Monday, 27 January 2020

Hilda Kean on Public History in Britain Today (2000)

Public History in Britain today
Written By: Hilda Kean
Date: April 2000
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 9: Summer 2000 

In the past few years public history has grown in Britain. Visits to heritage sites, museums and galleries are key leisure activities. Interest in family and local history is growing so fast that archive departments have scant space to accommodate researchers. History programmes on television and radio are increasingly popular. Significantly, most of this work is taking place outside traditional sites of research, universities.

Public History acts as an umbrella, under which the historical mind can be brought to bear on areas of research and thought which are too often seen as mutually exclusive. Materials are as likely to be found in photo albums, junk in our attics, and public memorials as in academic texts. Public History relies on a collective and collaborative effort of those often working in different fields. This very process, of itself, mitigates against academic navel gazing. It embodies a commitment to the practice of history now be it analysis of the marketing of heritage, the intricacies of the making of history, or the blurring of boundaries between the academy and the world.

In the 1970s the History Workshop movement under the aegis of the late Raphael Samuel at Ruskin College, led the field in “history from below”, based on democratic scholarship, which engaged with the day to day and intervened in public debates about the direction of history in educational and national life. Although it is unlikely that the specific topics covered in our conference or forthcoming book would have been so conceived some 30 years ago, nevertheless many of those earlier concerns are still our concerns. These include an allegiance to those whose lives are still excluded from historical practice and a commitment to a praxis which places an emphasis on what is being said rather than to the status of who is saying it.

To disseminate this approach to history more widely a part time MA course in Public History was established at Ruskin in 1996, followed by an open discussion group which meets regularly in Oxford on Saturdays. We are currently publishing a collection of articles drawn from the group’s discussions, entitled Seeing History Public History in Britain Now eds. Hilda Kean, Paul Martin & Sally J Morgan (forthcoming Francis Boutle 2000).

On May 20th we are organising the first public history conference to be held in Britain. This is a workshop - based conference designed to stimulate debate and draw in people from a range of enthusiasms to discuss the future direction of public history. Broad themes covered are community and family history, history in the media, commemoration, museums and heritage, personal histories and the writing and displaying of history. The 30 workshop specific presentations range from smells, “Time Team”, Sealed Knot re-enactments, posters, and the Blair Witch Project, through to family scandals, suffrage walks and even squirrels!

All interested in engaging in lively debate and sharing ideas and historical enthusiasms are assured of an exciting day out!

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