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A Career in Public History: Philip Goldring

Posted by Melissa Glass on September 1, 2020 in Alumni & Friends
Philip Goldring in Pangnirtung, Nunavut during the Qikiqtani Truth Commission in 2008
Philip Goldring in Pangnirtung, Nunavut during the Qikiqtani Truth Commission in 2008

This year will see the launch of the new Certificate in Heritage Studies, which will provide students with theoretical and practical training for a successful career in public history. To commemorate this exciting certificate we asked Dr. Philip Goldring (Dal MA Alumnus, 1972) to reflect on his extensive experience in public history and consider how the industry has changed throughout his career.


    It is hard work to write truthfully about oneself. Witnesses are still on hand to sniff out unintended lapses of fact, shoddy interpretation of context, and self-serving hyperbole. This kind of criticism is part of what historians do; we use evidence and construct narratives with care because accuracy and context matter to us. Nowadays, some approach to objectivity is still respected but we are also aware that hindsight is never 20/20; even the most scrupulous historians filter the past through hopes and fears for the future. And so it may be with writing about one’s own past. This profile reports on half a century in the field, showing a small slice of what was possible for a career in public history at the time, and to identify some things that are relevant for future practitioners.

    In September 1967, with a BA from Saint Mary’s, I began graduate studies in history at Dalhousie. My main influences at Dalhousie were Peter Waite, Del Muise, and my thesis supervisor, Peter Burroughs. Despite many differences, they all communicated the department’s commitment to thorough research, careful analysis, and clear writing. In general, our responsibility as MA students was to develop research and analytical skills to a professional level without preparation for any specific employment. I don’t remember any of my cohort going on to academic careers, but many or most had careers in public history. Some reached senior public service posts or achieved distinction as practitioners, including Susan Buggey in the evaluation of cultural landscapes and Margaret Carter, who pioneered an effective historical consulting practice.

    I belong to the generation of Nova Scotians who finished our studies with a diploma in one hand and a train ticket in the other. (An unfinished thesis was often part of the baggage.) The first thirty-five years of my career were punctuated by shifts in emphasis. The fifteen years since then have been even more diverse. My research and policy analysis for Parks Canada included studies of the logistics and personalities of the Western fur trade, the history of Nunavut, the politics and praxis of public commemoration and the preservation movement, and official geographical naming – versatility mattered. A significant change in my first year with Parks was marrying another historian, Marianne McLean. By 1982 we had each completed a PhD in the United Kingdom and were raising the first of four children. Marriage to someone in your own narrow discipline in Canada can have important implications for a career; so can parenthood.

    In 1984 my career changed decisively in a 40-foot boat weaving among ice floes in Cumberland Sound. As the historian for a new site initiative in Baffin Island, I spent ten days evaluating historic places whose populations had recently been expelled or withdrawn. I accompanied Inuit hunters, an archaeologist, and a heritage planner. Nothing in graduate school or the public service prepared me for this immersion in a new culture and geography, and I spent the next three decades learning to understand and explain the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada.

    By the age of 40, I accepted a career shift into a new planning branch. There I coordinated Parks Canada’s responses to the cultural resource chapters in northern Indigenous Comprehensive Claims, while I managed or conducted Northern research. I had to become familiar with the commemorative policy process, the rudiments of community consultations, and Indigenous perspectives on cultural landscapes. In the following decade I sat on policy and planning committees, advised other departments on heritage in Comprehensive Claims, represented Parks Canada on the Geographical Names Board of Canada, and took a supervisory post in my old branch. I also managed a program that gave new definitions to the historic values of over 100 historic places.

    One pleasure at this time was working with undergraduate history students and recent graduates. Before about 1990, students were not recruited for short-term work in my branch. I worked out how to define tasks and projects that could be assigned to lightly-supervised students. So in 1998, when I was invited to launch a weekly internet series on Canadian history, I saw that the very broad target audience is best served by the kind of direct, fresh style of writing that came naturally to those who had not written too many seminar papers or much policy analysis. The resulting product, This Week in History, remains online and is still being written by students.

    In 2005 I left the public service. After teaching two courses as a contract instructor at Carleton University, my professional life reverted to the kind of work I did before becoming a manager. Indigenous peoples’ history, a small part of my work before 1984, took centre stage. I was senior historian and writer with the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, a contractor with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and a volunteer with the Indigenous Peoples’ Atlas of Canada. Working for an Indigenous-led project provides a welcome reversal of roles after decades in government. In 2015, the Canadian Journal of History (50:3, pp. 492-523.) published my exploration of the QTC’s compelling analysis of historical trauma and public memory, and how historians can contribute to reconciliation.

    Rapid change has been the norm in the heritage professions. Before 1970, when graduates of history programs were recruited as researchers we had to struggle to influence how our work would be used. Evaluation and interpretation of sites or artifacts was often a contested field where site managers, engineers, architects, planners, writers, and curators struggled to dominate the historians and archaeologists. The best-paid professionals often prevailed. In the mid-1970s, multi-disciplinary teams emerged, with each profession represented in a more mutually respectful process. In the 1970s, Parks Canada’s planning and management moved closer to sites and therefore to affected communities. A more ethnographic approach emerged, emphasizing consultation and listening over flaunting of expertise and credentials. By 2012 most of this research and consultation capacity had been removed from the regions but important sensitivities survived. Under legal agreements and other protocols, Indigenous bodies and communities now assert their rights as the owners of their own past, and historians engage with them on terms that are mutually respectful.

    Trends in management affect the way public historians are employed. In the 1960s the term “public history” did not even exist; heritage institutions employed a few historians on staff or on contract. Over time, and especially in research affecting Indigenous peoples’ rights, firms emerged offering continuity to clients for archival research. In the last two decades it has become more common for historians to act as the sub-contractors of large engineering design and consulting firms. In the absence of large bodies of in-house historians, it is less evident how aspiring public historians will develop the expertise and thoroughness that the discipline requires. In this environment a program like Dalhousie’s certificate in heritage studies can justify itself.

            Individual strengths and talents that are developed beyond what is offered in formal history programs can open doors to new roles or special assignments. One needed skill is an understanding of governance. In cultural heritage, governance is the web of laws, regulations, orders-in-council, agreements, relationships, policies, international charters and conventions, strategic plans, codes of ethics and other instruments that tell you and your partners and clients what you must, may, or must not do in carrying out work. Knowledge of geospatial data tools is another excellent example of a body of knowledge that many social scientists possess, and historians could adopt as tools of analysis and communication. For many historians, travel is its own reward, but a knowledge of the world outside one’s home province or country can develop crucial insights and skills. The great intangible benefits, though, come from enjoying the work and the company of colleagues. These are gifts, and are among the things that open doors to long and satisfying careers.