Red poppies in the Roll of Honor,
Australian War Memorial.

See Flowers and gargoyles for further explanation.

(Click on image to see full photo and explanation)

Topic 1: What is Public History?

Let's begin the subject by defining what is meant by the term "Public History".

In theory this may not seem that difficult. Refer back to the opening lines of the subject outline. Some historians argue Public History is all history produced outside of the academy (i.e.non-academic) and intended for more than a narrow scholarly audience.

If this is the case you then have to ask:

In relation to the last question some public historians, notably American historians, would argue that it is. English public historians, however, who would probably prefer to be described as "people's historians", would reject a corporate history as anything other than a corporate history.

The American public historian, in response, might jibe the English historian that much so-called "people's history" was produced by Oxford academics - not by the people - and that it is little more than academic history in overalls.

down Activity

In seeking a definition of public history let us begin with your own definition. Write down your own definition of public history.

You might also describe in a couple of sentences what characteristics you would expect to find in a good example of public history. For example, would you expect to see some input from the public? But is this always possible? Do the realities of our world perhaps make it difficult to achieve ideal public history?

Having written your definition and drawn up a list of characteristics of public history, read the following four articles (from your Readings book) for their definitions and understandings of public history. Make brief notes for yourself on what they have to say. See if you can merge their different understandings into something that shares common ground of meaning and understanding. Where are the differences in their understanding or emphasis? How does your definition compare with those offered by the writers? Reconsider your definition.

Read (The readings are contained in the Readings book you received with your study material.)

  1. Otis Graham, "Editor's Corner" The Public Historian, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter 1993, pp. 6-7.
  2. Graeme Davison, "Paradigms of Public History" in Packaging the past? Public histories, eds J. Rickard & P. Spearritt, Melbourne University Press Melbourne, 1991, pp. 4-15.
  3. Ann Curthoys & Paula Hamilton, 'What Makes History Public", Public History Review, Vol. I (1993), pp. 8-13.
  4. "Public discussions about private definitions?" (This is a selection of responses given on the American Public History List to a question posed by your lecturer. It has been "cross-posted" to our site. This extract from PUBLHIST will also show something of the wide range of work undertaken by "Public Historians" - teachers, official historians, museum officers, consultants, etc., as well as the different ways in which they approach the task -and challenge - of Public History. The list is maintained by the (USA) National Council on Public History. You might like to check out the NCPH home page. It has some very useful links to Public History Websites, journals, etc.)

Now you can see that there is rather a lot of differing opinion on what constitutes public history. Why? There is no simple answer to that question!

Cultural differences may account for some of the differences between American and English historians. Public history in America seems to have gone down a very patriotic pathway, supportive of conservative, middle-class values. (See Michael Wallace in your readings.) Public history in England appears to be an active, if sometimes flawed, "people's history" understanding of public history co-existing with a redefining of heritage (castles and monuments) to meet the commercial demands of cultural or heritage tourism. (See Raphael Samuels in your readings.)

Graeme Davison, in the reading noted above, makes some useful observations (p.9) on the difference between American and British public historians. American public history presumes societal consensus; British public history (People's History) presumes an environment of social conflict and injustice. The work of the public historian, and the public history presented, proceeds accordingly in these two societies.

Here in Australia, the public history domain is perhaps shared by the needs of a settler society to give itself historical definition or identity and the needs of indigenous Australians to find political and cultural justice. These juxtapositions are perhaps overdrawn and somewhat extreme, but the basic point is valid. Public history not only reflects the history of the community it seeks to serve, but the very history of that community will shape the nuances of what is understood as public history by that community.

down Defining Public History

What do you think of the 1996 class' definition of Public History at the end of "Public discussions about private definitions?"

Let us start the process of coming to a class definition for this year.

Post your definition of public history on the Public History Definition Forum as a start to our developing a class definition. This will be a semester-long process during which you will be able to make similar, modified, contrary and even contradictory definitions as your knowledge, interpretations and experiences change throughout the session.

I will remind you to review or contribute to building up a definition at the end of each topic. But let us start now. Go to our forum to post or review Public History definitions.

Access the forum through the Communicate link, see panel on left

CLICK HERE FOR ROBIN'S BOOKMARKS - This page provides links to websites of special interest to Public Historians. Get in the habit of checking it for new listings. You can provide URLs for this page as well.

Last Revision: 12 July 2002