What is Public History?

We define public history as encompassing the practice of historical research and interpretation outside of the academy. 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 Public historians care for historical documents, artifacts, and images.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 digital products. This work makes the past accessible, intelligible, and relevant.

Students recording information from gravestones at a cemetery historically associated with an African American church outside of Sadieville, KY. Shown in the photo are Scott Weinhusesn, Nicole Cissell, and Andrew Clark.
Students recording information from gravestones at a cemetery historically associated with an African American church outside of Sadieville, KY. Shown in the photo are Scott Weinhusesn, Nicole Cissell, and Andrew Clark.

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.