Researching the United States History Community and Communicating about the Past

By Special Contributor posted 02-16-2022 09:20

By John Garrison Marks

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the release of the findings from the "Reframing History" project. 

Understanding the public history community in the United States requires an almost kaleidoscopic perspective. The country is home to more than twenty thousand history organizations, a dizzying mix of museums, historical societies, preservation organizations, and other related institutions. Whether public agencies, private nonprofits, or some combination thereof, each of these institutions faces a range of overlapping challenges and opportunities, even while no two institutions are quite alike.

The one thing most history organizations have in common, though, is that they’re small: The vast majority of the field operate on shoe-string budgets with few paid staff members, carrying out the work of preserving and sharing history through dedication, passion, and often just sheer force of will.
A yellow background with a blue edifice symbolizing a museum. There are words to the left that provide statistical information about a 70% drop in museum visitation in 2020.
Since 2019 AASLH has conducted a National Visitation Report that includes data about attendance at historical organizations. This image is part of an infographic about the 2020 National Visitation Report. The Public History Research Lab is now collecting data for the 2021 visitation report. Learn more here; survey closes on March 18, 2022.

If you only followed coverage of the cultural sector through major media and industry publications, however—where even multi-million dollar institutions can be referred to as “small” and where places like Colonial Williamsburg or the Smithsonian are asked to stand in for the wider field—much of the above might come as a surprise. The realities of history work do not often align with the wider public conversation, a disconnect that hinders our field’s effectiveness in a range of different ways.

That’s why, over the past several years, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) has redoubled its efforts to research and report on the state of the field, raising awareness of the critical role of our institutions and empowering members of the history community with insights and data they can use to more effectively carry out our various missions and champion our collective cause.

Now housed under the umbrella of our Public History Research Lab, AASLH’s research helps illuminate major challenges in public history practice and the role of history in American life, ideas our colleagues across the history enterprise—from scholars to museum professionals to preservationists—can all draw on to inform their work.

Putting History Front and Center

Among the drivers for creating the Lab, which marked its one-year anniversary on February 1, 2022, was the fact that history often takes a back seat to other sectors and interests when it comes to field-wide research and advocacy. History practitioners are often forced to rely on research that is framed more broadly, focused for example, on the humanities or on museums more generally. This is despite the fact that history is the most recognizable and popular of humanities disciplines and that there are nearly four times as many history organizations in the country as there are all other museum types combined. Through the Public History Research Lab, AASLH conducts research and empowers advocacy where history can take center stage.

What’s more, history holds a place in public life and political discourse that humanities education or, say, art or science museums, simply do not—as the high-profile debates and controversies over Confederate monuments, the 1619 Project, and other topics in recent years have made clear. History is linked to personal and community identity in ways that lead re-evaluations of the past and public discussions of the field to inflame passions and make them ripe for partisan manipulation. The status of history as a major front in ongoing culture wars and as a political lightning rod makes empirical research on what our field does and how people think about history ever more important.

Over the past two years, some of the Lab’s most important research has explored how Americans understand what history is, what history professionals do, and why it’s valuable to society. Dubbed the “Reframing History” project, carried out in partnership with the National Council on Public History and the Organization of American Historians, this research also goes a step further, using our findings about gaps between professional and public thinking about history to design and rigorously test many different ways to communicate about our work more effectively.

This research has found that (despite the best efforts of public historians and museums), history professionals have not done enough to effectively articulate to people what history is or how we do it. Much of the public still retains a facts-and-figures, names-and-dates conception of history. While conversations on Twitter and in the media make it seem like everyone is talking about history, the reality is that most still think history is really something for a small coterie of enthusiasts.

As much of the field pushes for more inclusive and complete telling of history, our research reveals that we still have a lot of work to do to convince skeptical public to embrace a new narrative about the past.

Cover of a report from the reframing history project.
The cover of the report, Communicating about History: Challenges, Opportunities, and Emerging Recommendations for Phase I of the Reframing History Project which identified "the gaps between experts' and the public's understanding of what history is and why it's valuable to society."

We have to, and can, do better. “Reframing History” has tested dozens of different framing strategies for better explaining the work our field does and why it matters. We discovered that a key shift the field needs to undertake is from focusing on a narrow conception of singular historical “truth” to a wider emphasis on critical engagement. By encouraging people to think deeply about the historical topics they encounter and to reconsider how we know what we know about the past, we can shift predominant understandings of what history involves.

Specifically, by emphasizing how history both requires and helps develop critical thinking skills, and how historical work is like detective work, we can help the public better that history is about more than mining “facts” from the past and bringing them back to the present. Rather, it requires us (both professionals and the public) to understand how history involves evaluating multiple sources of evidence, weighing different perspectives, and updating our understandings as new information comes to light. These points of emphasis not only help people better understand what history involves, it helps them develop a greater appreciation for a fuller history that is more inclusive of diverse perspectives.

The words reframing history and a date on a white background with red lines framing the corner.

These findings were released  in a report on February 22, 2022 with in-depth explanations of what’s above and a host of related resources. That publication, however, is just the first step. Another goal of the Public History Research Lab is to strengthen links between research and practice; beautifully designed PDF reports are of little utility if we don’t also address barriers practitioners face to implementing them.

As the professional association serving history organizations across the country, along with their professional staff and volunteers in history, AASLH recognizes the difficulty practitioners from leadership to the front line face when it comes to finding the time and space to engage with new research and to integrate it into their work. So while “the Lab” conducts original research through internal expertise and partnership with outside experts, we also serve as a research-practice broker, helping to make the insights generated by researchers more applicable to time-crunched practitioners. We develop trainings to make our research findings more accessible to the field, and even develop “Research Briefs” distilling other emerging research to make it more actionable for history leaders.

All of this is a work in progress. Our other projects—examining visitation trends, measuring and mapping the number of history organizations, exploring history work in parks agencies, and more—are still developing, and further research is always in the works. But as we move forward advocating for history and for a conception of our nation’s past that is more honest and more complete, I hope preservationists and scholars can join museum professionals and advocates in drawing on the research being conducted by and with the Public History Research Lab.

If you have questions about the state of the field or a field-wide problem you think the Research Lab should try to solve, please be in touch.

John Garrison Marks is the director of the Public History Research Lab at the American Association for State and Local History. He is the author of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery: Race, Status, and Identity in the Urban Americas, and he holds a Ph.D. in History from Rice University.

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