Together with former AHA Executive Director, Arnita Jones, I’m convening a roundtable on public history at the 2015 Congress in Jinan, China. Initially we were asked to tackle the topic of ‘what is public history?’ in recognition of the fact that many delegates would not be familiar with the field, or at least have very different understandings of its identity and concerns.
In writing the call for papers, I pushed back a little. Or, rather, I tried to use these factors as a productive point of departure. That some, or even many, historians don’t have a firm grasp of the field of public history should provide the basis for an important discussion about the orientation of the discipline towards questions of public purpose and engagement. What are the roles of history in public? If we need a field dedicated to fulfilling such roles, how might it relate to what we understand as our ‘core business’?
That opinions differ about what public history is – and is for – can likewise be seen as an opportunity, rather than as an issue to be resolved. Such differences point to fundamental questions about politics and the politics of identity, as well as about the history of the historical discipline in different contexts. They cannot be smoothed or subsumed in a definition, and nor should they be. So asking why public history is as it is in those different contexts should draw out some important themes and allow us to be critical in our approach. A comparative mode of thinking is valuable in these efforts.
That is not to say that the only thing we may have in common is our differences. Quite the opposite. We suspect that the discussions will expose much common ground and, indeed, the extent to which as historians we are preoccupied with similar concerns and think in similar ways.
Here’s how we frame our call:
One of the major difficulties in exploring and explaining public history—and the role of public historians—is the on-going issue of definition. Definitions are shaped by context, and can display significant differences and tensions, both within national disciplinary communities and between them.
Writing in 1991, former World History Association president, Alfred J. Andrea, offered a breadth of scope in his definition that offers, at least, a point of departure. He sees public history as 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’.1
Yet it is easy to become overly pre-occupied with definition. The inevitable difficulties involved – and the reality that any outcome will be contested – can prevent further enquiry. We can ask what public historians do, and present the diversity of activities as a proxy for definition, but there is a need to be more intellectually ambitious. The paper that this roundtable will discuss will propose a different way to proceed. One powerful way to explore what public history is is to ask ‘why is public history as it is?’. This approach allows us to consider those important questions of context, to draw out the influences that have shaped public history fields in different contexts and to make comparisons that point to further development and dialogue.
This roundtable will therefore have a comparative dynamic. Taking a global perspective will undoubtedly reveal many differences in terms of public history’s concerns, priorities and self-conceptions. But we imagine we will identify far more things in common. The search of affinities – as the basis by which international conversations about public history can begin – is one of our central aims.
We do not anticipate or prescribe the topics or questions respondents will want to focus on. Rather, we suggest here a number of purposes to which history can be put in public as a way to start the thinking process.
The purpose of a distinctive form of knowledge will affect how people should be prepared for practice. What are the requirements of a public history education and how might those be captured in qualifications? The term ‘public’ conceals a whole array of constituencies with different, sometimes conflicting, perspectives and interests. What might determine their relative prominence and how might we understand and mediate between groups? The legitimacy of collaboration with certain groups, for example policymakers or marginalized constituencies such as offenders, is an area for consideration. For every purpose, a set of responsibilities is entailed: how can public historians respond to and manage these obligations?
We welcome proposals and hope that responses cover a wide range of issues and come from many different countries. We are aiming for a roundtable with a high level of engagement and discussion between speakers and with the audience.
To finish with the details: paper proposals should be a maximum of 2500 characters, or 350 words, and should be sent with a short biographical note to us as the organisers and to the Secretary General Robert Frank (see call for papers for email addresses) by the 30th November 2013. Please do pass the link on in your networks!