New Master’s Track Brings History to the People
June 17, 2010
The Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts has launched a new public history track in the master’s in history program. Developed partly in response to a rise in demand for highly-knowledgeable guides at historic sites, the new track, which began admitting students last fall, focuses on presenting history to all, not just to other historians.
“Public history certainly involves scholarship, but it isn’t the same kind of scholarship reflecting in publishing a scholarly monograph that only a few professionals in your field will read,” said Professor of History James Green, the program’s director. “Public history is just the opposite—public historians are going for the broadest possible audience that they can find.”
The term “public history,” Green explained, was coined in the 1970s by a group of historians, many of whom worked for government entities such as the Library of Congress or the National Park Service.
“They decided to call themselves ‘public historians,’ because—though they weren’t in universities--they were doing historical work aimed at a much broader audience,” he said. “What’s happened in the last 20 years is that a whole bunch of university-based scholars-- like me—have said, ‘Well, we’re public historians too.’”
An important example of public history’s impact, Green continued, is the wave of revisionism which many historic sites are undergoing. One classic example is Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the site of the 1876 battle known as Custer’s Last Stand. For over a century, the site memorialized only the U.S. troops who fell in battle there; a memorial to the Native American warriors as well as civilians who died was added in 1999 only after decades of debate.
“That site was completely reinterpreted, and it was the people who work for the National Park Service who did that work in response to the protests of Native American activist historians,” said Green, who noted that history is no longer being written exclusively by the victors. “What’s so fascinating about the public history world right now is that the people who would have been regarded as the losers are starting to get their say: ‘We want our history to be presented in public.’ I want students to study this impulse and then how historians respond, because it’s very difficult.”
Another example arises, what Green describes as “the effort to re-interpret Civil War battlefields, which are our most revered historic sites--to begin to present to the public the causes of the war and not just its casualties.” In the past, these sites represented just this: "'Here is where the battle was fought, and here’s where one general won the battle.’ It was as though it didn’t matter what the soldiers were fighting for—what mattered was who won or who lost the battle. Changing that public history upsets some visitors who want Gettysburg to just be Gettysburg, pure and simple. The Park Service has had to deal with that. And we study how they did it.”
History Department chair Roberta Wollons said that the new track fits in well with UMass Boston’s role as a public institution.
“We really have a mission to get history out to the public, to bring people in and train them, and then they go out and interact with the public,” said Wollons, who noted that UMass Boston’s location near a number of historical sites is a key component to the program. “Not only is it a huge training ground, but it’s also a good place for getting employment afterwards.”
Green agrees, adding that the program could also help UMass Boston be a more active part of that historical community.
“I see it as a way to get these students involved in helping make the campus more of a center for discussions about this sort of thing,” he said. “We have a huge community, hundreds and hundreds of people all over this area, who work in these institutions and who are interested in what we’re doing, so I want to bring them to this campus.”
Through that, Green said, he hopes to continue and expand his own lifelong work in helping people become more aware of their own history and that of the world around them.
“I’ve been a public historian in my entire career at UMass, because my work was always aimed at various constituencies outside the academy,” said Green, who was part of the faculty of the College of Public and Community Service for 30 years before transferring to the History Department three years ago. “When I taught history [at CPCS], it was always about the history of communities, workplaces, and organizations. I’ve always been interested in the working world out there that people live in, how history impacts that, and what it tells people in terms of thinking about where they’ve come from, and where they are now.”
For more information on the program, email Professor James Green, or click here for an outline of the program, which includes degree requirements and course descriptions.