Public History Comprehensive Exam Questions

One of the great pleasures of working at a school with a smaller Ph.D. program is that we get stretched to fill roles a bit outside our core area of expertise. This past week, for example, I was asked to be the third reader on a comprehensive exams for a student in the joint University of North Dakota – North Dakota State Ph.D. program in history. My area of expertise was … public history. Whereas I have take one graduate class (audited actually) in archaeology (so I feel qualified to opine widely in that field), I have never actually taken a course in public history and read only sporadically in this field. 

In any event, sometimes an outsider to a field can provide some new insights, and maybe these questions reflect that:

Select one question for each category. Write as much as necessary to explore the issue thoroughly. Take 4 or 5 hours to do this or whatever is customary. 

I. Archaeology as Public History

1. Recently, archaeology and public history have experienced a bit of convergence as both fields have sought to make their research more accessible to an interested (and often funding) public and accept more responsibilities to the communities in which they work. Discuss the main similarities and differences in the how these two fields have approached engaging the public.

2. Both archaeology and public history have seen the museum as one of the key tools for engaging the public and disseminating information. The museum, of course, as an institution has changed through time as have the fields of archaeology and history. Some have argued that archaeology’s “object-based epistemology” resonates more with earlier models of the museum whereas history’s approach to the past has more in common with the contemporary museum that understood networks or contexts as the main way in which objects produced knowledge. As both an archaeologist and a public historian, how do the different approaches to how objects produce meaning inform the organization, presentation, and function of museum exhibits?

3. Both archaeology and public history have embraced (or, perhaps better, recognized) what some scholars have called “the spatial turn”. What this means is that space, landscapes, streetscapes, geography, and architecture, have played a key role in defining historical social relationships (think Delores Hayden, H. Lefebvre, or M. de Certeau here). How have the two fields sought to make past spatial realities visible to the public especially in dynamic circumstances where the social, architectural, and natural topography have changes significant? How have their approaches differed and how are they similar?

II. Public History
1. More and more history programs are offering courses, certificates, and degrees in public history at the graduate and undergraduate level. What are the key concepts that you’d introduce in an undergraduate course in public history? How would the concepts differ if the course was taught at the graduate level? How would you balance theoretical and methodological aspects of public history and the practical aspects of the field?

2. Over the last three decades digital methods have come increasingly to influence the practice of history. In scholarly practice, digital tools have increased the speed and scope of research. In the realm of public history, the internet, mobile devices, and the social media have the potential to expand the audience for historical research, empower new content creators, and combine content from a wide range of sources. Using specific examples, how has digital media transformed the practice and theory of public history? What does the future of a digital, public history look like?

3. Public historians have often positioned themselves as gate keepers between disciplinary knowledge and the general public. Indeed, the very term “public” history implies the there is a “private” history that the discipline has kept from the public view. How has public history worked to both expose the process of historical study to a wider public and occlude its own practices behind disciplinary barriers and claims of expertise and authority? How can the discipline break down these barriers without undermining its own authority? Be specific.

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