Public History and Environmentalism

A few experiences over the past couple weeks have left me seeing various connections between Public History and a lot of environmental movements. This has left me wondering, is Public History inherently environmental?

I recognize that this is a bit of a broad categorization to make. Many disciplines are also partially environmental or attempt to use this lens to in relation to research. Part of Public History’s environmental link could just have to do with those doing research but I think there is more to it than that.

One area where I believe environmentalism can be seen is in the prevalence of walking tours. Walking tours act as a way to introduce groups to a different side of a community or city by foot. The subjects of walking tours vary, with haunted walks being very popular and available in many different places. Tours offered by The Haunted Walk are quite well-known and available in many cities. Walking tours are not just a way to learn about ghost stories. Under-represented histories and alternative histories can also be placed in the spotlight through a walking tour. The experience of a walking tour is often aimed at providing the audience with something they cannot experience inside an institution. These tours look at buildings and sites that were used in one context before and often have a different purpose at the time of the tour. A walking tour is an important public history tool because of its ability to engage groups who might otherwise not be interested in learning these histories.

Walking tours are also environmental because of the nature of their structure. Visitors gain access to the stories by foot and by physically walking to the areas. This method of transportation is obviously lacking in harmful gas emissions but it also provides visitors with an understanding of history that is accessible through other means. The tour can act as a starting point for showing people historic sites that might be hidden within their surroundings. Walking can cause people to notice plaques and monuments that are not obvious when driving a vehicle. This mode of transportation also allows people the freedom to stop and engage with what they find along the way. These tours are also often free from the hassles of parking. While it is not unlikely that patrons might drive to the starting point of the walking tour depending on the location they might look into other options. Many tours take place near or in the downtown of cities and communities. With parking being expensive or hard to find patrons might be encouraged to take a bus to the tour thus also reducing their carbon footprint.

Recently, when walking around my hometown of Ottawa, I was surprised by all of the different monuments along the way. Many of these monuments I had never seen, partially because I have perhaps not explored my own city as much as I should have. Another reason why I had not seen these sites has to do with accessibility. I have driven around these areas countless times but only had time to observe and interact with the spaces when I was walking.

Beyond walking tours, the trip we took to the Oil Museum of Canada also had me thinking about environmentalism. I was shocked to find that the oil spring that the museum sits on is home to many hiking trails. The trails act as a way of preserving the natural ecosystem, which includes lots of different species. In a seemingly unlikely place we still see an impressive example of preservation. I think this speaks to the potential that heritage spaces have, as agents of eco-friendly efforts.

These are just a few examples of how environmentalism can be linked to Public History. I think a few of these present difficulties for accessibility, whether that is based on the price of a walking tour or mobility issues. There are also definitely many other applications beyond just what institutions and companies are capable of but this is what has been on my mind over the past little while.

In honour of all things green, another tune:

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