A Definition Intervention: Historicizing Public History

Meringolo, Denise D. Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

In recent years, debates have festered in the effort to define what “public history” means. In an intervention in the “definition debate,” Denise D. Meringolo issues a call to public historians to move toward a proactive effort to historicize and theorize what distinguishes public history from the broader field of history.[1] Meringolo suggests that exploring the history of public history will enable a more thorough understanding of the field. This new genealogy of public history locates the field’s emergence in the efforts of government workers who began to put history to work for the public. Meringolo argues that the National Park Service History Division established history as a public service, and examines the challenges and decisions of these “prototypical public historians” to reveal the ways in which the evolution of government sponsored research and education enabled the creation of the Smithsonian Institute and National Park Service.[2] 

Using primarily the institutional archives of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service, Meringolo’s study traces the genealogy of public history from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s. First, Meringolo offers a broad historical background to the emergence of government agencies dedicated to collection, management, and interpretation of specimens, in addition to the parallel development of history as a realm of inquiry and a new profession.[3] Next, the author argues that public history emerged from the transformation of the American landscape into a resource to be studied, interpreted, and managed – a transformation enabled by the work of nineteenth-century scientists. This section analyzes the emergence of park museums, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Park Service History Division. Finally, Meringolo examines anxieties over authority embedded within the complicated relationship between public historians and their audiences during the 1930s.[4]

Meringolo’s greatest strength rests in her analysis of the effects of the New Deal on the National Park Service, in terms of the expansion of federal programming and increased anxieties over authority. Roosevelt’s programs under the New Deal provided the Park Service, like many other federal agencies, with labor and money to create new work programs. The acquisition of all fifty-seven War Department historic sites and seventeen monuments from other agencies dramatically expanded the Park Service’s holdings. Several agencies provide labor for park projects. Most importantly, the Civilian Conservation Corps workers lived in encampments on park grounds and built roads, campgrounds, rest areas, and visitor centers in a number of parks.

CCC workers occupied a liminal space in the parks, functioning simultaneously as workers, tourists, and practitioners of archaeological excavations and collections management.[5] This practice induced anxiety among professional historians in the Park Service, emerging from questions about the legitimacy of authority exerted by park staff. Based on Verne Chatelain’s writings, Meringolo suggests that park staff viewed their primary responsibility as interpreting the landscape for non-experts – tourists who understood education as recreational.[6] In addition, Smithsonian curators worried that park museums and park staff would usurp their status as the keepers of national collections. To entangle the issue of authority further, Park Service researchers depended on their access to the Smithsonian curators and collections to bolster their own authority.

Meringolo concludes that the decisions made by Park Service historians during the 1930s profoundly influenced the public landscape and culture of public history in the United States. These early public historians in the federal government transformed history into a managerial strategy and educational enterprise.[7] Meringolo suggests that the challenges these historians faced and the decisions they made continue to inform contemporary issues in public history. Further, the author contends, debates about the definition of public history should begin with these basic questions: “Who are public historians?” and “What purposes have they served?”

Museums, Monuments, and National Parks appears to have been written for students of public history, with the intent to educate them in the contemporary and historical debates surrounding the field. In this book, two major themes emerge that seem to be pertinent for contemporary public historians. The first is the role of the federal and state governments in public history today. Public history emerged out of federal agencies and thrived as these agencies expanded. Many museums, monuments, and national parks rely on local, state, and federal funding to support their missions of preservation, interpretation, and education. In recent years, budget cuts have challenged the ability of these institutions to adhere to their missions. Second, the historical anxieties surrounding authority in historical interpretation could enhance current dialogues on “shared authority” and “sharing authority” in the field. As Meringolo suggests, a deeper historical understanding of the field can encourage new understandings of the current state of the field and its future potential.

[1] Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), xvi.

[2] Meringolo (2012), xxvii.

[3] Meringolo (2012), 27.

[4] Ibid, 143.

[5] Ibid, 140-1.

[6] Ibid, 144.

[7] Ibid, 166.

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