Canadian Public History: Where Art Thou?

Credit: Nikopol_TO

Public Historians work in a range of positions within and outside the heritage sector.  Public historians can be found in museums, archives, libraries, academic institutions, corporations, not-for-profits, the film industry, research firms, and other organizations.

In the United States the National Council on Public History is an active professional organization that represents, offers services to, and connects public historians.  Currently, Canada has no similar active national organization.  There is a public history working group under the Canadian Historical Association, but many public historians outside of academia are not involved with this group.

 Currently, the institution I work at is a member of:

Each group has a very specific focus and offers a variety of professional development tools, connections, and resources based on its focus.  A Public Historian working in an archive may find the occasional article in Archivaria or The American Archivist which approaches archival principal from a public history view point, but that’s probably all the PH content one will get.  

I’ve taken to reading The Public Historian and Public History News to get my Public History fix – but since both are American based publications I’m often level longing for Canadian content.  ActiveHistory.ca content helps fill in some of the void in Canadian Public History.  But I’d love to hear any suggestions on where else to turn for new Canadian Public History reading and collaboration.

National vs. Community Museums

In many of our public history classes earlier this year we examined some of the pros and cons of working at small and big museums. The point most often brought up was that small museums often lack funding to hire many (or any) full-time employees. Conversely, the bureaucratic structure of many large museums does not appeal to all public historians or museum professionals.

Spending the summer in Ottawa has made me look at this issue from another perspective. Ottawa has numerous national museums and the city of Ottawa is also home to many community based museums. How many tourists to Ottawa visit the smaller local heritage sites and museums over the national museums? Most school or bus trips focus on visiting the large museums. These museums are representing the entire nations history, and are one of the main tourist attractions in Ottawa.

So who do the smaller museums cater to? Many of these smaller museums focus on the unique heritage of various smaller communities within Ottawa. For example the Bytown Museum preserves the history of the original city of Bytown and the early years of the city of Ottawa. Similarly, the Nepean Museum is dedicated to preserving the heritage of Nepean and the former township of Nepean. Most of the community museums in Ottawa strive to interact with visitors and the community at large. Many offer a variety of weekend and summer activities. Until moving to Ottawa the unique combination of national museums and community museums available in the city had not occurred to me. This unique combination is ideal for anyone looking to expore a combination of national history and local history.