International Public History – a perspective from the UK

I follow the National Council on Public History (NCPH) History @Work blog regularly – it’s a fantastic way to keep up with current debates and discussions in public history, and to hear about projects I would otherwise not. As the national American council, most of the places and histories discussed are ones I have little knowledge of. I’m currently drafting a chapter (the last!) on international public history, and have found the blog useful in grasping both theoretical and practical differences in public history from across the pond.

The blog, as well as the work of the NCPH more generally, is also a primary source to me – by looking at the way public history is practised, taught and discussed in the USA, I’ve been able to think about how and why the practice (and focus of academic public history) is different in the UK. Two blog posts in the past few weeks, by Emily Gann and Jean-Pierre Morin and Nick Sacco, have also addressed the issue of different international perspectives on public history. It’s fantastic that discussion has really opened up outside of America in the last few years, and both posts highlight the international attendance at the annual NCPH conference as one signifier of this.

Looking specifically at the public history of same-sex love, and indeed marginalised and minority histories in general, there is a distinct difference in practice in the UK and the USA, which is the focus of my aforementioned chapter. The National Park Service (NPS) has just launched an LGBT Heritage Initiative (announced just as I was drawing together my plan for the chapter, thanks!), the most recent of a series of projects aiming to represent marginalised histories in the USA. Here in the UK we have little to match the scope of this incredible project. We certainly have the histories, and even the built environment to work with, yet the histories remain largely hidden.

Nick Sacco noted in his post that his work “involves interpreting the “tough stuff” of US history–Indian removal, slavery, and segregation” and questions “if there is room to learn from international public historians who are working to interpret their own “tough stuff” of imperialism, world war, and genocide.” I think this is one of the most important aspects of an international discussion of public history – every country has difficult, “tough”, and shameful pasts, which make up both national and global histories. So, what can we learn from each other? I would argue that we can learn a great deal from the USA representation of LGBT history (although I know it is far from complete or faultless). We can also learn from the way in which the social, cultural, political and economic histories of different locations influence the way those histories are represented today. We can learn still more from current society and politics – for example, by asking how much the debate and legislation of equal marriage and contemporary LGBT rights impacts on the way public histories are told in specific locations.

There are so many discussions to be had internationally, and it’s really exciting to be a small part of this – whether online from my desk in London, or at the International Federation for Public History (IFPH) conference. Taking an international perspective on public history can teach us not only about global practices, but also a great deal about our own approaches. This surely, can only make for a more vibrant, accessible and representative public history.


4 thoughts on “International Public History – a perspective from the UK

  1. Hi Claire,

    Thanks so much for the kind words for writing this fine essay. I see several different avenues by which public historians in different parts of the globe can learn from each other. One way is through a comparative examination of the different ways public history is taught and practiced. What are the differences and similarities in the historical methods we employ and within the actual process of communicating the stuff of history to our audiences? And what kinds of scholarship are we reading to help inform us of public history practices?

    Then there’s the historical content we choose to interpret for our audiences. For example, as a United States public historian who interprets the history of U.S. slavery to my audiences, I am interested in learning more about European historical memory and how Europeans have to come to terms with their pasts. Richard Sandell’s 2007 publication “Museums, Prejudice, and the Reframing of Difference” analyzes efforts by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to educate visitors about not only the history World War II but to also elicit debate and shared understanding about prejudice and difference in the present. Sandell’s scholarship should be read by more American practitioners because these European case studies can inform our historical knowledge and the way we communicate that knowledge to audiences, in my opinion. Although I don’t know a lot about LGBT history, your comments about contrasting efforts to study LGBT history in the U.S. and UK demonstrate to me that scholars can also learn from U.S. history as well.

    Again, great essay and thanks for the kind words!

  2. Thanks, Nick! Absolutely, I think teaching and university programmes are one great difference – in the UK, Museum Studies degrees far outweigh Public History programmes in quantity, and I should think this has a significant impact on the way practice differs between the two countries. In turn, these degrees inform our scholarship and it’s interesting that you mention Sandell, as he is from a Museum Studies dept.

    I know little of the history of slavery, but am hoping to visit the Slavery Museum in Liverpool soon. It’s officially the International Slavery Museum, so it will be really interesting to see how it tells global perspectives and histories. Considering it now actually, I can’t think of any other museums or historic sites that aim specifically to be international. I’m looking forward to finding out whether the approach is international or whether it is more a global narrative.

    Thanks again for your comments!

  3. Hi Claire (and Nick) It’s great to see public history being discussed in an international context. It seems to me to be a field that can be inclined to a certain domesticity, even introspection, with little interest in international, comparative and conceptual debate (not universally the case of course). I’d be really interested in hearing your views (and those of your readers and colleagues) to inform the first roundtable on public history at the International Congress of the Historical Sciences, to be held in China next year (there’ll be a dedicated IFPH meeting there too). I’m convening it with Arnita Jones, and we’ve set out with the intention to encourage the kind of conversations and connections you’re talking about. If you can, please do leave a few words under the call for comments: Arnita and I are gathering views from as many places as possible to help us prepare the discussion paper. And, if you’re coming to Jinan, do join us.
    Your comments on the ‘tough stuff’, Claire, are really interesting, and, in an international context, add a whole new layer of toughness!
    Talking of tough stuff, have either of you seen Exhibit B? I’m thinking of using it for a transatlantic teaching collaboration we have the Wilmington, NC. It certainly speaks to the big issues in public history, not least in terms of ownership, authority and audience.
    Anyway, very good to have ‘met’ you
    All best wishes,

  4. Hi Alix – thanks for your comments. I’m not planning on coming to Jinan at the moment (though I will be at the conference in Amsterdam in Oct) – but sounds like it will be a really fascinating roundtable. The call raises some important questions, and I’ll definitely add my thoughts to it.
    I haven’t seen Exhibit B, and to be honest I’m not planning on it. For me, it crosses the line between artistic representations and contentious issues. I had thought the same of the ‘human zoo’ project in Oslo earlier this year. I think absolutely, it speaks in volumes about ownership, authority and audience – but (from what I have read about it) gets it completely wrong and actually perpetuates historical racial attitudes. It is though a great way to look at these issues in public history, and also question the boundary between public art and public history. Would love to hear more about your thoughts on it and use in teaching!

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