Living, breathing, history
As a lover of history, few things excite or engage me more than dusty manuscripts and stories from the past: the shocking, the inspiring, the scandalous, and even the mundane. Although my obsession may be particularly acute, it’s not unusual – as Laurence Goldman pointed out while opening the Royal Historical Society’s Public History Workshop at the Institute of Historical Research on 29 October, ‘history is booming’. The workshop was the first instance of what the organisers hope will be a yearly event, along with the RHS’s Public History Prize and proved an inspiring day, with many different perspectives on what it means to do ‘public history’. Several key themes emerged:
Respect for audience
That historians should not patronise or presume the needs and preferences of audiences is undoubtedly crucial, and was one of Pamela Cox’s ‘golden rules’ of making history for a mass audience. It matters not only when choosing which stories you tell, but also which emotions you evoke, images you show, language you use, and voices you prioritise. This became further evident in Michael Mantin’s exploration of the challenges and opportunities he faced in putting together an exhibition on disability and the South Wales coal industry at Swansea Museum, and in Daniel Johnson’s discussion of the innovative Blackpool Museum Project. Both speakers emphasised the importance of public history that draws on and interacts with the experiences of today’s museum visitors. In both instances the views of the public shaped the exhibitions in ways that made them more meaningful for the communities they were based in. The shape of ‘public history’ should be decided by the public.
Public history as part of being an historian
Public history is not, however, only about creating museum exhibitions or television broadcasts, important as those are. It should be part and parcel of what historians do. In the words of Steven Franklin, a fellow workshop-participant, ‘all history should be researched, communicated, and engaged with’. As Justin Champion pointed out, although it’s an obligation that comes particularly with being publically funded, making history that is truly interesting beyond an academic club requires more than a sense of obligation. It requires the will to engage. So why should historians bother? Ludmilla Jordanova provided a number of important reasons. Public engagement can force us to be clearer about what we mean by terms such as ‘truth’, ‘fact’, and even ‘history’. It encourages us to practice and reflect on history at its fullest. Furthermore, it reminds us that history is essential to our lives as citizens, whether we’re historians or not. We live through and interact with the past constantly. Given this, far from ‘diluting’ the past, engagement with the public demands that historians challenge the nature of our discipline, increase our awareness of the contemporary concerns that shape our interpretation of the past, and curb worrying tendencies to sensationalise.
Historians have the toolkit to reflect on history in a public context, but public history is enriched through collaboration with others. Pamela Cox told us how the expertise of television directors and camerapeople helped her deliver her message effectively to a mass audience. Indeed, Alexander Hutton emphasised, such collaboration was particularly important in shaping the historiography of the industrial revolution, which was heavily influenced by social historians outside the academy. Claire Hayward meanwhile argued in her paper on ‘Memorialising the present’ that public history should consider the past, present, and future. Historians are skilled to deal with the past and its implications for the present, but what of the future? To make a lasting monument that can be used and reused, historians might need to collaborate with urban planners, artists, sociologists, and, crucially, the community for whom the monument is made. Historians would equally flounder without collaboration in the museum context, a point made by multiple speakers. Not all public history need be a team effort, but it is evident that a willingness to learn from the expertise of others is the key to appealing to a wide audience.
I am aware as I write this that I am putting together a piece for a blog which claims to be for a general readership, and that a lengthy report on the navel-gazing of historians may have limited appeal. But good historians are open and honest about the ideas that lie behind their work, and reflections on what it means to be a public historian fuel Doing History in Public. Hopefully, by thinking about the points raised during the workshop, we might create a history more meaningful to its readers.
Many thanks to the Institute of Historical Research, the Royal Historical Society, the speakers, other participants, and especially the organisers of the conference for a fantastic day.
 Many thanks to Paul Lay for his comments on the first published version of this piece, which highlighted the dangers of narrowing public history to only that which is considered reflective of or relevant to a community. Public history has great value in allowing for pure curiosity and wonderment at the past as well as in shaping the identity of communities.