Week Three: Public History in Practice

This week for class our two main readings were Carolyn Kitch’s Pennsylvania in Public Memory: Reclaiming the Industrial Past and Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. While covering two distinct topics within the field of history both were important as they helped create an understanding of the importance of public history in today’s society.

Kitch’s Pennsylvania in Public Memory, explored her experience and research of various museums, historic sites and monuments throughout the state of Pennsylvania that dealt with its industrial history. This study led her to focus on heritage sites as a “statement about identity and regions” and as a means of attempting to restore local pride (Kitch, 3). The distinction was important because it illustrated the value that public history can have in an area as it can be used to help preserve a sense of community that may otherwise be lost. Indeed at times Kitch suggested that these sites throughout PA seem to be designed to serve the locals more than visitors, as many sites are difficult to find without local help (Kitch, 46). Another interesting topic covered by Kitch’s book was the debate over what is keep and remembered as history and what is forgotten. For Kitch, the debated centered in part on the steel industry, which although it has largely left it still has some industry remaining in PA. This created conflict in what is remembered as there is a desire to look at culture and the people affected by the loss of industry instead of the political and economic reasons for the change (Kitch, 156). This concern of the personal and culture aspects of history connected to one of Kitch’s wider arguments in that heritage sites serve to “explain why we have become the people we are today” (Kitch, 10).

The idea that public history helps explain who we are unites perfectly with the second reading The Presence of the Past, as this book attempted to showcase the interest the public has in their personal past and their connection to wider historical experiences. In order to understand the American person’s feelings on the past, Rosenzweig and Thelen conducted as survey in which they asked participants to explain what the past means to them and how they interact with it. Through this study, they found that the average American is deeply involved with interacting and investigating his/her families past in order understand where he/she came from (R&H, 17). One main way that people accomplished this was through photographs of family that they could look back on later to remember the important experiences and stories. Furthermore, while the survey found that many Americans are not connected to formal history, they feel connected to the past through family stories and interesting enough museums, since they have artifacts that can physically help the individual feel the past (R&H, 32). Indeed, Rosenzweig and Thelen showed that people valued museums over any other source of information, even family, which demonstrated the importance that public history has in the life of an average American, since it provides the one strongest link with the past (R&H, 21). Therefore, these two works illustrate that they study of public history is vital for the preservation and communication of history as it gives the individual a sense of identity and closeness with history.

These works are therefore of great importance to me because they justify my study of public history as necessary and good for the public. In addition, they have also made me realize the importance of the Powel House project since people rate their trust of museums so high, it sets a high standard to live up to in order to make sure my self-guided tour is as accurate as possible.

Also because of the importance of photographs for remembering the past in The Presence of the Past, it made me want to look through my family’s old photos, in which I found a photo and envelope of my grandfather from WW2.  He explained that the picture was taken when his unit was traveling through Hiroshima shortly after the dropping of the atomic bomb in order to see the damage and that the envelope was from the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll where he witnessed the tests after the war. Both of this objects and his stories helped me better understand my own family history within the larger history of WW2 just as Rosenzweig and Thelen described in their book.

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