What is Public Art History?

Today, over breakfast, a colleague and I touched upon the topic of Public Art History, particularly what it is in relationship to Smarthistory (a project with which we are both involved and feel passionately about developing). I once again raised the idea that there should be Public Art History, or at least a more formalized idea of what Public Art History is or could be. She seemed excited about the idea, and our conversation continued to flow from there.

On my walk to the subway after breakfast, I was reminded of a post I made in 2014 about Public Art History. I have continued to think about students or faculty who are involved in Public History programs, and why no such equivalent seems to exist in Art History. Are folks already doing it, and there is no name? Is there something unique to Public History that art historians should consider developing? What is unique about Public Art History? Who is already doing it? How might this help the field, especially students and recent grads entering the job market?

While I have some answers to a few of these questions, or at least ideas, I think this is a conversation worth having among many art historians, museum curators and educators, conservationists, and so forth. Here is what I do know: Smarthistory is Public Art History. It embodies the spirit of what I would define as Public Art History–an open-access educational resource about art, yes, but one that has also found a large following outside of AP Art History and undergrad students. I love this blog post about Smarthistory and digital art history because many of the ideas within it relate to what I would call Public Art History.

The National Council on Public History states that its mission is to “inspire public engagement with the past and serve the needs of practitioners in putting history to work in the world….” Their blog is History@Work. I love this idea: History at Work in the world. Considering that Art History is history, how can art historians put art history to work in the world? Again, I think a lot of people are already doing this–like Smarthistory (among others). But imagine what Public Art History, in a more defined field–yes, Public History is a field!–might look like.

I have to continue thinking about Public Art History and what it might entails, but I am hoping other folks come across this and join in on the conversation.


(Disclaimer: Typos due to typing with a toddler)

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