Magazine article History Today

Public History

Magazine article History Today

Public History

Article excerpt

Ludmilla Jordanova enters the lists on behalf of historians speaking out beyond the groves of academe, and considers some of the challenges they face.

RECENT TIMES have seen a surge of interest in `history', a word that has many meanings. It can simply mean the past, and in this sense history has become a focus of increasing popular and commercial interest. History is also an academic discipline, and debates about its status as a field of study have intensified. For many years historiography, often used loosely to convey reflection upon the practice of history, was considered a bit of a bore, necessary perhaps but not exciting, central to the field, or of wide interest. That has changed, although resistance to `theory' remains a feature of some university departments. I believe history can best be described in terms of what it is that historians do; a set of social practices subject to a wide range of imperatives.

History is, through and through, a value-laden, political activity. Yet it does not follow that all historical accounts are equally satisfying or valid. A frank appraisal of the elaborate imperatives to which history is subject demands discussion of the use of evidence, of the value of theories, and of what is sometimes called `bias' -- a notion that can be misleading because it implies the existence of pure, value-free knowledge, which simply does not exist. Accounts that carry values can still be critically evaluated. Recognising the limitations of historical knowledge need not be crippling at all. Rather it leads to a sense of how judicious accounts of the past can best be generated. This is not self-indulgent introspection. But it is an awareness of just how tricky the concepts and methods we deploy actually are.

The flipside to this productive caution and scrupulous self-awareness is the passionate enthusiasm for studying the past felt not just by those who are paid to be historians, but by the huge numbers of amateurs involved in the field. Being an `amateur' is about feeling love for something, not about being unprofessional. Popular history involves the public; the boundaries between specialised academic history and more accessible forms such as television history, museums, historical novels, biographies and heritage attractions, are fluid ones. I would like to call all this `public history' and to have its nature debated, not least because popular history can benefit from the renewed interest in the practice of history.

History for a wide public brings issues about the nature of the field into sharp relief. The term `public history' is more common in the United States than in Britain. In its narrow definition it refers to the presentation of historical material, especially in museums, to the general public. In North America there is a group of professional historians, working as public historians in this sense. I define public history more broadly, to include all the means, deliberate and otherwise, through which those who are not professional historians acquire their senses of the past. With such an extensive remit, public history becomes a huge, perhaps unmanageable phenomenon, one that at the very least requires careful and deft analysis. This is good as it is imperative that those who practise history in higher education think about the attitudes to the past that exist outside the university system, and take on board the impact of the media and of leisure industries in shaping historical awareness.

There are a number of reasons why they need to do so. What I call public history is a significant aspect of the context in which we work, and hence it simply has to be taken account of. This, however, does not go far enough. Professional historians are implicated by public history in several ways. Historical research is in the public domain and may be used for diverse purposes, which include political persuasion as well as educational programmes. Those who produce historical knowledge have a direct interest in such uses, and should be well informed about them. …

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