- From Cultural Case Studies to Global Conversations:Towards an Interconnected Community of Enquiry in Public History
Collaborative historical meaning making flourishes where its craftspeople assemble around a shared endeavor. This mostly (although not inevitably) involves coming together in person. Indeed, the public history project often derives, and asserts, its identity and its integrity through ties to the particular and the personal. It is bounded by and bonded to a locality, an institution, or a community. Of course, these characterizations are problematic—the question of who belongs has no self-evident answer—but once negotiated, such demarcations provide a certain clarity and sense of purpose for the project and its participants.1 Through their professional networks and associations, public historians share the stories of these projects and the lessons about method and practice learned during the process.
Communities of enquiry, facilitated by conferences and journals, form around themes and questions that connect individual case studies (the future of contested heritage sites, for example, or the representation of colonial exploitation in museums). It is only relatively recently, however, that concerted efforts have been made to develop higher-level frameworks—comparative, methodological, conceptual and so on—to help us orient the specific and the local within larger arguments and intellectual concerns. The growing interest in international perspectives on public history is to be welcomed as a vital dimension of these efforts. We are gaining new access to discussions of method and practice in other countries, insights that are most productive when they prompt critical, self-conscious reflection on historical inquiry in the broadest sense—including the powerful politics of historical representation in the world today.
Nießer and Tomann offer a valuable contribution to this emerging literature from outside the Anglophone ambit, and I offer the reflections that follow in [End Page 56] a mode of engaged dialogue rather than close critique. The article identifies the "two 'stakeholders' of the discipline of history in Germany," as academic historians and scholars of Geschichtsdidaktik (historical didactics, or history education). Public and applied history are emerging at the tectonic boundary between these two intellectual plates, an interface that has both generative and abrasive qualities. That these specialties are in close enough contact to be "in friction" is a notable insight for historians practicing in the academic cultures of other countries.2 The shared departmental roof strikes me as significant. It signals that the formulation of historical knowledge and the cultivation of historical understanding and reasoning fall under the auspices of one discipline—that they constitute a collective endeavor, even if tensions characterize the division of labor.
In the UK, there are rather different contexts and drivers for public history. One is an external funding agenda that is incentivizing academics to achieve "impact" for their research; here, public history provides a language to bring narrative coherence to activities designed to "engage" the public with historical research. Laura King and Gary Rivett have noted the problematic "soft paternalism" often involved, which may instrumentalize the engagement process in ways that remain underexplored.3 Public history can offer a framework for integrating engagement into the research process itself, although there are imbalances here too, to which I return later. The distinctions between "pure" research and the work of "sharing" history with public audiences may be blurring in the UK, but they remain persistently in view. For me, this makes understanding the organizational infrastructures (and organizational politics) of history in countries such as Germany and then seeking to place the different insights within larger frameworks such valuable tasks.
Yet in seeking to create more productive cross-border communities of enquiry in public history, we are often starting with a marked intellectual disadvantage. It is striking that public historians, broadly understood, have not taken as keen a critical interest in our own professional pasts as our scholarly training might promise. To take the longer view is not merely an academic exercise, however. It reveals a more extensive intellectual root system than the conventional "child of the 1970s" accounts suggest. Robert Kelley's 1978 article, "Public History: Its Origins, Nature, and Prospects,"4 (to take an obvious example) is often treated outside the United States as a foundational text...