Public Historians as referees

So, by now I have dropt the word ‘public history’ already quit a few times. You could define this master I follow, as a place where I learn pathways to broadcasting the past and equipping me with professional skills of historical interpretation and communication. But that is what today is all about, the difference between what we historians do between our safe history walls, and what happens ‘out there.’ Because that twilight zone is where we, public historians, roar.

 Public history is the practice of taking history that has been carried out to academic standards, and then rendering it accessible to a wider section of society (public history is seen by some as a ‘democratisation of history’), without jeopardising its scholarly authenticity. Documentaries, radio shows, heritage sites, charities, museums, NGO’s, archives…all of these carry out the work of ‘public history’. 

Public history is consumable history. Consumption is an active, rather than passive, activity. When you consume, you ingest – you take something into yourself. This is what public history should do. Simply making something accessible is not good enough –museums already are accessible. But what is important, is that the information the public digests, stays with them. That, therefore, is good public history. Good public history is a dialogue between a historian and a visitor, rather than a narrative delivered by a historian to his audience. As James Gardner says, the term ‘audience’ evokes ‘passivity, receptivity, and we need to move beyond that.’

 An example of good Public History is by creating Oral History. Oral History is spoken history, or even, personal history. I will write my next blog on this subject, but for now, I will tell you that this is one of the best ways found to represent and interpret the past and reach new audiences. For historians it also opened up new areas of history, as it adds the history of the ‘marginalized.’ The normal , whom you will not encounter in your textbook. Just those living their daily life, mindin’ their own business.

 To my regret, public history is commonplace. For instance, ‘the tyranny of the audio guide’. Many ‘leading’ heritage institutions now abdicate the duty they have to their visitors being droned at for an hour and a half! With this method of imparting knowledge, there can be no dialogue, and tailoring of information based on the varying interests of different people does not exist. The audience, is not a visitor.

But there is more that Public Historians do. History is being (re)formed in raging discussions between obscure academics. Some of them maybe write a book, but what you read in textbooks, is probably copied of other textbook who also copied it out of another textbook, probably not in the knowledge of the avant-garde in the history. These debates just do not really leave the university, and that is where the ‘History Wars’ are about. Yes, there is being fought over history. Firstly, within the use and abuse of history. History can be fabricated, and used for a social purpose; for instance in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, who are writing a new past and addressing to silences. Secondly, these wars rage between the conservative press and the academic historians. The academics are accused of arrogance, but in their place, they do not like the censorship of political correctness. In the public sphere, politicians undermine the integrity of history. They can be quite confident about their interpretation of their ‘own history’ and their idea of the national past.

This is where the Public Historians try to be the referee. In the left corner, the confronting reality and in the right, ‘the celebration of a nation.’ How do you juggle between these two issues? How do you tell a history in the right tone. How do you show, not tell what happened? How can you be sensitive, sympathetic, but still maintain high integrity yo the facts? And how do you get all these different versions of history into one context?  We are trying to leave the fabrication of history aside, and engage the public into what happens between these university walls. We need to learn that criticism is not directly a threat to a nation . There is a fear of these uncomfortable parts of history: Yes, we walked over dead bodies to get here. (This is a Dutch expression) But seeing that, can be constructive as well. How did people think about slavery when slavery actually still extist? What can we learn from the past in the present?

Oh dear, enough to think about on this Monday night. I need to be thinking about tomorrow tough, I will be digging into letters written in 1795 again! Really exiting, being this intimate with history.
I will keep you posted upon oral history, and all bumps in the road in the heritage sector.



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