Public History & Public Humanities: A tale of two MAs

The following post is an essay written by Lara Kelland (AM’02) and her doctoral colleague Anne Parsons. Lara and Anne are frequent contributors to the National Council on Pubic History’s “History @Work” blog. Public history is a professional field that engages the tools of academic history towards the creation of public projects such as museums, historic houses, digital projects, documentaries, and the like.


In our last History@Work post, we charted the recent burst of academic public history jobs in the past few years. This year’s job market has continued the trend, with thirty jobs seeking either major or minor public history specialties posted on the Academic Wiki. It is yet to be seen whether this increase in job postings reflects a sustainable boom or a short-lived bubble. Regardless, this growth of public history jobs signals a visible interest in the field in dozens of history departments across the country, raising significant questions regarding the overproduction of undergraduate and graduate students in public history.

One of the major concerns of expanding public history training is that many museums and historic institutions are currently facing major budget cuts, and so we are training new public historians for a field which is under siege. As the NCPH and the wider profession continue to discuss longstanding issues of graduate training in public history, we want to suggest a broadening of public history training. Public history already trains students in research and writing, preservation, and project management among other things. By incorporating more of a public humanities approach, we could train students even more broadly for a wider array of fields. At this moment of growth, public historians have an opportunity to think about new directions, including broadening the definitions of what public history is and what it encompasses.

Some universities have begun to re-imagine graduate training more expansively in the public humanities, which are broadly defined as projects that engage the public in the humanist fields of “history, philosophy, popular culture and the arts.” Public humanities programs such as those at the BrownNYU and University of Chicago infuse students with the belief that they can bring the specialized ideas of academic debate into the public sphere and inspire new visions about a more flexible curriculum and broad training. The growth of these programs demonstrates the expansive possibility of training the next generation of public historians not as possessors of a bound set of skills, but rather as flexible professionals who can work in a variety of cultural and non-profit settings. The majority of public history job listings call for experience in museum studies, historic preservation, and archival training. But the research, writing and public engagement skills of public historian would also work well in teaching, journalism, the arts and non-profit organizations.

As young public history professionals we come to this discussion mindful of our own experiences at the master’s level, one of us in public history and the other in public humanities. Anne received her MA in public history at New York University, a program that resides largely in the history department. The program provided her with a strong skill set for museum work and public history scholarship. In contrast, Lara trained at the University of Chicago in its Master of Arts Program in Humanities, designing an interdisciplinary degree that brought together different skill sets to her museum studies inquiry. The public humanities degree at University of Chicago, for instance, allowed students to design their own degree in various disciplines, enabling students to train themselves in ways that would be useful for their intended profession. A similar sentiment was expressed at the meeting of this past year’s NCPH Working Group on Imagining New Careers in Public History, where discussion about training MAs with business skills flourished. We might greatly benefit from looking to public humanities programs as a model for teaching students transferrable skills and broad cultural approaches. In one example, the University of Chicago’s MAPH program consistently places students in publishing, journalism, and teaching jobs, as well as other cultural sector jobs in visual and dramatic arts and public humanities organizations. According to one administrator of the program, graduates of broad humanities training are well-positioned to connect ideas generated within the academy to public spaces, events, and projects.

Beyond changes in public history curriculum, we would also be well-served to better connect what we already do to a broader array of cultural work. The kinship between our current professional moment and the rise of public humanities cannot be underemphasized. Public historians have many specific skills to bring to this conversation, our engagement with public memory and civil dialogue among them. Reimagining public history training as bringing skills of historical analysis into an array of jobs outside of museums and historic sites strikes at the heart of our field. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen persuasively demonstrated that popular conceptions of the past reside within the walls of the museum, but that quotidian historical consciousness is woven throughout social relations and the cultural sphere. We might do well to promote the value of historical scholarship broadly within the cultural sector, and empower our students to imagine their skills transferring to a wide array of professions and jobs beyond historic institutions.

This turn towards public humanities would provide students with the opportunity to self-design their education and foster more interdisciplinary training to equip them with the broad skills necessary for professional success across industries and sectors.  Thinking about public humanities also redefines what counts as public history work. Proponents of liberal arts training have long fended off criticisms that broadly trained critical thinkers are poorly equipped for the real world. Yet despite the criticisms lobbied at the generalist training of liberal arts education, some of the richest suggestions involve not becoming narrow in the transmission of skills, but rather redefining the broad principles that guide the curriculum and pedagogy. Beyond this, we could take cues from both the alternative academic careers community and public humanities circles.

~ Lara Kelland and Anne Parsons



, ,



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *