How businesses can "win" with public history

History Smiths

Public history is booming today, and it’s thrilling to see. Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate history major at Simmons College in Boston, people always said, “Well, that’s nice, but what are you going to DO with that history degree?” Hence, my second degree in Communications, which would lead to a “real job,” I was assured.

Today, Public History Institutes and Museum Studies Programs are opening and thriving because there are plenty of real jobs in public history. In Massachusetts alone, where I am based, there is a new Public History Institute at Gordon College, a similar program at Simmons College, museums studies programs at Harvard and Tufts Universities, and the list goes on.

What is “public history,” you ask?

Very simply, it’s “history” done outside of the classroom. Reenactments, tours, historic house interpretation, traditional skills and crafts demonstrations – all of these are good examples, and then there are more static methods like history murals, statues of historical figures, interpretive panels in parks or along walkways, and historic markers.

For your business, public history provides incredible opportunities for visibility and to show that you care about your local history. Think about the word “public” in “public history.” Public history is done out in the open, in public, and reaches potentially thousands of people.

And I can’t think of one public history initiative that doesn’t need support. The talented people involved are doing what they do out of love, but they deserve to be paid and public history projects need to be funded. Telling our stories – which is really what history is – is about who we are historically, how we got to where we are today, and what we can learn for tomorrow. The stories are inspiring, thought-provoking, and important. When they are told outside of the classroom, the stories resonate. They stay with us.

By supporting public history practitioners and sites with your business dollars, marketing, and PR savvy, not only will your business derive huge benefits from your investment you will also be part of something “larger” – something meaningful and lasting. Those are two very big “wins.”

Here are just three examples of the kinds of public history initiatives you could back.

• Contact your local National Park Service site.

Many Park Service sites have a Friends Group that provides essential funding for programs, publications, collection acquisition, restoration projects, marketing and PR – you name it. And I happen to know that within the Park Service itself, historic house sites receive the least amount of federal funding (for inexplicable reasons). These sites need financial, program, and marketing help and they do some of the best public history work that’s out there. Think about Minuteman National Historical Park in Concord, MA; Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, MA; Salem Maritime National Historic Site in Salem, MA; and Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge, MA. I am lucky enough to enjoy warm relationships with the staff at each one of these places, and they present STELLAR tours, talks, reenactments, and demonstrations – all for free. Park Service rangers really bring history to life with talent and passion. And when you get involved with them, you will have the prestige of the National Park Service associated with your business. That’s big.

• Seek out the reenactors in your community.

It’s no fun being a starving actor, and these people make history “real” in ways that have a significant and lasting impact on their audience. I’m sure you have encountered actors in historical character, whether it was at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA; Orchard House in Concord, MA where “Louisa May Alcott” (aka Jan Turnquist) makes frequent appearances; at events like the Margaret Fuller Bicentennial when “Margaret” (aka Jessa Piaia) and Edgar Allan Poe (aka Rob Velella) engaged in a spirited conversation about literature and Transcendentalism at Concord’s Old Manse; or at the Derby House in Salem, MA, where “Mr. and Mrs. Derby” (aka real-life husband-and-wife Jim Hollister and Emily Murphy) discuss early 1800s Salem politics, business, and gossip. Kids, especially, love this stuff! And you can be a real hero in your community by backing these talented performers. And don’t forget to invite them to perform at your place of work!

• Work with your local historic house museum.

Many of these houses are owned by your historical society, but some are managed by independent or regional nonprofit organizations. Here in New England, for example, Historic New England and The Trustees of Reservations own dozens of important historic houses, along with the National Park Service, historical societies, museums, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and family trusts. Whatever the size of the managing organization, all historic houses need help with preservation, marketing, and fundraising. You’ve probably visited some of these places yourself, so you know that, done well, historic houses “illustrate” the past in a compelling way. They preserve what we historians call our “material culture.” Through tours, talks, traditional crafts and skills demonstrations, these homes of our ancestors give visitors a vivid sense of what it was like to live in previous centuries. Find out how you can contribute!

The tactic to take with any of these suggestions is “partnership from the start,” to use a phrase coined by the business coach Lisa Sasevich. You are not just writing a check, you are entering into a strategic partnership that will benefit both sides.

Be shamelessly proud of your association with your public historians, sites, or projects. Market the heck out of what you are doing and why. You will attract new customers and give your existing customers one more reason to be loyal to you.

Invite your new partner to make a presentation at your place of business for your staff and customers. Host a special reception for customers and prospects with your partner. Offer a discount for anyone who joins the nonprofit. The possibilities to promote and celebrate both sides of your partnership are endless!

The benefits to your business, to the individuals and nonprofits you support, AND to the public can be huge – and deeply rewarding. Lots of “wins.”