Placing Public History in its Proper Place

This weekend I read over Denise Meringolo’s Museums, Monuments, and National Parks (University of Massachusetts 2012) as part of my effort to get more familiar with the discipline of public history. Over the last few years, I’ve been drawn more and more into the field of public history. Some of this has come through my interest in digital history (including my efforts to figure out what to do with a blog), some has come through our department’s efforts to develop a public history program, and some has come through my growing engagement with the very recent history of the Bakken oil patch. In the classroom, my brief remarks on public history generally comprised of some exceedingly general comments about the changing discipline of history in the 1970s, alternate careers for historians, and the needs of the federal and state government (and the private sector) for specialists in historical knowledge. (Then I say something like “no more questions”).

Meringolo’s book places public history in a much larger historical perspective by grounding the development of public history in the development of the discipline and profession of history in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Weaving the story of public history in the U.S. into the federal government’s involvement in historical preservation and parks, changing attitudes toward museums, and the rise in scientific archaeology, Meringolo begins to make public history part of the larger narrative of the history’s professionalization and changing attitudes toward the role of the government in developing a sense of national identity.

Prior to the Civil War, the relationship between efforts to create national parks and to protect sites of historical significance to the young nation intersected with southern lawmakers’ efforts to limit the authority of the federal government. In other words, slavery and regionalism thwarted the effort to preserve a common past in the U.S. Without the aide of the government, women took up the work of preserving buildings important to both local and national history. While this work as invaluable for the preservation of sites like Mt. Vernon in Virginia, it also led to the work to be dismissed as “women’s work” and outside the pale of men’s professional concerns.

For the first handful of chapters, this book would make a useful companion to Peter Novick’s magisterial That Noble Dream (which she cites regularly throughout). For example, Meringolo provides useful background on the history of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association. This group developed in part as a protest against the apathy within the American Historical Association toward regional history and scholars associated with state historical societies in the midwest.

An aside: It is worth noting that Orin G. Libby of the University of North Dakota was active from the early days of the MVHA serving at its vice-president in 1909 and president in 1910. In 1908 the campus of UND hosted the associations second annual meeting. The goals of the MVHA paralleled Libby’s goals of developing the study of regional history at the University of North Dakota and creating a stable and enduring state historical society.

The book also explores the vital links between early 20th century archaeological policy and public history. Here Charles Eliot Norton’s American Institute of Archaeology makes a cameo appearance as it funded both the important extensive survey of Adolf Bandelier of Native American sites in the American Southwest in the 1880s, supported the landmark Antiquities Act of 1906, and helped found of a School of American Archaeology in New Mexico (now the School for Advanced Research) in 1907. 

These efforts supported by the AIA at the turn of the century provided a counterweight (in some way) to the continued marginalization of regional history by the AHA. Despite growing resources and collections, local museums at National Parks and Monuments, struggled to assert their independence from the national agenda advanced by the Smithsonian. According to Meringolo, it was not until the influx of resources experienced by the Park Service during the New Deal that regional museums gained complete independence from the long arm of the Smithsonian and its efforts to remain the main federal repository. Here in some ways, her story comes full circle with regional interests – in this case of the parks and local communities – trumping efforts of more central institutions to set the agenda and pull cultural heritage back to a single repository.

Meringolo’s “genealogy of public history” will not answer every question about this growth field, but it did establish some of the major influences in its development. 

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