Public history is a much contested and misunderstood term which can be used in a number of different contexts – on television and radio, in print, in museums and archives, and at stately homes and heritage sites. It is big business, increasingly competitive, politicised at times, debated for its quality, sought after for its entertainment and often controversial for its coverage.
Public history strives unapologetically to be popular history – entertaining, engaging, accessible – but it is, at its best, also research-led, academically rigorous and informative.
It is the ‘shop window’ of the ‘coal-face’ historical endeavours that take place across the country; it is that which keeps history from being simply piles of dusty archives or crackly audio recordings, or faded pictures, unreadable Latin treatises, complicated ancient laws or tediously repetitive parish registers. Public history is, in short, history that is crafted and presented in such a way as to be read, heard, watched and enjoyed by society at large.
In recent years the growth of public history – particularly on television, radio and the web – have raised important questions about the status and integrity of the history presented. It has been dismissed by some as intellectually weak, as scholarship that has simply ‘sold out’ to the demands of big audience figures or high ticket sales, and as such has little to do with erudition but rather is fundamentally lowbrow entertainment.
History in its ‘proper’ form, such critics maintain, should be confined to scholarly journals and academic presses. Printed yes but not for general public consumption. Such historians therefore keenly defend the boundaries of their discipline and the ownership of historical knowledge and have been slow to grasp and embrace the fact that this ‘academic’ monopoly has now been broken and historical scholarship is now diffused and enthusiastically consumed in a number of different ways.
It is a move that should welcomed as an opportunity. To prioritise the written form of history over other new media and not move with the times is short-sighted. The development of the historical discipline has been built upon embracing new modes of communication as a means of instruction and as an agent of change. History is dynamic.
It should engage with debate and address matters of public interest. Historians should see their own activities in this wider perspective and look to reach beyond the academy.
Historians are – whether they acknowledge it or not – public historians. Not only are they publicly funded and increasingly called upon to demonstrate the public ‘intellectual and cultural impact’ of their work by research councils and other funding bodies, but they also surely have a wider responsibility to disseminate the fruits of their endeavours.
It is no surprise that after years of a ‘pick and mix’ historical school curriculum constructed with no chronological narrative and little thematic coherence, growing numbers of adults turn to historical novels or historical non-fiction works and tune in to the many historical programmes on television and radio. There is a great knowledge deficit and a huge appetite for a sense of the past. Historians must find and maintain a voice whether this be on television, radio, in print, through heritage organisations, local community initiatives, through public lectures and school visits, through working alongside heritage institutions and curating exhibitions, through blogging and tweeting, or through publishing accessible books.
Historians are also in a privileged position of being able to highlight past precedents and so offer a longer term perspective on current debates. Networks such as History & Policy have led the way in seeking to put historians into the public domain to increase the influence of historical research on policymaking. Historians should go on striving to find the topicality of their researches and find a medium to enter contemporary debates and so connect the past to the present. History is ultimately a cultural form of public property and historians are the nation’s custodians. They should go forth from the academy and share the fruits of their labour.
Anna Whitelock discusses public history on our weekly podcast: www.historyextra.com/podcast-page