If ever we need historians, it’s now.
Niall Ferguson has recently urged the President to convene a Council of Historians for the ‘United States of Amnesia’. It seems unlikely that Trump would be interested in understanding the past – ever the assertive businessman, he insisted on Twitter he calls his own shots – or that any historical perspective would survive the ‘alternative facts’ treatment.
Historians may find the current political climate frankly pretty scary. In November, three judges ruled that the British Prime Minister needed Parliament’s support to begin the process of leaving the EU – and were duly accused of being ‘enemies of the people’ on the Daily Mail front page. The historical alarm bells were deafening.
On the other hand, the ignorance of and hostility to history around at the moment can be a galvanising force. The social historian George Gosling (@gcgosling) posted the photo below of a protest placard in Birmingham. As someone interested in the potential of public history as activism, this was an encouraging moment in the midst of widely felt distress and anger.
So, for me, finding the ‘public’ in public history is no longer just intellectually interesting but politically pressing. What I mean is that public history can’t just be popular history. It has to also be about giving people – the public – historical resources to think with. History with public purpose if you like.
The idea that history was key to sound political judgement – that history and politics belong to one another – is as old as the discipline itself. But historians in the UK have only really been engaging seriously with policymakers in the last ten years or so, led by the efforts of History and Policy. Public history, however, has never really claimed this territory as its own, wary perhaps of ceding the more politically conducive ground of history-from-below informed collaborative projects with local institutions and community heritage groups.
We don’t have the luxury of that choice any more. My latest post for the international blog-journal Public History Weekly makes the case:
In a world in which the “voice of the people” is being celebrated by populist politicians in defence of often xenophobic nativist agendas, we need to revisit what the “public” in “public history” means. While popular engagement with the past may always provide orientation for the field, a truly public history must also be concerned with the political present. If we don’t give people access to intellectual resources of our discipline, we cannot then lament the use and abuse of history in public debate. Let’s unpick our terms.