Defining Public History in the Twenty-first Century

Above: Photograph by Serge Noiret, San Francisco, March 2014

Public history has evolved immensely over the past fifty years. What began as a movement against academic history, has since morphed into a vast field of amateur and trained professionals motivated to educate the public on historical topics. However, the twenty-first century poses new challenges to the field, as technology and social media have driven public historians to re-think how they educate wide audiences on history.

A Weedy Definition

When I first stepped into the world of public history many years ago, I interpreted it as the work historians do in museums and historic sites to educate the public about history. And to an extent, this is true. But public history expands beyond the walls of museums—appearing in the most unlikely places. It is present in battlefield education sites, national parks, libraries, historic re-enactments, materializing on phone screens, websites, and in video games. Therefore, its definition takes on a transitive nature, and will shift slightly based on the context it is placed within.

There are several formal definitions of public history floating amuck in professional spheres, each as different as the next. The National Council on Public History (NCPH) defines public history as, “the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues.” And The International Federation for Public History (IFPH) describes it as, “A field in the historical sciences made up of professionals who undertake historical work in a variety of public and private settings for different kinds of audiences worldwide.”

These definitions are vague and loosely held by their organizations, as they recognize the vast field they represent with a blanket statement. Former president of the NCPH, Robert Weible, once stated in an article, “For all the talk of public history that we have been hearing for more than 25 years, it is a little awkward that historians are still uncertain about what “public history” might actually mean.” Weible’s honest remark remains relevant today, as the modern definition of public history is elusive and debated between historians. However, as the role of public history changes in the twenty-first century, the definition and our understanding of how public history operates in the world, also must change.

Public history visualized in a tree infographic.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Visual by Thomas Cauvin

The Goal of Public History

While organizations may disagree over the precise definition, the main goal of public history remains consistent across borders, nations, and professions. This is to connect the public to their past by using various professional approaches which promote the education of history. Education methods vary based on institution, as a colleges will teach formal public history programs, where national parks and historic sites directly engage the public on history. Despite these differences, the public historian’s focus remains on connecting the wider audience to their past.

The real challenge for public historians is to communicate their message beyond the peer-reviewed journals into the public sphere. During a 1998 study, “The Presence of the Past,” Roy Rosenzweig surveyed 1,500 Americans on how they connected to their past. He found that 81% of people consumed history through media, 57% consumed history through visiting a historical site, and only a small 20% were actively studying, reading, or preserving history. In 2024, we can assume the number of people who consume history through media has likely increased, and the other forums have decreased. With this in mind, many public historians have turned to social media, TikTok, podcasts, documentaries, in addition to elaborate immersive events, like re-enactments and living history to engage with communities. However, many of these tactics are debated and criticized within the field for their reliability as tools for education.

“Popular Uses of History in the United States,” summarizing survey data.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Graph pulled from Roy Rosenzweig’s article

For example, Hamilton: An American Musical is critiqued by historians for its inaccuracies, as the play stretches relationships and fabricates facts for dramatic effects. Many of these critics have lost site of the broader goal of public history—which is to educate the public. Education is not a constant metric, and will manifest differently depending on the audience and situation. The higher goal of education is promote curiosity, encourage critical thinking, inspire imagination, introduce new information, and connect with people in a relatable manner. If this is our understanding of education, then forums such as Hamilton do an excellent job of capturing an audience’s attention and providing a first touch with history.

A scene from the musical Hamilton.

Adapting to The Twenty-first Century

In a modern era of TikTok, memes, and massive social media consumption, the definition of public history has to adapt to modern audiences. If organizations remain biased against digital landscapes and creative forums they will fade into the background, becoming history themselves. Therefore, historical organizations need to embrace unconventional education methods when providing an introduction to history.

The relatively new American Revolutionary Museum at Yorktown is an excellent example of a museum using creative education tactics in their physical and digital space. For example, the museum’s indoor exhibits utilize immersive films, audio, interesting lighting, and simplified narratives to connect with wider audiences. Outdoor attractions feature a cannon and musket demonstration, reconstruction of the continental army camp, and a Revolutionary era farm. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation website also offers virtual learning events, and “History at Home” options, like lecture series, free videos, and apps. By telling the story of the Revolution through digital and entertainment-based models, the museum is able to connect with a broad audience.

4-D experience film of the Siege of Yorktown. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

In 2016, historian Simon Schama asked during a talk, “What has gone wrong with historical education?” he posed that once, historians attempted to bring their audiences close to their work, and thus close to history. Now, “dreary textbooks the size of ‘telephone directories’ have snuffed out ‘historical imagination of hearts.” In a world where historical curiosity is shrinking, the role of public history has to adapt to meet the demands of the public. The twenty-first century presents many challenges to the public historian, as audiences demand more virtual learning options, exciting events, and stimulating exhibits. But public history must pivot to meet these challenges by embracing new education methods that seek to entertain, inspire, and engage wide audiences across physical and digital landscapes.

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Lauren Harlow

Lauren is a public historian based in California. She holds a masters in American History from Arizona State University. She has worked at historic sites since 2017, helping small museums with education, interpretation, and collections. When she isn’t visiting museums, Lauren enjoys curling up with a good book, ideally with her cat Einstein.