As I write this piece my class mate, and frequent MTG opponent, Alex Wilkinson is in the process of writing something of a similar nature. The genesis for this post is a quick discussion I had with him that allowed me to come closer to articulating my thoughts on public history. Let me start by saying I do not consider myself a Public Historian, I am pursuing a standard old MA in History and out of interest I have chosen to take a number of public history courses as part of this.
This evening I have been reading a number of very good blog post by a number of student in a public history program in an institution other than my own. I hesitate to summarize or generalize all of the interesting ideas that are cropping up in their blogs but one commonality that strikes me is the concern over public engagement in history. I have gotten the impression that the field of public history sees one of its primary functions as addressing this issue. This seems to be the case not only in these blogs but also in my own experience taking public history courses.
Although I do believe engagement with the public is important I would like to make a couple distinctions that I don’t feel are been given enough voice in this discussion. When historians speak about audience they need to make distinctions beyond age, gender and level of education. When we see reports that say the general public does not engage with history we should not see it as the failure of history or historians. Even more importantly we should not see it as the failure of the public or assume some form of ignorance on their part. I consider myself to be more interested in history than the average person. That being said there are historical topics that I have absolutely no interest in. Why should I expect the general public to be any different?
When historians create history for public consumption I think we should have two goals in mind. First and foremost we should seek to be accessible and engaging. This means making use of all the tools at our disposal and looking for new ways to make our research easily available to anyone who may want it. This does not mean trying to package our material in ways that are more palatable to everyone. The audience is not the general public, it’s one of the many smaller subsets of the public that has an interest in your topic. We can’t make people want history and I don’t think it is our responsibility to do so. We can however be ready for those that are interested and offer them the best experience we can when they come looking.
I honestly believe that most people do have an interest in history. There are so many different types of history being explored that there is something for everyone. The goal of digital and public history should be to bridge the gap between audience and creator. Instead of trying to make history one size fits all we should be thinking of ways to connect the dots between specific topics and individual audiences.
If historians have a responsibility it is not to teach everyone the same set of facts of stories. The most valuable thing historians can do for the public is force them to think critically about the facts and stories they are told. Encouraging critical thinking and development should be the goal. The easiest way to accomplish this is by engaging individuals on a personal level.