What are the success factors for public historians?

On the NCPH’s new public history commons, History@Work, Darlene Roth posted a blog about identifying what success looks like for public history, a debate as interesting in a US context, where educational and career pathways are well-established, as it is for a UK field still seeking to define its parameters and priorities.  In a thought-provoking two-part post*, Dr Roth goes on to lay out 7 areas, or scenarios, where public history is distinctive from its academic counterpart.  I’d be interested to hear from public historians in the UK (and indeed in other countries) whether they recognise descriptions or whether the points of departure are to be found elsewhere.

Reading the post, the introductory comments seemed to me as illuminating as the scenarios themselves.  She starts:

Each paragraph below presents a common public history work scenario that differs – a little or a lot – from traditional academy-based work.  I am looking for comments, suggestions, alternative ideas, and specific examples of what is described.   This was written as a centerpiece for a work session planned for the 2012 annual meeting, but is a topic that deserves widest possible exposure.  It is being cross-posted on the H-Public listserv and I invite comments either here on the blog or on the list.

These remarks serve not only as a preamble.  For me, they also encapsulate the character and spirit of public history, which is (as she goes on to point out) often a group effort, with historians working alongside, for and in close collaboration with many others.  As a result, maybe discussions such as this happen more frequently among public historians than within the ‘mainstream’ academy?  When they do, do they draw in more participants in more animated exchanges?  Can this same vibrancy of debate be created in the UK, where public history is still (mostly) approached tentatively and seems to preoccupy itself with heritage rather than testing its own boundaries (for example, into what Dr Roth refers to as ‘public service’)?

Of the seven areas she describes, perhaps the most intellectually interesting from my perspective was concerned with process:

Process is as important to public history as findings are. Usually public historians are working in areas that are in some way unprecedented.  Often enough, public historians are tracking historical records and creating new chronicles of activity for purposes of documentation or correcting the existing record.  More often, though, they are looking at things that have not yet been “storied;” they are dealing with objects, events, places, and persons, that are only now being considered “historic,” or they are being asked to evaluate the historicity of something that might seem anomalous (to others).  What the historian does in these instances, as well as how they do their work, and how the historian conceives the thing to be, are every bit as important as what they find.  In fact, these are instrumental to the findings.  It is therefore essential in public history to share procedural matters as much as it is to share findings.  Yet these are often classified as secondary tools of the practice and therefore do not feed into the traditional success model as much as they almost have to in public history formats.  Articles in The Public Historian, for example, have made it clear over the years, that HOW work is done in public history is as important to know as WHAT work is done…

In this respect, public historians have an obligation to their field, to their peers (both in public and in ‘academic’ history) and to their collaborators and audiences, to be transparent about the processes of their work.  Such clarity helps to define and advance practice and method.  My research is looking at another dimension to the importance of process, so I’ll be interested to see responses to Dr Roth’s comments.  Would a shift in focus from the provision of historical ‘content’ or insight to the inclusion of the process of historical thinking be a more effective way of bringing historical perspective to activities such as policy development and strategy-making?

*At the time of writing, the second part had not been published on the blog, but only sent by email.

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