Public History Research Lab

By John Marks, Director, Public History Research Lab and Senior Manager, Strategic Initiatives

Conducting and sharing research about the state of the field is a core function of any professional association. At the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), research about history institutions and the ways the public engages with them has grown into a critical part of our organization’s activity over the past several years. To help us continue and advance this essential work, AASLH is announcing today the creation of a new, dedicated research center within the organization: the Public History Research Lab.

As the central hub for AASLH’s ongoing and emerging research projects, the Public History Research Lab will strengthen our ability to serve our members and the wider field. Through the Research Lab, we will conduct original research and monitor field-wide trends to advance our understanding of the United States historical community and the role of history in American life, sharing practical takeaways for historical organizations and history professionals. As part of AASLH’s effort to support our members, the Research Lab will explore a wide range of questions, including those related to the size, scope, and status of historical organizations, the demographics and unique needs of history professionals and volunteers, the ways public audiences understand the value of history and public history institutions, and other, new questions about public history practice and Americans’ engagement with our field.

By formalizing and expanding our commitment to field-wide research through the Public History Research Lab, we strive to equip history professionals, museum leaders, scholars, students, advocates, and others with data and insights they can use to fulfill their missions and to more effectively champion the cause of history.

As the professional association for history practitioners and historical organizations of all types and sizes, field-wide research has long been a facet of AASLH’s work. The Research Lab helps AASLH take advantage of its unique position to be a national leader on these issues into the future. In fact, we are already engaged in several major research projects that will form the foundation for the Research Lab. With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we’re working with the renowned FrameWorks Institute and partners across the field to investigate how Americans understand what history is and why it’s valuable to society and to test new strategies for communicating about history more effectively. Through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities in advance of the 250th anniversary, we’ve partnered with leading cultural sector researchers to conduct a thorough census of the nation’s historical organizations. We are continuing to conduct an annual survey of visitation trends at history institutions—our survey about 2020 visitation is open now—research more important than ever after the massive disruptions to our operations over the past year. Although the work will be slow and methodical, we hope to grow the scope and impact of our research projects in the years to come—and we welcome your ideas about how we can do that. You can learn more about our existing research initiatives here.

Through a combination of staff expertise and collaboration with external researchers and advisers, we will conduct original research and share our insights with the field.

We will do so through traditional avenues, such as print and digital publications, webinars, and conference presentations, as well as new ones, like specialized research briefings for staff and boards of historical organizations. In addition, the Research Lab will monitor work carried out by other individuals and organizations both within and outside our field, sharing their findings through research briefs targeted at our members. Our first research brief, distilling the history-related findings from the groundbreaking new Humanities in American Life report, is already available.

I’m excited and honored to lead this work for AASLH as the first Director of the Public History Research Lab, and I look forward to speaking and collaborating with partners across the field as we advance this important and timely project. Over the past year, the urgency and relevance of public historical work has become clearer than ever. We hope the research, publications, and activities generated by this new initiative—a complement to AASLH’s existing professional development resources, annual conference, community building opportunities, advocacy, and other activities—will help all of us live up to the responsibility this work demands.

Have questions or ideas for the Public History Research Lab? Get in touch!