Reflections: Public History

6 May

by Diana Yost-

As a graduate student working in the field of historical and museum studies, I have had the opportunity to enroll in several different classes related to museum work. Fields I have studied in the past include exhibit design, collection management, and curatorship. However, this past semester I ventured into a new realm for me, that of public history.  Stepping out from the behind-the-scenes work of collection databases and exhibit label making, public history has helped challenge my perspective on how to communicate history to the public. There were two specific topics from the class that really made me question my role as a public historian. The first topic was that of the documentary, specifically our talks about Old North St. Louis and the documentary film about the Pruitt-Igoe housing development. The second is the idea of a community project, relating to our work with the Lincoln Place Heritage Association.

As a professional or academic historian, it is important to find an effective way to communicate history to the public.  I feel like a balance must be struck between popular and professional history. It is our job as public historians to give the public not only historical truths but also to present to them overarching themes and connections to the broader picture. At the same time, we are met with the difficult challenge to keep the public interested and keep them coming back for more. The situation gets even more complex when working with a community to tell a history.

Earlier in the semester we viewed a documentary film called The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which detailed the conception and ultimate failure of a public housing experiment. The challenge with this film is how to present the story of the neighborhood while accurately portraying all sides of the story. Prior to the film, my knowledge of the project was the perception of it falling into disrepair and plagued by violence. The filmmakers did an excellent job at fusing this side of the story with the perspective from the residents who live there, showing how there were close knit communities and that this development was a home to so many families.

I relate the making of this film to our work with the Lincoln Place Heritage Association in that we are telling the story of the neighborhood, but we are met with the challenge of not just showing the one-sided perspective of the residents, but the historical implications of the neighborhood as well. We have discussed in class several times how we can, as historians, find that balance between the selective history the residents chose to tell and the other history of the neighborhood that may be brushed under the rug. The members of the Association have a specific story they want to tell about the neighborhood, but we as public historians have an obligation to be objective in our history and to tell more than just one side of the history.

As public historians, we not only meet with the challenge of communicating history to the public, we also are challenged when working with the public to tell history. While working with a community to tell a history, it is important for us as historians to not just tell a one-sided history, but to leave the public with a better understanding of the picture as a whole.


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