Public History

What is public history?

It depends on who you ask. We conceive of public history mainly as the practice of history outside of academia. Public historians work at historic sites, museums, historical societies, government agencies, archives, and in the private sector. Public historians care for historical documents, artifacts, and images. They also interpret history for the public and professional audiences. Public historians create exhibits, historical brochures, interpretive programs, and web-based presentations. These make the past accessible, intelligible, and relevant.

Public historians also research and write about the past. Like all historians, public historians view the past as offering limitless opportunities for inquiry. Public historians tend to be generalists rather than specialists. Although many have dedicated research interests, they have to learn about new subjects as needs arise. Public historians often conduct original research. In many cases, however, their work is not aimed at publication but, rather, exhibit development, historical programs, and restoration plans. Public historians need to be versatile, resourceful, and creative. These are hallmarks of the field.

Training for public historians

We provide broad-based training in history, historical research and writing, and historical interpretation. Students take courses that investigate the intellectual origins of public history, its relationship to traditional historical scholarship, and the challenges facing public historians today. Focusing on these topics establishes the boundaries of the field and helps students begin building professional identities. Students also develop strong research and writing skills. Like all historians, they need to be able to find information, think historically, and communicate clearly and effectively. Firm grounding in basic historical methods is essential.

Specialized training also prepares students for careers in the field. Public historians need skills that academic historians often lack. Literacy with digital media, exhibit design and installation skills, and sensitivity to audience interests and knowledge are all essential.

Our program emphasizes three areas of concentration:

  • historic preservation
  • history museums and museum education
  • community-based historical programming

These draw upon strengths within the University and in the Louisville metro area.  Electives, internships, and extracurricular opportunities allow students to develop skills specific to their area of concentration and long-term professional goals.

Public history students enjoy a low student-faculty ratio, access to extensive research materials, and opportunities to work at historical institutions in Louisville and throughout throughout the Kentuckiana region.  Graduates of our program have obtained full-time employment with leading historical organizations, launched carers as independent consultants, and secured positions at museums, historic sites, and historical societies.

Program Options

We offer two options for students interested in public history.

A. Master of Arts in history. Students in the M.A. program may chose public history as a major or minor field of study. For information, click here.

B. Graduate certificate in public history. This 18-credit hour program provides students with general training in the field.  It can be pursued as a stand-alone credential or in combination with a Master of Arts in history or a related discipline. In the latter case, students who complete all requirements will graduate with a M.A. in their chosen discipline and a certificate in public history.  For more information, click here.

Public history today: an in-depth discussion


Questions? Contact Professor Daniel Vivian at (502) 852-7583 or by email.