Conference Report: Political Activism in and through Public History (2nd Public History Weekly World Conference, September 1-3, 2023)

Author: Sarah Ritt has received her MA in English from the University of Vienna, her thesis is entitled “Power, Public Space and the Issue of Murals in Post civil war Belfast.” At the moment, she is pursuing her PhD in Public History at the University of Vienna, where she investigates and contextualises contemporary identity building practices in Northern Ireland. Her most recent publication is part of the 2021 Peter Lang volume Booze as a Muse: Literary and Cultural Studies of Drink and deals with the ritualistic alcohol consumption of modernist author Brendan Behan.


All over the world, scholarly-based and necessarily differentiated recounts of the past are attacked and challenged by political interest groups. This happens in many ways and often highly professionally in diverse media formats. How does one deal with this as a university teacher and researcher of public history? Should one act in a decidedly political way or maintain a strictly analytical position (to name the two extremes)? What can we learn from successful practical examples? Could we agree on criteria? In the end, are public historians necessarily also activists of rational storytelling? Those were the questions that scholars from around the world asked themselves at the Second Public History Weekly World Conference.

“Political Activism in and through Public History”, the 2023 conference of Public History Weekly (de Gruyter Oldenburg) took place in Vienna from the 1st to the 3rd of September, 2023 in Austria’s leading anthropological museum, the Volkskundemuseum, which can look back on a more than 125-year-long history of providing a home to a collection of everyday items from all over the former Austria-Hungarian empire. 

The theme of the conference invited scholars from all over the world to weigh in on the concept of activism in their historical field, with talks ranging from international case studies to discussions of the very definition of activism and the roles of activists. The conference featured up to two panels simultaneously and a total of four keynote speakers over the span of 3 days. 

The first day’s welcome addresses were given by co-organizer Marko Demantowsky, Volkskundemuseum curator Herbert Justnik and De Gruyter’s history program manager, Sarah Wagenhofer. 

In the first keynote of the conference, ‘Public History as Reflective Balancing Act‘, Clarissa Ceglio (University of Connecticut) addressed the dichotomies and gaps that are present within activist work in the field of public history, revolving around – in her own words – this main question:  “What are the internal processes, external factors, and tensions that give shape to projects that are meant to bring history and complementary disciplines into the fray of contemporary life for purposes of educating and advocating for social change?” Drawing on years of working not only as a researcher, but also as a collaborator with civic institutions, such as museums, she carefully considered both the respective project scope and the level of the individual researcher or practitioner. 

The first keynote speaker herself is a great example of the varied approaches to and biographies in public history research: Clarissa Ceglio worked as a strategist with museums for over two decades, before pursuing her PhD from Brown University, in order to support museums and other places of history from ‘the other side’, taking her practical experience with her. 

The second keynote, by Catalina Muñoz Rojas (Universidad de los Andes), followed right after a small break and presented the first of many international examples, namely Colombia’s use of history in the country’s ongoing transitional justice process. The public history project “Nuestra Orilla” (Our Riverbank) served as an example of an initiative that connected community leaders with history professionals in order to challenge the omission of violence in the country’s past and even lead to the production of an easily accessible educational tool for the public in the form of a podcast, which can be found here

The second day saw the introduction of two parallel panel sessions, after a welcome address by Barbara Pavlek Löbl (University of Vienna): One of them discussed the different ways and obstacles faced by schools and in history education, while the other focused on collecting a plethora of international examples of best practices from the field of public history activism. Both panels included  speakers presenting virtually. 

A particular highlight of the second day was the talk by Maria Georgiou, introducing the audience to Bαhçές (garden), a bilingual public history project based in Cyprus, one of the EU’s very own divided societies. Working with young people in Nicosia (the part of the island’s capital on the Greek side, this is not a shibboleth used by the author of this report), the author places Public History firmly among the tools that are available to the interested public, as well as history educators  to engage with and challenge the prevailing narrative in societies that are still trying to navigate post-conflict sentiments and realities in everyday life. Bαhçές talks feature a scholar or practitioner versed in the event’s topic and who introduces the subject by reflecting on their own biography and research interests, which might have led them to whichever position they hold in the ongoing discussion. Now, is this activism? The author reported that opinions differ on that, but the young people who started Bαhçές by getting in contact with their former history teacher (who then recruited the speaker and other colleagues) are activists in different community groups. By cultivating critical thinking, enabling people to understand society better, and building a sense of community, the work of Bαhçές is inherently political, as defined by the speaker. She concluded that history is not the property of historians, but that historians have a responsibility to broaden access to historical understanding. 

Previous talks can be found on their YouTube channel.

With plenty of time planned for in-person discussions and interchange between sessions, the afternoon saw the third keynote by Marko Demantowsky (University of Vienna), who asked what the job of public history and public historians are, after diving into the definition and the history of the term of activism itself. Tracing back the term to the 1920s Life-Reform-Movement, the speaker argued against using the inflationary usage of the term “activism” for all kinds of activities. Activism, he argued, always has instigation at its core, is future-oriented and is linked to generational fractures, thereby it instigates conflict; nevertheless, it is an empty vessel that can be filled with whatever cause is needed at the time. This definition of activism effectively excludes most of the cases presented at the conference and the keynote led to animated and fruitful discussions in the Q&A session. 

The final day of the conference was opened by co-organizer Thomas Hellmuth (University of Vienna), followed once again by two parallel sessions, one on community engagement of the field and the other on international perspectives on politics and institutions, whose inner workings cannot be ignored when working within public history. The final panel of the conference was titled “Public History between Professionalism and Engagement” and included accounts from China, Germany, and Luxembourg, once again highlighting the international focus of the conference. 

The keynote from the previous day had certainly left its mark in the minds of the audience, as one talk, which can definitely be called a highlight, was slightly altered to fit the discussions and atmosphere of the conference. Proving great adaptability and discursive flexibility, Irmgard Zündorf (Potsdam) started with an overview of the genesis of memorial sites in former German concentration camps (both in the GDR and the Federal Republic); to the 1990s (after the formation of the German state as we know it today), when the sites got more public attention and state funding, which switched the work done there from a form of commemorative activism to an actual profession, with a focus on embedding artifacts and places in a historical context and to never repeat the atrocities of WWII and the Shoah. With the rise of far-right parties in present-day Germany, the presenter tackled the question of the politicization of the concentration camp memorials and discussed if they should become political, what form should that take? Or is the work at and support of places of remembrance in itself a sufficient political statement? So far, experts working with or for memorial sites have spoken about this issue publicly, but always as private individuals, not in the roles they hold connected to the sites. This is of course only the status quo, as the (a)political role of places of remembrance – at least in Germany – is still widely debated at conferences and on social media alike. 

The final keynote, given by Jerome De Groot (University of Manchester), reported on the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Manchester as part of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and the subsequent formation of the History at Risk group, a global network dedicated to understanding history in public through a lens of activism.

After an extensive final round of discussions, both organizers gave a farewell address, which concluded the event. The occasion of the conference was used for a subsequent Public History Weekly editors board retreat in the Wachau Region in Lower Austria, which also saw a change in the journal’s management: Marko Demantowsky stepped down from his position after 11 years as manager.

Bringing together such a variety of speakers, not only from all corners of the world, but also with such diverse views on what activism is, should be or should not be, proved to be a fruitful endeavor, not only for the organizing journal, but for everyone involved.

The Conference Videobook, which includes every talk in video format – another measure to make the weekend’s findings more accessible that will hopefully be picked up by other conferences in the future – can be accessed here.

Sarah Ritt, MA in English from the University of Vienna. She is pursuing her PhD in Public History at the University of Vienna.


Cite this blog post
Bridging Editor (2024, May 8). Conference Report: Political Activism in and through Public History (2nd Public History Weekly World Conference, September 1-3, 2023). IFPH-FIHP. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/11nlr

1 Response

  1. May 8, 2024

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