Nandita Mohan / Sun Contributor

Prof. Stephen Vider, history, engages with students in his HIST 2792: Introduction to Public History class.

November 7, 2019

Public History Initiative Seeks to Grow Public Engagement and Examine Past

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When Prof. Stephen Vider, history, asked students in his public history course earlier this fall to recall their first time visiting a museum, many remembered wandering through natural history exhibits as children.

“Why would that be?” he asked the class. “Why do we think a natural history museum is more accessible to a child than an art museum or a social history museum?”

This fall, Vider is teaching History 2792: Introduction to Public History, a course that is part of the new Public History Initiative. He serves as the director of the PHI, which the College of Arts and Sciences launched this fall to grow opportunities for public engagement across the humanities and arts.

The PHI — which currently includes two courses and a lecture series — grew out of the Critical Inquiry into Values, Imagination and Culture task force, comprised of professors who work to bridge teaching and research across the university’s departments and colleges.

“Public history brings to the fore questions that underlie all historical engagement,” Vider told The Sun. “How do we know what we know and why does it matter? Those questions underlie all historical work, but they’re not always brought forward.”

Vider said public history is defined by the collaboration between communities and scholars to think about the past and examine its current impact. These interactions range from visiting monuments and museums to analyzing historical preservation practices and documenting oral histories, he said.

While the history department already offers classes that discuss these topics, Vider said the PHI provides a structure that pulls together and expands upon student and faculty public history work. Along with Vider’s two courses and lecture series, he has worked with The History Center in Tompkins County to create three undergraduate oral history fellowships for next semester, which will allow students to collect historical information and preserve it at the center.

Introduction to Public History has already allowed students to combine historical analysis and public engagement. Not only does the class analyze the curatorial and archival practices that have shaped the public understanding of American history, but students also interact with local museum workers and their exhibitions.

The class learned about the world’s earliest museums at the Johnson Museum of Art and toured the archives at The History Center. Students in the class are also curating their own exhibits using materials from Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript collections.

Enrolled student Tilda Wilson ’21 said the course has led her to view history as an even more “dynamic and important” field.

“[The class] has made me realize how important it is for people to see themselves in a museum,” Wilson said. “Even though the work is complicated, it has a really big impact on the way America sees itself as a culture.”

In addition to Vider’s core PHI course — which explores the major theories and practice of historical engagement that happens outside the classroom — the initiative’s ongoing lecture series brings questions of public history to a wider audience.

Vider is organizing a sequence of speakers for next semster who will discuss queer public history, building on his next-spring Making Public Queer History course.

“I’m trying to start a larger conversation on campus, as well as within the local community, about how we think about history, what stories haven’t been told, and how can we tell them,” Vider said. “How does our telling of history relate to larger questions about social inclusion and social justice?”

Vider added that he hopes to introduce a public history minor, involve more faculty with the PHI, and create more opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students to engage in public history practice. Cornell would become the first Ivy League university to offer a public history minor, according to the National Council on Public History.

These developments are exciting for students like Caroline Kleiner ’20, who said she hopes to enter museum work and called the PHI “something Cornell needs.”

“Cornell is such a big institution, but sometimes it feels isolated from what is going on in the world or in the area,” Kleiner said. “By introducing public history to Cornell, you have an interaction with the community and the world at large, getting people involved with the resources Cornell has.”