Public History: Using the Past to Illuminate the Present

Resilient Societies

Teaching and Lifelong Learning

History is not just facts and dates. History involves stories, narratives that reflect different purposes and interests.

Dr. Nancy Berlage, Texas State University associate professor of history and director of the public history program, trains historians to craft these stories consciously and accurately. Public historians work to make history readily available, relatable, and accessible to the general public. They strive to include a broad and balanced range of historical perspectives from diverse groups to help audiences develop a deeper appreciation of the past and how it connects to the present.

As a federal historian in the Department of Defense, Berlage and four colleagues wrote the official account of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

Practitioners work in museums, archives, historic sites, parks, government offices, and other locations, sharing their knowledge with the public. Understanding history is vital to developing insight into how the world operates today: “So many of our current policy debates are predicated on historical assumptions,” Berlage says. But no historical work can contain every element of the past; the historian must choose what to include and exclude.

Students and faculty visit a historical marker

“Historical narratives are controlled, intentionally or not,” Berlage explains. “The silences are just as telling as what gets told.” Historians wield great power.

Berlage helps her students recognize that power in their own work and others’. In one course, they discuss how individual and public memory about historical events can shift and evolve over time to a remarkable degree. Historical interpretations reflect those shifts. Berlage draws from skills and insights that have allowed her to excel in a wide range of historical work. As a federal historian in the Department of Defense, Berlage and four colleagues wrote the official account of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. Her current research focuses on how rural farm families during the early 1900s used their notions about the past to construct a pathway that would allow them to see themselves, and be seen by others, as a modern person.

Berlage sees her work as a form of citizenship, ensuring that people are informed: “I don’t want to tell people what to think — I want them to have the tools to be able to form their own interpretations of history that go well beyond ‘that’s the way things have always been seen.’”


oral histories Berlage interpreted to produce one record of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon



of the public believe that museums are educational assets for their communities

Source: American Alliance of Museums & Wilkening Consulting, 2018


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