Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area has as its main goal the preservation of Ohio’s Appalachian region and the cultural, environmental, recreational and economic assets that have shaped the lives of the people who lived here and driven the progress of our nation. Preservation may make one think of museums and historic sites meticulously maintained by experts, but when a region has more undeveloped natural assets than they have the structure to present those assets in a traditional way, it’s time to think of a new plan.

We are employing a new type of history, though it doesn’t do away with tried and true methods of historic preservation. Instead, it expands on those methods, combining, museum studies, oral history, archival science and other historical preservation practices to shape the way we tell our history so that it engages people more fully in the stories and lesson of the past. Professionals in public history describe public history as “putting history to work” to talk about current issues, or to bring long-lost people and stories alive for people today to understand and interact with.

Interpretation is a popular method for engaging people in learning in U.S. National Parks. Though technology can make interpretive education easier, there are other, more creative analog methods used by many interpreters. Photo credit: NPS

Public History also employs a very important engine that is also essential to fueling everything Ohio’s Hill Country does: our communities. Public history puts the work of interpreting the history of Southeast Ohio’s small towns in the hands of the people who live there.

Interpreting Our Past and Present

OHCHA and its new branding initiative, The Winding Road, which focuses on the central counties of the region, are piloting a new method of story-telling that has applications all around Ohio’s Appalachian region to celebrate the history, environment and culture of this area.

living history reenacter
Many Interpretive Guides create “living history” characters, dressing up as historical figures to literally bring them to life to tell people today about their time. Photo credit: NPS

The National Association for Interpretation offers training programs for individuals with no training or prior experiences to become historians of their own back yards. The NAI was established in 2000, and as interpretation has gotten off the ground in parks, aquariums, nature preserves, museums and trails across the nation, the field has grown, exponentially, continuing to expand the definition of itself. Much of their growth came around the core idea of “interpreting” heritage. They define interpretation as a method of communication that forges strong emotional or memorable connections between what people understand easily, and subjects which can be harder to grasp and remember, like stories from years ago, or the diversity of an ecosystem.

The History of Public History

Public history is a relatively new idea, beginning in the 1970s, when the academic field of history was overflowing with graduates, students and new applicants. The swell of historians meant that academic jobs were in high demand and many people in the field began to apply their historical knowledge to areas outside academia, working for non-profits, businesses or government organizations. Many were soon convinced that “public history,” had an incredible capacity to bring history to the public. Today the National Council on Public History awards the Robert Kelley Memorial Award to recognize and honor outstanding efforts to bring history to people outside academia and make it more interesting and relevant to all people’s lives. Academic programs focusing on public history have been installed at educational institutions across the country and the world.

Public history’s popularity rose, besides being cause by a shortage of academic historian jobs, out of a strong and persistent desire from many historians to use history to bring about social change, political activism, and economic improvement. For that reason historians continue to give their time to community nonprofits and government organizations. Experts have pointed out the impact of public history revivals in some of America’s more economically depressed, but historically rich areas. Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area, undoubtedly contains some of the most fascinating stories in Ohio’s history.


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