“In its simplest meaning, Public History refers to the employment of historians and the historical method outside of academia: in government, private corporations, the media, historical societies and museums, even in private practice.”
Public History: Its Origins, Nature, and Prospects, Robert Kelly
About once every quarter or so, I have an existential crisis of some severity in which I wonder if I made the right decision by not pursuing academia. The answer is usually yes; watching the education bubble inflate, with the number of history students exceeding history job openings, as well as the “publish or perish” mantra all reassure me that that’s something I’m ok without.
To assuage the academia FOMO*, I pursue history in other ways that, I think, prove history can be just as enjoyable outside of the ivory tower, if not more so. Whether that’s historical reenacting (lite, not hardcore), reading books, or staying up to date with historical scuttlebutt online, I keep my brain engaged, if not very organized.
*Fear Of Missing Out
I don’t claim to be a public historian, even by amateur standards, but in my travels across the internet, I have come across public history done many different ways by those of whom the ivory tower would probably disapprove. What follows are some of my favorites:
1) History Matters
I discovered this site years ago in college then more recently discovered it after my Memorial Day trip to Boalsburg, PA because the gentleman who runs this site was attending the event as a living historian. What drew me to this site initially was the blending of historical enthusiasm and artistic expression. This was the first site I encountered that combined history and art in an appealing way.
2) Garry Adelman from The Civil War Trust
I get emails from The Civil War Trust, whose mission is to preserve battlefield lands. They began with the Civil War, but have expanded to Revolutionary War and War of 1812 ground. Anyway, one of their mailings featured one of their staff, Garry Adelman and, after reading his origin story linked above, I have to express my admiration for historical interest done right. He’s living proof of the mantra my dad always said: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Also, he wrote this article about how you’re probably not a real historian. I expected to be offended by it but instead I was inspired.
3) Reconstructing History
I discovered this site in the past month so I’m not sure I can call it a “favorite” yet, but – holy cow. This woman’s interest in historical clothing and sewing patters took off in a big way and grew into this site, which is both a resource for sewing patterns and for historical wardrobe notes. I noted with interest the relative abundance of men’s fashions, since men’s wardrobes tend to be overlooked for the pretties of women’s dresses. Maybe one day I’ll actually have the skill to tackle one of these patterns.
A friend referred me to this guy because I had said I didn’t know much about World War 1. These videos are fantastic – the production quality is high, the information is detailed yet moderately digestable as he goes through the war on a week-by-week basis, and even better, this seems to be The Great War team’s full-time gig. If it isn’t, go support them on Patreon and make it so, because we need more quality historical output like this. Now if only I was an auditory learner.
5) National Park Rangers
National Park Rangers are the best. From discussing how Spidey-senses would have helped them at the surrender at Appomattox, to totally geeking out over eclipse glasses which segued into a discussion of what Washington’s men would have thought of the eclipse compared to the Aurora Borealis at Fredricksburg – I love them, their enthusiasm, and their total dedication to being utter nerds.
6) Non-academic Authors
This category includes the likes of Shelby Foote, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Cokie Roberts. Their works are well-known and often receive critical acclaim. I actually haven’t read enough to validate the acclaim with any certainty, but the idea that these people trained outside of academic history can do research and write prolificly about history gives me hope. Occasionally the academic snob in me raises its head because it thinks they lack the right perspective of being an historian, but I usually quash it because they’re out there doing research and writing anyway and have managed to earn intellectual respect. (Except Jeff Shaara.)
The following list includes people who have dabbled in history but don’t seem to do it full-time. Or things that don’t belong in the main category for unidentifiable reasons.
1) Dovecote Crest
This is a webcomic about a fictional Civil War site in Arkansas. The duo behind this blended art and history in a way I had never seen before. It was simply amazing to watch the artist’s skills develop. She was in art school at the time but sadly, she has abandoned this comic for the demands of a Real Job. Her art tumblr is still pretty active, although there are no updates for this comic.
2) Cities of the Underworld
Ok, seriously, who had the idea to go travel around the world and get exclusive access to the layers of history beneath one’s feet? The host was kind of like a modern day Indiana Jones. Me? Jealous? Never.
3) Hark! A Vagrant
The creative genius behind Hark! A Vagrant is under honorable mention because I keep forgetting about this site but always enjoy it when I come back. It looks like she’s working on a book of her comics right now. Again, this site is a blend of art, history, and really bad humor, all of which I love.
4) Lin Manuel-Miranda
Singlehandedly making both colonial history AND theater cool again. I can’t say I’ve heard that much of the Hamilton soundtrack (again, not an auditory learner), but I’ve seen him cross paths with the Turn cast on Twitter and it sets my little nerd heart aflutter.
How could I forget Robert Lee Hodge? He first came to my attention as the figurehead for Confederates in the Attic, then became a lively discussion/drinking companion, and lastly provides very interesting dialogue and perspective on social media concerning events of the day. More importantly though, he, too, began life conflicted between fine arts and scholarly history and has since seemed to figure out how to combine them. Unlike others listed here, he seems to have fallen on the history, not the art, side of the dichotomy.