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Origin and Development of Public History A Critical Essay

Angela Smith October 3, 2007 Introduction to Public History Rebecca Conard

Origin and Development of Public History: A Critical Essay
History has not always been the province of professional practitioners as it is today. In the late nineteenth century, a slow but steady shift to create a historical profession favored professionally trained historians over amateur writers and collectors of history. Before this period, no collective standards defined the training of academicians or those practicing history outside the academy. The establishment of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 1884, however, was the impetus for a governing structure and a focus on methods for research and “New History.” This professionalization has raised the standards for the practice of history and increased the authority of those in the field, both inside and outside the academic arena, but it has not come easily. The change has been – and remains – controversial because of what is at stake in historical interpretation and who has the power to control it. It can be said that the debate over authority preceded the profession, though the practice of history certainly did not stop because of the conflict.1 As early as the 1850s, the work of men such as Hubert Howe Bancroft and Lyman Draper foreshadowed the practice of what we now describe as public history. Bancroft, for instance, opened a San Francisco bookstore in 1856. The unmistakable success of this venture gave him the opportunity to invest time and money into historical collecting, his passion. In 1859, he began collecting Californiana, an effort that resulted in a rich library of sixty thousand volumes. Even before the collection was given to the University of California in 1905, Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds., History Wars: Enola Gay and other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 1-7.


Bancroft was determined to share his collected works with the public; with the assistance of hired writers, he published nearly forty volumes in the 1880s and sold them by subscription. This venture, too, was successful, though Bancroft’s critics complained that his pieces on famous men were self-serving fluff pieces written by the subjects themselves. Bancroft’s application of an entrepreneurial mind to collecting and interpreting historical artifacts was a pioneer effort of what we now call public history.2 While Bancroft concentrated his efforts in the American West, Lyman Draper was engaged in a public service effort in the Midwest. He was instrumental in establishing a state charter for the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1854. Draper had minimal state support, but by his 1887 retirement, Draper had built the Wisconsin society into a national model for historical organizations with “110,000 volumes, a magnificent collection of manuscripts and newspapers, a museum, and portrait gallery,” according to Larry Gara.3 Bancroft and Draper, like others who were soon to follow, worked ouside the academy, and by the 1880s extensive changes were occurring throughout the field. The AHA was organized in 1884, and chartered by an act of Congress in 1889. The founding of the organization coincided with some American universities, such as Johns Hopkins, offering for the first time doctoral degrees in history. Higher education shifted its core model and began to implement the German seminar structure in graduate classes. Social sciences promoted the idea that research should be based on empirical evidence following the scientific method and should use interdisciplinary studies as tools in research John Walton Caughey, “Hubert Howe Bancroft: Historian of Western America,” American Historical Review 50 (1945), 461-470.

Larry Gara, “Lyman Copeland Draper,” in Keepers of the Past (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 40.


interpretation. This model changed the approach to history in the academy and eventually throughout the entire historical profession.4 Practitioners led by James Harvey Robinson of Johns Hopkins called this “The New History.”5 As a result of these events, the modern historical profession was born. Together, the universities and the AHA defined “historian.” The AHA became the organizational tool for developing a code of ethics, and professional methodology for historians in the United States. History’s professionalization had an enormous impact on the work of history. Wealthy men and intelligent women had been writing history for centuries. Historical associations first established in the 1790s preserved historical records. These amateur historians, often small groups of women, deserve credit for saving historically important homes and artifacts as well as writing history.6 Mary Louise Booth, for example, wrote the first comprehensive history of New York City. 7 Bonnie Smith, in The Gender of History, details the trend of “High Amateurism,” or women writers who were smart, well read, and well traveled and “created a thickly painted historical surface of everyday life, material culture, [and] working women’s lives.”8 In a similar vein, Tony Martin, in his article “Bibliophiles, Activists, and Race Men,” tells of African American men and women in Philadelphia in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century who collected Rebecca Conard, Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations of Public History (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), 7-8.

James Harvery Robinson, The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 1-25.

Leslie W. Dunlap, American Historical Societies, 1790-1860 (Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1974), 10-21.

Bonnie G. Smith, “High Amateurism and the Panoramic Past,” in The Gender of History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 160.
7 8

Ibid., 183. 4

books and advanced their own knowledge and their community’s educational opportunities through reading.9 After 1890, universities educated students to apply scientific method to history, and the subsequent historical practice that used this method became a litmus test between amateur and university-educated historians. Should the professional historian diminish the authority of collectors because they lacked training? Who else would collect the volumes important to African Americans or Native Americans or Californians for that matter? As important as educating learned and qualified historians is, it is just as important to understand history as a broad discipline in which nearly everyone has a stake. Instituting standards in the historical profession was a double-edged sword. Without standards, history becomes fiction. Yes, the standards filtered out many untrained and possibly illegitimate sources of “bad history,” but the downside was this system created a class system in the field where the common man was left out of the mix. Yet even with standards, professionals sometimes distorted history. One example is Dunbar Rowland, the state archivist who honored the Mississippi Legislature’s intent when it created a Department of Archives and History in 1902 to preserve “the lost cause.” With Rowland at the helm, some records were saved; others that did not reflect the established ideology were destroyed. The disdain of history professionals throughout the country “cost the institution and Rowland personally a loss of prestige and respect,” noted Patricia Galloway.10

Sinnette, Coates, and Battle, eds., Black Bibliophiles and Collectors: Preservers of Black History (Washington: Howard University Press, 1990), 23-34.

Patricia Galloway, “Archives, Power, and History: Dunbar Rowland and the Beginning of the State Archives of Mississippi (1902-1936),” American Archivist 69 (2006), 83.


Rowland’s methods, while reprehensible, were not new. History has always been contested ground. While the AHA has created standards for historians to combat efforts to hijack history, it is still difficult territory. Academics have often been accused of living in an ivory tower that separates them from the public and, of course, the public from them as well. Acceptance of “shared authority,” an idea set out by Michael Frisch in writing about a dynamic present when oral histories are undertaken, does not come easily to some. “Sharing authority is a deliberate decision to give up some control over the product of historical inquiry,” according to Katherine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller.11 It is a traditionally a difficult decision for academic historians, though historians in public arenas are almost forced to acknowledge that, with history, shared authority is broad and necessary. The AHA, in its earliest years, included those who practiced both in and out of the academy. By the 1890s, however, those that could boast a newly minted Ph.D. were leading the organization. Conscious of the divide, between 1895 and 1904 the AHA’s leadership created three organizational commissions that included some amateurs: the National Historical Manuscripts Commission, the Carnegie Institution’s Bureau of Historical Research, and the Conference of State and Local Historical Societies.12 Among these men instrumental in developing a professional approach to history outside the academy were J. Franklin Jameson, active in the AHA and director of the Carnegie Institution in Washington from 1905 to 1928; Benjamin Shambaugh, director of the State Historical Society of Iowa from 1907 to1940; Reuben Thwaites, director of State Katherine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry,” The Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006), 30.

Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of History, 1890-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 210.


Historical Society of Wisconsin from 1886 to 1913; and Frederick Jackson Turner, professor of history at Wisconsin and Harvard from 1890 to 1922. Jameson, a longtime active voice in the historical profession, was in charge of the “professionalization project” for the AHA.13 He earned the first doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University. In the AHA, he was one of the founding members and chaired the Historical Manuscripts Commission before leaving it to work at the Carnegie Institution, affiliated with the AHA. Part of the mission of the institution, according to Morey Rothberg, was to “unify the historical profession, set a single standard of scholarship for each of its members…and provide historians in any part of the country with the tools to do research.”14 Jameson encouraged the development of the professional historian, whose work should be “ordered, rational, and scientific,” and should adhere to the scientific approach to history.15 He, however, was the institutional “dean” of the AHA and his primary interest was the integrity of the historic profession. Uninterested in casting a wider net to peripheral historical professions such as museum curators or many state and local history organizations, his focus remained with archival institutions and academia. In contrast to Jameson’s central role in the management of the profession, Thwaites and Shambaugh were practitioners of history as well as educators. They worked with and for the public to achieve the objectives of the organizations they led. Devoted adherents of the New History, they firmly believed in applying professional standards both inside Peter Novick, That Noble Dream, The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 47-50.

Morey D. Rothberg, “The Brahmin as Bureaucrat: J. Franklin Jameson at the Carnegie Instition of Washington, 1905-1928,” The Public Historian 8 (1986), 54.
14 15

Ibid., 58. 7

and outside the academy. Shambaugh, Rebecca Conard wrote in Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations of Public History, “was part of the inner circle of scholars who pushed to expand the intellectual boundaries of history. … At the same time, he was also involved in professionalizing the practice of history outside the academy.”16 While Shambaugh’s definition of “applied history” narrowly focused on historians interpreting history to inform current political process, a broader core concept was implied. Shambaugh believed “competent historical analysis required the meticulous gathering of evidence, preserved and made accessible in professionally administered public archives,” Conard said.17 Thwaites, who succeeded Draper as head of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and Shambaugh, who held a parallel post in Iowa, played important roles in the development of the modern profession of public history. Yet another figure in this development was Turner who, in stark contrast to Jameson, had always been conscious of the bottom-up development of history, an idea that shaped his famous frontier thesis.18 Turner, according to Conard, had an “organic concept of historical inquiry.”19 He also advocated an approach to history that was practical rather than lofty, and practiced this in his classroom by taking his students to Wisconsin’s historical society to see the primary evidence of history.20

Ibid., 11. Ibid., 34.


Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of History,” in Frontier and Section: Selected Essays of Frederick Jackson Turner (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1961), 11-27.
18 19

Conard, Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations of Public History, Ibid., 10. 8


Early professional historians were largely men, and their perspectives gave the profession a decidedly male tone. Exceptions included Lucy Salmon, a long time history professor at Vassar, and Margaret Cross Norton, head of the Illinois State Library and Archives. Salmon, the only woman on the executive committee of the AHA, had distinct ideas about teaching history.21 In her article, “History in a Back Yard,” Salmon shares an organic view of history absent in other literature of the period and foreshadows the contemporary public history movement with her broad, accessible perspective on history.22 A decade later, Norton was instrumental in framing a more feminine perspective in Illinois in the post she held for thirty-five years. She understood that she could not justify funding an archive solely for scholarship; she knew the purpose must be broad to gain state government support. Thornton Mitchell, writing about Norton, said, “She emphasized the necessity of making archival material accessible for the ‘practical ends of administration.’”23 Both Salmon and Norton had a practical sensibility toward the historical profession, a trait remarkably absent from men such as Franklin Jameson, who had an inflexible attachment to an empirical model. Perhaps those differences could be explained as gender differences, except that a few male historians began to move across the divide. Carl Becker, professor of history at Cornell University, wrote an article in 1932 for the American Historical Review titled

Chara Haeussler Bohan, Go to the Sources: Lucy Maynard Salmon and the Teaching of History (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 2.

Lucy Maynard Salmon, “History in a Back Yard,” in History and the Texture of Modern Life: Selected Essays (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 7684.

Thorton W. Mitchell, Norton on Archives: The Writings of Margaret Cross Norton on Archival & Records Management (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), xviii.


“Everyman His Own Historian.” Becker presents a counterpoint to the historical professionalization trend that had shaped the relationship between the public and the historian for the previous forty years. “Our proper function [as historians] is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened,” he wrote.24 While acknowledging that historians may have the authority to make claims, he said the claims are short-lived if they are not acknowledged and accepted by Everyman.25 Becker acknowledged the separation between the academic historian and the public, but claimed that the professional, whether or not he knows it, is influenced by the public perception of history. Becker’s argument conceded that divergent paths of history, one inside and the other outside the academy, were not independent actors on a stage, but part of a larger dynamic in American culture. Becker’s assertions came at a time when the growth of federal and state governments created many opportunities for historians outside the academy, though university jobs were scarce due to the difficult economic conditions of the Great Depression. Ironically, it was the Great Depression and the ensuing programs of the New Deal that institutionalized more historical employment within the government. Tyrrell, in his book Historians in Public, explains the change: “… the New Deal’s programs of enhanced government intervention created positive opportunities for a new professional group to assert leadership over local history – to establish a grass-roots history ‘movement’ led by

Carl L. Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review 37 (1932), 235.
24 25

Ibid. 236. 10

experts but legitimated in terms of popular need.”26 This shift brought more trained professionals than ever before into the local history field. Professionalization continued and government employment of historians hastened the process. This trend continued through the 1930s, and as a new decade began, the war effort created an avalanche of new employment opportunities for both military and civilian historians. This trend during this period secured the professional control of many historical careers.27 Until the 1970s, most university training had a single goal, to prepare historians for the teaching profession. Even though many employment opportunities available to historians from the 1930s were outside university settings, the objectives of the academy and the AHA did not shift. As a result, professional historians became an increasingly fragmented group. Individual professions such as archivists and museum curators formed professional organizations to meet their own set of needs, adding to the fragmentation of the discipline as a whole. Divided as they were, it was impossible for history professionals to speak with one voice. Addressing the issues of the 1970s, Conard wrote, “The time, then was ripe for a movement that would attempt to cohere dispersion in the professional ranks, reconcile the alienation between academic and nonacademic historians, and forge a new professional identity.”28 That identity that is critical to the contemporary idea of public history can be traced to Robert Kelley and his colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara during the 1970s. They were interested in expanding opportunities and training for historians, as


Tyrrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of History, 222. Ibid., 230. Conard, Benjamin Shambaugh and the Intellectual Foundations of Public History,



164. 11

well as creating a consolidated identity for historians who chose not to work for universities. Kelley began by structuring a graduate program to train graduate students for available jobs outside academia. Other history departments throughout the country soon followed suit. By the late 1980s, public history was a legitimate model shaped by the success of graduate public history programs, the National Council on Public History, and the recognition of the field by the Organization of American Historians. Professionalization can be given both credit and blame for the fractured nature of historical work from the late nineteenth century until the present. While the process created important standards for the entire historical profession, it excluded many fields we find in public history today. In an effort to secure proper historical authority, the AHA alienated many professional and amateur historians who worked outside the academy. Even Benjamin Shambaugh, a pioneer in many ways with his “applied history,” was narrowly focused on political history. Early leaders did not envision the need for a larger umbrella under which the AHA would operate and serve. This created a divide that continued unabated until the modern public history movement began at UCSB. With a movement that addressed many longstanding issues that fragmented the history profession came the creation of a new model of education in history designed to meet the needs of a growing number of professional careers outside the academy.


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Mitchell, Thorton W. Norton on Archives: The Writings of Margaret Cross Norton on Archival & Records Management . Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975. Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream, The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Robinson, James Harvery. The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook. New York: Macmillan, 1912. Rothberg, Morey D. “The Brahmin as Bureaucrat: J. Franklin Jameson at the Carnegie Instition of Washington, 1905-1928.” The Public Historian 8 (1986): 47-60. Salmon, Lucy Maynard. “History in a Back Yard.” In History and the Texture of Modern Life: Selected Essays, 76-84. Philadelphia: UUniversity of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Schwarzer, Marjorie. Riches, Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America. Washington: American Association of Museums, 2006. Sinnette, Coates, and Battle, eds. Black Bibliophiles and Collectors: Preservers of Black History . Washington: Howard University Press, 1990. Smith, Bonnie G. “High Amateurism and the Panoramic Past.” In The Gender of History , 157-184. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of History.” In Frontier and Section: Selected Essays of Frederick Jackson Turner, 11-27. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1961. Tyrrell, Ian. Historians in Public: The Practice of History, 1890-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.