What is public history today?

Kean considers different definitions of Public History.  First, the transmission of historical knowledge to a wider (non-academy) audience; but this suggests an ‘active’ historian and a potentially rather passive ‘public.’  Second, she considers Tosh’s suggestion that the key is not the transmission of history outwards from the academy, but the creation of free access to the results of academic history; admirably democratic, but this requires an active public who are prepared to engage with the language and presentation of professional academic historians and enter into their world; at least a historian committed to outward transmission is likely to be cognisant of the needs and interests of the audience, which may be rather different to that within the academy.

Kean suggests that a more fruitful approach is to “[share] conceptual and not just content-based knowledge”, that is, to share and seek common ground in how the public, and the academy, conceive of the fundamental nature of history itself – following Kelly (1978), that public history is the application of the historical method outside the academy.  Kean commits herself to “[m]oving beyond a theme of dissemination to unpacking the very notion of History”.  In his ‘Theatres of Memory’, Samuel spelt out that history was not the prerogative of the historian but “a social form of knowledge; the work in any given instance, of a thousand different hands.”

Part of the role of a public history Project should, then, be to try to understand and mitigate common public misconceptions as to the fundamental nature of history and historical enquiry.  Epstein provides a useful summary of common errors and corrective suggestions.  Although she notes that historical enquiry is in itself an ‘unnatural act’, there are strategies to assist understanding of the historical method.  She identifies four key misconceptions:

That history is true and objective, and the role of the historian is like completing a jigsaw puzzle; a simple exercise of collation of all of the pieces solves – completes – the narrative.  Histories with more facts – especially, where available, photographs – or those published more recently are seen as ‘truer’.  The existence of competing interpretations implies a scale of truth (with biases, ignorance of, or lack of access to, the facts, being explanations of competing alternatives).

Primary sources are often taken at face value, because the author was, after all, there at the time.  Obvious bias or outright lies which are clear from context are usually discounted; but more subtle forms of bias, less so – especially bias not recognised by the author themselves, in the perspectives, hopes and fears they may bring to the act of observation.

That historical actors in the past were simply less intelligent; they failed to apply reason to the situations in which they found themselves. The past, and the actors in it, are recognised as operating in a radically different framework but are too often judged as if they had the knowledge of their future that we have in the present.

There is a strong bias towards simple, particularly monocausal, explanations of cause and effect in historical change; and a bias towards the impact of significant individuals or groups.  Change in culture or society as a whole tends to be underplayed.

Once recognised, these misconceptions can be rebutted.  Historical questions can be open ended, inviting evaluation and comparison.  Instead of comparing different historical accounts to look for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, trying to assess the different questions being asked of the evidence by the different accounts can be more fruitful.  Attempting to develop a better understanding of individuals, the circumstances in which they found themselves, and the mental frameworks within which they sought to understand their present can be invaluable.