A Student Definition of ‘Public History’

Yesterday was the concluding session of my first year module ‘Making History II’, which, for the last thirteen weeks, has considered the representation and presentation of history in contemporary society. I introduced students to a wide variety of topics, including the role of history in public policy, education, TV, film, the heritage industry, museums, local history and re-enactment societies.

For the final session this week I thought that rather than provide the standard two hour lecture/ workshop I would ask the students to consider and discuss the questions below in small groups using notes from previous lectures:

  1. How would you define ‘Public History’?
  2. Who owns ‘Public History’? (think here about the role of the historian/general public)
  3. Is there a hierarchy in ‘Public History’? If so what do you think it is?
  4. Why should ‘Public History’ matter to historians?

Responses to these questions were written on post-it notes which were then placed on to a board at the side of the lecture theatre. I then used these as prompts to lead a discussion with the full group.

I was intrigued by the post-it note comments and thought that I would share some of them with you. I found responses to question 4 particularly interesting, especially as I had asked them to think of themselves as ‘historians in training’. Strangely, the responses indicated that some of my students were quite cynical about why historians might want to engage with public history. This was surprising because I had been careful to be as balanced as possible in my lecture programme and had certainly pointed to the democratic potentials of public history.  Of course, it could be that I’m reading too much into these responses, or that the 9am start made everyone a little grouchy…Anyway, here are some choice responses:

  1. How would you define ‘Public History’?
  • Public history is a shared history between people in a state/ city/ country/ nation’
  • ‘Public history- History which is accessible to the public on a wide variation of subjects. It is not necessarily academic, amateur academics are involved in it in order to gain historic preservation’
  • ‘History predominantly outside of an academic setting’
  • ‘Interactive learning e.g. museums/ historical sites/ archives. History you can Touch!’
  • ‘Public history is a shared history between a country, city, village etc.’
  • ‘History that is accessible to the public’
  •  ‘History not produced for academic uses and freely/ more easily accessed by public. Produced for consumption’
  •  ‘History that is easily accessible to the public and which they engage with’

       2. Who owns ‘Public History’? (think here about the role of the historian/ general public)

  •  ‘David Cameron’
  • ‘Historians/ Academics who make their material available to the public/ people who fund museums/ government/ TV producers’
  • ‘The Government/ people who own museums- ultimately decide what gets placed into them’
  •  ‘Rich people/ Corporations’
  •  ‘Anyone who takes an interest’
  •  ‘People with a vested interest in the history or funders/ taxpayers’
  • ‘Whichever group [is] funding the project/s. Academics & people above who dictate what ‘real history’ is’ 
  •  The public’  

        3. Is there a hierarchy in ‘Public History’? If so what do you think it is?

  •  ‘Yes. Certain subjects are covered a lot more than others. For example the Victorians’
  •  Yes, more influential people – celebrities or family historians have a bigger influence on it’ 
  •  ‘Yes, certain subjects are pushed more than other. Certain subjects are more ‘worthy’ or respectable’
  •  ‘Yes- people who fund it at the top along with the government/ No- public dictate what is put into museums’
  •  ‘Top to bottom
  •  Definitely – Government/


                                    Historians/                                     = Process


           Yes – Lots of different hierarchies

           Academic/ Enthusiast

          No – Can’t think of any! ‘

         4. Why should ‘Public History’ matter to historians?

  • ‘It allows historians to give something back’
  • ‘Because public history is the source of much funding’
  •  ‘If they want to sell books they might want to tap into public history’
  •  ‘ To make money and get money!/ They are historians so they should be interested in history’
  • ‘Allow access to further research’
  • ‘Gets more interest in history in general. Breaks up the elitist view of history’
  • ‘It allows historians to find out what the public is interested in’

2 thoughts on “A Student Definition of ‘Public History’

  1. Nice start to the blog!

    Seeing this written down, your students do look cynical! Having said that, I’m trying to remember if mine were just as cynical when we had a discussion like this a semester ago. They’re very sharp and certainly not overly idealistic, so maybe. But I think our discussion focused more on the social function of public history rather than the role of the historian in the process. I’ll have to come back to this when we’re doing that again in the autumn.

  2. Thanks George for the comment! I think next year I’m going to rephrase some of the questions or add more general questions into the mix. I was rather surprised by the fact that they decided to take the historian angle as we did explore the social role of public history and why people engage with it. I suppose in some ways I wanted to get them to think about the ways in which they as historians/students could engage with history beyond the university- maybe I need to define better what I mean by ‘historians in training’ to them!

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