Denise Meringolo, associate professor of history and director of the public history program at UMBC, recently sat down for an interview about her collaborative methods for training the next generation of public historians.
In this spring 2014 interview with Dinah Winnick, UMBC’s acting director of communications, Meringolo discusses the course that she designed through a BreakingGround grant. The BreakingGround program at UMBC was established in 2012 to foster innovative scholarship and provide opportunities for civic engagement beyond the university campus. Winnick notes that the grant program seeks to create projects that have a long-lasting and tangible impact in the community.
The university’s BreakingGround initiative resonates with Meringolo’s definition of public history. Rather than traditional, academic history with simply a different audience, Meringolo believes, “Public history is really an expression of public service.” She explains that teaching public history is all about “how the tools of history can be put to use not simply for a community but with them, embedded in their needs.”
Meringolo says that her goal for this BreakingGround project is for students to consider the role of public history in community development and historic preservation. Working with and for local organizations like Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit preservation organization, students in Meringolo’s courses research and produce original content for the Explore Baltimore Heritage website and app. One cohort developed a tour of downtown Baltimore’s West Side while another produced stories about the city’s famed Druid Hill Park.
Through this collaboration, Meringolo and her students became aware that the public historian’s approach is not always what the partner envisions. For example, Baltimore Heritage’s audience of architecturally minded preservation experts anticipate reading a linear history of individual structures, not necessarily theme-driven stories about community residents. Fruitful collaboration required flexibility from Meringolo, her students, and the partners as well—which they have practiced through several rounds of the course.
Meringolo describes the benefit of this type of project as being two-fold: not only do students leave the course with a finished product for their professional portfolio, but they also gain awareness about issues facing historic communities in Baltimore City. Many students gain a sense of empowerment and investment in the city as a result of their research, continuing to communicate with Meringolo about these neighborhoods long after the semester has ended.
To learn more about Meringolo’s work, read her 2013 post on the BreakingGround blog, “Beyond Formal Politics: Scholarship as Civic Engagement.”