Monday, September 28, 2009

Defining Ourselves as Public Historians

In the almost five months since I made the decision to pick up my life and move to London to attend UWO I’ve heard one question more times than I care to count. Imagine this scenario:

I’m sitting across from my grandma, this is probably the second to last time I saw her before I moved.

“So, Nana,” I say, “Mikkel and I are moving to London- I’m going to the University of Western Ontario to do my masters in Public History.” Now my nana is a smart cookie, and age certainly hasn’t slowed her down any, but I can tell watching her that she’s trying to decide what on earth this “public history” is. Finally she breaks down and asks:

“Well dear, what exactly is Public History?”
At this point, I flounder, like I’ve floundered almost every time I’ve been asked this question. Its not even an issue of not knowing, its an issue of the complexity, subjectivity, and sheer scope of my potential answers. Sometimes I tell people its museum history, or cryptically, history as we present it to the public, or even more theoretically, I tell people it’s the study of how we as a group remember our history and how what historians do to present it changes that.

It was reassuring to realize that as a budding public historian I am not alone in my inability to create a single complete definition of my field. In fact public historians in general have not been able to create one overarching definition. For example In her 2007 Presidential address of the Canadian Historical Association, Margaret Conrad summarizes 7 or so definitions from 4 different historians.

So, if we haven’t been able to come up with one definition or perhaps mission statement for our field, what then are we as student public historians studying, how do we define what we hope will become our life’s work? Perhaps instead we should define how public history is different from academic history, or, perhaps one overarching definition might be too limiting to a broad field that in my opinion bridges the gap between academia and the public. Perhaps we should flounder, so that we can continually redefine ourselves in a quickly changing world.

Source:

Conrad, Margaret. (2007) "2007 Presidential Address of the CHA: Public History and its Discontents or History in the Age of Wikipedia" Journal of the Canadian Historical Association. 18(1). p. 1-26.

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