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.