Experience: An Essential Addition to a History Degree

2014-05-21 18.37.43Dan Johnson is a PhD researcher in the Department of History. His research focusses on public understandings of crime history in museums.

As MA not-quite-graduates are entering the summer and beginning to write their dissertations, a dark shadow of uncertainty is creeping in. The majority of students are faced with the huge question of what’s next. For most, they have spent the last 4 years of their lives focussed on passing modules, writing papers, and conducting research. While some, like me, will decide to continue their courtship with academia by embarking on a PhD, many will begin their search for careers outside academia. Having a postgraduate degree in history provides a great foundation to move into many sectors of the workforce, however, one area that is in high demand where a master’s degree is less important is in heritage. Almost a year out of a Public History MA, I have seen some colleagues flourish and begin their careers strongly in the heritage sector while many are left floundering and struggling to find work. As they all have postgraduate degrees in history, I wondered why some are doing so well while others are not. Here are a few of my thoughts.

From speaking to other public history alumni, as well as museum practitioners and from my own experiences, I can determine that simply earning a Public History MA does not necessarily equate to a better chance of a job after the degree is finished. The course here at York trains students in the theory behind the inner workings of many aspects of the field including museum education, oral history, curation, history in the media, and much more. The research standards are just as rigorous as our more traditional history counterparts and we are trained to apply our historical interests into practical settings. On paper, we should be prime candidates for careers in museums, media, historical organisations, as well as many more areas in the heritage sector and beyond. So why are there many public history postgrads still searching for work, or even giving up on their heritage dreams? The answer is simple: despite attending every seminar, passing modules, and earning honours in a postgraduate history degree, the best candidates for heritage jobs will also bring a hefty amount of real world experiences to the interview table. Do a simple Google search for any museums/heritage job and experience will always be present in the ‘essential’ traits column.

I am writing this post because so many people wonder how they are supposed to gain these experiences while entrenched in a rigorous postgraduate degree. To those people, I argue that York provides many opportunities to gain this highly valued experience that employers are longing for. The Public History MA requires its students to do a placement during the spring term, which is a great step in the door for future voluntary and work opportunities with historical organisations across the UK, however, a few months work experience as part of the course may still fall on deaf ears of employers. Beyond the mandatory placement, there are opportunities for summer internships that not everyone  takes advantage of. Yes it is during the summer when students are slaving away over dissertations, but again, this is an amazing opportunity to gain experience and make connections with historical organisations that are so valuable in the field that we are trying to get into. It also demonstrates that students are capable of balancing multiple responsibilities at the same time, a highly sought after trait in a heritage sector that is increasingly gutted by funding cuts and relying on a limited number of full time employees to accomplish an ever-growing list of tasks. In addition to the placement and internship opportunities, the university has strong connections with many of the museums in York, which are always looking for volunteers during the year. Volunteering with an organisation a few times a month over the course of the year is vital to showing commitment to potential employers, demonstrates long term experience, and also allows students to get their names and faces recognised by potential employers when job interviews arise. If volunteering for sometimes mundane tasks in a museum are not interesting enough, the university has a number of opportunities to present research papers, organise public events, and gain funding for reading groups and conferences through the Humanities Research Centre and our many interdisciplinary research centres such as the Centre for Modern Studies. All of these provide valuable practical experience for history postgrads to bring into job applications and interviews.

What has become clear from looking at alumni with the same or similar degrees from higher education institutions across the UK and USA, that if you want a job in a museum or in the heritage sector, earning a degree and showing educational competency is not enough. The students that have taken advantage of the many opportunities that York has to offer have thrived, while those who showed up for seminars and wrote their research papers are struggling to find their way in this competitive and over-saturated field. If you glance at the graduate profiles on our website highlighting some of our most successful alumni, you will find that every one of them stresses the importance of gaining experience and putting your education into practice outside of the classroom. The University of York’s Public History MA offers every opportunity for its students to be fully prepared to be ideal candidates for careers with historical organisations; it is the responsibility of students to make the most of their time beyond the ivory tower of academia while completing their degrees. It is important to remember that if students truly want to get the most out of their public history degree, not all learning will happen in the classroom.

Between degrees: history outside academia

Detail from the the Rochester Bestiary (BL Royal MS 12 F XIII, f4r)
Detail from the Rochester Bestiary (BL Royal MS 12 F XIII, f.4r)

Tim Wingard is about to begin a History PhD at the University of York.

I finished my Masters in Medieval History at York in September 2015, and within weeks I was already desperate to return to academia. As things turned out, I now look set to return to begin my PhD research on late medieval sexuality and animality in October this year. The intervening months have been something of a liminal zone – I have needed to continue research necessary to write funding applications, research proposals, conference papers and blogposts, but have done this without formal institutional backing. It is my intention to use this opportunity to talk about my experiences – very much the definition of ‘doing history in public’ – and outline how modern technology makes it possible to participate in academia outside of a formal programme. This is of course merely a snapshot of my own particular experiences and not indicative of everyone who engages in alt-ac research; nevertheless, I hope that I can provide encouragement to current students who are facing the dilemma of applying to further study.

The most fundamental challenge facing the student outside academia is finding the time to do research at all. Since completing my Masters, I found that balancing the demands of working a 9-5 job and then returning home to work on proposals and papers has been tricky to manage even with all the privileges I have benefited from in terms of being able to live with my family, and I have immense respect for peers who tackle this challenge alongside the additional demands of caring responsibilities, ongoing mental or physical health problems, or erratic and unpredictable work schedules due to zero-hours contracts or multiple part-time roles. And, of course, these practical challenges will be a reality for many currently in universities studying while disabled or already undertaking part-time courses alongside work.

Perhaps equally as uncomfortable to acknowledge is the truth that without institutional affiliation, the budding historian faces significant restrictions on access to the material. Much scholarship still remains behind journal paywalls or in prohibitively expensive and hard-to-find books. However there has been a growing movement towards open access scholarship, entailing greater availability of the fruits of historians’ labour to all, and hopefully this trend will continue. In the meantime, open access provides opportunities for learning and research even without access to the full resources of a university. Many researchers, especially younger ones still in the earlier stages of their career, are beginning to make part of their research available for free through sites such as academia.edu. When I was writing initial applications to potential supervisors for instance, I always made a habit of looking up their profile on the site and reading through any of their research which they had published on here.

Open access isn’t just limited to secondary scholarship. Many archives and libraries are beginning to digitise and make available their manuscript collections so that anyone can read the primary sources of history for themselves. Globally, some of the biggest repositories are the British Library, the Danish Royal Library and the National Library of France. For my own research into bestiaries, I found that all three had a number of digitised manuscripts that were invaluable for drawing upon material for my conference papers – see for instance, the British Library’s beautiful Rochester Bestiary. Other ambitious projects seek to make professional, annotated translations of major medieval works available online, such as the Online Froissart Project or the Aberdeen Bestiary.

But ultimately, what was perhaps even more important was to retain links to the academic community and to continue to feel part of the wider body of students and researchers. And that is where the internet really comes into its own, in the form of the connections offered through social media. During my months out of university, Facebook and Twitter enabled me to keep in touch not just with friends from my course, but also with peers and colleagues from around the world. In terms of practical support, it means being able to ask for advice, guidance and reassurance from people who have already navigated the system, which is especially helpful when you may not have access to the formal guidance of a supervisor in the same way as you do during a degree.

Twitter in particular is a great resource for the researcher out of academia. Anecdotally, I have heard that many newcomers can find it intimidating to approach, with all its unfamiliar culture and traditions– but overall, I have found the niches of Twitter devoted to my field to be incredibly friendly, welcoming and helpful. Getting started is a matter of learning the most popular hashtags for your field – in my instance, #medievaltwitter – and starting to follow relevant people. It’s an incredibly diverse, if informal network – undergrads, postgrads, lecturers, archivists, experts in heritage and amateur enthusiasts all intermingle and talk to each other! I cannot overstate how important the site has been to me over the last year.

Overall then, my experience of being a student between degrees has been largely positive. It is hard work, and trying to fit research around the demands of non-academic employment is challenging – and it will make you truly appreciate the resources that are available to a scholar in a university environment. However, modern internet technologies enable the ‘alt-ac’ researcher today to achieve far more than was possible in the analogue era. Crucially, I want this post to be a message of encouragement to current students who are thinking of applying for further study, a position I was in barely a year ago. Don’t feel rushed into applications while you’re still studying! It’s natural to fear that you’ll ‘fall out of the loop’ if you wait until you’ve finished your current study, but the benefits of taking time out from university (another blog post all on its own) combined with the ability to stay connected mean that you should seriously consider it as an option.

Liquid bread, global circuses and China’s German heritage

Qingdao Old TownDr Oleg Benesch is Lecturer in East Asian History at the University of York.

As a historian of East Asia, I often travel to China. In 2014, I spent the summer there, mainly in order to do some intensive language work in the coastal city of Qingdao. I chose Qingdao also because of its deserved reputation as one of the most pleasant places to spend the summer in China, as much of the country can be oppressively hot. Qingdao lies on the southern coast of the Shandong Peninsula, with convenient links to other cities in North China, as well as Korea and Japan. There was also a historical reason for choosing Qingdao as my base, as it was a German colony from 1898 to 1914, and I was keen to explore the remnants and portrayal of this heritage. My timing was fortuitous for several reasons. One was that it was the centenary of the Fall of Qingdao, when the Japanese took the territory from the Germans after the outbreak of the First World War, permanently ending German colonial involvement in Asia.

The second reason, which was less foreseeable, was that 2014 was the year of the World Cup in Brazil, which Germany would go on to win. In spite (or perhaps because) of the terrible time difference, with kick-off times in the middle of the night, the streets of Qingdao were packed with football fans watching on screens set up in front of many restaurants. As China was not represented at the tournament, Chinese Central Television dedicated its round-the-clock coverage primarily to the glamorous Brazilian team. In Qingdao, however, the mood was decidedly more in favour of Germany, especially after they defeated hosts Brazil 7-1 in a historic semi-final. I must confess that, as a German, I was not an entirely unbiased observer of these events, nor was I wholly averse to basking in (very distantly) reflected glory when the locals would raise their glasses after inquiring about my background. This, it must be said, is not the reaction Germans traditionally expect when traveling abroad.

Today, almost nine million people live in Qingdao, and the surrounding Shandong region is one of China’s major industrial centres. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, it was little more than a rural fishing village and minor naval outpost when its fortunes changed dramatically due to much larger events. China ceded the Shandong Peninsula to Japan following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, but Germany joined Russia and France in intervening immediately after this, forcing Japan to hand over the territory. China was in no position to resist and reluctantly leased Shandong to the German Empire for 99 years in 1898. An influx of German colonists soon set about transforming the sleepy backwater of Qingdao into a thriving port city boasting many of the comforts of home. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region, as well as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy. Japan quickly seized on the opportunity of the war to ‘take back’ Qingdao and the other Chinese territories that Germany had taken from them at the end of the previous century.

Although brief, the sixteen-year period of German colonial rule has become a defining characteristic of Qingdao identity. The pride in this German heritage radiates from the carefully preserved colonial villas, churches, schools, and government buildings in the old town, centred on a market square that would not be out of place back in Germany. This narrative is especially pronounced in the expansive Qingdao Municipal Museum, which dedicates a considerable amount of its floor space to the history of the German colonial period. Photographs depict interactions between the city’s German and Chinese elites, and Chinese children studying in the German schools. One of the most surprising exhibits in this context is a two-metre cutaway section of the sewer pipe that the Germans laid beneath the city. This infrastructure is something of which Qingdao residents are most proud, and the visitor frequently hears that this German engineering is the reason that the streets of Qingdao don’t flood during heavy rain, unlike other Chinese cities. While the accuracy of this claim is debatable, it reflects the largely positive portrayals of Germany in Qingdao today.

The most prominent symbol of the German presence is not a structure, however, but one of China’s truly global brands: Tsingtao Beer. Tsingtao, another spelling of Qingdao, has its origins in the Germania Brauerei founded by an Anglo-German investment team in 1903. The brewery remained under the direction of German brewmasters until it was taken over by the Japanese Dai Nippon Beer Co. during the First World War. Although the city of Qingdao was returned to Chinese control in 1922, the brewery remained in Japanese hands through the re-occupation of Qingdao by Japanese troops in 1938. This situation continued until 1945, when the brewery was briefly under the control of the Nationalist Government before being nationalized following the Communist victory in 1949.

The brewery was privatized again in the wake of economic reform in the 1990s, and rapidly expanded to become a multi-national corporation exporting throughout the world. In spite of its turbulent history, it is the German heritage that is most celebrated in the Tsingtao Brewery Museum on the site of the original brewery. It is also very publicly on display at the annual Qingdao International Beer Festival, first held by the brewery in 1991. Modelled on the Oktoberfest, this beer festival attracted a reported four million visitors in 2015 alone, making it roughly two thirds the size of the Munich original.

The very public pride and celebration of Qingdao’s German heritage typically takes an idealistic view of this colonial interval, which was a relatively brief, if important, episode in the city’s history. In many museums and other displays, however, it becomes clear that this idealism is also driven by a simultaneous desire to discredit the periods of Japanese rule that followed. For the German visitor, the feeling that positivity towards Germany in Qingdao is at least partially constructed on far older and more immediate East Asian rivalries cannot but induce a slight sense of disillusionment. Fortunately, this disappointment is most fleeting when one can watch the World Cup with an ice-cold lager on the neon streets of Qingdao.

Lives of the First World War: Retaining personal connections to the conflict using new technology

Lives of the First World War homepage
The home page of the IWM’s livesofthefirstworldwar.org

The year 2014 saw the start of a four year long centenary commemoration of the First World War. Remembrance programmes, local events, educational trips to the battlefields and a nationwide ‘lights out’, have all been part of the 100 year anniversary of the conflict so far. These acts of communal and shared remembering can be described as forms of ‘collective memory’. This is a concept that was coined by Maurice Halbwachs to understand the  social ‘framing’ of the past. Collective remembrance has been developed by Jay Winter to describe forms of ‘public recollection’ of the past and is frequently used in the analysis of the memory of war. Collective memories can be shaped by governments, media professionals, historians, families, museums and archivists to name but a few. My own research surrounds the study of these forms of public history, noting how and why they change over time and the efforts of groups to tell alternative discourses of the past.

The current centenary of the First World War is a perfect case study to examine how forms of public history are being used to reshape the history of the conflict in modern day Britain. Despite the family ties which have enabled the war to remain an important event in British history, redefining the war to appeal to younger generations in particular has been noted as a challenge. Dan Todman outlined how the younger generations ‘have grown up with well established myths of the Great War’ but they ‘have no personal connection to it’.

It seems that organisations such as the Imperial War Museums are turning to new technologies to enable the public to gain a greater connection to the personal histories of the Great War. Their Lives of the First World War project in particular, is innovative in its blend of memorial culture and internet genealogy. When the IWM was originally formed, it took care of artifacts, letters and medals donated by the relatives of deceased soldiers.  The original premise of housing the items belonging to ordinary people and making personal histories of war part of a national story, is prevalent in the aims of this new online endeavour. Users are encouraged to add their own memories and actively input documents and images to the individual pages, one for each participant in the war.

Acting as a sort of Facebook for the First World War generation, Lives of the First World War is something that could potentially enable a greater connection to the conflict amongst younger generations, due to its interactivity and future use as an online memorial and family history database. The platform evidently taps into the popularity of online genealogy. As Jerome De Groot notes the web allows for ‘collaborative genealogy’ where users can share, discuss and add documents as part of their research using websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past. Lives of the First World War adopts this model by creating profiles for every person with added medal roll card details and the ability for users to add further digitalised documents and collaborate with other users.

The project also serves to add to the original meaning of the Great War memorial by including all service men and women from Britain and the Commonwealth who participated in the conflict. It also includes all those that survived after the conflict. Peter Barham ‘excavated’ the forgotten stories of shell shocked soldiers of the Great War in his book Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War. One of his goals was to include these men in the public understanding of the conflict, as he feared remembrance of those that had survived the war had been overshadowed by the memorials to the dead. Lives of the First World War also addresses this issue by creating an online memorial to all. The homepage of the website states ‘we believe that each and every one of the 8 million who served in the Great War deserve to be remembered’. By forming a memorial such as this, the apparent divisions which existed between the remembrance of those that survived and those that died can be removed. It also has potential to increase awareness of the Commonwealth soldiers who served as they are also added to the database. This is clearly an aim across many organisations working on centenary projects and is outlined in the British Futures Report.  The inclusion of Commonwealth soldiers aids to reshape the memory of the war to fit with the heritage of a modern multicultural community who may have ancestors from other nations who participated in the war.  This ‘permanent digital memorial‘  fits the society in which it is being created, just as the stone memorials did in 1919, which were designed to enable personal and communal grieving in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Although that the website seems to be an innovative way in which to create a memorial for all, there are some ambiguities present in the design. Perhaps inspired by the popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, users are able to ‘Remember’ each individual soldier with a click of a button. This tool is markedly similar to the popular ‘Like’ buttons on social media websites. It is unclear what purpose this button serves. Is it to highlight famous soldiers who inevitably have thousands of users ‘Remembering’ them such as Siegfried Sassoon? Is it fair that servicemen and women who have no living relatives and whose pages have not been added to, are to be potentially forgotten on the website as in real life? A sort of popularity contest for who is being most ‘remembered’ is not the best way in which to promote remembrance in an equal way. Yet, given the connection to social media websites, it is probable that the ‘Remember’ button is simply another feature to try and attract younger audiences who could interact with the lives of their ancestors in a familiar way to how they present their own lives using social media.

This initiative by the IWM clearly represents an active attempt to sustain the collective remembrance of the conflict in Britain for the future using the latest technology. As Winter and Sivan emphasise, the memory of war is ‘dependent on people to act’ and to continue ‘mobilising resources which keep memory alive’.  If history is not retold in this way by groups in society, historic events can be forgotten. The Imperial War Museums are clearly using the centenary to ensure the younger generations in Britain can find ways to interact with the history of a conflict which is now outside of living memory. The overall popularity of the site is unclear. Is it reaching the target audience? Clearly, school groups have been encouraged to fill in the profiles of soldiers from their locality. Family historians have also added photographs and memories, but many soldiers’ lives have not been added to by living relatives. Perhaps the true value of the initiative will be revealed in 2019 after the end of the commemorations. Although there are uncertainties surrounding the website, it represents an attempt by the leading organisation of war remembrance to engage with younger audiences and reshape the memory of the war in a more interactive and inclusive way.

Harriet Beadnell is a PhD student at the University of York and a graduate of the MA in Public History. Her research explores the role, representation and identity of Second World War veterans since 1945.


Is the digital past at risk from time meddlers?

In the 1965 Doctor Who story The Time Meddler, William Hartnell’s Doctor takes on a meddling monk, portrayed by the reliably brilliant Peter Butterworth.

Although hanging out in 1066 the Monk is a time traveller and plans to use an ‘atomic cannon’ to avert the battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge by wiping out the Viking fleet of Harald Hardrada. His aim is to ensure that King Harold Godwinson, not William of Normandy triumphs at Hastings and that history is thereby rewritten – the Hundred Years War avoided and “jet airliners by 1320”. Of course Hartnell’s Doctor swiftly puts at stop to this “disgusting exhibition” and the Monk’s plan to disrupt history is foiled. The past is immutable.

But history, or rather the body of evidence we use to construct history, isn’t immutable. It’s prone to fire, flood and other kinds of natural and unnatural disaster. Collecting books in a library so they can be cared for and consulted together is a fabulous idea unless you lose the library. We’re reasonably comfortable with the idea that there might be gaps in the documentary record. What’s a little more unusual is if people start filling them in.

In 2008, the National Archives announced that it had foiled an attempt by a historian to insert faked documents amongst files in its collections. The historian cited the documents he had himself manufactured in support of his claims that Heinrich Himmler was murdered by British intelligence and that the Duke of Windsor (the former Edward VIII) was instrumental in the fall of France in 1940. This was a highly unusual case and although tampering with the documentary record in this way has always been possible – medieval monks have been accused of beefing up references to Jesus in their copies of Josephus – normally libraries and archives have trouble with people making off with documents rather than adding them.

The digital realm seems to offer a solution to at least this latter problem: the infinite duplicability of digital material seems to offer a situation in which data can never really be lost. In practice this is simply not the case. Luke McKernan has shown how ephemeral YouTube content can be and the great work of the self-proclaimed “rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths” at Archive Team only emphasises that when no one gets to a closing site in time, its data is gone for good. And with dynamic content much harder to capture than static text and images, many archived sites are shadows of their former selves. They are representations of a digital artifact but the artifact itself has in some sense been lost. In some cases an archived website is a facsimile akin to a photocopied parchment.

We need to be mindful of these discrepancies. But there are others. As I write this, while it is possible to delete a tweet it’s not possible to edit one – and for good reasons. On Wikipedia I can see every edit that’s ever been made to a page. And digital archives such as those held at Kew or in Washington DC use a range of techniques to ensure the integrity and fixity of their data. But no such checks exist on data before it has been archived and the context of a digital item is consequently even more crucial than a physical one, while simultaneously being less straightforward to determine. I can edit this blog post at any time without leaving a record. In the UK, the PM’s speeches online may well be edited to remove party political content. The White House will tidy things up when the President fumbles exactly how Aretha Franklin told us to find out what respect meant to her. So when we read a transcript online is it a transcript or a ‘transcript’? In film preservation, we can trust the AFI and the BFI to hold original 1977 prints of Star Wars. But most of us have to make do with compromised, edited versions. Special Editions aren’t terribly useful if the question we’re trying to answer relates to the content or reception of the original.

What is the case is that the ease with which a digital artifact can be reproduced also means that it is far easier for a source item which has been tampered with to propagate its inaccuracy. Sometimes these propagated inaccuracies are completely innocent. Monica Green and her colleagues have described how an image of leprosy from James le Palmer’s Omnia Bonum became widely used (by the Museum of London, documentarians and in journals such as Nature and Past and Future) to illustrate plague, to mildly red faces all round. Once separated from its metadata, the nature of a digital image can become mutable. We’re a long way here from Stalinist photo editing – although I do like the Telegraph’s version of Kim Jong-Un as astronaut produced in ironic celebration of the Korean Central News Agency’s reputed fondness for a nice bit of Photoshop.

For the digital present, the advice to historians remains as it has always been: know your sources. Rigorous methods will protect the historical narrative from time meddling.

Jo Pugh is a doctoral student working with the University of York and the National Archives. His work focuses on how researchers navigate large digital collections of cultural heritage material.

The past, society and the meanings of public history

Cable Street mural
Cable Street mural (Dave Binnington Savage) photographed by Alan Denney (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Dr Geoff Cubitt is Director of the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past.

How a society organises its relationship to the past is a key element in that society’s culture, integrally connected to other aspects of its social, political and cultural life.  Such a relationship is shaped by many individual and collective contributions, playing across a multiplicity of fields, involving a diversity of media, and reflecting many different institutional or social interests.  Historians have a role to play both in forging society’s engagements with the past and in analysing them – only, however, if they recognise that their own working habits and forms of knowledge are not an absolute standard against which other approaches or understandings are to be measured, but are themselves culturally shaped and socially and institutionally positioned. This blog, which is grounded in the interests of historians with a connection to the University of York and its Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past (IPUP), seeks to promote debate and reflection on the multiple ways in which the past is engaged with, understood, represented and put to use in our own and other societies, and on the role of historians as participants in and interpreters of these processes.

Much recent thinking on these issues has deployed the notion of ‘public history’. The term entered common currency in the United States in the 1970s, quickly becoming the label for a new practitioner identity.  From there, the language of public history, articulated and institutionalized in journals, conferences, associations and educational programmes has spread across the continents – to Australia, South Africa, Europe and elsewhere. In Britain, public history, first nourished by the History Workshop movement and brought to attention through conferences at Ruskin College, Oxford, has developed through a wide range of initiatives, including the establishment of Public History MA programmes at Royal Holloway University of London and the University of York.

But what is public history? As the term has spread, so its meanings have diversified. Conceptions of public history have been enriched and complicated through exchanges with other simultaneously evolving conceptual vocabularies (heritage, memory, historical consciousness) and forms of historical practice (oral history, community history, popular historiography). Robert Kelley’s pioneering definition in the first issue of The Public Historian (1978) – that ‘Public history refers to the employment of historians and the historical method outside of academia’, and that it exists wherever historians are professionally involved as ‘part of the public process’ – no longer captures the range of meanings that the term has taken on; in particular, it fails to grasp the radical edge it often carries. But finding an alternative formulation is not easy.  Even the seemingly basic question ‘What makes public history public?’ produces a stream of not always compatible answers: it is aimed at a public audience; its producers are located in public institutions or communities; it is rooted in public or popular culture, it addresses issues of public concern or contributes to public decision-making. No clear or coherent definition emerges from this diversity.

Two distinctions are, however, helpful in making sense of it. The first distinguishes public history as hands-on practice – a way of doing history that involves various kinds of public engagement and that is defined chiefly by its self-proclaimed practitioners –  from public history as an analytical field – a cultural realm whose constituent practices and relationships may be analysed from different scholarly standpoints. Ideally, pragmatic and conceptual perspectives should reinforce each other: conceptual analysis of how a society organises its historical engagement should draw on concrete knowledge of working practices, and should in turn inform them, prompting a reflective self-awareness in practitioners. In reality, however, the practical commitments of public historians and the perspectives of those who analyse those commitments as part of a society’s culture do not always fit easily together, and may generate tensions in the way an ostensibly shared conceptual vocabulary is used. Bringing these perspectives into creative interaction remains a key challenge for the field.

The second distinction identifies two different understandings of how public history relates to academic and non-academic cultures. The first sees public history as academic history in outreach mode; the second sees it as non-academic historical practice.

In the first formulation, history is seen as a cultural good incubated in academic circles and then transported into the practical settings of society through the missionary agency of publicly inclined historians.  These may be either academics seeking non-academic impact through popular publication or work for the media or heritage sectors, or – in the model envisaged by Kelley – academically trained historians embedded in governmental, corporate, media or heritage institutions.  Public history, here, means applied history – history brought to bear on the practical issues confronting society, whether through the kind of involvement in corporate or governmental decision-making that Kelley himself was aiming for, or – in the more liberal democratic formulation recently advanced by historians like John Tosh – through the stimulus that history imparts to ‘active citizenship’ and democratic debate.

The second formulation, by contrast, defines public history in opposition to its academic counterpart. Public history, here, is history-making in the media, in museums and heritage institutions, in pageants, re-enactments, commemorative practices, on the internet, in art and literature, in local history societies – anywhere, in fact, that the past is engaged with outside the confines of academia, and without the presumption of academic leadership.  It covers a wide range of cultural products, from highly commercialised media productions and state-funded heritage presentations to popular forms of community history. An interest in these multiple forms of public history-making, influentially mapped and celebrated in Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory, usually entails some calling in question of traditional academic claims to pre-eminence: even if not denounced for its elitist tendencies, academic history is reduced to one form of knowledge among many, sustained by the labour of non-academic co-workers. The opening up, through digital technology, of new possibilities for the consumption of history and for active participation in history-making that bypass traditional academic channels has reinforced the tendency to downplay the influence of academic historians in shaping society’s historical sensibilities.

The most creative ventures in public history entail an effort to build a bridge between these two competing understandings of public history – to find terms and terrains of engagement that will enable academic historians and other makers of historical knowledge to arrive at what Michael Frisch has called ‘a shared authority’.  The politics of this are often complex: the opportunities, power structures and interactive relationships that are generated, for example, by the ‘impact agenda’ in universities, by the dynamics of HLF funding, by the structures of the Internet, or by the widely promoted cult of public anniversaries require careful critical analysis. What is clear is that the historical cultures of contemporary societies are changing rapidly, in ways which involve a continuing realignment of relationships both within academia and in society at large.  The conceptual language of public history can help us to meet the challenges of this situation, not because it gives us a stable framework for dealing with them, but because its tensions and ambiguities give us a way of exploring the implications of major shifts in the meanings of history for society.