My first experience of an NCPH conference, held in Ottawa last week, was excellent. Being surrounded for the first time by over a hundred public historians of very different types was energising, and plenty of ideas and potential collaborations are taking shape as a result. There’s nothing like being somewhere in person to get things going.
There was one thing that really struck me. I’d always thought of public history in the USA as a big field. I guess I’d just made assumptions based on the 150+ programmes on offer and the energy of the discussions online and in print. It was only going to the conference, and, in particular, the educators’ breakfast, that made me realise how atomised the field actually is in many respects. The single academic with sole responsibility for directing an institution’s programme is common: an additional colleague if recruitment is good. The public historian seems often to occupy a demarcated space on the edge of the history department, responsible for ‘saving’ it through strong graduate employment outcomes, but at the same time not entirely integrated into the culture. Maybe the worst place for a public history programme is in a history department, came one wry comment. It was clear that the laughs that followed were in recognition of this sense of disjuncture between ‘public’ and ‘academic’ history in universities.
Europe is a very different from the US, as international panels I was involved with clearly exposed. Nonetheless, I think we would do well, as fields of public history emerges in our various national contexts, to think about the US as a kind of case study. There is undoubtedly much we can learn from their decades of development and innovation. But I would like to see us address the question of integration explicitly and from the outset.
I can see why professionalisation of public history led to efforts to delineate its differences from the academic discipline. But I don’t think we do public history as field finding its identity and purpose, or ‘mainstream’ history (or indeed our students, institutions or external partners) any favours by partitioning it off. It shouldn’t just be the bolt-on – the public engagement phase formulated once the research project is complete, or the member of staff kept on the periphery of the ‘real business’ of the department.
Public history can be a vibrant and integral part of scholarship and teaching, and it can also be a topic for critical, historiographical and comparative study. There is real potential for a forum like NCPH, or the new International Federation for Public History (or indeed, much smaller-scale settings such as the IHR Public History Seminar) to be places where we can learn from and with each other through serious, substantive discussion. Concepts need to come under the same level of scrutiny as practices. A key question, it seems to me, is how to balance the need for a locus for professional identity with the need for a more integrated historical community of enquiry.