Studying Public History: an unconscious or a reflective practice?
|Author: Stella Molina, has recently completed her Master Degree in Anthropolgy and History of the Contemporary World at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia with a thesis on Public History.|
What does studying Public History mean?
The first time I bumped into Public History was during a conference organized at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, the first Italian campus to start a Master’s program on the subject. I struggled to grasp the meaning of the term, as “public” in Italian means both “open” to the public, not private, and “owned” by the public, as State or community-owned; the term can also indicate the people that compose the audience.
I initially thought Public History was only about communication, and as such, it didn’t sound too new or original -I must admit that I started to love history when I was a teenager and watched historical documentaries on TV, and mostly because I liked the presenter- but that kind of explanation didn’t sound right.
As I dove deeper into Public History, I realized it wasn’t about just publicizing something that was moving “out of classrooms”, or finding new amazing divulgation strategies: it was about making history with others. It was about sharing inquiries and methodologies; it meant comparing, criticizing, destroying and recomposing histories with non-historians. Moreover, there was a challenging, underlying idea which insinuated that the historians’ task is to bridge the gap between “the public” and the historical discipline, overcoming both ivory-tower scepticism and cheap mistrust. As Mr. or Mrs. Everybody (Carl Becker’s Mr. Everyman’s grandchildren) deal with their personal story relating with the past, and interpret reality every day, Everybody devises history. In Public History as I interpret it, people don’t get imbued with an answer that tells them what to know- they get the know-how.
Public History can be practiced unintentionally, if we refer to the last part of historical work. If the terms are “showing” the history product better, the market indicates that the end-users desire the item; and if the question is, Does History Sell? we can all agree that it does. In this case, difficulties revolve around correctness and quality, and everything boils down to the historian’s professionality.
The Italian Association of Public History (AIPH) is drafting its Manifesto: a self-conscious act that highlights the majority of the focuses of the current debate on what Public History is and what it is for. AIPH resolves to promote, amongst other things, “historical knowledge and methodologies of historical research to different audiences”; as “the practices of Public History offer opportunities and tools for the critical understanding of historical contexts and processes, helping to address their complexity” then “it is essential to consider the public, whether specialized or not, both as privileged interlocutors and as protagonists of original research practices.”
Conscious analysis and criticism are powerful tools, and in this sense, Public History is a serious civic engagement. In an increasingly digitized world, it is easy to find many different kinds of information. This can be overwhelming, even for experienced professionals, as Enrica Salvatori warns aspiring digital public historians; if the purpose is to contrast of the “abuses of history”, that is, the practice of mystifying to past to manipulate public opinion, then not only must we “open the toolbox” but also find “safe places for unsafe ideas.”
This is the road, I hope, academic research will take: seminars, conferences, and university courses are multiplying and the discussion is open.
-Stella Molina: Born in 1986 in a cosy little town in the north Italian mountains, I just can’t stop moving. We still have a long way to go! And History is the best baggage.