Public History

The field of public history, which has risen to prominence in recent years and should provide guidance in this matter, is not much help either. In principle, public historians agree that visual culture has been the dominant cultural platform for modern societies’ encounter with the past. As public historian Faye Sayer phrased it in 2015: “Television has become the closest most people will get, or even want to get, to experiencing history” (Sayer, 2015: 166). Sayer’s words are revealing because they attest to an ambivalent attitude toward film and TV in the ranks of public historians dedicated to the cause of popular history education and adept at highlighting the disconcerting communication barriers between academic history and secondary school teaching environments. The Public History Reader published in 2013, which gives shape and purpose to the field, displays similar preferences and misgivings (Kean & Martin, 2013; see also Ashton and Kean, 2012). Kean and Martin present public history as an attractive intellectual terrain. They elegantly anchor the field in its own distinct site of memory: Ruskin College in Oxford, an institution with a long track record of offering second chances to educationally disadvantaged adults and the former academic home of public history founding father Raphael Samuel. In addition to identifying an appropriate site of memory, the editors of the Public History Reader provide the field with a similarly compelling narrative identity. In a vivid and programmatic vignette, Kean and Martin invoke the display of live rats at the heritage site of the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, Australia as a particularly suitable strategy of engaging visitors with public history. The rats impress upon the visitors the tough conditions under which convicts and inmates survived in Sydney. The rats are acknowledged as pests but not vilified—quite the contrary. They are recognized as accidental public history archivists since the objects they stole from the immigrants and amassed in their hiding places have allowed twentieth-century historians to reconstruct the everyday lives of immigrants in much greater detail than would have been otherwise possible. In this way, the rats helped save people from oblivion who, in the universe of public history, are particularly deserving of historical attention. Moreover, the balanced assessment of the rats’ role in history nicely illustrates another guiding principle of public history: the economically and symbolically downtrodden of this earth, (wo)men as well as beast, should be treated respectfully and not pitched against one another. Public history follows in the progressive footsteps of history from below and the history workshop movement and embodies a clear ethos demanding for the victims and underdogs of history the respect they deserve but rarely receive (Green, 2000). Finally, the field of public history appears committed to embracing strategies of historical immersion. After all, the rats of Hyde Park are an immersive exhibition strategy designed to put visitors in physical proximity of history.

But the situation is more complicated. Kean and Martin effectively link their project to prominent publications in the field thus defining public history as social form of knowledge grounded in contemporary life (Samuel, 1994) and concerned with illuminating the ways in which normal people engage with the past on a personal, group, and family level (De Groot, 2009). In this context, they also declare that “history is owned by those described in the narrative” (Kean & Martin, 2013). Most likely, some professional historians would take issue with this statement and Kean and Martin thus inadvertently highlight an important fault line that repeatedly appears in their text. Public history as conceived of by Kean and Martin seems to have a conflicted relationship to academic history. On the one hand, academic historians are criticized for their insufficient appreciation of popular forms of historical knowledge. On the other hand, the field of public history subscribes to the methods of professional academic history including its principles of source criticism and its strategies of historical narration. As a result, public history displays some anxieties about its status as a professional discipline. Vigorous advocacy for non-professional appropriations of the past and respect for the discipline of history form an unstable intellectual mixture.

The ambivalence might explain why public history delineates an interesting middle ground with regard to historical immersion. Public historians seek to extend the immersive archival experience of historians to the public at large by extending and democratizing existing arenas of public engagement with the past. In public history, many environments count as archives. Public historians feel very comfortable facilitating encounters with history through memorials, museums, material culture, family history, oral history, and reenactments. But for many years they preferred to engage with tangible, physical acts of historical interpretation and face-to-face communication and kept their distance from the powerful simulative and immersive media of film, television, and video games. The ethos of public history thrived through active engagement with people and objects and public historian seemed to think, mistakenly I would argue, that TV consumers and game players are not actively crafting their own collective memories. The situation is changing now (Cauvin, 2016; Sayer, 2015) but as a result of the agreement between public historians and their colleagues in conventional history departments, film and electronic media have had few enthusiastic advocates within the discipline of history.

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