Interview: Reflections on Public History in Brazil and the United States

Interviewee: Lucas Avelar, Graduate Teaching Assistant at Colorado State University and Research Assistant at the Public Lands History Center.
Interview with Lucas for TV Brasil at the Rio de Janeiro State Parliament, June 2019.

In this post, Christophe Discors, IFPH intern, interviews Lucas Avelar, a Brazilian grad student at Colorado State University, about the similarities and differences between Public History in Brazil and the United States.

Discors: As you know in the USA people have a close and somewhat emotional connection with public history, does Brazil have a similar connection with public history? 

Avelar: In a book published in 2017 [History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s], M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska discussed the importance of the 1970s for the emergence of new ways of perceiving and engaging with the past in the United States. The author argued that History, at the time, became “as much about feeling as about thinking.” Public history in the United States resulted from the urge of a new professional market for trained historians in the 1970s, but it also responded to the ways in which Americans engaged with their past during the American bicentennial. In Brazil, on the other hand, debates on public history and its possible meanings have been growing and demanding researchers’ attention only in the past decade. In 2011, the first Public History Seminar was held at the University of the State of São Paulo, followed by the first Portuguese publication to introduce the notion to academic debates: the book Introdução à História Pública, edited by Juniele Rabêlo de Almeida and Marta Gouveia de Oliveira. It is still a very incipient field where historians from different theoretical and methodological perspectives seek to define its methods, goals, and limitations. Broadly, Brazilian people have emotional connection, not with a past, but with their multiple pasts, historical narratives, collective memories, generational knowledge, and cultural traditions – and here is where the problem lies. More recently, these narratives became increasingly opposed and politically inflamed. Brazil’s hostile political, social, and economic environment within the past two years have been forcing historians to think about their practice and discuss public history through a specifically emotional lens. Brazilian historians have become increasingly aware of their ethical and moral expectations as they resist constant discrediting from governmental figures, society in general, and far-right movements. These have been dominating the public sphere on the historical debate through social media and other important digital platforms. The political situation and the dismantling of public services such as education, health, and scientific research called up on a new emotional dimension to public history: rigorous and method-based historical narratives must be public-engaging to oppose common sense denial of our violent past, resist the ongoing political project of discrediting history and the scientific method, and fight for the profession’s legitimation in the public imagery.

Discors: Could you point out the main methods used to spread public history in both the USA and Brazil?

Avelar: Public history in Brazil has a strong connection to the methodologies related to oral history that gained a new dimension in the 1980s. The practices that we know as public history have been part of historians’, archeologists’, and other researchers’ professional roles for decades. However, they were never called public history practices. Oral history, digital history, museum curatorship, archives, exhibits, collections, historic preservation, and cultural resources management are different fields of expertise, and therefore make use of diverse methodological approaches to history and the past itself. In Brazil, within the past decade or so, historians have acknowledged these practices as important sections of public history work, but still in a symbiotic relationship with academia. The methods used to spread public history in both countries do not differ so much. What is different is the way these methodologies are integrated into historians’ professional performance. In Brazil, pioneering historians developed public history projects through digital means to promote historical knowledge with online participation from broad audiences. Dr. Bruno Leal’s Café História is a great example, and it set the stage for other initiatives in the same realm, like Dr. Paulo Cesar Gomes’ substantial project História da Ditadura. My many thanks to Dr. Gomes for helping me think through this question. It is worth noting that podcasts, and social media also gained new dimensions with the rise of the public history debate in Brazil.

Discors: How integrated are the public history organizations and institutions into the government infrastructure? Or do these groups maintain independent funding and structure? 

Avelar: Differently from the U.S., public history in Brazil is mostly embedded in academic spaces and scholarly debates. Museums, memory institutions, and archives that integrate the government infrastructure have been defining their own roles and responsibilities in promoting public history as the debate advances in academia. But the intersections between historic preservation, cultural management, and public history in the United States, in my opinion, is clearly defined, making it easier for governmental institutions and organizations to claim their part in the process of producing and promoting historical knowledge among communities and broad audiences. In Brazil, the fresh public history debate did not shape a new professional field for historians. For instance, although historians collaborate with those memory institutions and official “preservation efforts” by government structures, there is no such profession as public historian or historic preservationist in Brazil. In this case, public historians still depend on traditional positions – mostly academic or teaching positions – and cannot create a professional identity solely based on public history work. In Brazil, the history profession was finally registered as a legal, formal occupation in August 2020. Those of us who engage with public history are most likely not receiving extra financial support for our projects, neither are employed specifically as public historians by government institutions. As the scholarly discussions increasingly embrace different areas of historical research, scholars decide to contribute insofar as they acknowledge the urge to reach broad audiences and integrate their research with ordinary people’s lives. But in most cases, they will not get paid for doing this. It is worth noting that, in 2012, the Rede Brasileira de História Pública (Brazilian Network of Public History) was established as a national organization that seeks to map and promote publications, projects, institutions related to public history in the country.

Discors: How do the public history fields of the USA and Brazil differ from each other? 

Avelar: As I briefly mentioned before, the public history field in the U.S. resulted in part from the urge for a new professional market for trained historians in the 1970s. This fact explains how and why public historians have a clearly defined professional practice in the United States. In Brazil, as the historian Ricardo Santhiago suggests, although historians have been informing the academic debate on public history with their own field experiences, public history recently emerged as a field intimately connected to theoretical and methodological debates.

Discors: From all these differences, which do you believe to be the most significant and why? 

Avelar: The academic component of public history in Brazil is the most significant difference. The relevance of Brazilian public history to the international community is the substantial intersection between theory and practice that has the potential to reshape historical research on many different levels. The regulation of the profession in August 2020 is a great victory, but only the start of a movement that should change the making of history in Brazil for good. In my opinion, soon there will be no space left for strictly academic historical research that neglects common people’s experiences and the way they engage with the past.

Discors: What sections of public history do you focus on in your masters? 

Avelar: My masters program concentrates in Historic Preservation. I am writing a thesis on world’s fairs that happened in the United States during the twentieth century, the Brazilian participation, and its national narratives in these events. Part of my research seeks to understand how world’s fairs have been remembered in the United States; what elements of the built environment commemorate world’s fairs today, and how people connect to places that promote public memory of these events. Further, I have also been engaging with substantial professional experiences within the historic preservation field. Last year, alongside my colleagues and professors, Dr. Sarah Payne and Dr. Adam Thomas, I surveyed the local community of Warren Shores in Fort Collins, Colorado, and helped document the community’s historic significance and architectural features in collaboration with members of the Warren Shores Board of Directors and Architectural Review Committee. This ongoing work has been done in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act and the survey guidelines and preservation criteria found in the National Register Bulletin. It is also noteworthy that my colleagues Natalie Stacker and Madelyn Powers produced a documentary about the neighborhood for their Material Culture class graduate project in 2020. Further, another professional experience that I would like to highlight is my current work with the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center. This project is an ongoing collaboration with the Public Lands History Center at CSU that provides assistance to the NWRC with evaluating and migrating different formats of research data in compliance with standards that ensure long term preservation and access to the scientific and broad communities. My responsibilities include evaluation and identification of scientific research data, reinforcing format and storage requirements for preserving scientific information, and digitizing federal records of institutional importance. Although mostly an archives job, this project has been providing me invaluable experience in the field of historic and digital preservation. 

Discors: What has been the most controversial and challenging problem that you have encountered within the public history field, in both the American and Brazilian contexts? 

Avelar: A common controversial theme I have noticed in both countries is historical denialism. In late 2011, the Brazilian National Truth Commission was established to investigate human rights violations during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985. Families, relatives, and citizen voices were crucial to the process of remembering and determining crimes. Indeed, the craft of oral history was not a new practice for historians in Brazil, but it surely achieved a new proportion at the time. Simultaneously, the public history debate was emerging as historians realized their ethical responsibilities with promoting the truth about our violent past. This reckoning with our past was inevitable, and the way historians perceived their own practice shifted to reflect the challenges of the time. Of course, however, there was backlash. Far-right movements and advocates of a conservative understanding of the dictatorship (or what they called “regime”) put forward their own historical narratives and dominated the public sphere through social media. YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram became impressive battlefields of historical narratives, generational knowledge, and political ideologies. Similarly, in the U.S., the Trump Era brought to light the obscure conservatism of Americans, racism, denialism of slavery, and anti-immigration violent past of the country. When it comes to anti-science ideologies, both countries faced similar problems. The challenge for public historians, in both cases, is to understand how to ensure shared authority with broad audiences without giving up the historian’s credibility and the rigor of scientific method. In Brazil, issues of the present are what drive historians to think about their moral obligations in face of increasing political conservatism and historical denialism. When I worked as a history interpreter at the Rio de Janeiro State Parliament, the main challenge was to present a historical interpretation of that building that spoke to the visitors in a non-confrontational manner. Very often, visitors brought to the Tiradentes Palace, the historic building that used to be the federal parliament, their own understandings of our past and conservative assumptions of controversial topics like slavery, colonization, and authoritarianism. This challenge was even more evident when I engaged with the Project “Eu Apoio – A Voz do Adolescente” (The Teenager Voice), a Permanent project of the Court of Justice of Rio de Janeiro State that took teenagers and kids in some conflict with the law to cultural activities in different and important institutions, especially the Rio de Janeiro State Parliament, the National Historical Museum and the Cultural Center of the Judiciary. In order to allow adolescents under judicial measures to feel comfortable to talk about themes such as democracy, citizenship, politics and history, my colleagues and I had to share our authority as history interpreters and give these adolescents the chance to speak up their own narratives. Shared authority became a personal challenge for me and my colleagues at the Parliament. Public history and history of the present and the methods of oral histories are, therefore, interconnected in the country, and to defend our proficiency to deal with the present has been a challenge itself for public historians. My thanks to Douglas Liborio, historian at the Tiradentes Palace, who helped me think through this question.

Discors: As for international public history, why is it important to raise awareness of the importance of public history? 

Avelar: The inflamed debates at an international level on monuments, sites of conscience, difficult memories and violent pasts in recent years lead me to conclude that public historians have a moral obligation to not only promote but also mediate the reckoning with those pasts. It is urgent that historians include the public in their scholarship, acknowledge that their authority over the past has always been shared, and that there is a way to commit to producing historical narratives with broad audiences without losing academic rigor. The Brazilian historian, Ricardo Santhiago, defined four important elements of any public history work: history for the people, history with the people, history by the people, and history and the people. The monuments crisis today is indicative that minority groups and frontline activists do not need historians’ legitimation for producing and promoting their own historical narratives. In fact, as I argued before in an article for the IFPH Blog, Bridging, we are the ones who need these groups to make a change in the way we create and discuss history.


Lucas Avelar is a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Colorado State University and Research Assistant at the Public Lands History Center. He is also a Collaborator at the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center.


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