An Interview with Jason Steinhauer, Public Historian and Creator of History Communication

Public communication has perhaps never been more important for the archives profession as it is today.  That’s why we wanted to talk with Jason Steinhauer, public historian, director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University, and creator of the field of history communication.  In this interview with ArchivesAWARE!, Steinhauer discusses his entry into the historical profession as a curator and archivist, his work as a public historian and the creator of history communication, and how archivists can apply the principles of history communication to their own work.  Steinhauer will also be leading the “Carpe Media! Communications and Media Training for Archivists” workshop on August 14 at ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2018.

ArchivesAWARE: Can you tell us about your background working as a museum curator and archivist?

Jason Steinhauer. Photo by Amanda Reynolds.

Steinhauer: I always enjoyed museums; as a child I created exhibits in my parents’ basement. In college, I interned at two museums and fell in love with the work. So, following graduation, I was very fortunate to land a position with the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, working as an exhibitions assistant on an exhibit about American Jewish soldiers in WWII. That exhibit went on to win the AAM Grand Prize for Excellence in Exhibitions and spring-boarded me into becoming a curator.

I also always had a passion for historical records. I inherited that from my parents, who love to sleuth around in archives and used book stores for clues about the past. After working closely with objects as a curator, I decided to get my archivists’ certificate, to learn how to work closely and properly with archival records. The training and experience in archives and museums prepared me for the next phases of my career.

ArchivesAWARE: You’ve since gone on to work as a public historian, first at the Library of Congress and now as the inaugural director of the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University.  What motivated you to transition out of curatorial/archival work and onto the “front lines” of the history profession?

Steinhauer: As a curator and archivist, I was always a public historian; I just didn’t know it. It was after I joined the Library of Congress Veterans History Project that I learned about public history through the National Council on Public History. NCPH really resonated with me. It was a community grappling with the same questions I had been grappling with since starting my career: How do you make historical scholarship accessible to diverse public audiences? How do you include those audiences in the process of historical inquiry? And how do we use physical spaces, records, and objects to tell stories about the past? I have always been fascinated by those questions, and my work at the Library of Congress and now as the first director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest offered me the opportunity to wrestle with them in a variety of settings: with Members of Congress and elected officials, with diplomats, foreign governments, business communities, funders, scholars, and students. As the environments in which we operate grow more complex, the challenges become greater and the task more urgent.

ArchivesAWARE: You’re also the creator of the field of history communication.  What is history communication, and where did the idea come from?

Steinhauer: In 2014, I worked at The John W. Kluge Center inside the Library of Congress. At the time I was friendly with several “science communicators,” and became intrigued by science communication. The sciences have made huge investments in ensuring scientists are trained to communicate scientific research to various audiences through a variety of media formats, not solely for disseminating scholarship but also for the purpose of informing public debates and shaping policy. It seemed to me that the history profession could do the same. I began asking if Masters and PhD programs had made such investments in communications, and found that few had. So I proposed the creation of history communication and set out with colleagues to develop coursework that would wrestle with how history gets communicated across contemporary media spaces—Web, social, video, VR—and identify the skillset necessary to do that work effectively. Four years later we have history communication courses being offered and trainings being conducted nationwide.

ArchivesAWARE: How do you think archivists can apply the ideas behind history communication to their work?  What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing archivists in this regard?

Steinhauer: I hazard to guess that some of the challenges are cultural and institutional. Institutions and organizations tend to be conservative in keeping up with technological change and taking risks. But history communication work involves risk-taking and innovation, and that’s where training becomes critical. Archives programs can help by preparing archivists to do this work in a systematic way, so that when new archivists are hired, they have the tools and skillset to contribute right away.

ArchivesAWARE: Breaking into history communication would likely require many archivists to develop new competencies on top of their traditional archival training.  Do you have any thoughts on how archivists could best acquire the training necessary to undertake this innovative form of public outreach?

Steinhauer: Our Intro to History Communication syllabus is a great place to start. The syllabus was developed by more than 35 people in two working groups held in 2016. It lays the foundations for communicating history in this current environment. It covers historical thinking, media literacy, different media formats, even the business aspects of history. Second, I think connecting with others, either on Twitter at #histcomm or through our LinkedIn group, would be beneficial. Third, attending workshops such as the one being sponsored at this year’s SAA annual meeting. And, finally, nothing beats learning by doing. I would love to see history communication assignments integrated into archives programs nationwide, so that archivists graduate with the skillset needed for this crucial work.

ArchivesAWARE: Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding your work as an archivist and public historian, and the role of history communication in the cultural heritage professions?

Steinhauer: Communication is an essential part of what we do as historians, archivists, and records managers. We must continue to find strategic and creative ways to communicate, adapting to new audiences and new media formats as they emerge. This has been a recurring theme at NCPH, AASLH, SHAFR, AHA and other conferences the past few years, so I think the profession is awakened to this reality. I’m excited for the future and for the role that the Lepage Center can play.

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