After some preliminary discussions, it is now time to start exploring public history training. As stated above, I am particularly interested in the different ways we can train students to become public historians. I began thinking about public history training while writing my recently published public history textbook. One of the first questions I asked myself was about the definitions of the field; not only as a frozen description but also to better frame what public history is made of and what skills students may need to develop. But before exploring the definitions of public history, I wish to answer another question: why do we need a definition?
Defining public history has been a subject of discussion since Robert Kelley invented the terms in the 1970s at the University of California at Santa Barbara (USA). However, public historian Alix Green – for example – thinks any definition is problematic since “it sets ‘public history’ apart from ‘history’.” She stresses that “Public history is a tricky thing to define, its very elusiveness serving as a reason for historians to regard it with suspicion.” (2015) It is true that defining public history is still very challenging. Different historians may have different approaches as shown in this short video from the conference organized at the European University Institute (Italy 2014). The difficulty arises from the fact that public history developed – sometimes artificially – as an umbrella for different historical practices. Besides, public history is connected to the public uses of the past, so it has dramatically changed since the 1990s and the spread of new technology like the Internet. However, I strongly believe we need working definitions for public history.
First of all, public historians are, as Jason Steinhauer argues, communicators who may have to present the public history process. Public historians may have to attract students to their programs, they need to look for partners (community, institutions, audiences…). They may also need to convince their colleagues and administrators about the benefit of a public history project, course, or program. One of the first challenges in creating the public history program in Paris (2015) was to explain the definition and benefit of public history. Likewise, as a member of the International Federation for Public History (IFPH), I often have to present public history to historians who have never heard about it (although they sometimes do public history through exhibition, historic preservation…).
Defining public history should be a process much more than a product (like public history itself). I find it particularly useful to encourage my students to come up with their own definition of (public) history. The process is highly useful for students entering a field – and perhaps a career. But it is also of some interest to other students who think history is useless and limited to the few who want to teach. Having their own definition would help students to better understand the issues at stake and the uses of the past. This is why this Fall I will ask my students (in my World History survey course) to work on a definition of history, the need for a public history, and the possible uses of the past based on their readings and interviews of different profiles of people (family member, museum visitor, politician, historian). Defining public history and the uses of the past becomes an entire process in which students replace the historical practice into both a theoretical argument and present-day issues.
The participatory construction of a public history definition also takes place at the international level. For instance, the IFPH had its 2016 international conference in Bogotá (Colombia) at the University of Los Andes. With more than 300 participants coming from 43 different countries, it was crucial to present a working definition of the field. Instead of imposing a frozen definition of public history, the conference provided a space for a participatory understanding of the field. Examples of public history practices from different parts of the world enriched participants approach. Defining public history allows to create a space of discussion between academic, practitioners, audiences.
Next Post: Public History Definitions
- Thomas Cauvin (2016), Public History. A Textbook of Practice, New York: Routledge. Introduction
- Alix Green “Back to the future? Public history and the new academic citizen” Public History Weekly, March 5, 2015.
- IFPH’s 2016 Conference, Keynote Speeches, University of Los Andes, Bogotá, July 2016.
- IFPH’s 2016 Conference, Compilation of the Tweets, Storify, Bogotá, 2016.