2nd Annual Conference – Jinan, China, August 27-28, 2015

International Committee of Historical Sciences
International Federation for Public History 

Roundtable 9: “Why Public History ?” (August 26, 2015, morning)

 Organizers:

  • Alix Green, Lecturer in History and Policy, University of Hertfordshire, UK
  • Arnita A. Jones, Executive Director emerita, American Historical Association, USA

Commentators:

  • Anna Adamek, Curator, Canada Science and Technology Museum, Canada
  • Philip L. Cantelon, Chief Executive Officer, History Associates Incorporated, USA
  • Bonny Ibhawoh, Associate Professor of History, McMaster University, Canada
  • Serge Noiret, History Information Specialist, European University Institute, Italy

The Roundtable on Why Public History? Brings together a diverse mix of historians, both in terms of focus within the field of public history as well as educational and cultural backgrounds.

Organizers Alix Green and Arnita Jones share a strong interest in policy history. Both hold a PhD in history and have also practiced in the field: Green as Head of Policy at a university and Jones in government as well as non-profit organizations.

 Anna Adamek was educated as an undergraduate in her native country, Poland and also holds graduate degrees from a Canadian University. She brings to our discussion two decades of experience dealing with historical exhibits and issues surrounding them in the museum field.

Philip Cantelon holds a doctorate in history from Indiana University in the US. For the last thirty-five years he has led History Associate Incorporated, an independent company that provides historical and archival research services to governments, corporations, and non-profit organizations. With revenues at $10 million and 79 employees, the company has developed an international practice in the field of public history.

Bonny Ibhawoh completed his undergraduate work in Nigeria and then moved on to Dalhousie University in Canada for his doctorate and teaching appointments and fellowships in the US, UK, Canada, and Africa. His work focuses on the history of peace and human rights and issues surrounding the memorialization and commemoration human rights struggles.

 Serge Noiret describes himself as a European citizen, born and educated in Belgium through his undergraduate years and then resident in Florence, Italy, first completing his doctorate and then as administrative staff working for the History and Civilization Department at the European University Institute there. He focuses particularly on the impact of the web and new media on the research in history and resulting changes in the historical profession.

Why Public History?

One of the major difficulties in exploring and explaining public history—and the role of public historians—is the on-going issue of definition. Definitions are shaped by context, and can display significant differences and tensions, both within national disciplinary communities and between them.

Writing in 1991, former World History Association president, Alfred J. Andrea, offered a breadth of scope in his definition that offers, at least, a point of departure. He sees public history as the application of ‘historical skills and perspectives in the services of a largely non-academic clientele,’ and of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’. His range of examples of public history take in public policy analysis, the understanding of cultural heritage, and helping a corporation ‘plan its future through an understanding of its past’.1

Yet it is easy to become overly pre-occupied with definition. The inevitable difficulties involved – and the reality that any outcome will be contested – can prevent further enquiry. We can ask what public historians do, and present the diversity of activities as a proxy for definition, but there is a need to be more intellectually ambitious. The paper that this roundtable will discuss will propose a different way to proceed. One powerful way to explore what public history is is to ask ‘why is public history as it is?’. This approach allows us to consider those important questions of context, to draw out the influences that have shaped public history fields in different contexts and to make comparisons that point to further development and dialogue.

This roundtable will therefore have a comparative dynamic. Taking a global perspective will undoubtedly reveal many differences in terms of public history’s concerns, priorities and self-conceptions. But we imagine we will identify far more things in common. The search of affinities – as the basis by which international conversations about public history can begin – is one of our central aims. We do not anticipate or prescribe the topics or questions respondents will want to focus on. Rather, we suggest here a number of purposes to which history can be put in public as a way to start the thinking process.

The purpose of a distinctive form of knowledge will affect how people should be prepared for practice. What are the requirements of a public history education and how might those be captured in qualifications? The term ‘public’ conceals a whole array of constituencies with different, sometimes conflicting, perspectives and interests. What might determine their relative prominence and how might we understand and mediate between groups? The legitimacy of collaboration with certain groups, for example policymakers or marginalized constituencies such as offenders, is an area for consideration. For every purpose, a set of responsibilities is entailed: how can public historians respond to and manage these obligations?

Commentators are not limited to these areas of enquiry; we welcome consideration of any aspect of public history that responds to the paper with the broad aims of the roundtable in mind.

Alix Green
a.r.green [at] herts.ac.uk
Lecturer in History and Policy University of Hertfordshire

Arnita Jones
arnitajones [at] gmail.com
Executive Director Emerita, American Historical Association

(1) Andrea, ‘On public history’, Historian 53 (1991) p. 381.