Internationalizing public history

Categories: International Perspectives
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globe-constructionIn recent years, there has been a sort of awakening within public history. This awakening has been very noticeable during the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, especially during the past four years. Where the attendance has traditionally been comprised of American practitioners and scholars (and a fair sprinkling of Canadians), the number of non-North American participants has been steadily growing. Every year, we have seen an increase in the number of public historians from Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, China, Venezuela, and Brazil, amongst many others. Their participation is leading to new understandings of what public history means around the world and new dialogue about teaching and practice.

The growth of an international “presence” at the NCPH reflects the growing interest in public history outside of North America. Along with the well established programs in Australia, several have started in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In 2012, the International Federation for Public History (IFPH) was formally established out of a task force of the NCPH with a goal “to create international linkages between public historians and promote the development of a worldwide network of Public History practitioners.” The IFPH has been actively pushing for greater dialogue among public historians and working to assist those interested in establishing their own public history programs.

The “internationalization” of public history is a phenomenon that History@Work has been following and is working to promote. In recent years, a number of posts have appeared under the “International” heading and have highlighted local and important public history initiatives. By featuring these posts, History@Work seeks to promote a greater awareness of the important and interesting work being done around the world. This, it is felt, will in turn allow for greater discussion among practitioners about how the field is evolving in parts of the world where the concept of “public history” may be less common-place or interpreted differently.

museum building

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg responds to both national and international discourses about human rights. Photo credit: Richard Ray

As the editors of the International section of History@Work, we are hoping to continue to showcase initiatives from around the world but also to stimulate debate and discussion among current readers. The NCPH describes public history as the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.  In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues. But does this description work everywhere and for everyone? We must ask ourselves whether “public history” means the same thing in different parts of the world and, if it doesn’t, what can be learned from these different approaches?

This section of History@Work provides us with an opportunity to examine and discuss new ways of doing our work, to compare what is happening in one country or region with another and possibly draw some lessons learned for other practitioners. That being said, we are looking for your help. We want to know what you’re doing, what your experiences have been, and what conversations you’re having with your colleagues. The International section is a place for us to compare notes, and try to look at public history in a more global context. Send us your submissions and share your story!

~ Emily Gann is a Curatorial Research Assistant at the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation. She works with various collections and is actively involved in developing programming for the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Emily has been a member of NCPH since 2011. 

~ Jean-Pierre Morin is the departmental historian at Aboriginal Affairs
and Northern Development Canada and the Vice-Chair of the International
Federation for Public History.

One thought on “Internationalizing public history

  1. Thank you Jean-Pierre for your post and your reminding that Public History transcends national barriers. We cannot deny the rising interest in public history around the world (although the practice of doing history in public has sometimes a very long history, a public history without the name…). There is now a stimulating international context of discussion for public history, and the presence of non-American historians at the NCPH conference is one example. While there is an international context of discussion, we could wonder whether there is an international public history per se, with international public history practice. To some extent, one could say yes. There are currently some projects of collaboration between public history centers from different countries. Among others, we can notice the collaboration between public history programs at Hertfordshire (UK) and Wilmington (NC, USA) universities, or the future collaboration between the public history programs at the University of Paris-Creteil (France) and Trieste (Italy). However, the existence of international public history also raises a crucial issue. One major challenge for the international practice of public history is the potential tension between local resources favored by public historians, and the international networks of collaboration. It is necessary to think about the audiences, their involvement into the multiple step of public history practice. Public involvement is not always easy in community-based and local projects, so how can we foster such involvement for international projects? So many questions that history@work could help us to discuss.

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