Historians and the Public: David Bates Asks What Professional Historians Can Do to Satisfy the Popular Craving for History

By Bates, David | History Today, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Historians and the Public: David Bates Asks What Professional Historians Can Do to Satisfy the Popular Craving for History


Bates, David, History Today


THE EVIDENCE FOR HISTORY'S immense popularity scarcely needs to be described: the huge interest in family history and tracing ancestors, the massive viewing figures for certain historians on television, the celebrated crash in January 2002 of the Public Record Office's 1901 Census website are all examples of a remarkable phenomenon. Some three-quarters of the public are believed to engage in historical activities every year. Yet there remains a significant gap between the specialist and the public: knowledge transfer is not a simple process (and the interested public frequently brings an enthusiasm, technical skill and depth of knowledge which, on certain subjects, can be significantly greater than that of the specialist). Beyond this, history can be distorted for propaganda and political purposes in unacceptable ways.

Professionals have to make the case for history and expand the interaction and the links between the professional custodians of the past and the interested public. For this reason, the Institute of Historical Research held a conference on the theme of 'History and the Public' in February, as part of a collaboration involving the main organizations responsible for speaking on behalf of the historical profession: the Institute itself, the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association and History UK (HE). Also involved were the Council for British Archaeology and the Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology.

The conference focused on how those with professional responsibility for the interpretation of the past communicate with the seemingly insatiable public enthusiasm for matters historical. Speakers came from most of the sectors involved in the public's engagement with the past, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, museums, galleries, archives, universities, teachers and practitioners of public history, and archaeologists. The central conclusion was that the subject of 'History and the Public' is both extremely important and extremely complex. On the one hand, popular enthusiasm and expertise needs to be listened to. On the other hand, on occasion the public needs quite simply to be better informed.

Some of the most powerful initiatives come from sectors which might not fall within the traditional definition of historian. The Council for British Archaeology, for example, has a policy of 'Archaeology for All'; the Archive Awareness Campaign has brought together archivists, family historians and genealogists. Is there anything resembling this within the historical profession? The pessimist would point to the existence apparently of only one academic course on 'Public History' in the UK--at Ruskin College, Oxford. The optimist would draw attention to many individual initiatives; the splendid activities of the University of York in relation to research into public understanding of the past represent just one example. In the end, the past is holistic. It does not recognize the boundaries that we have created for our academic conveniences. A campaign for History involving much more collaborative work is arguably a necessity.

The topic raises questions which are both philosophical and practical. Who is 'the public'? And what do they bring to the engagement with the academy as 'the public'? There is perhaps only one certainty: when the public engages with some historical representation, they will reshape it and re-imagine it. A lifetime's professional experience of talking to audiences about the ramifications of the year 1066 has provided me with vast experience of this interaction and a host of different interpretations of the date's significance. Most historians could supply similar stories. One has to ask: What simply is the role of academic history in relation to 'the public'? Some would deny that it has one. Others believe passionately in this discourse.

Can History be an 'applied' subject, or would trying to become one compromise its academic value? …

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