One of the strengths of the Public History Weekly blogjournal is that it provides an international forum for tackling fundamental issues and concepts. Public history publications often focus on the individual case study, bringing out the rich detail of projects and the collaborations involved. There has been until recently less interest in wider conversations about the place, status and identity of public history and the concepts with which we work.
The blogjournal is a promising new platform for academic publishing, one that can provide a ‘live’ space for such conversations to happen. Serious questions can be raised and discussed, perhaps not in real time, but not far off it in academic terms. An animated, ambitious global community of enquiry is just what public history needs right now. Or, rather, a community of enquiry about history’s ‘public purpose’ is just what the broader historical discipline needs.
Which is why I chose to work with the idea of ‘academic citizenship’. ‘Public purpose’ is all too easily cast as separate from or marginal to the core business of historical scholarship. Can we instead think of it as one expression of our citizenship, our belonging in the world of history? Can we view it as one way of practising as a historian, and one that many may experience at some point over the course of a career, rather than the domain of a few, to whom ‘proper’ scholars outsource their obligations?
The territory of ‘academic’ and ‘public’ history is less clearly divided than this picture suggests, but I hope the post serves the blogjournal’s purpose of provoking some productive debate. You can read and comment on the full post here:
Jessica Moody (University of Portsmouth) and I are running a panel at the upcoming Social History Society conference (31/3-2/4) entitled Between public history and heritage: making, sharing and debating the past in a global present.
We’re looking for contributors for a broad conversation about the problematic and blurred boundary between ‘public history’ and ‘heritage’. The panel runs over 90 minutes and the emphasis is on debate; each contributor would have around 10 minutes to talk, with plenty of time for conversation among the panel and with the audience.
We would welcome expressions of interest by 5.00 on Friday 13th February. Please just give us a brief outline (100 words) of what you propose contributing to the conversation about the themes and questions we raise in our abstract (below) and a short biography. Simply email us (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com) or contact us through our blogs. We are particularly looking for contributions which take fields that are often quite locally-focused into a global space.
We look forward to hearing from you!
‘Public history’ and ‘heritage’ are widely used interchangeably and without careful attention to the complex, contested and elusive – if not hidden – conceptual and practical difficulties they present. These terms matter. They affect how professionals in historical fields see themselves, their work, educational programmes – and each other; they therefore merit our serious attention. They also carry differing public understandings, images, symbolism – and power.
Public history is a field with an increasingly global reach. The International Federation for Public History held its first conference in 2014, and the International Congress of the Historical Sciences will host its first public history roundtable in Jinan next year. ‘Heritage’ has in some senses always been both paradoxically more ‘local’ and more ‘global’ in outlook. The provision of international codes of conduct as set out by UNESCO and transnational policy guidance at times sitting awkwardly against the various contested understandings of the term, its practice, policies and limitations, which are mediated by far more regional, national, and local cultural codes, and, indeed, history itself. Further, the academic field of Heritage Studies has developed immensely in the last few decades. It has developed globally, taking on a distinctly ‘critical’ tone in some spheres – the global Association of Critical Heritage Studies, which is now in its second year, holds an international conference every two years, this year in Canberra. Yet a global community of enquiry has yet to emerge to take on the debates about academic and professional identity, to engage with the blurring or elision of the conceptual space between public history and heritage, both academically and professionally.
Partly, this conceptual space is forged within and beside academic disciplines and their own boundaries. Whereas Public History can more easily be assigned lineage to History as a discipline – with roots in the historical method, albeit both inside and outside ‘the academy’, Heritage is academically a far more eclectic. However, in ‘western’ contexts, Heritage’s relationship with archaeology, has traditionally tied its study to materiality, especially in the UK. This is itself a relationship forged within the crucible of the western ‘discourse’ of heritage, which Laurajane Smith (2006) has argued foregrounds ‘heritage’ as largely tangible, old, elite, white and male.
Generally, historians – whether they label themselves as ‘public’ or otherwise – are not looking to the history of these concepts in a way which may help us explore their meaning in the present. Does the coining of ‘public history’ in the US, and its subsequent import by the UK and elsewhere obscure a longer lineage of ‘history in public’ in those countries? If historians have acquired ‘public history’ as a label for their work outside the academy, what claim to or involvement in ‘heritage’ should they have? To what extent are we acknowledging and exploring the historical, political and social ‘baggage’ that accompany these terms? These are issues which the authors, who both mediate the conceptual space public history and heritage in their professional lives, will scrutinize in this panel.
Peter York, writing in the Guardian, recently offered a pithy deconstruction of ‘authenticity’ as a con: a vacuous term that ‘implies truthfulness with no uncomfortable requirement for facts’. I used to encounter a fair amount of ‘policy guff’ in my previous career so calling out the ‘head-bangingly content-free’ character of much PR-type material certainly resonates.
‘Authenticity’ is also an idea that features prominently in public history. York alludes to this when he suggests we ‘just imagine the lives led in those 1720s houses in Spitalfields, so assiduously, so authentically restored. How authentic do you keep it? Do you want back the world of public executions and outside loos?’. Imagined authenticity is highly selective. We choose to edit out the hangings and the lavs of the early eighteenth century when we imagine that past, just like we do the many prejudices and exploitations of the 1950s when we invoke the virtues of a so-called simpler, safer, more decent time.
As Jordanova has pointed out, there is no such thing as an ‘original state’ when it comes to historical houses and the like. ‘Houses evolve,’ she reminds us, ‘there is unlikely to be one single time that they genuinely evoke’ . Does an ‘authentic’ visitor experience demand that a house is fixed in time, a reconstruction of a representative period? Or even a moment? (‘a ripped bodice on the floor or his lordship’s cigar smouldering in an ashtray’ as Steven Bayley, critic and founder of the Design Museum, caricatured the National Trust‘s efforts in the authenticity department).
Yes, but I’m not sure the idea of ‘bringing history to life’ can be so easily dismissed. Drawing in sustainable visitor numbers – and securing positive feedback about the experience – is vital for public history settings, such as museums and historic houses. So what to do?
There clearly aren’t any simple or generic answers (I’ll be seeing what my new students make of this one in the coming semester). But maybe the concept of ‘authenticity’ is a place to start. It doesn’t really mean anything, either as PR guff of the kind York’s polemicising, or as an objective for a piece of public history.
Bayley’s right to alert us to the assumptions about the viewing public that can lie behind attempts to create ‘authentic’ recreations of the past. Visitors may not have an extensive ‘knowledge’ of a particular history, but they can still engage in complex ways with how it’s represented to them. As audiences, we can allow ourselves to be immersed in the experience, while recognising that what we’re seeing is an artifice.
What’s missing for Bayley is the encouragement of scrutiny, and this for me is an important point. How can displays speak to visitors’ ‘knowingness’ about historical representations and recreations? How can they invite viewers to ask questions, not just about the past, but also about the difficulties we have in accessing and understanding the past in the present?
We expect, as historians of all kinds, to have these debates inside own professional communities – maybe we need to involve the many audiences for history to a greater extent. These debates also involve others – journalists, critics, politicians, for example – and they also have a role. Inspecting their assumptions would be a start, including that some simplistic ‘staging’ of the past is all audiences are looking for. It’s all very well being ‘against authenticity’ and the smouldering cigar, but what do you do next?
 Jordanova, History in Practice (2nd edn, 2006), p. 131.
Selling history to policymakers is a challenge, particularly in a political culture that prizes numbers above all else. As historians, we can pitch the relevance of our work in a number of ways: writing policy papers (and blogs), speaking on platforms provided by the media and by political parties, collaborating with think tanks, responding to consultations, among others. The the ‘temptation to assert the importance of one’s discipline to the making of “better” policy’ is hard to resist’ . But however cogently we press our case for relevance, there’s a limit to how effective we can be in influencing policymaking – as long as we’re still ‘pitching’ from the outside.
Historians need to be more than purveyors of the past. We can provide judiciously assembled and intellectually stimulating accounts of policy challenges encountered and addressed (or not) that shed light on the dilemmas of the present. But our reach will be limited unless we can show that history offers not just access to the past but fresh ways of seeing. Thinking historically means inspecting our assumptions about how issues are connected and what options are open to us. It invites us to consider how we frame our questions and approach our responses to them. Doing so means working as an insider.
But we seem unable or unwilling to dislodge the belief that history is just ‘stuff’: the litany of names and dates assumed to be the field’s contribution to human knowledge. Nor have we generally been inclined to give up the privileges of the academic outsider: to be able to inform, critique and admonish without having to be involved in the messy and complex negotiations involved in policymaking.
By responding to thePublic Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into civil service skills, History and Policy provides a welcome challenge to ‘history as stuff’. History as a resource for the future highlights how well the network’s activities inside Whitehall have been received (‘engaging’ and ‘enjoyable’ are notable judgements on the part of senior officials). A potential collaboration with Civil Service Learning sounds promising, as it points to the potential for embedding history in the training and professional development of officials. There is a good case to restore a ‘history core’ to civil service training. As the response states, it may help attune officials to the importance of context, enable the more informed use of comparison, and encourage them to turn routinely to historical materials as they brief, advise and inform.
The response is spot on in highlighting the importance of historical skills. Developing proficiency and confidence in primary source search and analysis should help extend the range of material on which officials can draw.
But historical skills can do more than make ‘substantive historical content’ available to policymakers.
The risk is that historical skills are only deployed when historical ‘content’ is deemed relevant: often in the preliminary phases of policy formulation, when the scope of background research is fairly open. History can easily just be historical perspective: an interesting and thought-provoking look backwards. It’s illuminating but not influential.
That’s what sounds alarm bells for me in the warm and enthusiastic comments of the senior officials quoted in the consultation response. History fascinates, it engages the intellect and the imagination. A concern to ‘capture’ the learning from the workshops, to share it more widely and to ‘create opportunities for civil servants to collaborate more closely with historians in relevant fields’ is commendable, and a real testament to History and Policy’s work.
But, like professional development courses more generally, it’s a challenge to translate them from the seminar room into the office. Even the best and most stimulating can probably only kick off a process of reflection and change in our practice. When the historians have gone back to their universities and the officials to their departments, what next?
We need organisations to bridge between academe and policy, but we also need historians on the inside. Secondments and exchanges should be valued within an academic career, and historians should be sought-after experts for teams making, reviewing and implementing policy. History is not just a repository of ‘stuff’, a lost property office whose doors are opened every so often for the fleeting intellectual engagement that exploration offers. History is indeed a resource for the future, but we need to explain how – and then show how.
 Sylvia K. Kraemer, “Policy Advisors: Historians and Making Policy,” in Public History: Essays from the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 2004), pp. 218-9.
In April 2013, I reviewed a walking tour around the Parliamentary Precinct in Ottawa as part of the National Council on Public History‘s annual conference programme. I re-read it today, the morning after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack that left one Canadian soldier dead and the precinct in lockdown for hours. I did so with a sense of sadness, as the one of my enduring memories from that tour was the openness of the area and the low profile of the security measures. It had the feel of a genuinely public place, suggesting a certain confidence in the institutions and in how people interacted with them. Surveillance was present, but it wasn’t prominent – a deliberate strategy that had survived post-9/11 clampdowns. This was the second attack in a week, and it was targeted at two sites of great national importance, historically, symbolically, politically: the war memorial and the Parliament. What will be the legacy of the attacks on the openness and confidence of Canada’s Parliamentary Precinct?
Post-conference review #1: Canadian Parliamentary Precinct
The Canadian Parliamentary Precinct as Public History: Telling the Outside Story Walking Tour, April 17, 2013. NCPH Annual Meeting, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Creators: National Capital Commission; Tour leader: Mark Kristmanson, Director, Capital Interpretation, Commemoration and Public Art.As a hybrid of policy professional and historian interested in the role of history in political processes, this tour was first in my shopping basket when I registered for the NCPH conference in Ottawa. For me, parliamentary buildings and districts hold a magnetic appeal, making any visit to a capital city a busman’s holiday. As Stefan Berger reminds us, historians are, necessarily, always engaged in comparison. Such tours are, therefore, an opportunity for public historians to place comparative thinking—a dimension that remains relatively unexplored in the field—at the forefront of our minds. I should begin my comments by explaining that we weren’t taken on a standard tour of the precinct. Mark Kristmanson, Director of Capital Interpretation for the National Capital Commission (NCC), and his staff had thoughtfully put together what they termed a ‘meta-tour’: a combination of the historical interpretation itself, and an explanation of how visitor services are conceived and delivered. In other words, they knew their audience.
We walked down Lyon Street, under the “stripped-down art deco” arches of the Veterans’ Memorial Buildings to Wellington Street, part of the Confederation Boulevard: a ceremonial route that embraces the Ontario and Quebec shorelines of the Ottawa River (and itself an interesting public history concept). Following the Boulevard east, we were successively introduced to striking assemblages of architectural ideas about democracy, culture, and citizenship.
Next, and on our left, the uncompromising “German/Italian Fascist” lines of Supreme Court came into view. The curved “Château”-style windowed roofs offer a notable contrast, and are attributed to the influence of the then Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, whose thirteen-year leadership (1935-1948) spanned the beginning of construction in 1939 and the first hearings in 1946.
Echoes of Edinburgh could be discerned in the stonework of government buildings, the cliff-top outlook making them all the more resonant for anyone who has seen images of the castle that presides over the Scottish capital. Central Block, the building in which the Senate and House of Commons meet, forms one side of a lawned quad, and features a clock tower unmistakably modelled on that which stands at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London. As we stood there, a chime recognized across the world marked the hour on the day that Big Ben, the great bell housed in the Westminster tower, was silent for the funeral of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Visible from our vantage point were the round towers of the Château Laurier, distinct against the gothic lines of the East Block. These are the comments of an untrained eye, and the origin and mix of influences on the architecture of the Parliamentary Precinct would be an interesting addition to the tour. Partly inspired by this experience, I’m now developing a plan for comparative research on the architectural ideas of national capitals.
Comparative comments were, indeed, made by many of the participants about the openness of the area. We discussed with our guides the contested nature of the space: the arguments that had been made post-9/11 for cordoning off Parliament Hill and how those had been, thus far, resisted (camera surveillance being intense but invisible).
Although the majority of visitors to Ottawa are Canadians, foreigners call in disproportionate numbers on the services of the NCC (around thirty per cent). This may be a feature that parliamentary precincts share; how many of us choose to visit the seats of government in our own countries, compared to the numbers of foreign tourists? Perhaps disillusionment with politics, and national politics in particular, is a factor. Do we view the buildings in which our elected representatives convene in terms of politics, but those which house foreign chambers as historical parts of their national heritage?
We were told about a two-year pilot program undertaken by visitor services, which had led to individuals, located at key points, being replaced by pairs of “roving” guides—resulting in a five-fold increase in engagements. Students recruited from local universities provide many of the guides during high season. The demands on them to be proactive with visitors, and to tailor their interactions to very diverse needs, call on a range of high-level skills as well as on historical knowledge: certainly a valuable training for future public historians.
I had downloaded the NCC Capital Tour app before I arrived and it was interesting to hear from Mark after the tour about how the approach has evolved over time. Initially designed to package material by length of tour required, a new version will organize it situationally: where am I now and where can I go next? The new Wi-Fi zone on the Hill has made the apps more popular. What may seem a minor point is actually a substantive one. Apps can be regarded as a “must-have,” engaging a new, smart-phone-obsessed audience, but then the usability of an app on the ground may be overlooked: can it be downloaded quickly (and therefore relatively cheaply)? How effective is it in tracking the user’s movement? Can relevant additional content on external websites be accessed efficiently (tourist information, public transport, restaurants and so on)? Free, reliable public Wi-Fi makes a difference (especially for international visitors) and the case for linking public history services to wider initiatives around economic development and urban renewal would seem worth exploring.
As historians, we may be focused on and concerned about “content,” and that’s certainly important (the NCC app helpfully offers different levels of detail). But it’s not the only issue, as my conversation with Mark made clear. How to assemble content appropriately for consumption, and thereby serve very different interests and priorities, may actually be the more problematic question. This discussion also points to the deep connections between history and geography, time and place. Can there be a fruitful dialogue between public history and “public geography?”
The Parliamentary Precinct “meta-tour” gave a thought-provoking insight into the work of integrating visitor services with historic interpretation. That we only managed to fit in about four stops is testament to the high level of engagement of the assembled participants. I would happily have devoted a much longer time to this tour, being so tantalizingly close to a whole array of buildings and monuments, but unable to investigate in more depth. That is no criticism of our guides, more the regret of a confessed enthusiast (both for high politics and the historic built environment). I would have welcomed more of a historical perspective on the site, the references encoded in its design and a sense of its place in the history of Canadian (and Commonwealth) politics. It may, however, be impossible to meet such a wide range of expectations in full, and I would certainly commend NCC for accommodating those of visitors to Ottawa so thoughtfully.
The 1968 Fulton report made the case for reforming the civil service to meet the demands of modern government. This article considers Fulton, and subsequent ‘failures’ to implement it, in the context of a changing political culture in Westminster that privileged political advice in policymaking and became ambivalent towards external expertise. It explores whether the Fulton recommendation for the creation of policy planning units in government departments, staffed by a mix of outside experts and talented officials could be reimagined for present purposes, to include historians: history embedded in policymaking is proposed as an alternative to history presented to policymakers.
Keywords: government, policy advice, historians, public history, policymaking
Thanks must go to Prof. Ludmilla Jordanova, Prof. Owen Davies and Dr. Sarah Lloyd for their advice and support, and to the the anonymous reviewers for their careful and constructive comments.
‘It’s the mix that matters’ is borrowed from R. A. W. Rhodes, “The Governance Narrative: Key Findings and Lessons from the ESRC’s Whitehall Programme,” Public Administration 78, no. 2 (2000)
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…
Last week, the post of Historian with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advertised (with the strapline ‘If you’re passionate about the past and excited about the future, consider a role as a Historian in Whitehall’). Historians in government are a very rare breed in Britain, at least in historical roles (historians have been taken on as generalists since the civil service professionalised – and came under pointed criticism as ‘amateurs’ for it from the late 1950s). By contrast, historians working as historians are part of state and federal/provincial government structures in the USA and Canada; the US Society for History in the Federal Government has been around for over 30 years.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the grass is greener for colleagues across the pond. Being a historian in government doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bringing historical thinking into the corridors of power (even walking said corridors doesn’t equal admission to the offices where the major policy decisions are taken). The North American experience suggests recognition as a specialist can be a distinctly mixed blessing. An expert’s influence can easily be limited to those questions relating directly to the area of expertise…
The role of the historian in government is often concerned with research and the management of records: cataloguing papers; editing documents and producing official histories for publication; responding to queries; writing briefing papers on historical topics. In countries such as Canada and New Zealand, historians are also expert contributors to processes that address grievances and claims relating to the treatment of indigenous peoples.
The currently advertised job certainly fits with this editorial and curatorial profile. But the FCO is a particularly interesting case, because a previous historian at the department made the transition from editor of official documents to historical adviser to the Minister.
Rohan Butler (1917-1996) worked at the Foreign Office from 1944, while also a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford. He became Senior Editor of the Documents on British Foreign Policy in 1955, and, in 1959, he was commissioned to produce a history of the Abadan Crisis as part of a Whitehall initiative (‘funding experience’) to learn lessons from the past.
Peter Beck’s careful scholarship has revealed the work of historians at the Treasury and Foreign Office during this experiment. Butler, however, managed to gain a position of influence as a historian (the Abadan history was finished in 1962 and Butler went on to become historical adviser to successive Foreign Secretaries until 1982) – something his Treasury colleagues never did.
Beck states that the Abadan history ‘fed into, guided, and influenced on-going discussions and reviews within Whitehall by juxtaposing the lessons of history, contemporary realities, and possible new directions for both foreign policy and methods.’ Beck somewhat underplay’s Butler’s success, stating that it’s difficult to ascribe a ‘clear-cut outcome’ to the history. But Butler’s work was informing the highest levels of decisionmaking. He was, effectively, a policy adviser as well as a historian.
The job description for today’s FCO historian mentions ‘responding to requests for historical information and advice from Ministers, officials and the public’, but the prospect for a role such as Butler’s seems remote. The salary of £26,363 – £32,834 is well below the range for special advisers and points, perhaps, to a role seen as ‘back-office’ rather than ‘core business’.
We may today lament that history has little influence on policymaking – it might be worth looking back at Butler for inspiration: a historian on the inside.
 Beck, ‘The Lessons of Abadan and Suez for British Foreign Policymakers in the 1960s’, p. 545.
See also: Beck, Using history, making British policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
NB: Butler’s authoritative memorandum on the Katyn Massacre (produced in 1972 and printed for internal circulation in 1973) is now in the public domain with original footnotes and annexes.
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.
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 Oneon 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 LifeScientific). 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?