Whose public? Audience and Public History

In 1981, Ronald J. Grele published an article arguing that public historians needed to better define themselves and their “public” if they wanted to make it clear how they differed from academic historians (p. 41). Grele argued that the label of “public history” was part of an attempt to co-opt the state and local history in a bid to create jobs for their graduates, and it was therefore too focused on its identity as a profession (pp. 45-6). Instead, Grele pushed for a wider understanding of public history “in which a broad public participates in the construction of its own history” (p. 48).

Despite, or maybe because of, Grele’s emphasis on the work or goal of public history rather than the job or career, debate has continued around who exactly is a public historian. In fact, a survey of public history professionals in 2008 revealed that only slightly more than three-quarters of respondents considered themselves public historians (“A Picture of Public History”). Grele’s model for supporting communities to create their own histories has, however, become in different forms a model for public history engagement with its audience. Since Grele’s article museums such as the Chinatown History Museum in New York and the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis have put ideas like his to work, building exhibits with community input and even restructuring museum roles around greater responsiveness to that input (See Kuo Wei Tchen; and Corbett and Miller).

The idea of surrendering authority to allow community members to tell their own stories has, however, encountered some pushback, with some historians fearing that too much audience involvement means the end of determined facts. I believe that Serge Noiret has useful a model for how to balance the need for some authority with public input. Noiret’s argument that working with public does not and should not entail “radical trust,” where curators and museum directors take any input as valid as any other (p. 52). Instead, he suggests that the role of public historians should involve a quality control process but that more crucially historians should share their expertise and method with the public (pp. 55-9).

For an example of how to share historical methods, I suggest Sam Wineburg’s “Thinking Like a Historian” where he stresses that teaching history is teaching appropriate skepticism and media savvy. Wineburg specifically suggests teachers (and I would add public historians) can model history practice by demonstrating techniques such as sourcing (considering who created a historical source and why), contextualizing (situating a source in its time and place of creation), close reading (considering the wording and structure of a source); using background knowledge, reading silences (considering what is missing from a source), and corroborating. I think engaging audiences in ways that incorporate these methods but are also open to feedback from the public defines the core of public history.


“A Picture of Public History: Preliminary Results from the 2008 Survey of Public History Professionals | Perspectives on History | AHA.” Accessed January 23, 2023. https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/september-2009/a-picture-of-public-history.

Corbett, Katharine T., and Howard S. (Dick) Miller. “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28, no. 1 (February 1, 2006): 15–38. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2006.28.1.15.

Grele, Ronald J. “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” The Public Historian 3, no. 1 (January 1, 1981): 40–48. https://doi.org/10.2307/3377160.

Kuo Wei Tchen, John. “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment.” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, edited by Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine, 285–326. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Noiret, Serge. “Sharing Authority in Online Collaborative Public History Practices.” In Handbook of Digital Public History, edited by Serge Noiret, Mark Tebeau, and Gerben Zaagsma, 49–60. De Gruyter, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110430295-004.

Wineburg, Sam. “Thinking Like a Historian.” Teaching with Primary Sources Quarterly 3, no. 1 (2010): 2–4.