Public history in the Netherlands

Author: Chris Discors was the first intern at the International Federation for Public History. History student at the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Chris worked with us from April to June 2022. He participated in the IFPH regular communication, organized online public history events, and wrote a few pieces. Among the latter, he wrote this blog post on public history in the Netherlands.  
Baking bread in a clay oven at the historic museum in Eindhoven
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before one can conduct an in depth analysis on Public history in the Netherlands we must first understand the concept of public history. Public History is an approach to history that takes a hands-on interpretation of the past. Public history aims to engage with public audiences through many different methods from museums, exposition, reenactments and many more. This text will be focusing on public history and to what extent Public History is explored in an academic field but also on a larger scale. 

I would first like to focus on the higher education system. The University of Amsterdam offers a Public History masters course called “Puliekgeschiedenis (Geschiedenis).” Programs that are dedicated to Public History are uncommon in higher education in the Netherlands. Due to the nature of this masters program, it offers a diverse one-year course covering the scope of Public History. Students participating in this program will develop curation (running museums and historical sites) and research skills, but most importantly it has a strong emphasis on teaching future Public Historians how to interact and engage with the public regarding the past. Although this might be the largest and most focused program suited for public history, it isn’t the only course. Erasmus University of Rotterdam also offers some insight into public history for students. In their third year, all students taking the International Bachelors of History are required to take a mandatory course called “Public Role of Historians.”  This is an 8 week course where students are taught what public history is, how it works, why it’s important, what to expect going into this field, and, finally, the ethics behind being a public historian. Although this course is significantly less focused than the masters program, it still shows that other history-oriented academic associations also display the importance of public history. 

To fully understand the public history situation in the Netherlands, we must also look past the education offered. There are multiple public history events that take place regularly, such as a medieval reenactment festival (Eindhoven, NL). There is lots of direct investment from the government into public history museums. Further, a good example of connecting with the public can be seen in Rotterdam. During WW2, Rotterdam was bombed to the ground by the advancing Germans. Throughout the city there are reminders, indicators on the ground where the bombs landed and many different murals displaying the historical significance of this bombing. This example can be seen as a success in public history, as a majority of the Rotterdam population is historically aware of the WW2 bombing. It can be said that the idea of public history in the Netherlands can be pictured as developed and present. As mentioned previously, it doesn’t matter which city one visits, if there were large significant historical events taking place, then there are large chances that there is some form of public history surrounding it. 

There is, however, a debate taking place between applied history and public history. Bram De Ridder states that since the 1970s, critics argue that applied history and public history are the same, at least within an American context, leaving out the European one. In 2017, there was a shift in this debate. It is now argued that the difference between public history and applied history is that public history focuses on past history through the use of museums, heritage, archives and documentaries. However, applied history focuses on current events and issues. Another difference that I believe needs to be highlighted is that applied history doesn’t always use academic forms of history to support their ideas. Whereas public history is quite litteralty based upon academic and historical sources. Almost 40 years after the first conference on applied and public history in Europe (1982, Rotterdam), the Netherlands are still a very active space of discussions on the public practices of history.

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