Putting together a paper for a conference on Representing the Tudors this weekend, I’ve been taxed (again) by the question of what is public history.
This is something I try to explain to students every so often, and typically I borrow the typology proposed in the 80s by Benson, Brier and Rosenzweig. Here, public history comes in three varieties:
- a slick, mass media type often ‘serving dominant interests’
- a professional type, as practised in museums and at heritage sites
- a “people’s history” type often emerging from labour movement contexts.
Categorising public history in this way is pretty pervasive, but it has some problems. Most obviously, that definition pre-dates the internet and social media. It leaves out the increasingly important role of universities in making public history. (Laura King and Gary Rivett have written about issues with that role here.) And it also risks marginalising some important issues, not least the question of money.
A different way to think about public history is to ask how it’s funded. Very often we don’t follow the money, but we probably should. Lots of grass-roots community history projects, that might be classed as the ‘people’s history’ type, depend on Heritage Lottery funding or are part of University public engagement or outreach schemes. In other words they’re not as straightforwardly ‘people’s history’ as they might be.
Within the last year I’ve been interviewed twice for a research project about Park Hill, the housing development in Sheffield where I live (part of this larger initiative). The academics running the project, which has research council funding, are genuinely keen that residents should be able to contribute to the research agenda. Yet, immediately, there are questions about money. Participants are not paid, but their interviewers are. Participants are asked to sign over copyright in their contributions to the University. That doesn’t feel very public to me.
At the other end of the public history spectrum, if you like, we have those slick mass media projects. Unlike the grass-roots co-produced type of history, they pay me for my time. They also (usually) expect to own my contribution, but at least they’ve paid for it. They’re often publicly funded, and they’re collaborative too, something that can be forgotten. It takes dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people to make a TV show. I suppose the difference is that post-collaboration you then have a product that can be passively consumed. The majority of the audience hasn’t had direct input (though they might engage via social media at a later stage). Yet even in co-produced projects, there are often outputs for passive consumers – an exhibition, a book or suchlike, for those who weren’t ever part of the production.
So does it make sense to talk about those three categories of public history? I wonder if they’re better conceptualised as three traditions of public history. I suspect they were much more sharply distinguished, say, at the height of the History Workshop movement. Now, the role of the HLF and university money in the ‘people’s history’ world seems to me to raise some problematic issues about power and hierarchy. On the other hand, social media and audience engagement has become more and more significant to the mainstream media. The lines are fuzzier than they were in the 70s or 80s.
I’m not sure that I’ve got a great new framework for discussing public history, but I’m quite convinced that we should talk more about the economics of history and how they affect what we do. I’m hoping to organise a panel on this theme for the Radical Histories conference in July 2016, and I’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to get involved.