The Chrysler Village History Project was a public historian’s dream. It emerged as a perfect storm of enthusiastic neighborhood residents and a cohort of passionate public historians who donated their time and resources to leveraging the newly-revealed history of the area for the benefit of the contemporary community. Last August, the three-year project culminated with the launching of a robust online oral history archive and a community festival featuring the unveiling of commemorative signage and a mural designed and painted by local elementary students. For me, the Chrysler Village History Project epitomized shared authority and the kind of public history I hope to conduct throughout my career. I am also grateful for the professional organizations who similarly saw the value of the endeavor, including AASLH who recently acknowledged the project with an Award of Merit.
Months after concluding the Chrysler Village History Project, many of the public historians involved–myself included–are now emerging professionals outside of academia navigating the job market and trying to figure out how to make a living. As I determine my own career direction, I am still haunted by the question repeatedly posed by the residents of Chrysler Village: “How does this (public) history tangibly benefit us?” How will my work as a public historian directly serve the public?
When I look at existing economic models of practicing public history, I struggle to find work that truly centers community authority and need. Academia continues to prioritize scholarship and teaching. Non-profit organizations and museums can find their hands tied by the grant cycle and restrictions of major donors. Corporate and consultant work are beholden to the profit margin. Of course, passionate public historians accomplish magnificent work in all of these settings; the problem does not lie with individual institutions but in the reality of capitalism. Public history’s potential is limited by its sources of money. As a colleague of mine once exclaimed during a heated conversation on funding and museum exhibits, “It’s all blood money!”
After a lot of reflection and invigorating conversations with colleagues through professional networks like AASLH, I am now asking: what would a version of public history look like that is both economically sustainable for practitioners and also applies shared authority in an economic sense? Can we envision an economic model for public history that resists capitalism and its blood money? What might a public history cooperative look like where community members can contribute capital or labor and have a clear stake in determining the direction of the organization? Are there other models to look to? Is there a way to use public history as a tool to thwart capitalism and engender social, cultural, and economic justice?
I am eager to hear the thoughts of fellow emerging professionals in the field, especially those involved in state and local history. Are you grappling with similar questions as you envision your work? How might we implement new career alternatives in the field? Are there pre-existing models with radical potential to evaluate and utilize?
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