Meet UL Lafayette history professor Dr. Thomas Cauvin, who was recently named the new director of the public history program at UL Lafayette. He has just published the first single-authored textbook in North America about public history and the new digital technology practices that are shaping the field.
“Digital has changed the role of historians,” says Dr. Cauvin. “Digital public history is interactive. People can participate—digital gives people a way to access and participate in history.”
Dr. Cauvin’s book, “Public History: A Textbook of Practice” is a compilation of resources needed to teach public history at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It’s divided into three sections: sources, production, and collaboration—the pillars of public history as a practice. Each section emphasizes the skills students need to conduct public history using traditional and digital methods. The technological components of each section include digital standards, storage, crowdsourcing, environments, range of tools, and more.
Dr. Cauvin says he gets many of his ideas from working with his students. His approach to public history doesn’t distinguish between his teaching and research, and he’s looking for ways to expand his research to focus more on international public history. Public history tends to be more localized, but international public history can help contextualize public history at the local level. By using digital tools, local public history can be introduced to a broader, even international, stage by sharing the information online.
“An advantage of public history is that you’re always looking for new ways to communicate and to involve the public,” he says. “The more you share history with the public, the more it becomes public history.”
Museum on the Move is a refurbished 1954 Airstream Travel Trailer that houses a new student-curated exhibit in it each year. The current exhibit, under the supervision of Dr. John Troutman, titled “Drill, Baby, Drill: Oil in Louisiana” is one that people feel connected to, says Dr. Cauvin. And because it’s mobile, they can bring the museum to the public, instead of the public seeking out the museum.
“We want to work for the people, with the people, in the production of public history,” he says. “That brings a lot of challenges, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
Dr. Cauvin is spearheading the History Harvest, a Louisiana French heritage public history project that relies on community involvement. By asking people to bring their objects and stories to the annual event, they are taking part in public history. From there, Dr. Cauvin and his students create a catalog of the items and recorded conversations.
“Without the public, we couldn’t do it,” Dr. Cauvin says. “Historians may have a tendency to be insulated—as a historian, you have to be an expert in a very specific field, and it can be a challenge to explain your knowledge to a large number of people. There are also few occasions to share their knowledge with everyday people. Public history can help move this critical expertise to a public space.
“With public history, we can make history alive, interactive, tangible, and fun,” he says. “It expands the range of possibilities for history and historians.”
The main differences between traditional history and public history are in the communication and collaboration of history. Both traditional and public history rely on research, archives, and sources, but public history involves communicating with large audiences and collaborating with historians and non-historians alike to collect and distribute historical information to the public.
Public historians work in a range of fields, from public policy advising and historic preservation to museum curation and entertainment consulting for historical accuracy. Dr. Cauvin says his students are trained to be independent and gain the skills they need to work in environments inside and outside academia.
“My favorite part of teaching public history is being in the field with my students and watching them interacting with people who are bringing the objects,” he says. “You can see them struggling at first because they’re not used to doing this, but it’s also a lot of fun for them because they’re out of the classroom—and that’s one of the definitions of public history: doing things outside the classroom. It makes it more fun, more useful, and more connected with real people.”