until very recently I hadn’t been aware of a movement called ‘public history‘ – it’s more developed in the US than here, but by all accounts it’s growing. What characterises this movement? Well, other than an unwillingness to be pinned down by a rigid definition too much, there seem to be some characteristics to the debate about history which are strikingly similar to current debates raging within the design profession.
So public history – which emphasises a democratisation of knowledge, and doesn’t elevate the academic historian’s reading of events over public interpretations – is history’s equivalent of the service design and transformation design movement. In both cases, the significance of public participation and reflective practice challenge notions of what it means to be a ‘professional designer’ or an ‘academic historian’. In both disciplines, such arguments have ignited fierce debates, and just as service design is sometimes trashed as non-design, so too is public history sometimes regarded with suspicion by academics.
Beyond this, public history demands new forms of collaboration and communication: to engage the public, how historians work with museums, archives, TV (thank you Mr Schama), and other institutions becomes central to the project. It is here that the practice of history is potentially deeply political and connected to emotive issues like the formation of national identity. Tristram Hunt is my favourite writer on this stuff, and his article here on the teaching of history unpacks this stuff better than I ever can. As he says:
as society changes, so does its relationship with the past.
Finally, there is of course a rich debate about how policy makers and politicians could do more to engage with lessons from history. Blair was a fan of referring to history (now is not the time for soundbites… I feel the hand of history.. etc) but to what extent are today’s people of government really engaging with the past? More on this in a fab interview with John Tosh here, a so-so conference speech by Frank Field here, and the best resource on this, set up around the time of the first invasions into Iraq, is the History and Policy site. Makes me long to be a historian again.