Public History Program Gives New Perspective on the Past
Museums, Monuments, and Hamilton
As a soldier in the U.S. Army, Moses Villanueva guided paratroopers through missions in Afghanistan.
He experienced a different type of military adventure after returning home, enrolling in Rutgers University–New Brunswick as a history major, and participating in the university’s new program in public history.
Villanueva landed an internship at the Liberty Hall Museum in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he collected and transcribed the letters of Captain John Kean, a World War I veteran and a member of New Jersey’s Kean family dynasty.
The letters provided Villanueva SAS’17 with a vivid impression of the experiences of a soldier who served nearly a century before him.
“The fascinating thing was that not much has changed in terms of the human experience of the soldier,” he says. “Even back then there was a lot of sitting around and waiting, putting up with bureaucracy, dealing with rumors, and even doing a bit of whining.
“It was pretty cool.”
Villanueva was among the first wave of students to participate in the program in public history, which was developed by the history department in the School of Arts and Sciences. The program offers students majoring or minoring in history the opportunity to earn a 15-credit certificate as well as choose from internships at more than 100 different sites throughout New Jersey
Public history emerged in the 1970s, with scholars and practitioners discovering rich and revealing sources of historical narrative in the lives of ordinary people and their communities. The field draws students who are passionate about history but who often build careers outside academia, such as in museums, historical sites, libraries, and archives. Public historians work as filmmakers, authors, consultants, and teachers, among other professions.
“Public history is typically thought of as any sort of history that happens outside the classroom or outside the academy,” says Kristin O'Brassill-Kulfan, the coordinator of the Rutgers program. “Whenever you go to the museum, whenever you see a historic marker on the side of the road, when you see Hamilton—these are all versions of public history.”
Students in O’Brassill-Kulfan’s course “Public History: Theory, Method, and Practice” learn that they don’t have to venture far to confront and critique a major piece of American public history. During one class they gathered around the Alexander Hamilton marker adjacent to Kirkpatrick Chapel. There, O’Brassill-Kulfan asked them to evaluate how effectively the sign tells the story of Hamilton delaying the advance of British troops across the Raritan River, an action that allowed General George Washington to retreat across the Delaware River to safety in Pennsylvania.
“If you are visiting from Brazil, or France, or China, what would you think when you saw this sign?” she asked. “How much background knowledge is required to understand what’s going on?”
Her students rose to the occasion, analyzing and critiquing the marker for archaic, vague, and imprecise language, among other issues.
“This was a great exercise in critical thinking,” says Abigail Haresign. “It’s easy to look at a sign and simply take it at face value. But listening to the class discussion you get a much wider perspective.”
June Titus agrees.
“I think it’s important for us as historians to go into public spaces and examine what’s there and whether it’s presented and expressed in a way that informs the public,” she says.
Both students are participating in the certificate program, which has won praise for building connections across humanities and social sciences. Students can choose electives like archeology, filmmaking, and urban studies in addition to their required course work in history.
Emily Mueller said she took on difficult but rewarding courses in digital mapping and architectural conservation, as well as a research-intensive internship at the university’s special collections in which she examined the role of women in World War 1. A case of artifacts that she curated will be displayed in an exhibition this spring.
“I think that every class has made me well-rounded and able connect with people on different levels,” she says. “And that’s a good thing.”
Villanueva, meanwhile, said his internship at the Liberty Hall Museum left a lasting impact on him as he pursues a career in financial services.
“I’d see the museum director wearing so many hats, from educator to actor to a customer service pro,” he says. “To see the amount of effort and pride people brought to their jobs; that is something I will take with me into my own career.”