Public Memory and Public History

Professor Catherine Stewart


The American public has an insatiable appetite for representations of the nation's past, as demonstrated by the popularity of historic sites, historical re-enactments, televised historical documentaries on PBS and the History Channel, Hollywood films, and museums. Yet, despite the growing audience for history as a form of popular and mass culture, the practice of history seems to be in a state of crisis: in addition to a lack of employment opportunities for academic historians, these scholars feel increasingly left out of the presentation of the historical past for public consumption. Political debates which emerged in the 1990s over controversial exhibits of the nation’s past, such as the proposed “Enola Gay” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, engendered a public furor over how American history is being taught in the public school system. This course will examine the (often contentious) relationship between popular presentations of America's past for the general public, and professional historians' scholarly understandings of key events in the nation's history. The growing field of “Public History” occupies a critical position in these debates, as it is situated between academic practitioners and the public. Public historians can serve as a bridge between these two constituencies, but as such, they face many challenges academic historians do not in terms of audience, budgets, politics, and bureaucracy.

In order to understand more fully the challenges Public History institutions and organizations face in trying to educate the public through exhibitions, all students (working in groups of no more than five) will create a virtual exhibit that showcases some aspect of the Public History organization which is hosting and supervising their mini-internship. Working with your host institution, you will come up with a subject or theme which relates to the institution’s collection, and create an exhibit that addresses the institution’s mission, audiences, and needs (in terms of creating public awareness of the collection, and/or the topic, and/or the institution itself). Exhibits may incorporate, when possible, information and artifacts from the host institution’s collection; but they should also draw upon other resources available on the internet (or in the Cole library). The process of requesting, borrowing, and correctly attributing artifacts and documents on loan from other institutions or private individuals, for special exhibits is common practice for public history institutions. If they are successful, these virtual exhibits may become part of these institutions’ websites through hyperlinks.


For questions or comments, please contact Catherine Stewart