry across the state. In some ways Kitch’s analysis can conflate different kinds of tourism. However, Kitsch effectively shows they way people use historic sites to support their own interests and make sense of the industrial past in Pennsylvania.

Kitch’s book also made clear why our reinterpretation of the Powel House is necessary. While much of Pennsylvania interprets and focuses on its industrial past, Philadelphia does not. In many ways, Philadelphia decided that the history of the city Colonial and ended there. This is reflected in the current interpretation of the Powell House, and Kitch’s work really drove that home.