How do we create a field of Public Art History?

After my last post on Public Art History (PAH), I’ve continued to think about what a field of PAH might look like. With the continuing decline in academic positions, especially in the humanities, could a field of Public Art History help to develop more career options outside of academia? With a field of Public Art History, could we shift the field of Art History to think even more about different publics beyond those we find in museums or classrooms? Could a defined field of Public Art History help us to take Art History in new directions? What is the difference between more traditional art historians and public art historians? What goals should exist for a field of Public Art History? And perhaps the most basic question: How do we even define Public Art History?

This last question is one of the most challenging to answer. Just look at the field of Public History. There is no agreed-upon definition, even on the website of the National Council of Public History. This viewpoint article by Robert Weible (March 2008) in Perspectives on History provides a brief overview of the challenges of defining Public History. I’ve now read many different blog posts, articles, and websites about public history as I attempt to define what PAH is or could be. There are a few key ideas I’ve taken away that I like to think would apply to PAH. They include:

  • Public Historians feel a duty to serve particular communities, as a type of social work and democratic project. (see Suzanne Fischer, “On the Vocation of Public History,” in #alt-academy: a media commons project [2011])
  • Public History provides practical experience for students because they complete several internships during their coursework
  • Public History is just that: public. It is not intended for academic readership primarily, but for people outside the academy.
  • Public History can be a form of activism.
  • Public Historians try to bridge academic discourse with public discourse; in other words, translating academic-speak in a way that appeals to more diverse publics.
  • Public History keeps the audience front-and-center when writing or speaking.
  • Pubic History is applied history.
  • Public History provides a large umbrella, one that is flexible and welcoming.


There are many other ideas that appealed to me, but these are the ones I can remember for now. I feel inspired by what I’ve read about Public History. Simultaneously, I continue to feel perplexed over why Art History hasn’t somehow created its own PAH field. Of course there are people and institutions who are doing PAH (see my previous blog post for instance), but I think having a defined field could be revolutionary, much as say digital art history (#dah) is changing the field. I wonder as well if one reason we don’t have a defined field of PAH is because #dah does overlap with many of these ideas.

So where do we start to build Public Art History as a field? Having worked with Smarthistory for more than a few years now, I think it provides a working model for moving forward. I use “it” very consciously here because Smarthistory is not just a resource, but a collaborative group, a social project, an outlook or a method, a form of activism, and a space for academics who want to engage with more diverse publics (disclaimer: these ideas are my own, so any error in judgment is mine). It embodies many of the same ideas that I like about Public History that I listed above. Let me explain in more detail.

When I joined Smarthistory, I was hungry for “something else.” I was beginning to question why I was in the academy, spending so much of my time writing articles and books that very few people would ultimately read. Don’t get me wrong: I love my research. But I felt this disillusionment that was largely based on the differences I saw in what I was doing in the classroom and outside of it. I became interested in the digital humanities because I saw an opportunity to move beyond some of my discomfort. I’m not even sure I could have described it at the time, I just knew I didn’t always feel positive about spending years writing something that few people would read, even within the Academy.

Then came Smarthistory. I had used it as a resource in my classes for a couple of years, so image how delighted I was to meet the creators and talk about creating content for the site. The first few essays I wrote were like a breath of fresh air, and for the first time in years I actually felt good about what I was doing. It wasn’t because the essays were easier to write–in some ways, they were more challenging because they required a different writing style than any I’d ever adopted. I felt good because I actually was able to think about the people who might read the essay who weren’t experts. What would they enjoy? What do they need to know? How will they best learn? I continued writing, but I quickly realized that writing content for Smarthistory as a resource was only a small portion of what Smarthistory is and could be.

I still contribute content, but I am also a content editor and Board member for Smarthistory, so I see “it” from three different angles. Being able to collaborate with other art historians from around the world on content, in an open-peer review process, is refreshing. We all know that we have each other’s best interests at heart (or so I hope). Many of us involved with Smarthistory recognize that it is form of activism or a democratizing social project because the site is available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. You can read content or watch videos in any order you like. You can rewrite traditional narratives. We can provide content that isn’t covered by traditional textbooks. Smarthistory is also an outlook and a method. In fact, let’s just create a verb here: “to smarthistory” could be defined using much of what I’ve already described here. I smarthistory because I want to shake up the canon, transform how Art History operates, engage with different publics, collaborate with people, transform my classroom (and my pedagogy for that matter), and challenge myself to think in new ways. And frankly, I don’t think a textbook written by 1-2 authors is a good model when you can draw on hundreds of experts to talk about what they love (sorry textbooks). I believe in the power of Art History (and smarthistory) to change people, and I strongly believe Smarthistory provides a great model for how we can go about defining and creating a field of Public Art History.


(Disclaimer: Typos due to typing with a toddler)

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