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.