Friday, April 8, 2011

European Approaches to Public History Session Generates Interesting Discussion, Debate

Friday morning's session "European Approaches to Public History: Identifying Common Needs and Practices," generated a lively discussion among participants and attendees. Some of the more engaging questions centered upon the absence of "politics" as a primary theme [or even a point of discussion] at this year's NCPH conference. From the presenters' perspective, politics can never be separated from the practice of public history in Europe, while it seemed to be missing or at least go largely unmentioned from many U.S. centric conference panels. In hearing this discussion, I wondered if perhaps one reason [among many] for this difference is the funding sources that underpin public history in Europe and the United States. In Europe, the overwhelming majority of funding is public [local, region, national, European] while in the United States, funding comes from a variety of sources, including foundations, individual donors, corporations, universities and government - though this is declining with each year. Perhaps the dependence on government for funding in Europe more directly inserts politics into the discussion and perhaps not. I'd be interested to hear what others think about this question.


  1. A great point, Eleanor. I agree that this was an important facet of the discussion. It strikes me that the reasons for the absence of direct discussion about politics in U.S. public history aren't just about the funding sources. Government- and civic-related projects are still so central to so much that comes under the rubric of "public history," even if they're not the sole source of support.

    As a quasi-American-public historian (who started out in Canada), I've wondered about this same thing. Sometimes I think it's that U.S. public history has developed such a niche for itself in conciliating or mediating roles that it's just reluctant to engage too directly in its discourse with political contention. It also seems to me that there's been more of a retreat of critical intellectuals into the academy in the U.S. than in many other places. If historians want to mount a really vigorous critique, most seem to prefer to have the relative safety of an academic position--or at least the blessing of academic historians--from which to do it. (Of course, that relative safety has been under threat in recent years too, which may make American public historians even more reluctant to engage directly with the politics of what we do.)

  2. This is a really interesting discussion and I would be keen to explore this further with US colleagues. I work in a public policy role in a UK university (essentially a Government relations and strategy development function within the Executive) and am also a PhD student researching the potential for 'using' historical thinking in the process of public policy development.
    I am building in a comparative look at public history between the UK and US, specifically the extent to which public history embraces public policy within it. I had been approaching this under the impression that the US discipline, with its longer-standing engagement with public history and what appeared to me to be stronger track record in representation in political staff roles, was rather more comfortable with policy and political work than the UK academy, but the comments here suggest a more complex picture.
    I am thinking of writing a journal article on this comparison and would very much welcome contact from US public historians to discuss the current and prospective role for public history in politics.

  3. Did you see last summer's issue of The Public Historian journal? It focused on public history in the U.K. - here's the TOC:

    The Public Historian
    A Journal of Public History
    Volume 32 August 2010 Number 3
    Professional Practices of Public History in Britain

    Introduction- Holger Hoock
    "People, Historians, and Public History: Exploring Some Issues in the Educational Process" - Hilda Kean
    "Politics, Populism, and Professionalism: Reflections on the Role of the Academic Historian in the Production of Public History" - Madge Dresser
    "'It’s My Park': Reinterpreting the History of Birkenhead Park within the Context of an Education
    Outreach Project" - Robert Lee and Karen Tucker
    "Historical Authenticity and Interpretive Strategy at Hampton Court Palace" - Suzannah Lipscomb
    "Public Policy and the Public Historian: The Changing Place of Historians in Public Life in France and the UK" - Mary Stevens

  4. I had the pleasure to present a paper in this section of the recent NCPH conference. This was my first appearance at the NCPH conference. As I said during the panel, I was somehow struck by the relative absence of political debates. Even though this was only my first impression, this contrasted with the suspicion towards Public History in the two countries I know about, that is, France and Ireland. One major issue in which both politics and PH have been involved recently is the redefinition of national identification. Through the Peace Process in Ireland or through the debates about immigration in France, any consideration for the past seems to have been politicized in the last years. My feeling is still unclear, but my guess is that new national political projects in Europe have both created new needs for PH and contributed to creating suspicion from academics who intend to fight against "the political uses of the past". See for instance this French Watchdog Committee Against/For the Public Uses of the Past ( Definitely a discussion to be continued.