Last year, Arnita Jones and I met at possibly the finest scone cafe in the world (or at least Canada) to discuss the first public history roundtable to be held at an International Congress of the Historical Sciences. The organisers’ preferred title was, unsurprisingly, ‘What is public history?’. By changing a couple of letters, we arrived at a question we hope will be productive, and perhaps a little provocative: ‘why is public history?‘ (it has since been ‘corrected’ on the programme, but the plan remains the same).
We want to be able to consider the role of context: what are the influences that have shaped public history fields in different places? We also want to put comparison in the foreground. There will, inevitably, be many different perspectives that emerge, but we imagine we will identify far more things in common – and we hope, these affinities can help start new, international conversations about public history.
We want to hear from historians/public historians all over the world as we prepare our discussion paper, so the comments we make represent the perspectives of those working in different contexts, rather than just reflecting our views looking in. Please help if you can!
In what forms has ‘public history’ emerged in your country, and what’s the story?
Why do you think it has taken those forms?
What are the major issues for public history where you are, now and in the coming years?
Please add your comments to this post. A few bullets, a paragraph, or even just a couple of links or references would be great (and we’ll acknowledge all contributors). It would be great to have these comments publicly available, but please contact either of us directly if you prefer not to.
NB We’re understanding public history in the broadest possible terms. Former World History Association president, Alfred J. Andrea’s definition is our starting point: the application of ‘historical skills and perspectives in the services of a largely non-academic clientele,’ and of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’. His range of examples of public history take in public policy analysis, the understanding of cultural heritage, and helping a corporation ‘plan its future through an understanding of its past’.
Andrea, ‘On public history’, Historian 53 (1991) p. 381.
Our new colleague at Hertfordshire, Adam Crymble, has recently written an ‘essay on the backlash against the digital humanities movement’ – a reflection on ‘living in the age of digital hubris’ over the past decade. Crymble calls for a dose of ‘digital humility’ from his fellow ‘DHers'; digital history has been well-funded at a time when research budgets are being slashed elsewhere – so perhaps the recent backlash is the result of ‘an establishment that’s decided those DH people get enough already.’
Public history hasn’t been on the receiving end of million-pound projects (although streams such as Connected Communities are starting to shape work in the field) but Crymble’s comments about the tensions between new fields and the academic establishment resonate. Public historians, particularly those who have come ‘alternative’ routes into academe, might well emphathise with his experience:
DH is inherently interdisciplinary. My “core” discipline is history… But if I had to convince a group of anonymous historians that my work was worthy, I seemed destined for the “no” pile.
Times are tough. I can accept that there are other great candidates out there who may have been better for the job, or more worthy of the scholarship. But it’s not just me. Most of my colleagues in Britain were self-funded during their Ph.D.s, or supported their studies as part-time developers and project managers. I know of none with the golden-ticket scholarships that have long been a measure of the top students in the humanities.
There’s definitely some common cause to be made between public and digital historians in building bridges with other domains of academic history. But a bit of humility on all sides is probably needed, as part of seeking greater integration of the discipline, something Justin Champion and I wrote about in unashamedly advocatory terms. As Crymble says, we’re all on the same team…
Two years ago I published the post below about the new Radio Four series, The Public Philosopher (tagline: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel examines the thinking behind a current controversy’). In a way, I was pointing to a gap: a history gap. As the crisis continues in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine – and claims, counter-claims and denunciations based on the past abound – the need for a forum for ‘questioning the [historical] thinking’ seems even more pressing. Radio 4 has a good, and varied, offering in terms of history programming. But there isn’t really a forum in which a wide audience can debate the ways in which the past is put to use in the present, and on issues that would certainly qualify as ‘current controversies': welfare, immigration, education, health, foreign policy, the economy.
This week, The Public Philosopher tackled ‘national guilt’:
Imagine a country guilty of past crimes. What obligations do its current citizens have to make amends? In this edition of The Public Philosopher, Michael Sandel poses that question to an audience in Japan. The discussion involves students from Japan and from China and South Korea – countries which were victims of Japanese aggression during the Second World War
It makes for interesting listening, and I’ll definitely add it to the teaching resources for next year, when my International Perspectives in Public History students will look at topics such as school textbooks, citizenship and identity, apologies and restitution, and commemoration, all in comparative context. But at the same time, it made me aware of that yawning ‘history gap’ (or should it be ‘public history gap’?). It’s great that a political philosopher is taking on the important and ever-relevant theme of guilt and apology – but shouldn’t historians be involved in, or initiating, such debates? Which comes back to the question we always ask our public history students: what are the responsibilities of the ‘historian in public?’
The Public Philosopher starts on Radio 4 tomorrow, the tagline being: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel questions the thinking underlying a current controversy’. Change ‘thinking’ for ‘history’ – or even just add ‘historical’ – and you have the pitch for The Public Historian. But would it ever happen?
Radio 4 listeners clearly like their history and historical perspectives, explicit and implicit, are to be found everywhere (for example, the amazing interview with Konstanty Gebert in One to One on the underground press in Poland, in which he discussed comparisons with journalists in Arab spring countries, or Chris Stringer’s highly engaging recollections on The Life Scientific). So audience interest probably wouldn’t be an issue. But what about the academic side of things? Would historians be keen to take on the mantle of The Public Historian, even if the intention was no more radical than to ‘look for the past behind the present’ (the tagline of The Long View)? Or is the term ‘public history’ too contested, too misunderstood, too elusive or even too restrictive in this country?
John Lewis’ 150th anniversary is in full swing. Products with designs inspired by and recovered from the amazing archives now held at the Heritage Centre in Odney are everywhere. I was lucky enough to take a look at some of the original patterns and their contemporary versions a few months back so it was actually pretty exciting to see the products themselves on the shop floor in Welwyn yesterday. Whatever the hesitancies we have as historians about the term ‘heritage’ and how it can be appropriated, manufactured and consumed, we should be also be able to recognise when it’s a source of energy and creativity. OK, so I bought the daisy-chain duvet cover…
Anniversaries are often the prompt for reflection and public history depends on them. But how often do businesses and organisations make use of their own history? John Lewis is probably unusual in the extent of the company’s investment in the preservation and active use of its archives. Not only the design of products but the architecture of stores has drawn on archived material (including the Heritage Centre itself).
‘Heritage for business’ was the theme of an event the University of Hertfordshire’s Heritage Hub held last year, at which John Lewis’ Heritage Services Manager, Judy Faraday (a Hub Fellow and a woman much in demand at the moment) explained how and why history mattered to the Partnership. At that event was Agostino Luggeri, the MD of Mulmar, a Hertfordshire Anglo-Italian coffee machine company coming up for its 25th anniversary.
The following film is the product of the resulting collaboration between the Heritage Hub, Mulmar and the production company Magic Beans Media. It ‘premiered’ at the London Coffee Festival, a major event in the industry’s calendar, which attracted 22,000 visitors:
What I hope the video shows is the contribution that a university can make. It is a promotional video, but it’s different from standard marketing products. The relationship with Mulmar had started with a research project, The Cappuccino Conquests, which traced the global history of Italian-style coffee. Professor Jonathan Morris interviewed the business’ founders, which showed how the history of Mulmar was interwoven with as well as emblematic of the story of the UK coffee revolution.
Putting together the video also involved a history MA student and Hub research assistant, Helen Tyler, working through the Mulmar archive and scanning and cataloguing relevant images. A 2nd-year Graphic Design student, Olawale Osunla, won a competition set up to create a new company logo celebrating the anniversary (it appears at the end of the video).
Projects like this can bring the sought-after ‘win-win’ for the company, academics and students and we’re aiming to trace its impact over the following months. John Lewis is leading the way in showing businesses the power of the anniversary, but maybe Mulmar will prove that the local company can do it too.
thanks to jon morris
An interesting discussion starting on Public History Weekly on the (unmet?) promises of the web as the end of hierarchies of knowledge and the power of the digital dissemination – and impact – of research.
It’s relatively easy to point to the digital world as a democratising environment – but, in the case of academic research, do new media really disrupt how knowledge is made and interpreted? Or do they just offer new platforms for broadcasting the products of research, where the process is still held tightly within the confines of the universities and research institutes? Here are the comments I added:
What are the implications of working in an environment in which the new media play a powerful role (however we conceive of how they relate to, coexist with or complement ‘analogue’ scholarship) for the process of scholarship itself? Crowd-sourcing of data and pattern-identification isn’t that new in the sciences, and in the humanities, projects such as Trove in Australia are drawing in thousands of users to correct texts, tag items, upload content and contribute to the interpretation of material.
Nonetheless, old hierarchies, as Valentin Groebner notes – the book, the journal article – persist. Crowd-sourcing doesn’t change where the ‘real business’ of scholarship happens; it out-sources some of the graft involved to volunteer research assistants in cyberspace. Crowd-sourcing is valuable; it undoubtedly has an impact on research and on the circulation of knowledge. But does it fundamentally transform the process of knowledge creation? Mills Kelly is undertaking some impressive, and impressively radical, work with his students that is enabling them to move into the space of making and re-making history. Can we extend this from the classroom and into our core work, and identity, as historians – without that implying a compromise in intellectual rigour?
Public history talks the language of co-production of knowledge (and co-curation in museums is an emerging concept) and, in certain forms, the involvement of people as the subjects and audiences of historican enquiry is taken seriously. I think we can be more ambitious, however. There are some excellent public history platforms out there; the Old Bailey Online is a pioneering example, and even relatively simple platforms such as WordPress and HistoryPin are allowing students, community groups, heritage organisations and many others to contribute to historical knowledge. But what is the next stage? How can the scholarly conversation be opened up – as opposed to just scholarly knowledge? How can both ‘new’ and ‘old’ media, and the blurring of the boundaries between them, help create a much broader community of enquiry, not just a wider audience?
But we also need to think about how this might happen. ‘Follow the money’ is one of the tips we give to our public history students. The trend in recent UK funding policy is to restrict access to research money to fewer and fewer universities – the principle of ‘excellence wherever it’s found’ doesn’t always translate into practice – and those universities are often the least attuned to external engagement, at least outside the big corporates (let alone small community groups). Some funding is now flowing for forms of public engagement in the humanities, but could that end up creating a divide between ‘real research’ and the ‘soft stuff’ of collaboration with community groups and other users and audiences? Any such divide would allow for a ready ‘reprioritisation’ of funding in the event of further reductions in the overall research budget.
So while there might be as yet unrealised potential for using social media to break down some of the divides in terms of ‘making’ knowledge, whether that happens depends in part on whether we value – and fund – the academic work that takes collaboration seriously.
A moving travelog from Johnny Diamond on BBC Radio 4 – Broadcasting House, 29/12/2013 explored the dwindling but active Jewish communities of the Mississippi Delta. Once numbering in the hundreds, their numbers declined as children, having served in the war, stayed away. New lives were built in the cities, the younger generation often joined by their parents.
Only 9 Jews are now left in Greenwood, the remaining members afraid ‘not to gather': the community ceasing to exist feels a real and immediate possibility. In Vicksburg, Stan Klein talks of his concern about the on-going care of the cemetery: ‘we’re planning for the future of our congregation, when we can no longer physically be here to do it ourselves. We’re nearing the end and we know it’.
The roving rabbi serving these communities sees his role as ‘to help them navigate what will be very difficult realities in a way that honours that history and ensures their continued legacy’. In essence, he’s helping them manage their decline. But might there also in such efforts be a role for the public historian, capturing oral histories, gathering and cataloguing important items such as photographs and diaries, documenting the history of spaces such as the cemetery and synagogue to inform future preservation and respond to future interest?
If so, how do historians find and build the kind of connections to make this happen? Not that such endeavours are unproblematic. They raise many issues, such as authority over and ownership of the past, the tension between the interests and agendas of community members and historians, what is done with the ‘products’ of the collaboration. These are, however, all issues with which public history is fundamentally concerned and public history projects are tackling them on a routine basis. We also need to think about how we train our students, not just with the skills required but perhaps also with a certain activist mindset to want to take on the challenges involved?
Anyway, I commend the programme to you (it starts at 23′) and would be interested to hear people’s views on it, and on the issues it raises for public history.
One of my teammates in the university football team had a wooden sign on her door: ‘Mathematics Department’. She was training as a teacher after her maths degree and had been given the sign after a school clearout. It was of the era of flip-top desks with inkwells and a fine thing in its own right. But it also captured my imagination – I’ve always hankered after a history one since then. I guess we all love a label. We like to badge ourselves, thereby both defining for ourselves and declaring to others aspects of our identity we deem important – which club we support, which political party or band we prefer… The idea of taking sides in the antagonisms of celebrity life is one of the more recent examples – Marina Hyde recently gave a sharp critique of the inclination to ‘self-herd’ in this way after David Cameron professed his allegiance to ‘Team Nigella‘.
Badges can also have a more sinister side, of course. They can be applied to people to define them as different – inferior, suspect, a legitimate target. The patches, hats and other distinguishing items and marks that Jews were required by law to wear at times in medieval European states predated the Nazi yellow star by centuries. In the concentration camps of the Third Reich, extensive systems of insignia defined inmates by their initial ‘crimes’, such as political prisoners, homosexuals and asocials, and also by aggravating factors: a ‘repeat offender’, a flight risk, Jewishness…
Badges can also turn others’ discriminatory labelling into statements of defiance. The ‘March on Washington’ button badges on sale in the bookstore near the Martin Luther King, Jnr memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC don’t just serve as marks of homage or respect. They also make a statement about the present day and the as yet incomplete fulfilment of equality of opportunity. Such badges are also a kind of visual shorthand for a collection of political ideas (not necessarily clearly defined or coherently assembled, or even historically consistent) and invite the viewer to associate the wearer with them (badges on sale at public history sites would make for a very interesting research project – maybe it’s already been done). We can ‘badge’ ourselves in many different ways too; when Barack Obama took his second oath of office on bibles used by King and by Abraham Lincoln, those books played a similar symbolic role.
As an aside, an excellent session at the American Historical Association conference explored significant shifts in the design process of the MLK memorial, including the omission of King’s own strident references to race from one of the quotations etched into the inscription wall that encloses the statue of King as the ‘rock of hope’. A pen was to be in King’s hand as he looked across the water to the Jefferson memorial, pointing to the ‘promissory note’ that the architects of the republic had written ‘to which every American was to fall heir’: a note on which America had defaulted insofar as her citizens of color are concerned’. A rolled-up scroll is all that survived of this plan.
A badge to show a certain defiance, as well as pride, is evident in the display of service flags in American windows to show sons on active military duty. They emerged in the First World War and were then widely adopted and subject to standardisation and codification – although a blue star for each son (or, now, daughter) in service and a gold star for those who had died have emerged as common practice. The flags have become symbols around which communities can build: Blue Star Mothers and American Gold Star Mothers interestingly accord a special status to the grief and the subsequent activism of mothers (and a proposed monument will give that status material form).
The badges that announce our disciplinary affiliations are, of course, of a different order. The specialisation that many disciplines underwent in the second half of the twentieth century proliferated sub-fields, and new ones continue to emerge. We can now be rather specific about our academic identities, should we so wish. The question is why we would wish to do so – why do we like to label ourselves – and others – within academe? A certain anxiety could be one reason. The outgoing AHA President, Kenneth Pomeranz, noted in his recent annual conference lecture, that historians didn’t come to be unified by methodology, as did certain social sciences. Many historians’ skills are to be found in other fields, albeit not in history’s distinctive combination nor field of application. Does that mean that we feel the need for badges more than others? If so, does it matter?
I don’t know the answer to either question. I guess badges are fine if we use them mindfully. We need to be aware of how they help – in helping to create a community of enquiry, for example – as well as how they might hinder us. This concern seems particularly relevant for public history, which can all too easily become the place ‘over there’ where stuff can be placed so it doesn’t interfere with core business: community engagement, student employability, research impact and questions of ‘relevance’. We need to ask what the price we may pay for public history being identified as a specialism. The case for a more integrative agenda with ‘academic’ history is, it seems to me, a persuasive one. I wonder what such a badge for history would look like?
This post was written during a visit to the US.
After Hannah Smith killed herself after experiencing some truly vicious trolling on askfm, the issue of cyberbullying – and how to keep children safe online – has been the subject of political and media attention. The detachment of the internet environment seems to give some people a kind of licence to be abusive. But even those not setting out to bully can struggle to connect how they felt when on the receiving end of abuse and how people they themselves were posting about might feel. One teenage boy, Kade, spoke of the ‘really hateful stuff’ on askfm about his brother, who’d died when Kade was eight – but he said he liked to make people laugh, posting sarcastic comments on the site. The ability to empathise with people only known by avatars and usernames seems to be a real issue for the cyber age.
That distance makes empathy more difficult is nothing new (we just have new ways of being distant from people, including those immediately around us). It’s also relevant when it comes to the past. How can we understand how it felt to experience a particular event or live through a particular period, particularly those outside living memory?
One criticism of public history is that it deals more in empathy and emotion than in evidence – encouraging us to feel rather than think – and is thereby liable to distortions and misrepresentations. Certainly there is an emotive dimension to much public history, shaped by a desire to connect: with family, with a place, with a community’s past. Such a desire seems fundamentally human, and not suspect in and of itself. Recognition, celebration, commemoration might motivate people to make connections with the past, but the public historian can play an important role as a critical friend, offering constructive challenges as well as affirmations.
When public history enters the terrain of popular history, however, is there a risk that the need to entertain can mean suffering is smoothed over? We’ve been enjoying (endless re-runs of) the Horrible Histories songs in our house, current favourites of our three-year-old daughter being the Joan of Arc and Boudicca songs. She merrily dances around the kitchen singing about being burned alive or slaughtered and dismembered, and particularly enjoys songs in which her dad can act out a grisly end.
There’s nothing wrong here – we all know more about Joan of Arc than we did before – but it did get us thinking about empathy. Joan is burned, singing, at the stake, but tells us it’s all alright in the end: ‘my death led France to put on war paint, and crush the English, so now I’m a saint’ – cue wink. The take-off of modern music is really funny for adults (the Take That RAF song is pure gold for my generation), and children enjoy the quirky characters and the gore. The gore (and the poo) is there to entertain – it is horrible histories after all – but no-one’s takes comedy gunk seriously.
We probably need some degree of empathy to be good historians, as well as decent human beings. (Disciplined) imagination is part of the historian’s craft. We can’t treat our subjects’ experiences with the hindsight they lacked, ‘smoothing’ out their suffering within the account, even if our interpretations suggest it was ‘alright in the end’ (‘alright’, of course, from someone else’s perspective). As public historians of various kinds, how can we help people to empathise with people in the past, while still offering that vital critical voice? And can that empathetic connection with people in the past help us negotiate our human relationships in the cyber age?
The focal point of the National Archives Experience – and the reason (most) people stood in long lines to be there in the first place – is the rotunda in which the three ‘Charters of Freedom’ are displayed: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. You start with a film. Such films (the one at the Capitol is similar) serve as orientation. They frame the expectations for how visitors will/should engage with the exhibitions that follow.
The need to extoll the virtues of national pride and those of record preservation made for an uneasy mix in the National Archives. The film led with the former. So we get the pitch about being defined as a people by a shared history, smoothing over divisions still being played out today.
Just when the claims being made for history were becoming a little too much to take (no historians were interviewed/harmed in the making of this commercial…), the film switches tone. We then get brief insights into the potential roles for records in public life: holding political representatives to account, for example being one that seems to reflect the distinctive characteristics of the US system.
These roles are explored further in the (queue-free) permanent exhibit of the Public Vaults. The exhibit is structured into themes using from words in the Preamble to the Constitution:
- We the People – records of family and citizenship
- To Form a More Perfect Union – records of liberty and law
- Provide for the Common Defense – records of war and diplomacy
- Promote the General Welfare – records of frontiers and firsts
- To Ourselves and Our Posterity – keeping records for future
In a sense, this approach invites us to extend our thinking. So, rather than venerate a document in and of itself, we are asked to consider its ‘life': the meanings, implications and applications of its constituent ideas, and how these may change over time. As Jill Lepore has pointed out in her book on the Tea Party, this ‘life in history’ is particularly problematic in the US:
‘…because of the nature of the Constitution, the founding bears a particular burden: it is a story about what binds Americans together – We the people, do ordain – but it also serves as the final source of political authority, the ultimate arbiter of every argument, the last court of appeal. No history can easily or always bear that weight.’ (p. 47)
So the Archives exhibit seems to me to be attempting something rather important. It’s making the connection between foundational documents – which readily capture the imagination and attention, and can easily be taken ‘out of time’ to serve (divergent) ideological purposes – with their historical ‘lives’, and both with the roles of history in public more broadly.
Having said all that, I did find myself being drawn in by the pitch for a historically-rooted national identity. My American ‘half’ is a growing interest after many years of relative indifference. And I can feel how compelling the narratives of foundation and national identity are. It’s rather too easy just to dismiss the latter, to point out the abuses and elisions of history as if no further argument were necessary. But that would surely be just as ahistorical as seeing the Charters of Freedom as timeless, definitive authorities.
Perhaps we need to think seriously about why ideas of nationhood and national identity remain resonant in a time when national borders seem less stable or relevant. Perhaps there is a role for stories and myth-making, and for these to be accommodated alongside, and in dialogue with, more critical and sceptical approaches to the past. Perhaps national archives are the institutions at which this, highly challenging, historical task can begin.