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Exhibition “From the Isar to Jerusalem: Gabriella Rosenthal (1913–1975)—Drawings” at the Jewish Museum Munich.

Foto: Franz Kimmel ©Jüdisches Museum München


What is Public History?

 

Public history is a dynamic field that raises important questions about our understandings of the past, the communication of historical knowledge, the relationship between scholarship and activism, and, ultimately, the role of academics in society at large. Defining the term “public history,” however, is not an easy task. Rather than discussing definitions, public historians often prefer to focus on what they do, that is, on their various practices (Cauvin, 2016: 11).

While pioneers of the field such as Robert Kelley defined public history in opposition to academic history (Kelley, 1978), we agree with scholars such as Alix R. Green and Thomas Cauvin who reject a strict division between academia and the broader public. Instead, they stress the historian’s responsibilities in society as well as the need to critically rethink how the past is related to the present and how the producers of history interact with their audiences (Green, 2017; Cauvin, 2016: 10–11). For our project, we adopted David Dean’s interpretation of public history as “dealing with the ways in which the past is created and presented in the public arena as history” (Dean, 2018: 2).

Communicating history to the public in an accessible way can take many forms. To name but a few, it can be found in newspapers and other print and audio-visual media as well as in historical novels, children’s books, and comics. It can appear in films or documentaries and manifest itself in festivals or in political discourses and government decisions. It is the focus of museums and monuments as well as walking tours and podcasts.

For a long time, history was—and among large sections of the public today still is— perceived as representing a “truth.” When it emerged in the late nineteenth century, the historical profession was influenced by Leopold von Ranke’s source-based approach and sought to “show what actually happened” (wie es wirklich gewesen ist). At the same time, historical narratives (not only those composed by trained historians) reflect a magnitude of mis/conceptions about the past: History was and still is mostly written by those in privileged positions, and therefore it is far from objective. When it is constructed in the public space, it reflects more than anything a particular set of values and biases. It is people in the present that interpret and “use” the past to promote a trail of beliefs and aspirations. Historical narratives can set new or legitimate existing boundaries—social, national, communal, religious and other.

The creativity and flexibility inherent in public history proved itself during the events of the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic made many traditional forms of public history impossible and forced the field to adapt to unprecedented circumstances. In 2020/21, the development of digital public history has become a necessity. With research, educational, and cultural institutions closed for long periods and travel severely restricted, public history occupies new virtual spaces and finds new forms such as collaborative international online learning in courses like ours. We hope that this website shows how we made a virtue of necessity and how we can contribute, in our own original ways, to further advance the dynamic field of public history.

Bibliography

Public History Weekly: The Open Peer Review Journal

Ashton, Paul and Trapeznik, Alex (eds.) (2019). What is Public History Globally? Working with the Past in the Present. London: Bloomsbury.

Black, Jeremy (2014). Contesting History: Narratives of Public History. London: Bloomsbury.

Brunnenberg, Christian (2019). ‘Let’s talk about… History Podcasts’, Public History Weekly 7:30.
 
Cauvin, Thomas (2016), Public History: A Textbook of Practice. London and New York: Routledge.
 
Dean, David (ed.) (2018). A Companion to Public History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Feldman, Jackie and Skinner, Jonathan (2018). “Tour Guides as Cultural Mediators. Perfor- mance and Positioning.” Ethnologia Europaea. Special issue: Tour Guides as Cultural Mediators 48:2, 5–13.

Gardner, James B. and Hamilton, Paula (eds.) (2017), The Oxford Handbook of Public History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Green, Alix R. (2016). History, Policy and Public Purpose: Historians and Historical Thinking in Government. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Green, Alix R. (14 September 2017). “Tooling Up: Public History in the University Curriculum.” Public History Weekly.

Hercbergs, Dana (2012). “Narrating Instability: Political detouring in Jerusalem.” Mobilities 7:3, 415–438.

Hercbergs, Dana (2018). Overlooking the border: Narratives of divided Jerusalem. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

De Jong, Steffi (2018). The Witness as Object: Video Testimony in Memorial Museums. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

Kean, Hilda and Paul, Martin (eds.) (2013). The Public History Reader. Abington and New York: Routledge.
   
Kelley, Robert (1978). “Public History: The European Reception of an American Idea?” The Public Historian 1, 16–28.

Lücke, Martin and Zündorf, Irmgard (2018). Einführung in die Public History. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht.

Lyon, Chrestin M., Nix, Elizabeth M., and Shrum, Rebecca K. (2017). An Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Nießer, Jacqueline and Tomann, Juliane (2014). Angewandte Geschichte. Neue Perspektiven auf Geschichte in der Öffentlichkeit. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh.

Sayer, Faye (2015). Public History: A Practical Guide. London: Bloomsbury.