Public History & Public Humanities (Full Statement)

The Warren Center for the Study of American History hopes to become a public history / public humanities hub at Harvard by highlighting existing projects and gradually introducing new initiatives that support members of the Warren Center community in their applied historical and humanities work. Our undertaking is especially apropos in this moment as President Lawrence Bacow has launched a Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, housed at the Radcliffe Institute under the leadership of Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, and as matters of public interpretation and commemoration of the national past are being contested on the streets and in the media.   

Guided by the examples set by the National Council on Public History [link], The National Humanities Alliance [link], and our neighboring veteran program, the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst [link] the Warren Center defines public history as active involvement with historical and humanities research, writing, interpretation, and dissemination in public spaces and contexts. The aim of this collective endeavor is putting history to work in the world for the edification and betterment of societies, communities, and the many individuals within them.

The Warren Center’s public history/ public humanities initiative will emphasize the principles of undertaking serious and studious inquiry, relating the past to the present, and striving for responsible and reciprocal research practices that balance the needs of community institutions with the priorities of the university’s pedagogical mission. Process is as important as tangible outcomes. It is our view, and the broadly shared view in this field, that public history/public humanities is not only about community stakes in local, regional, national, and global histories, but also about building our capacity to engage collaboratively for the public good. This work shifts the center of historical knowledge production from the campus classroom into any number of public domains; from the individual mind to the collective roundtable; from the historical monograph to the exhibit, mural, digital archive, grant proposal, government report, historical marker, period meal, novel, or film.

As the Warren Center is formally Harvard’s research center for US history, the public history/public humanities initiative is American history and American studies focused, yet flexibly defined. The Warren Center has long characterized American history broadly, and that sensibility was affirmed in the establishment of the Global American Studies Post-Doctoral Fellowships in 2013.  The public history initiative will therefore include projects, events, collaborative partnerships, and elective classes in the following areas: the US and US territories, the Indigenous Americas, Ethnic Studies, the Caribbean, the US in comparative context, and US imperial spaces both physical and imagined. While we regret that we do not have the ability to fund work across all historical fields, we encourage our colleagues to pursue funding opportunities at Harvard’s many international studies research centers.

At the Warren Center, our public history/public humanities initiative will advance four goals: Research, Teaching, Training, and Partnership. These four aims are also domains of endeavor that overlap.

The Warren Center will support public history and humanities research by fully considering hybrid academic-public history (“applied”) scholarship with more traditionally conceived academic scholarship in our review process for Warren Center Global American Studies Postdoctoral Fellowships and research funding proposals for graduate students who have trained in public history/humanities workshops at the Warren Center. To be competitive for this funding, applicants must demonstrate within the project description that research components of their public history/public humanities work rely on practices of rigorous scholarship as understood in the relevant fields of American Studies and Ethnic Studies.

The Warren Center will support Harvard faculty, graduate students, and visiting fellows in their pedagogy principally by offering micro-grants for classroom field trips and reverse field trips. Field trips might include visits to local museums, historic sites, or organizations outside of Harvard. Reverse field trips would involve bringing public history practitioners into the classroom in person or via Zoom, Skype, GoogleHangout, etc. Please review the guidelines and application form for funding here [document].

For more extensive classroom-community engagements, we encourage our colleagues at the Warren Center and across the university to explore the Mindich Program for Engaged Scholarship [link], which is designed and administered precisely for this broader focus on larger-scale, sustained pedagogical projects.

The Warren Center seeks to support graduate students’ introduction to critical issues in the field of public history/public humanities and the technical as well as interpersonal tools of the trade, such as: oral history techniques, exhibition curation and interpretation exposure, and non-profit grant-writing practice. For graduate students who enter their doctoral programs here with public history backgrounds, we hope to offer opportunities in the form of workshops to strengthen skillsets and broaden networks both within and outside of the university. These workshops will also be open to undergraduates who have taken a course in public history and are interested in exploring advance degrees and careers in the field. For dissertation writers seeking to eventually engage public audiences through writing, we hope to develop writing retreats. We are in the process of formulating a workshop series aimed at graduate students for these multiple purposes, to be offered in 2022-2023. We are sketching out plans to develop a Public History Fellow position, which would be housed at the Warren Center. This paid position would bring on board a graduate student from the Americanist fields in the departments of History, American Studies, African & African American Studies, or Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies as a special coordinator of public history projects and communications. Graduate students in this position would earn part-time pay, gain valuable hands-on experience, and have a visible role that highlights their experience for the broader historical job market. While this position would most often be filled by a graduate student, in some years it might be filled by a recent Harvard MA or PhD graduate or by a visiting public history early career professional.

The Warren Center seeks to develop ongoing research and teaching partnerships with community institutions outside of Harvard, both near and far. Such partnerships would strive for reciprocity, transparency, and mutual accountability in the development of research and interpretation projects. Each partnership would be independently developed and facilitated by Warren Center faculty (i.e. members of the Warren Center Advisory Board) and community representatives. Each project is likely to take on a different form depending on the community organization’s needs and the Warren Center member’s interests. Even as each project will be unique and independent, members of community partner organizations will likely be invited more often to speak in classes taught be Warren Center faculty or in training workshops held by the center.

The Warren Center aims to contribute to the existing infrastructure of engagement at Harvard, enabling public humanities practices to prosper. Toward that end, we will offer modest funding support to faculty leaders of community partnership projects in the form of field trip funding (see “Pedagogy,” above) when the projects involve students, and, when the center budget allows, the possibility of seed funding and strategic ad hoc funding to enable mobility, communication, sociality, and appropriate support of community partners’ financial needs for the execution of joint project ends (for example, the co-funding of an exhibit, or the co-publication of an informational pamphlet). The Warren Center will also offer limited logistical and dissemination support for these projects when the Public History Fellow position (see “Training,” above) is filled. Although public history and oral history projects are customarily exempt from Institutional Review Board review, the Warren Center urges each faculty project leader to enact due diligence when formulating collaborative projects.

Visit the public history/public humanities projects already underway at the Warren Center and in other Harvard spaces organized by Warren Center faculty members!

[The Commonwealth Project- link]

[History Design Studio- link]