Conference report: Public History and Historians at the IFPH 2017

As someone who’s come to public history via memory studies and then oral history, perhaps it’s inevitable that I should have felt out of place at the International Federation for Public History’s 4th Annual Conference, held in Ravenna, Italy from 5th to 9th July 2017. A nationally diverse array of scholars, over 200, almost all of whom consider themselves historians, gathered to discuss their public history work—which in most cases referred to their work as historians entering or speaking to a (sometimes amorphously defined) public, in an effort ‘make’ public history for them. Occasionally, community input and co-curation was also suggested.


For me, the programme revealed the disjuncture between different approaches to public history and history made public, and the lack of disciplinary diversity being adopted by public historians doing public history in some contexts—even as many attempted to develop and implement public-facing history projects that took many tangible and intangible forms.

In my mind, the ‘public historian’ need not be involved in processes of public history. At the same time, I don’t want to discredit the ‘skills’ that historians profess, as a disciplinary group that wish to protect their skill-set in an increasingly do-it-yourself culture. This was also an anxiety expressed by some speakers, often in response to questions around ‘sharing authority’ (rather than Frisch’s ‘shared authority’, which is more a matter of historical consciousness, to quote Graham Smith in his paper). What does it mean to move beyond ‘engagement’ for public historians? … This question would sound mighty familiar to oral historians, but to public historians (particularly in Europe) maybe it’s still worth posing. And it was posed a number of times throughout the week. Questions of engagement, and especially affect, would also sound familiar to those in heritage studies and museology, or anyone aware of the studies conducted on a national scale into memorial cultures and public uses of heritage and museum sites (see those commissioned in Finland, Australia, America and Canada).


National approaches also played a part. American public historians often referred to the ‘market’, frameworks of ‘applied history’ (historians working with or for agencies and ‘policymakers’), and ‘training’ public historians for employment. Sadly, I did not get to attend many Italian papers, for which I blame my very poor Italian. Other Western European approaches (Belgian, German, Dutch and French) were also tied to the tangible—contests over single memorials, specific exhibitions or museums. Almost all considered the position of the historian (or curator) within these spaces—how they are to inform a public, and how they are to interact with oppositional political viewpoints, adopt to and fully utilise new digital technologies, or engage marginalised communities. This was about histories by historians entering public spaces.

The small Australian contingent, of which I was a part, often struck a different chord, which I suspect sounded a little strange to some. The field of public history in Australian has moved beyond initial questions about ‘who are we’ and what we do as public historians—that is, questions around the work and production of public history by public historians. As Paula Hamilton argued in one of the last sessions of the conference: we now critically consider the relationship between publics and what public histories can do—their effects. Hamilton also argued that the emphasis has shifted to the ‘audience’. In this case, I’d say the emphasis has truly shifted to co-creation, to ‘the public in public history’, to the grassroots use and creation of multidirectional memories. As indicated above, in order to encourage different types of public history work and an analysis of its function, public history might benefit from engaging more fully with other disciplines, particularly work within critical heritage studies, which is often conducted by archaeologists and anthropologists. On the flip side, it might also need to decentre the ‘historian’ in its understanding of the ‘public’ in public history.


Similarly, the multidisciplinary field of memory studies still has much to offer the field of public history as a self-reflexive discipline, particularly in Europe, where public history as a field of critical analysis is less well developed than in Australia. Memory studies, as Wulf Kansteiner argued, is theory driven, and concerned not only with what people do with history (‘memory work’), but also with the formation and proliferation of ‘memory cultures’—which are wider questions. Admittedly, memory studies found its home in a conventional academic habitus. Alternatively, public history has a problematic relationship to academic history, and maintains a more concrete engagement with ‘publics’. It has a ‘concreteness’ that memory studies doesn’t always possess. (As an aside, this tension between academic and public history was in some ways encapsulated in the following question, which was posed during a roundtable session on teaching public history within universities: Do we want to change or challenge academic history and the way it’s taught, or do we want to create a separate discipline of ‘public historians’ and create public historians?

I’ve been told that the question of whether public history can be enriched by a more critical use of theory has been posed at previous IFPH conferences. Certainly, it has been posed in the literature (thinking in particular of Hamilton and Shopes’ edited collection). The next and most obvious step might be a more critical awareness of how gender and class plays a part in both public history practices and outcomes, which has been noticeably absent from some of these discussions. Working across disciplines, moving away from the silos (of which even public historians, the self-professed exiles of ‘academic’ history, are guilty) will advance these developments in public history.


PS> I acknowledge that some of the issues I’ve touched on in this blog have massive fields of literature behind them, and that this is a dense topic! I would have liked, for example, to also elaborate on the place of ‘family history’ in relation to PH (and give a shout out to Tanya Evans’ work, who also presented at the conference). But permit me time, and another blog post, and more will follow…


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