As promised, I shall begin with an explanation. What is Public History? Well, as one of my colleagues told me, she likes to tell people that it’s the concept of public washrooms applied to History.
But really, that’s not it at all. Public History is a number of things. It’s History being presented to the public, which can take any number of forms: museum exhibits, national historic sites, documentaries, living history parks, etc. It also has a more theoretical side, which is concerned with the nature of memory, representation, and the place of the public in creating History. This all sounds very decided, as though Public Historians know exactly what their answers to all of these issues are. Well, they don’t. Like academic Historians, they debate all these things all the time. And that’s a good thing. Otherwise, we’d all be bored to death…or planning professional mutinies. Arrrr.
So what about me? Why did I choose Public History? I almost didn’t. I started my undergrad in History quite by accident. I had hoped to go into Architectural Conservation, but didn’t make it into the program. I was devastated at first – I had spent all of high school preparing to do something very math/sciency (that’s a word), and now I was in the Arts. It was a major cultural shock. Partially to give myself some grounding, partially to please my father, and partially because it worked in my grand plan for life, I decided to minor in Chemistry. Why Chemistry? Well, largely because I loved it in high school (yes, I was one of those crazy people), but also because it meant I didn’t have to give up my dream of going into conservation. Well, fast forward three years, and I was still pursuing a Minor in Chemistry, but I had also fallen deeply in love with History. It was so much more fulfilling than I had thought it could be – and more important too.
When it came time apply for grad school, I still wound up applying for the MA in Art Conservation at Queen’s University. But I was already having doubts about it. I had been on an archaeological excavation the summer before, and while it was a fantastic experience, I pretty much knew by the end that I didn’t want to be working with artefacts for the rest of my life. Removed from their context (i.e. in the ground, or in the lab, or even in a museum display) they lacked life. I couldn’t connect to them in a way that I had expected I would be able to. I had always thought there was something romantic about artefacts, but I began to realize that it wasn’t the artefacts I was drawn to, but the societies that created them.
So I knew it had to be History. But I was having issues with that too. I couldn’t understand why all the awesome things that had happened in the field in the past 40 years hadn’t gotten beyond the bubble of the academy, or the ivory tower, as some like to call it. Why weren’t academics reaching the general public with ideas like that of Orientalism (check it out, if you don’t know what it is – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdE18HdfanI), which might force Western audiences to question how they represent the rest of the world? Why couldn’t they get the message out that Africa has a history (it does, damn it! stop pretending it doesn’t!), that it isn’t equivalent to a country, and that it isn’t full of “tribes” engaged in petty warfare. I could go on, but then this post would turn into a rant. And I’m sure you get the point. But that’s why Public History appealed to me. I thought it could bridge that gap.
Orientalism: The introduction to this book changed my life. No kidding.
You’ll notice I said “thought.” Well, I haven’t quite given up that hope, but as usually happens, it will be much more difficult than I anticipated (isn’t it always?). I also have a horrible habit of biting off more than I can chew (though not when I eat…usually), and I’m something of an idealist, which also sets me up for a lot of disappointment. But I think that, at least in the long run, this is doable. And I’m not alone. One of my prof’s sent me a link the Concordia’s Centre for Oral History (this one, in fact: http://storytelling.concordia.ca/oralhistory/projects/projects.html
). They’re doing some really neat things, particularly in bridging “the gap” using digital media. Which is partially why I’m doing this blog. Maybe this could be the start of something!
And on that hopeful note, I shall sign off, and go make myself some tea.