Public history and public policy: A view from across the pond

A re-blog of my recent post on the National Council on Public History’s Public History Commons, History@Work (comments welcome – please add to the original):

Looking from across the pond, the maturity and scale of public history as a discipline and a sector in the US is a striking phenomenon.  The narrative is well-established: the crisis in the academic job market; the emergence of new contexts for historical employment, in preservation, education and regeneration; the entrepreneurship of universities in structuring the supply of skilled professionals through new programmes emphasising workplace skills and experience.

The story is of course rather longer and more complex, nuanced and interesting than this, as I discovered during my comparative research on public history in different national settings.  In the UK, the contrast could not be more marked. The academic discipline here has also experienced periods of contraction and pressure.  But we have not seen the ‘push’ factor from higher education in terms of imagining (and foregrounding) the many pathways a historical education could lead to (and hence also what historical education could mean).  Nor is there much evidence of the ‘pull’ factor from employment markets such as government or business for historically-oriented roles.

The absence of such drivers for development and innovation is, I think, one element of the explanation for why public history in the UK remains rather tentative, even marginal, gaining some traction only in a few universities and remaining preoccupied with a narrower agenda than the American field.  Apart from a small number of pioneering MA courses, public history tends to be represented only by a single module in a ‘mainstream’ history programme.

One of the connections we have largely missed in the UK – to our detriment – is that between history and policy.  And here the US example is illuminating.   There have been some attempts to inform policy making–most notably the History and Policy network, which has done vital work in putting the cause of better public policy on the historian’s radar and raising the profile of the study of the past with politicians and the media.  These efforts have not, however, been located within a broader public history field.  One consequence of this, it seems to me, is that such efforts draw on the methodological models of academic history rather than seeking to create user-oriented and collaborative alternatives.

The importance of such alternatives is persuasively put by Duncan Macrae, Jnr and Dale Wittington in their 1997 work on expert advice for policy choice.  As few policy problems can be addressed by one expert community alone, cooperation and division of labour across disciplinary boundaries is needed to equip the decision-maker with the best possible advice. Communication must run, they argue, not only between experts but also between experts and users – and in both directions.  Macrae and Whittington draw attention to the benefits of having instruction in public policy analysis built into training in the basic disciplines, so that graduates are able to translate their specialism into salient policy advice (whatever the context they may work in).  History is only given a passing reference, but the work has much to offer the wandering public historian with an interest in policy.

I hope that as the academic history community in the UK develops its undergraduate and graduate programmes in public history, we will be open to such possibilities.  There is much we can learn from the US in this regard.  We should also take note of how early in the development of the professional discipline a sense of the importance of historians’ contribution to democratic institutions and processes emerged (for example, Benjamin Shambaugh’s School of Iowa Research Historians).

I am very much looking forward to hearing Shambaugh’s biographer and former NCPH President, Professor Rebecca Conard, speak at this year’s Higher Education Academy conference on Teaching History in Higher Education.  Public History can and should be so much more than museums and archives, heritage and commemoration, important as those dimensions are.  It is, in Alfred J. Andrea’s words, the application of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’.  And that is a definition worth aspiring to.

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