Conversations About Studying Public History

Author: Marta Kopiniak,  master’s student in Public History at the University of Wrocław

Gathering materials for an outdoor exhibition organized by the Public History students at University of Wrocław, as a part of one of our courses last year.

When I first heard about the masters program in public history at Wrocław University, I had no idea what it was. After doing some thorough research, I knew that it was exactly what I was looking for: a way to communicate history to the people around me, to make it accessible to them. A way to make history with them.

And then came the explaining. Since public history or historia w przestrzeni publicznej, as the program is called in Polish, is not well-known (or not known at all, some would say), every time I meet someone new, I have to explain what exactly it is that I study.

And I have done it so many times, that I have witnessed a wide variety of reactions to my explanation: from indifference, to curiosity, to downright anger.

As time went on, and I myself started understanding more of the nuances of public history, I started describing it by giving examples of the different things that a Public Historian could do: work at a museum, design exhibitions, work at a community centre, be a journalist, a scholar, etc. Such an overview gives an idea of who a public historian is. But then some people seemed to have disregarded my explanation entirely, and still to this day think that I just study “regular” history. Those are the people who were indifferent.

Then there are the people who listened to me and were curious as to what that discipline is and what one can do with it. Surprisingly (or not, it depends on how you look at it) those were young people – other students, people I met at work or some social occasions. They all seemed genuinely interested and engaged in conversation about it.

And lastly, there are the people who, for whatever reason, got angry at the mention of public history. All of them were over 40, intelligent, refined and collected. But they got angry when I told them that I want to make history with people. To them, history was untouchable, a monolith of knowledge, not to be changed in any way from what they know or think they do. So to them, letting people from the outside “do history” would be almost sacrilegious.

Poles are generally passionate about history, and it’s something that is always circulating in public discussion and in public space. There is history everywhere, and you can’t really escape it. And people have some strong opinions on how history should exist in that public space. But there is also the problem of associating history with the word “public” – in that context it doesn’t mean that the history is “owned” by the people, it means that it’s owned by the state. That does not go well with the memory of communism, when the state owned everything. To those people, I have not yet been able to explain that public history can be the exact opposite of what they fear.

Meeting all these people and seeing their diverse reactions, only made it more visible to me that public historians are needed: to make history accessible to those who are interested in it, and to make all those who believe that history is their own accept that it, is in fact, public. It may seem a futile effort – how do you fight seemingly most of the society in claiming parts of history and not letting anybody else touch it? How do you do that without antagonizing most, if not all of them? I do not yet have a solution, but I believe it is worth a try. And I blame youthful idealism.

Marta Kopiniak is a Public History student at University of Wrocław, currently working on her Master’s dissertation about the connections between public historians and tourist guides. Besides that, her academic interests lay close to women’s history and its place in the collective memory of Polish society.

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