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Public History and Anthropology? A View from our Student Abigail Enicke

Dr. Thomas Cauvin -- Wed, 09/28/2016 - 10:44am

When I first applied for the Public History program, I had never heard the term before. After I graduated with a B.A. in Anthropology, I wasn’t sure what to do. I enjoyed the physicality and interaction with the past through handling artifacts granted as a result of archaeological work and found cultural anthropology with its myriad avenues into the study of people and culture fascinating. What I’ve come to discover is that, for me, Public History brings together what I like most about anthropology and history. Not only do public historians receive academic historian training, they are also taught how to apply that training outside academia, especially by working in collaboration with the public and in bringing history to the public. Furthermore, because anthropology is broadly defined as the study of humanity and people, by working with the public and working for the public, knowledge of your audience is important in presenting a fuller picture of the historic past and making it accessible for the general public.

For example, while at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, our class created a “History Harvest,” where we invited the public to bring in documents, objects, and stories pertaining to French language heritage in Louisiana so that we could digitize these items and place them in an online exhibition. Not only did we invite the public take part in sharing and preserving its own history, but we made these items accessible to a larger audience online. Additionally, the inherently collaborative effort meant that the project would not have been possible without public involvement, which I believe epitomizes the important role of the public historian who serves as the gateway between the public and the past. As a mediator between people and the past, it is important to facilitate this contact. I was fortunate to work on a project, called Museum on the Move, which did just that. An exhibition entitled, “’Drill, Baby Drill?’ Oil in Louisiana,” was created inside a renovated 1954 Airstream trailer making the exhibition mobile and ready to be pulled to various events and schools in South Louisiana—literally bringing the exhibition and historical content, with its focus on the effect of the oil industry in Louisiana and the uncertainties or possible problems in the future, to the public.

At the History Harvest, community members brought items pertaining to Louisiana’s French speaking heritage for digitization.

Abigail Enicke, Graduate Student.