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New Public History option brings history to life

Internships at Delaney Research Library in the Center of Southwest Studies allow students to get hands-on experience in public history.

Normally when people think "history," "excitement" doesn't also come to mind. But for Evan West, it does.

West, a sophomore History and Theatre dual-major from Fort Collins, is one of the first students to explore the History Department's new Public History option, which, he says, “is all about bringing history to life.”

West spent his summer doing a Public History internship in the Black Hills of South Dakota. There he worked at a Boy Scout guest ranch providing interpretation of Native American history topics relating to the area. West also led backpacking trips to sites of historical significance, following in the footsteps of those who fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

“This field is exciting to me because it provides a tangible connection to the past,” says West. “Sometimes it is hard to put this excitement into words, so it is much easier to show people by bring them into history -- which is the very definition of 'public history.'”

Public history is the non-academic use of history to actively engage the public through things such as historic preservation, walking tours, archives, interpretation at national parks, museums, exhibits, and research for historic books and films. Courses in the History Department's Public History option include "Introduction to Heritage Preservation," "National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea," and "Oral History: Theory and Practice."

Professor of History Andrew Gulliford spearheaded the effort to create the Public History option because, he says, opportunities are rapidly growing for young professionals in historic preservation, heritage tourism, museum studies, and archival management in private industry, the military, and the government.

“The goal of a public history option here at Fort Lewis College is to prepare our students for history careers outside of the classroom to work in federal agencies, national parks, local history museums, state and tribal archives, and in historic preservation and cultural resources management," explains Gulliford. "In Washington, D.C. alone there are over 300 historians working in the metro area. Each division of the Armed Services has its own historian and corporations like Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo also have public historians.”

Public History is also a good fit at Fort Lewis College because the Four Corners region's rich landscapes, cultural resources, colorful history, and concentration of National Park Service sites makes it ideal for trainings, internships, field work, volunteer opportunities, and seasonal and full-time employment.

Eric Wiard, a sophomore History major from Montrose, completed a Public History internship last summer at the Black Canyon National Park, in central Colorado. As an interpretive ranger, he guided interpretive walks for park visitors, did patrols where he contacted and assisted backcountry campers, and staffed the visitor center. The experience, he says, “very fun. It gave me a great way to spend my summer working in an amazing place with wonderful people.”

“Normally, people get a History degree and then find out about public history," says Gulliford. "We want to reverse that process.”

Learn more about the History Department.

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