By Kaleigh Bradley
What is public history? I remember being asked this question on my first day in the “Intro to Public History” M.A. seminar at Carleton University. I knew why I wanted to study Public History (please give me a job in history?), but I found myself struggling to define it on the spot. I quickly learned that public history is not just doing history for the public outside of academia, although this is part of what it is.
Public history is about the ways in which history is created, contested, disseminated, and presented to us all. It’s a way of practicing history, but it’s also a field of study in itself. Public history forces us to think about notions of authority and power, identity, collective memory, audience(s), and narrative. Usually, public history is practiced in traditional sites like museums, archives, and memorials, but it can also be found in more subtle places in every day life; it’s the narrative in your grandmother’s carefully crafted photo album, the oral histories that we hear from elders, the nationalistic tone in a political ad, the historical video game we play, and the erasure and absence of histories in a quickly-gentrifying neighbourhood.
At last month’s Active History Conference, I attended a panel on the Future of Public History programs in Canada. In this panel were representatives from Public History (PH) programs and employers from government institutions. It was interesting to have employers, students, and representatives from programs all in the same room. What emerged was an interesting discussion about what students are being taught, what employers want, and what employers think about PH programs and their graduates.
Why do students need to specialize in public history? This post will explore this question and will discuss what history departments across Canada are up to, what employers want, and what public history programs offer. This might be helpful for undergraduate students thinking of specializing in public history, or for high school students who are thinking about post-secondary education in history.