History repeats itself. A famous saying that is brought up every time change occurs. From the comparisons between any authoritarian leader and Hitler, to the parallelism between the current pandemic and the Spanish flu, the public is fascinated with the cyclic nature of history. It may be because it gives us a sense of certainty over what might come next. This continued interest has required of historians to reinvent the way the subject is taught: not as a mere exercise in memorization, but a tool to understand our present. The approach provided by public history has proven more effective than that of traditional diffusion of knowledge. This is strengthened by the idea that public history and technology are inexorably intertwined. This discipline expands the focus of traditional history to its relationship to the present: it would be impossible to effectively trace that bond without the aid of technology.
The traditional picture of the historian
Most people, when seeking to define the purpose of history, will state it as the study of the past. Though this definition might appear correct, it fails to take one extra step: how does the past relate to our present? Often in students we see a disconnect with the material being learned. The most common reason? A lack of practical application. In fact, while the rise of, for instance, the Roman Empire, might appear intrinsically interesting to some, others simply fail to see the importance of such events. This is because history is often framed as useful only in the context of theoretical knowledge, an exercise in memory. However, instead of labelling those who fail to find interest in such subjects as “frivolous”, it might be useful to take the subject further by applying it to our present. The knowledge provided by such disciplines should not be reserved for the academically inclined: rather, it should be public domain. The potential for this is clear. Popular media showcases the public’s interest in history. Joan Neuberger, referring to the presence of the past on the screen, highlights how “television and movies, with all their romantic and entertainment oriented distortions, remain incredibly popular, but they are joined by outlets that satisfy the public’s desire to know what really happened” (Neuberger 2016). Therefore, the historian should become, if not a storyteller, then at least a more empathetic teacher. It is essential to break down the “rigid demarcations between ‘historians’ and ‘their public’”, in order to instead “include within this concept of the active agent professional historians” (Kean, Hilda 2009, 1).
In this video, the practical applications of history are outlined
Public history: a more effective approach
Having examined why the traditional approach to history is incomplete, it becomes clear why public history offers a more desirable approach. Despite the value of this public history being increasingly recognized, it is difficult to adopt a unique definition. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is better summarized by the National Council on Public History (NCPH) as "a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history” (Weible 2008). In this field, historians “embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public" (Weible 2008). Not only do they seek to connect history to our present, but they make it an analytical tool in fully understanding our present. It could be stated that, as much as childhood is needed by a therapist to understand their patient, the past is essential to understanding our present. Our mistakes help us understand how shadows of those faults continue to plague us today, while our innovations propel us determined towards progress. A timely example, given the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, is that of racism in America: this can rarely be understood without looking at the economic and civil history that race placed in the foundation of the United States. Here we can see how history is not useful merely as reconstruction, but as a bridge between the past and the present. These insights, to ever be significant, need to be public domain. This will “help people write, create, and understand their own history” (Grele 1981, 46). In Zuckerman’s The Present of the Past, he advocated for a different approach which would result more relevant than traditional history. It was found that for Americans “what counts for them is the uses of the past in the present: that is, the availability of usable pasts, rather than the pastness of history” (Jensen, Bernard 2009, 43). Therefore, it becomes essential to determine how historians can most effectively communicate with their audiences: this is where technology comes into play.
What is Public History? This video by #BirkbeckExplains (University of London) defines the purpose of the discipline
The inevitability of technology
The general public rarely discusses the benefits of technology to the field of the humanities. This is because subjects like history are often seen as being focused on the past. Yet as discussed, history becomes relevant when it embraces the present as well as the past. Through this lens, it becomes clear how technologies are becoming essential in remembering our past. Andre Hurley specifically mentioned “augmented reality, 3D printing, mobile podcasting, spectral imaging, holographic reconstruction, and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping” and how “students entering the field are encouraged, if not required, to acquire fluency in database management, digitization techniques, and collaborative writing software” (Hurley 2016, 69). Therefore, in addition to refocusing history on the present, “digital history practitioners operating in public settings must relearn how to communicate with their audiences” (Hurley 2016, 70). Those who hold knowledge that has numerous practical applications in improving social awareness have a duty to make this available to the public. Especially in the golden age of technology, information can be made available in “exciting new visual forms that are relatively easy to produce” (Neuberger 2016).
John Green flashes out how technology allows learning to take many different forms
In conclusion, history must be refocused on the present, to gain necessary insights from our past. These practical discoveries will gain importance only if shared with a wider audience, not merely that of an academic background. Public history seeks to achieve just that, and technology is one of the most powerful tools in this pursuit.
To learn more
- Grele, Ronald J. (1981). "Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?". The Public Historian, 3 (1), 46-76. https://doi.org/10.2307/3377160 (2020-09-04).
- Hurley, Andrew (2016). “Chasing the Frontiers of Digital Technology: Public History Meets the Digital Divide”. The Public Historian, 38 (1), 69–88. DOI https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2016.38.1.69 (2020-09-04).
- Jensen, Bernard Eric (2009). “Usable Pasts: Comparing Approaches to Popular and Public History”. Ashton P., Kean H. (eds.), People and their Pasts; Public History Today. London: Palgrave Macmillian, 42-56. DOI https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230234468_3 (2020-09-04).
- Kean, Hilda (2009). “Introduction: People and their Pasts and Public History Today”. Ashton P., Kean H. (eds.), People and their Pasts; Public History Today. London: Palgrave Macmillian, 1-20. DOI https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230234468 (2020-09-04).
- Neuberger, Joan (2016). “Public and Digital: Doing History Now” [online]. Not Even Past, January 2. URL https://notevenpast.org/public-and-digital-doing-history-now/ (2020-09-04).
- Weible, Robert (2008). “Defining public history: is it possible? Is it necessary?”. Perspectives on History, March 1. URL https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2008/defining-public-history-is-it-possible-is-it-necessary (2020-09-04).