Friday, April 11, 2008

Come Together, Right Now

Denise Meringolo wrote yesterday about the loneliness of the public history educator, a phenomenon that I imagine may be the rule rather than the exception among public history faculty and students. Here at the University of Texas, where there is no public history program per se, public history coursework is scattered across departments--from Anthropology and History to the College of Communications and the School of Information--leaving both students and faculty feeling isolated even though they share a campus as well as their interests with many potential colleagues.

As Denise pointed out, this detachment is precisely the reason that conferences like the NCPH Annual Meeting and the Public History Conference in Liverpool are so important they. They remind us that we share intellectual, practical and philosophical concerns. Kelly Britt reminds us of the opportunity the NCPH Conference provides for a dialogue across disciplines, that public archaeology and public history can change the world but also that changing the world is a fundamental concern that binds both fields.

From the Liverpool conference, Mary Stevens also addresses the diversity of attendees. Echoing recent discussions on H-Public and the Public Historian's special issue on Public History as Reflective Practice, Stevens reports on Stephen Sloan's contention that public historians help shape a "useable past" from which an audience "can draw meaning and identity" and registers her own discomfort with the idea that history entrepreneurship--what Rebecca Conard called "the hidden realm of public history"--may be "selling a useable past."

So how do we as public historians reconcile metaphors of the marketplace (selling our ideas or selling our services) with metaphors of altruism (social change and civic engagement) when clearly, both individually and as a group, we engage in both realms?

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