What’s the right job for bringing historical perspectives into public life?

By Amanda Moniz, PhD, Associate Director of the National History Center and Program Coordinator at the American Historical Association. Dr. Moniz received her PhD in History from the University of Michigan in 2008.

Dr. Amanda Moniz

If you had asked me several years ago what public history is, I would have talked about museums.  Indeed, museums are leading sites for the work of public historians.  Working at the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the American Historical Association (AHA) proper, however, has broadened my understanding of what public history is, where it takes place, and who does it. Bringing history into public life, I’ve come to appreciate, is the work of all historians whether we work in nonprofits, scholarly societies, museums, government, business, the media, the food industry, academia, or anywhere else.

I am the associate director of the National History Center, an affiliate of the AHA, and I also work as program coordinator at the AHA.  (My two positions are the nonprofit equivalent of a joint appointment in academia.)  The National History Center’s mission is to bring history into broader public and policy conversations.  Our programs include Congressional briefings to bring historical perspectives to issues before Congress; the Mock Policy Briefing Program, which helps students understand how history can inform public decision-making; and the Washington History Seminar, which attracts historians and policymakers interested in the historical roots of international and national affairs. We also organize panels at the AHA annual meeting that feature historians who are speaking to audiences beyond the academy.  And we collaborate with other institutions, particularly in Washington, DC, to sponsor programs that foster interchange among historians and non-historians.  At the AHA, my responsibilities include contributing to the Career Diversity for Historians initiative, which works to better prepare graduate students and early-career historians for a range of range of career options. As part of that, I devote a lot of time to the Career Contacts service. Career Contacts matches history grad students and early-career historians with historians working beyond the professoriate for informational interviews.  In addition, I coordinate the Center and AHA’s monthly Community of Historians Brown-bag Lunches.

Between my two positions, over the last few years I have encountered historians working in many types of institutions.  I routinely interact with historians employed in a range of agencies in the federal government, nonprofits and disciplinary societies, museums, secondary schools, journalism, and yes, academia.  I also have met historians whose careers are in business and even in restaurants and bakeries.  This experience and my own jobs at the Center and AHA have led me to rethink how historians, or more broadly, humanists, participate as historians in public life.  I had thought of historians’ contributions as researching and publishing scholarly works, teaching, museum work, and perhaps writing the occasional op-ed.  We do contribute in all those ways, but also in other ways that are less visible, I have learned.  Historians who work outside academia may provide historical research and analysis for their organizations, as federal historians, for instance, often do.  More intangibly but equally valuably, those of us who do not do historical research as part of our day jobs bring, among other things, an understanding of how change has occurred in the past to our organizations.  We can therefore offer insights about how to approach making change today.  I’ve written recently about how my scholarship on the history of philanthropy has shaped my decision-making about my own charitable activity.  In my professional life, understanding how charitable organizations in the past have developed has helped me think about the direction of the Center. It has also made me more confident about deciding to jettison old practices that no longer make sense for the Center and to do things in new ways.

Thanks to my work at the Center and AHA, I’ve come to appreciate that we do not need a particular job or a high-profile forum to participate in public life as historians.  Historical thinking belongs in our everyday work and everyday lives.  We have many possibilities for offering it in our careers and civic life.

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