Public history is, essentially, history that is not bounded by the walls of a classroom. It is history than expands beyond academia and moves outside of textbooks. In some ways, it is a broadening of the definition of the field of “history” and its practitioners. Often, it encompasses tangible aspects of the past, and the reconstructed past, including historic sites, old buildings, museums, and antique artifacts, as well as documents, which constitute the more traditional form of the historic record.
There are many different definitions of “public history” available. There is a very interesting article posted on the website of the National Council on Public History, about a debate between members about an appropriate definition of the term, and the field. The NCPH board offers this definition:
“Public history is a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public.”
And, stemming from an online debate about this definition, they add that public history is “where historians and their various publics collaborate in trying to make the past useful to the public.”
For the original text and further information, see the page What Is Public History? on the NCPH website, with articles by Cathy Stanton and Greb Smoak.
The Public History Resource Center also has a page titled What Is Public History, written by Jennifer Evans, which compiles a variety of definitions from a variety of sources. The PHRC also offers a concise introduction to The History of Public History.
There is also interesting information, including a great many links, in the Wikipedia article on Public History – as always, and especially with Wikipedia (which anyone can edit, anytime) – remember to read critically.
And honestly? For me, one of the most essential components is that public history is a way you can study history without being expected to teach history, in a classroom, for the rest of your life!
(Page updated May 2, 2011)