Mudgett: Public History

May 5, 2015

As an undergraduate during the 1990s, I majored in historic preservation at a small college in suburban Baltimore. I was drawn to Baltimore city, to neighborhoods with blocks of rundown row houses, some of them boarded up and abandoned.

Studying old architecture was a hands-on experience in the local community and included college-community partnerships and conversations with residents. We worked with museums and with a community group to clean vacant lots and complete low-income housing renovations of historic architecture.

I learned that it’s impossible to study abandoned houses in struggling neighborhoods without asking how things got that way in the first place. For me, a Vermont student with hardly any childhood experience with racial diversity, old buildings in Baltimore became the lens though which I learned that city’s history: from Frederick Douglass as a young slave in Fells Point to the consumer boycotts of the 1930s and post-war urban renewal projects.
 
The next annual meeting of the National Council on Public History will be held in Baltimore in March of 2016. Public history is a relatively new and growing field that has attracted the participation of traditional academic historians, museum professionals, and community members active in local history. Because of that, it has a reputation for being more inclusive than other professional historical fields: public historians care more about how to share history with the public - and about how to collaborate with the public - than about simply talking amongst themselves. Public history is experiential: it’s about history experienced in place, in the context of community.
 
Plans for including Baltimore-themed histories at next year’s conference were in the works before Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore police custody. In the days following last week’s protests, that planning took on a new urgency among historians who see connections between the protests and Baltimore’s history of racial and economic inequality. Meanwhile, area college students joined the protests and college faculty talked solutions, though others rightly pointed out that poor neighborhoods shouldn’t be laboratories for academic inquiry detached from activism.

A central challenge of public history is more than simply helping the public experience the past. It’s also about understanding when it’s helpful to publicly draw connections between the past and the present. It’s also about knowing to what extent history can help us understand how we got to where we are.
 
The present is connected to the past, and I hope that public conversations about Baltimore history will become part of the patchwork of strategies for moving the city into the future.