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Doing Public History, Thoughts from the Museum Trenches

Stacey Fraser-deHaan, Co-Director of the Ipswich Museum (Ipswich, MA)

 How is history in the museum different from history in the academy?  Well, how much time have you got?  Let’s start with some of the more superficial differences.  For one, most museum professionals don’t live by the same interpretation of the “publish or perish” rule so prevalent in academic culture.  A good number of curators do publish articles and monographs on research topics relevant to their institution and/or location.  However, it’s often museum professionals who are organizing and preserving resources for scholars to pore over, so I suppose we contribute to publications in that way.

I’ve also found a very hands-on approach to professional development in the museum field.  Many workshops and conference sessions are not panel-based and involve the audience actively in the content.  This is a natural extension of a field that encompasses topics as disparate as elementary education and corporate fundraising, but it is a difference I’ve noted compared to the historical conferences I attended as an undergraduate and graduate student in history.

Another difference is the audience.  I liken doing public history to writing popular history books.  The challenge is to maintain scholarly integrity in the content you present to the public, while making sure that content really “clicks” with your audience.  It’s not always easy.

For many historians in the academic field, their audience is their peers and their students.  No one ever said that was an easy group to please, but there are certain expectations and understandings held in common by said group.  For historians in the museum world, their audience is, well, everyone.  Sure, most museum directors can identify self-selected groups that make up the core of their audience (history buffs, scholars, etc.), but the pie-in-the-sky ideal is to appeal to everyone in some way.

How in the world do you do that?  Well, no one museum or museum professional seems to have the magic answer here.  However, I’ve found a few things that work really well:

  •  Hands-On History:

Small World gardening May 9 2011 010I’ve never found anything that works as well as what we call “hands-on history.”  This can be anything from demonstrations to crafts to actual lessons in a historical skill.  Whether working with children or adults, there’s something very visceral about taking part in something from 300 years ago (or more).  People respond with more enthusiasm and genuine engagement than they would if they were kept at a third person distance from the history.  I also think hands-on history helps visitors make stronger connections between the past and the present.  Baking a pie in a brick oven or Dutch oven makes a person understand the art of hearth cooking and forces inevitable comparisons to their own home cooking.  Sometimes they prefer the present; sometimes the past, but the point is that that connection has been made.

  •  History in the Community:

walking tour 4Something I’ve particularly noticed in the communities in which I live and work is that people are interested in history; just not always in the ways we expect.  Whether it’s researching their house’s history or celebrating the 100th anniversary of the local sports team, many citizens are engaged in local history.  Unfortunately, though, the small local historical society or museum often goes about their business and fails to connect with the greater stream of historical interest in the community.  As a museum co-director, I’ve been very focused lately on connecting with that impulse within the community.  Sometimes, it’s about getting feedback from local people on museum programming, sometimes it’s about becoming very involved in the school system, and sometimes it’s as simple as sharing #ThrowbackThursday photos from the collections on the museum‘s Facebook page.  Either way, it’s all about touching peoples’ interest in history where it actually lives, not where we think it should live.

  • Collaboration with Other Museums/Organizations:

kids at rspm 4In the same way that an inter- or multidisciplinary approach has grown more popular in academia, collaborating with other museums and community organizations has become very important in the field.  This speaks a bit to my earlier point about reaching people at home.  Some collaborations are logical – obviously the local museum will work with the school system or a museum in a neighboring town.  Some are not as obvious – my museum works locally with a rum distillery and a brewery, as well as a nuns’ convent and a family farm.  This is another way to avoid the “ivory tower” stigma that affects museums as well as universities.

I have to confess that I miss academia sometimes.  However, I’ve found that doing public history can be so rewarding.  In the end, I see historical scholars as doing the original research which feeds museum professionals’ interactions with the public.  It’s a complementary system.  Keep it up, scholars!

Stacey Fraser-deHaan, “Doing Public History, Thoughts from the Museum Trenches,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), October 30, 2013,

Stacey Fraser-deHaan has been Co-Director of the Ipswich Museum (Ipswich, MA) since April 2013 and its Museum Educator since 2010.  She previously worked at the Wentworth Lear Historic Houses, Haverhill Historical Society, New Castle Historical Society, and Strawbery Banke Museum.  She has also interned at the USS Constitution Museum and Minute Man National Historical Park. Stacey holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Colby-Sawyer College and a Master of Arts in History & Museum Studies from the University of New Hampshire.

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