Public History: Never Finished, Never Perfect

Screenshot from "City of Memory"
Screenshot from “City of Memory”

Throughout my educational endeavors in public history, I have been struck by the wide range of mediums by which public historians convey their knowledge of the past to their audiences. The National Council on Public History describes public history as “history beyond the walls of the traditional classroom,” and such a description reminds us that educators who work “in the field” are vitally important in helping us understanding the ways in which history is made every day. Common avenues for public historians to educate the broader public about the past include museums, libraries, historic homes, musical performances, and film. The sorts of occupations public historians hold are equally diverse and include curators, historic preservationists, interpreters, cultural resource managers, and oral historians.[1]

As the entire field of history continues to experiment with the educational possibilities of the digital landscape, public historians have utilized the tools offered by the digital medium to preserve, interpret, and create new understandings of the past. Digital songs, videos, games, and interactive maps provide the public historian an arsenal of interpretive techniques to add to his collection. Such digital technologies have the potential to make the past impactful and immediate to participants, fostering a stronger sense of community and enhanced civic engagement.

When thinking about digital projects that challenge our prior understandings of public history, I immediately think of the City of Memory project, created and curated by City Lore. Conceived in 2001 as a public exhibit at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC, City of Memory sought to create an enhanced level of interactivity by allowing visitors to write their own stories about their life experiences in New York City. Anything, anyone, anytime. Visitors would then pin their stories onto Styrofoam maps, giving readers a wide range of perspectives to experience in a spatial format. The project was so successful that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation awarded grants to City Lore, allowing for the creation of City of Memory in a digital format, what co-founder Steve Zietlin calls, “a virtual experiment in popular curation.”[2]

Zietlin and exhibit designer Jake Barton created their digital project around two central questions they believed their audiences would ask when visiting City of Memory: “Where are the best stories” and “Where is my story?” Realizing that the burgeoning era of Web 2.0 browsing was on the horizon, Zietlin and Barton aimed to incorporate “populist” values that are now commonly associated with this version of digital exploration, including interactivity, participation, and collaboration between web designers and site visitors.[3] They understood that an effective way to make City of Memory important to its audience was by creating stakeholders who had an active role in shaping the content of the website. When visiting City of Memory, one will notice blue and orange dots on the interactive map, and that there are almost as many blue (user submitted stories) as there are orange (stories submitted by City Lore). He or she will also notice two separate links where anyone can “add a story” to the website. Each entry includes videos, photos, and text that help the reader place the stories within the social, geographical, and thematic context of New York City’s history.

This interactive process should remind all public historians that a large part of our job is not only to make the past important, but to also make our audiences feel important. We do this by telling stories about the past while also listening to our audiences’ stories of the past. While working for the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site with the National Park Service, I cannot say how many times an interpretive story from me about Grant, his family, or slavery would turn into an audience-created story about someone’s visit to the Vicksburg National Battlefield, a person’s descendant who fought in the Civil War, or a reflection on what was taught in a high school about slavery in the 1980s. I realize that we need to challenge our audiences to think beyond themselves when learning about the past. Furthermore, Zeitlin points out that there is an underlying tension between the ideals of inclusive participation from audience members and curatorial practices from web designers who must create an artful, engaging experience, just as public historians must do.[4] However, I firmly believe digital projects like City of Memory can teach us the importance of listening to our audiences and using their perspectives to strengthen our interpretations.

Public historians can also view City of Memory as an example of bridging the gulf between popular and academic culture. On the one hand, City Lore creates its own stories that often utilize the voices and perspectives of professional academics. Some these stories cover deep, complex topics such as immigration and slavery. On the other hand, user-submitted stories frequently reflect poignant, emotional stories of history and memory from personal perspectives. One of my favorites is “Under the Sink & Through the Wall” by Jedediah Baker. While trying to adjust and survive in a “new” apartment in New York City, Baker soon discovers a hole in the wall underneath his kitchen sink that is big enough for him to see into his neighbor’s apartment. Reading Baker’s short story had me thinking of ways in which public historians could use holes in walls to create interpretive stories about the challenges faced by people throughout history who moved to New York City. With high hopes for a brighter future, many of these people struggled to assimilate into their new surroundings and culture. Such interpretive possibilities demonstrate that public history is just as much about creating an ongoing dialogue about the problems of contemporary society as it is about creating a dialogue that explores the past. For many people, their interactions with public historians are the only instances in which they get a chance to learn about history or share a story about their life with someone who is interested in listening and learning. We should teach audiences about the past using the skills we learned in academia, but in a manner that allows us to relate our stories to a public composed of a wide range of perspectives and experiences.

Finally, I think City of Memory does an excellent job of demonstrating my earlier point about digital history being in a state of motion. New stories are being submitted to the site on a daily basis. Old stories are frequently replaced with new memories and experiences. Zietlin expands on this idea, explaining that “as an open-ended site, the work on City of Memory is never finished and never perfect.”[5] It is ever-changing and always up for recreation, reinterpretation, and experimentation. Public history functions in much the same way. The work of public history is never finished and we are constantly striving for a more perfect understanding of the past. An interaction with one audience is never the same with the next, and a level of experimentation always colors our interpretations. Yet that is what makes projects like City of Memory so exciting. Each interaction allows for the possibility of a new connection to be made with the past and, oftentimes, the public historian is learning about these connections with their audiences as they explore the past together.

[1] National Council on Public History. “What is Public History?” Accessed January 29, 2013.

[2] Steve Zeitlin, “Where Are the Best Stories? Where is My Story?: Participation and Curation in a New Media Age,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair et al. (Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), 36.

[3] Ibid, 35. For a helpful description and visual chart that expands on the concept of Web 2.0, see Jason M. Kelly, “An Ecology for Digital Scholarship,” accessed January 23, 2013.; Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0? Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software, Last modified October 2009, accessed January 30, 2013.

[4] Zeitlin, “Where Are the Best Stories?,” 35.

[5] ibid, 39.


3 thoughts on “Public History: Never Finished, Never Perfect

  1. Nick,
    This was a great thoughtful piece.
    I was really intrigued by your comment, “I realize that we need to challenge our audiences to think beyond themselves when learning about the past.” In my experience, some of the most powerful historical learning occurs when audiences start from the point of including themselves into the stories of the past. Only by calling on their existing knowledge and experiences are they able to access the stories we share. History people cannot engage with on a personal level, they are reduced to understanding only through rote memorization. To me this is the essence of shared authority in public history.
    The fact that people shared their stories with you on a regular basis, to me, suggests that you were a good tour guide, public historian and story teller that was able to build connections between yourself, the information and your audience. Only after these connections are made can we hope to challenge an audience, and it sounds if you may have.
    I also like the idea of a peep-hole into the “city of memory.” It reminded me of Alice and the rabbit hole… a land familiar, and strange. (Then I thought of the mess under my sink, at home and a land familiar, and strange. And personalization of stories and the moral imagination and…see what happens when you peek)
    Kudos, Angie

    1. Angie, thanks so much for the comment and the kind words. Meeting people from all over the country and sharing stories with so many interesting people was one of many reasons why I’m back in school, so I can a make a living out of this and give an even better interpretation next time.

      Allow me to clarify the point you mentioned. I wholeheartedly agree with starting our interpretations with stories we can use to relate history to our audiences. However, I was struck by a short essay from Rebecca Conard entitled “Do you Hear What I Hear? Public History and the Interpretive Challenge,” which was required reading for us in Intro last semester. The article is a bit dated, and I think she may have gone a bit overboard with her concerns, but there are some important points she makes. To wit:

      “I simply do not see much of a future in endeavors to create museum [or other public history] experiences for people whose overriding motive for going to the past is to find out where they came from, people whose definition of such personal identity excludes depression and shtetl and potato famine and includes little more than their own family and its genealogy, people whose concern for the sources of their problems discounts poverty, war, religion,bigotry, and work and counts only their own psyche and lineage… families are virtually the only places: start, middle, and finish… family is safety, in a world that is danger… How do historians reach out to people who don’t want to be touched? How do we create a common heritage with people who scorn even to consider their connections to others… How do we grow an audience of people who will not and cannot see past themselves?”

      I see the sharing of stories and authority as absolutely critical to creating a richer historical transaction between public historian and audience member, but in order for that transaction to really pay off for my audiences I need to find a way to get them thinking about the big picture. I want that person who may visit the Grant home to think about their ancestor who fought in the Civil War, but I also want that person thinking about the war as a whole and how it affects our country today.

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