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People, Historians, and Public History: Demystifying the Process of History Making

Author(s): Hilda Kean


Source: The Public Historian, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Summer 2010), pp. 25-38
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the National Council on Public
History
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People, Historians, and Public


History: Demystifying the
Process of History Making
Hilda Kean

Abstract: This article discusses the experience of teaching public history at Ruskin Col-
lege, Oxford since 1996 to consider debates on the role of the historian and the public.
Drawing on ideas of Rosenzweig and Thelen as well as Samuel, this explores approaches
to public history adopted within the M.A. program at the College. It develops themes
raised in the collection People and their Pasts: Public History Today to consider the con-
cept of furthering historical understanding based on common experiences and breaking
down rigid distinctions between the historian and the public. The article describes
practical approaches adopted in the teaching of public history and draws on other exam-
ples, such as the television program, Who Do You Think You Are?1

Keywords: Personal pasts, the public, role of historian, process, pedagogy

Introduction

As readers of The Public Historian well understand, there are various def-
initions of public history. For some, public history is based on the form and
nature of transmission of historical knowledge to wider audiences. This might

1. Thanks to Kynan Gentry, Ken Jones, Paul Martin, Holger Hoock, and the anonymous re-
viewers of an earlier draft for their helpful comments.

The Public Historian, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 25 38 (August 2010). ISSN: 0272-3433,
electronic ISSN 1533-8576.
2010 by The Regents of the University of California and the
National Council on Public History. All rights reserved.
Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the
University of California Presss Rights and Permissions Web site:
www.ucpressjournals.com /reprintInfo.asp. DOI: 10/1525/tph.2010.32.3.25.

25

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26 THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN

be exemplified by the Doing Public History Web site established at Royal Hol-
loway College, University of London, which is seeking to promote cogent re-
flection on the relationship between the academic historian and the public.2
The use of the definite article provides a focus upon those who are creating
history and those who are its recipients. In such a definition agents and con-
sumers are promoted while the thing being transmitted, history, is taken
as a given. Such definitions imply that the historian, usually seen as profes-
sionally trained, is performing an active role and the public a passive one.
The onus therefore is upon the historian to ensure that the body of knowl-
edge transmitted is accessible. This has the dual effect of engaging the public
but also of enhancing the separate status of the historian as the disseminator
who possesses not only knowledge but the skill of transmission. This approach
does not necessarily question such roles, although as John Tosh has suggested
in his latest book, the dissemination of ideas can be a democratic impulse.
Here Tosh defines public history as involving the free access of the public to
the findings of historical scholarship.3 A good example of this dissemination
within the public domain is the approach of the History and Policy Web site.
Its intention is both to influence the formation of government policies and to
inform public debate. Since 2002, it has aimed to provide policy-relevant his-
tory. Its emphasis is upon demonstrating the relevance of history that might
be used by policymakers. It also seeks to increase the status of historical re-
search in relation to current policy.4
I want, however, to pose a different way of thinking about public history
that places less emphasis on any distinctiveness of historian and public and
more upon the process of how the past becomes history.5 Access and dissemi -
nation are laudable, but by themselves are insufficient concepts with which
either to explore the keen enthusiasm for the past in the popular domain or
to develop different ways in which such enthusiasm can be engaged to pro-
duce different understandings and practices by those who are not profes-
sional historians. An aspect of this approach is to seek ways of de-mystifying
what historians do through sharing conceptual and not just content-based
knowledge. This fudging of roles has been explored by Robert Archibald,
who has argued that public historians do not own history, we are merely col-
laborators, particularly in community-based histories.6 This notion of sharing
understandings of the past has also been valued by David Thelen in his pro-

2. http://www.doingpublichistory.org/index.html (accessed January 29, 2009). For further ex-


ploration of this concept see Hilda Kean and Paul Ashton, Introduction to People and their Pasts:
Public History Today, eds. Paul Ashton and Hilda Kean (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 2009,
120.
3. John Tosh, Why History Matters (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 119.
4. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/philosophy.html (accessed December 14, 2008).
5. Also see Patrick Wright, Preface, On Living in an Old Country (2nd ed.) ( Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2009), x.
6. Robert Archibald, A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community (New York:
AltaMira, 1999), 15556, as quoted in A. S. Newell, Home is what you can take away with you:
K. J. Ross Toole and the Making of a Public Historian, The Public Historian, 23, no. 3 (2001): 70.

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HISTORIANS AND PUBLIC HISTORY 27

motion of the possibilities of a participatory historical culture. Rosenzweig and


Thelens People and the Pasts project had demonstrated the complex ways in
which people use the past to make sense of themselves and their lives as well
as to negotiate the present and navigate the future.7 Rosenzweig and Thelen
had initially found listening to the interviews both exciting and worrying be-
cause nothing in our professional training had prepared us to interpret what
we were hearing.8 Historians professional interest had been deeply invested
in stories about the nation-state, institutions, and social groups. But those sur-
veyed especially valued the past as a way of answering questions about their
own identity, immortality, and responsibility.9 As a response to this experi-
ence, David Thelen in his Afterthoughts on the project suggested that the
past should be treated as a shared human experience and opportunity for
understanding, rather than a ground for division and suspicion.10 This ap-
proach was very different from the stance taken by James Gardner in his ad-
dress to the National Council on Public History. Gardner admitted that he
was troubled in various ways by Rosenzweig and Thelens positive response
to peoples understanding of the past since it embodied a fundamentally dif-
ferent sense of the past than what we as public historians are committed to
exploring and sharing, and it challenges the viability of our work.11 Moving
beyond a theme of dissemination to unpacking the very notion of History by
questioning much of historical scholarship, such concepts challenged notions
of identity and professional authority as much as the nature of history. As a
way of approaching such destabilization, as David Glassberg has argued, new
ways of thinking about the past may be achieved by reaching in to discover
the humanity [we] share.12 Such a direction suggests an unpacking of his-
torical processes rather than a consolidation of current practice. We have at-
tempted to develop such an emphasis in our public history work at Ruskin
College, Oxford, through conferences, courses, and publications. As I will de-
velop in the remainder of this article, the approach is premised on the
grounds that peopleincluding professional historiansare active agents in
creating histories. Within this definition are those who make their living from
this practice as well as those involved in community, local, and family history
projects. As a way of developing participatory engagement, the emphasis has

7. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in
American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 21.
8. Rosenzweig and Thelen, 8. See also Bernard Eric Jensen, Usable Pasts: Comparing Ap-
proaches to Popular and Public History, in People and their Pasts, eds. Ashton and Kean, 42
56 for a discussion of Rosenzweig and Thelens approach.
9. Roy Rosenzweig: Everyone a Historian, http://chnm.gmu.edu/survey/afterroy.html#32
(accessed February 7, 2007).
10. David Thelen, Afterthoughts: A Participatory Historical Culture, http://chnm.gmu.edu/
survey/afterdave.html (accessed December 22, 2008).
11. James Gardner, Contested Terrain: History, Museums, and the Public, The Public His-
torian, 26, no. 4 (2004): 13.
12. David Glassberg, Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (Amherst: Uni-
versity of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 210.

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28 THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN

been on the processes and material that might lead to different understand-
ings of the past.

Influences from the Past

Aspects of this model have been influenced by the late Raphael Samuel, a
tutor at the College for some thirty years. His initiatives routinely emphasized
the broad sharing and exchange of knowledge:13 Unless something speaks to
or has the support of those I used to call ordinary people it doesnt interest
me.14 An emphasis on pedagogy and ways in which adult students, who form
the entire constituency of the College, bring their own research and life ex-
periences to their studies underpinned this direction.15 He affirmed the in-
terconnections of history with other modes of study and more generally to
stress the indivisibility of knowledge and the unity of teaching and research.
This would mean, he argued, drawing on a range of insights and theories from
other disciplines and also analyzing the ways in which the changing concep-
tions of history were themselves part of historical development. These pa-
rameters of historical exploration would encompass a range of practitioners
including the rapidly expanding movements in do-it-yourself history, that
embraced feminist and family history groups, local publishing projects, in-
dustrial archaeology, museums of material culture, archivists, curators, teach-
ers, and people working in history under other names.16
In his Theatres of Memory Samuel spelt out that history was not the pre-
rogative of the historian but a social form of knowledge; the work in any given
instance, of a thousand different hands.17 But this was a theme throughout
his earlier work as well.18 Regular history workshop conferences had drawn
together historical enthusiasts from within and without academic institutions
and books and pamphlets arose from such events, as did, in its early years, the
practice of the History Workshop Journal.19 Many of these earlier themes, es-
pecially on the way in which history is created, were re-visited in the devel-

13. See Hilda Kean, Public History and Raphael Samuel: A Forgotten Radical Pedagogy?
Public History Review 11 (Professional Historians Association, New South Wales, Australia, 2004):
5156.
14. Raphael Samuel, undated draft letter to History Workshop Journal editorial board (1995),
Raphael Samuel Archive, Bishopsgate Institute, file 440.
15. See Kean, Public History and Raphael Samuel; Letter from Raphael Samuel to
Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and John Saville, December 9/10, 1982. History Workshop
Archive, Ruskin College, Oxford, file RS6/001.
16. Draft manifesto for History Workshop Centre for Social History, June 1983. History Work-
shop Archive, Ruskin College, Oxford, file RS6/001.
17. Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1994), 8.
18. Raphael Samuel, Introduction, History Workshop, 196771: A Collectanea (Oxford: His-
tory Workshop, 1991), iv.
19. Writing recently on the role of the Journal, long-time editor Barbara Taylor has said that
there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the journal has become just another journal. Pro-

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HISTORIANS AND PUBLIC HISTORY 29

opment of the M.A. in Public History and related public history work at the
College since the 1990s. The College was the first in Britain to offer an M.A.
in Public History and is still the only institution in the country teaching a dis-
crete M.A. in Public History although several universities have developed spe-
cific modules.20 The focus at the regular public history conferences organ-
ized at the College in the last decade has been the form and processes involved
in the creation of history. Topics have included Official and Unofficial Histo-
ries, Seeing History, Placing History, Radical and Popular Pasts, and People
and their Pasts. They have also been consciously organized in this way to draw
in practitioners working in a range of fields, including filmmakers, art practi-
tioners, curators, archivists, family and local historians, oral historians, edu-
cators, and collectors, to encourage the exchange and development of differ-
ent ways of thinking. Moreover, given that some of the most imaginative and
engaging work on the past is not being conducted by historians at all but by
artists and filmmakers, the visual has been emphasized.21A similar focus on
nonexclusivity and process has underpinned the general approach towards
taught courses on public history. The rationale obviously stems from a par-
ticular historiographical approach, but this is rooted, in part at least, in the
traditions of the College itselfand the students we teach.

Traditions of Ruskin College

Walter Vrooman, Amne Vrooman nee Grafflin, and Charles Beard (fore-
most amongst the American historians of his generation . . . in the search for
a usable past) founded the College in 1899. Beard gave the inaugural lecture
on English constitutional history.22 Deliberately established in Oxford, the
College would offer an alternative education to that promoted by the Univer-
sity. As Walter Vrooman argued at the inaugural meeting, students would come
to the College not as mendicant pilgrims went to Jerusalem, to worship at her

fessor Barbara Taylor, History Workshop Journal. Part of the series: Making History: The Chang-
ing Face of the Profession in Britain http://www.history.ac.uk /makinghistory/resources/articles/
HWJ.html (accessed December 18, 2008).
20. Modules include those offered within the M.A. in Contemporary History at Bristol Uni-
versity; M.A. in Public History and Heritage Management at Nottingham Trent University; B.A.
in History with Journalism at the University of Hertfordshire; Foundation Degree in Public and
Community History at the University of Lincoln. Several degree courses in Heritage, Life His-
tories, or Oral History also cover some aspects of public history.
21. Artists and filmmakers speaking at recent conferences have included Ken Loach, Jeremy
Deller, Paul Gough, Tim Brennan, and Christine McCauley (http://www.jeremydeller.org/; http://
www.vortex.uwe.ac.uk/pg1.htm; http://www.navigatelive.org/timbrennan.html; http://www.chris
tinemccauley.co.uk /about.html).
22. Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington, as quoted in
Hilda Kean, The Place of Ruskin in its Own History, in Ruskin College: Contesting Knowledge,
Dissenting Politics, eds. Geoff Andrews, Hilda Kean and Jane Thompson (London: Lawrence
and Wishart, 1999), 172.

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30 THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN

ancient shrines and marvel at her sacred relics, but as Paul went to Rome, to
conquer in a battle of ideas.23 Throughout its existence the College has specif-
ically recruited adult students who have been traditionally excluded from
higher education. Its current intake includes students whose ages range from
their early twenties into their eighties. The strong links the College established
in its early years with the Trade Union and Labour movement continue in dif-
ferent ways, but the remit of the College has expanded to look more broadly
at exclusion, offering, for example, courses in Womens Studies and Commu-
nity Development. In addition to B.A. and M.A. degrees, the College teaches
students who are entirely new to formal learning through short courses, in-
cluding short residential courses, as a first step into formal university-level
education. Recently the College has pioneered programs for students aged
fifty-five upwards who are funded to attend the College for one term residen -
tially to undertake a particular project with a community emphasis, drawing
on their life experiences and activities.
These distinctive College traditions, which are very different to those in
the higher education sector in Britain, helped provide a framework for the
M.A. which had first been conceived as a degree which would appeal to those
teaching history in schools, and in adult and community education, as well as
those engaged in museum and curatorial work. It was situated firmly within
the ethos of inclusion with the main initial aim being to enlarge the notion
of the historical.24 Key was a pedagogy that stressed the central relationship
of tutor and student, particularly as expressed through tutorials of a tutor with
one or two students.25 Too often given their social status, the ideas, experi-
ences, and words of Ruskin students have been overlooked or devalued by so-
ciety. The tutorial environment, if nothing else, has ensured that a student is
listened to and his or her ideasand difficulties with workare heard and
that joint strategies for change are worked through. The tutorial is a place of
both safety and challenge, in which ideas can be tried out, doubts expressed,
and fears acknowledged. It is also an ideal space for developing independence
of ideas through the support given by a tutor and a model that is embedded
within both postgraduate and undergraduate courses.
By the mid-1990s, the term being used for this historical postgraduate de-
gree was public history. The term, as used by Samuel, drew on the strand of
public history in the United States relating to peoples history.26 The term, as
he defined it, encompassed an assortment of retrieval projects, oral history
projects and heritage interpretation programs which exist in the civic sphere

23. Walter Vroomans speech at the inaugural meeting, Jacksons Oxford Journal February
25, 1899, as quoted in Kean, The Place of Ruskin, 171.
24. Raphael Samuel, Letter to Stephen (Yeo?), November 16, 1989, Raphael Samuel Archive,
file 444.
25. Raphael Samuel, Letter to Stephen (Yeo?), July 1, 1989, Raphael Samuel Archive, file
444.
26. See James Green, Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Move-
ments (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), 63 for an account of a conversation
between Green and Samuel on peoples history in the United States.

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HISTORIANS AND PUBLIC HISTORY 31

quite independently of the universities. But additionally it was applied more


ecumenically to the best of citizen initiatives and local enthusiasms.27

Public History M.A.: Process

The public history degree, like all degrees accredited in British universi-
ties, is obliged to function within the constraints of the QAA (Quality Assur-
ance Agency) that attempts to standardize courses, create national conform-
ity, and construct learning outcomes including transferable skills aimed at
employment.28 Since students are undertaking a degree, the M.A. does pro-
vide training for a qualification and the job of writing publishable history.
But it does far more, albeit beyond the parameters of the QAA. The intro-
duction of the public history degree at Ruskin was based on continuing an
engagement with people already practicing ways of relating to the past. Stu-
dents include those employed in paid museum or library work or archaeol-
ogy or heritage consultancy work. They have also included school, further or
adult education, or university teachers. Others have worked in a paid or vol-
untary capacity as a local or historic house guide. Some have organized a Her-
itage Lottery funded community project or a University of the Third Age
(U3A) oral history project.29 Others have also performed as re-enactors in
medieval dance or civil war societies, undertaken family history research, or
published romantic historical novels. In some ways the students might be seen
as the public, as consumers of the past, but also they have worked as histo-
rians although usually without a professional qualification in this field. As
adults, who are usually middle-aged or older, they have also had a wealth of
personal experiences to bring to their studies. In coming to study for a de-
gree, their intention is not so much to prepare for future employment but to
explore ways of re-thinking and developing their current practice. In some
ways students are already active makers of history. By their participation in
an academic course they are also already straddling the apparently separate
notions of historian and public.
The degree consists of three introductory modules emphasizing aspects
of the process of public history; the role of the visual in the public history-

27. Raphael Samuel, handwritten notes for typed draft of Public History degree, Raphael
Samuel Archive, file 442; Raphael Samuel, Local History and Oral History, History Workshop
Journal,1 (1976): 191208.
28. Courseseven at postgraduate levelare required to include particular learning out-
comes, and attention is paid to criteria used to ensure, for example, that students at the first-year
undergraduate level are merely required to understand. They must not understand critically
until the second year, and systematic understanding is only permissible in the final under-
graduate year. See also Alun Munslow, Getting on with History, Rethinking History, 9, no. 4
(2005): 497501.
29. The Heritage Lottery Fund funds community projects using money from a twice-weekly
national lottery. The University of the Third Age is a voluntary and self-directed educational
body aimed at retired people.

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32 THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN

making process; and memory, orality, time, and narrativity; followed by a dis-
sertation. Students are taught both through interactive weekly classes for the
first modules of the course and also through one-on-one tutorials. The em-
phasis on process and concepts ensures an interdisciplinary emphasis. More-
over, by ensuring that students work on their own subject matter and inter-
est, detailed attention is also paid to the range of materials that might be
employed in history-making and the different formsand contentthat can
follow from this. The course values the process of sharing, participating, and
engaging, as people with an interest in the relationship between the past and
present willing to explore, acknowledge, and value different ways of config-
uring this. As we suggested in the introduction to the collection Seeing His-
tory: Public History in Britain Now, arising from public history work at the
college, Public History relies on a collective and collaborative effort of people
often working in different fields. Moreover, an emphasis both on experience
and everyday material outside the archive united the contributors: what is
seen and what is experienced in our everyday lives is as likely to be as signif-
icant in our understanding and creation of history as the reading of books or
archives.30
M.A. students engage with a range of historiographical concepts including
different ideas of public history. They explore ways in which the past is con-
structed as history or heritage, and consider different forms and materials for
the creation of history. An emphasis is placed upon the role of the visual, em-
bracing collecting, photography, landscape, and commemoration, and upon
memory, time, and orality. A starting point for much of their work is students
own experiences. The intention is not validation as such but a mechanism for
thinking more expansively about the historical process and the construction
of history.31 If history is indeed an arena for the projection of ideal selves, it
may also be a means of undoing and questioning them.32 Moreover, students
not only have different backgrounds in historical inquiry but also, since they
are drawn from a very wide catchment area that has included Cornwall, Man-
chester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Brighton, and London, different experi-
ences of engagement with the past in a range of localities. The supposed de-
tachment of the historian combined with the personal engagement that stems
from experience has offered new approaches for opening up the process by
which the past becomes historicized. What it means to be a historian and dif-
ferent ways in which the past can be explored and presented underline stu-
dents practice.
Compared to some postgraduate degrees, there is a great deal of assessment

30. Hilda Kean, Paul Martin, and Sally Morgan, Introduction to Seeing History, Public His-
tory in Britain Now, eds. Kean, Martin, Morgan (London: Francis Boutle, 2000), 15.
31. See, for example, Jo Stanleys comment on the absence of womens experience in mar-
itime museums: I assume that a public site of knowledge should show what I know from per-
sonal experience to be the case. Jo Stanley, Putting Gender into Seafaring: Representing Women
in Public Maritime History, in Seeing History, eds. Kean, Martin, and Morgan, 94.
32. Raphael Samuel, Island Stories (London: Verso,1998), 222.

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HISTORIANS AND PUBLIC HISTORY 33

to ensure that students have wide experienceand growing confidencein


writing and presenting history. Students are required to submit a portfolio of
six pieces of work of c. 4,000 words for the three introductory modules (i.e. c.
24,000 words in total) and then submit a dissertation of c. 20,000 words. All
assessed work, which might embrace the creation of alternative guidebooks,
new syllabi for history teaching, new mappings of places, video work, or a poster
display, is based on the individual students own subject content. Thus, a ses-
sion on the nature of collecting might equally lead to analysis of an object in
the students possession as an alternative way into creating a different lens for
seeing the past or to the analysis of a neglected item in the museum where a
student works. A session on reading and writing about each others family pho-
tographs both provides a practical example of the work, say, of Roland Barthes
and John Berger on cultural contexts and validates their own examples in a
wider cultural context. Analysis on contested landscape and monuments will
draw on the work, for example, of Doreen Massey and Dolores Hayden, while
also discussing campaigns and readings drawn from their own localities.
For some the subject matter is a given, for example, a recent dissertation
on the attempt to make the former Cold War and U.S. military base at Up-
per Heyford a heritage site developed from the students campaigning over
many years.33 For others, new topics arise from the concepts discussed in class.
Thus new practice might include creations of historical walks emphasizing dif-
ferent ways of reading a locality initially tried out with the group or a new
pamphlet as a guide for a particular locality. Those working in education have
devised courses for students based on new historiographical approaches.
Others, including those working as writers or artists, have taken the oppor-
tunity to re-visit previous work through a public history lens. Some have ex-
plicitly explored an aspect of their own lives, often using materials found out-
side an archive, as a way of analyzing the relationship between personal and
broader histories in the public domain.34
Inevitably, such work can validate personal experience. One tutor in the
course has suggested that an aspect of the degree is to address ways in which
people can reposition themselves in a changing society and reclaim empow-
erment by embracing different forms of expression of selfhood in a historical
context.35 However, this approach is not about personal pasts separate from
wider contexts: rather than being counterposed, the personal and the public
are elided and divisions between being a historian and a member of the
public are broken down.36 Recent student work in this mode has included

33. Daniel Scharf, Who Cares about the Cold War? Using Former RAF Upper Heyford as
a Touchstone (M.A. thesis in Public History, Ruskin College, 2008).
34. See Hilda Kean, London Stories: Personal Lives, Public History (London: Rivers Oram
Press, 2004).
35. Paul Martin, Look, See, Hear: A Remembrance, with Approaches to Contemporary
Public History at Ruskin, in Ruskin College, eds. Andrews, Kean, and Thompson, 148.
36. See, for example, John Siblon, Monument Mania? Public Space and the Black and Asian
Presence in the London Landscape and Toby Butler, Memoryscape: Integrating Oral History,

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34 THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN

an oral history of biomedical scientists in which the historian, a former such


scientist, and thus an insider, created insightful histories with his intervie-
wees.37 Other examples include Patricia Furleys dissertation on her mothers
sewing machine. Using the machinewhich resided as some sort of family
heirloom within Pats homeon which her mother worked as an outworker
making blouses and shirts, she explored imaginative ways of writing about a
topic that might have been more conventionally addressed within womens
or labor history. Interviews with the mechanic who serviced the machine, pho-
tos of her brother wearing a shirt made by their mother several decades pre-
viously, and exploration of the very smell and materiality of the object helped
to create a different sort of history. From starting with the ostensibly personal
object and the authors own memories, connections were made with others
who had different stories of the machine and its effect upon them. Individ-
ual lives were thus explored. The very existence of the object and the associ-
ated memories were used to value an individual working-class womans past.
This past was brought into the present.38
Students often explore explicitly their roles as both participants in events
and as historians of such moments. Thus one dissertation on family photographs
of the authors working-class grandmother situated the author both as a sub-
ject, a child within a particular family, and an object of social history within a
class framework and as a writer exploring different ways of analyzing both class
and the authors past experience.39 In exploring a womens forgotten clothing
strike, Elizabeth Leicester used the lens of a fictionalized contemporary tele-
vision film of the strike, her involvement as an amanuensis jotting down re-
portage of the strike for a labor movement newspaper, and archival and oral
history work to bring both the political and the personal past into the present.40
The process-centered and experience-validating approach provides stu-
dents with a strong sense of themselves as history makersand as people.
Several define the course as changing their life or the way that they engage
with the world on a day-to-day basis: It has given my life meaningful pur-
pose and direction or Public History has now become a major part of my
life; and the writing of it remains a constant source of pleasure or Studying
public history at Ruskin has changed my understanding of the world around
me or simply Life changing.41 Some commented specifically on the psy-

Memory and Landscape of the River Thames, in People and their Pasts, eds. Ashton and Kean,
14662, 223 39.
37. Howard Wingfield, Its Definitely Bigger than Science. Biomedical Scientists: An Oral
History (M.A. thesis in Public History, Ruskin College, 2005).
38. Patricia Furley, My Mothers Sewing MachineAn Object of Public History (M.A. the-
sis in Public History, Ruskin College, 2008).
39. Paula Howell, This is my History. My grandmothers photographs as Public History
(M.A. thesis in Public History, Ruskin College, 2007).
40. Elizabeth Leicester, It Was a Serious Time: The 1970s Leeds Clothing Workers Strike
as Public History (M.A. thesis in Public History, Ruskin College, 2007).
41. There has been a discourse employed by students undertaking an initial Higher Educa-
tion course reinforced by the trope adopted in several autobiographies of past successful former

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HISTORIANS AND PUBLIC HISTORY 35

chological effect of the course: It has given me greater confidence or I have


learnt to look at many things from many different perspectives & appreciate
that, unlike in my past working experience, there is not a finite right answer
to many questions. The comments blend their experiences as people with
those of being historians. There is not a sharp separation in their construc-
tion of their identities: lives, knowledge, and careers become elided. The self
is not a passive entity determined by the external influences of the degree but
one actively being forged by individuals themselves. Such ways of describing
their educational experience as life-changing are outside the parameters of
the national student satisfaction survey as conducted by HEFCE.42 Aca-
demically students also do very well at their studies, obtaining good degrees,
publishing aspects of their work in academic and popular publications, or en-
gaging with community history groups.43 Some obtain work as oral historians
or heritage site staff, receive promotion as educational practitioners, or un-
dertake work as consultants. Others undertake Ph.D. study.

People Making History

The expressed elision between lived experience and the role of a historian
is rather different to the counterposition of identities of public and historian
discussed at the start of this article. But clearly, such initiatives and experi-
ences are not unique. For example, Jon Newman has analyzed the response
of visitors to an exhibition he curated on images acquired from a professional
photographers studio in Brixton in South London. It necessitated, the visi-
tors felt, a direct intervention into the format of the display, asking for
and receivingpost-it notes to identify the people in the images, which they
attached to the displays. As Newman argued, the effect of this personal en-
gagement went beyond the merely accessible to people re-acquiring the
shared life and meaning that they had once held for the individuals who had
commissioned and owned the photographs and for the extended families and

students of their lives being changed at the College. Historically, the College environment has
often been seen as other by former undergraduate Ruskin students, particularly in terms of
class. However, that this happens at postgraduate level suggests more than employment of par-
ticular rhetorics. See Hilda Kean, Myths of Ruskin College, Studies in the Education of Adults,
28, no. 2 (October 1996), 211 23; Continuity and Change: The Identity of the Political Reader,
Changing English, 3, no. 2 (1996): 20918; Radical Adult Education: The Reader and the Self
in Adult Learning: Critical Intelligence and Social Change, eds. Marjorie Mayo and Jane Thomp-
son (Leicester: NIACE, 1995), 5868.
42. The National Student Survey values learning outcomes relating to the ease with which
a student has engaged intellectually with their course. The survey also covers welfare support,
student recreational facilities, job outcomes, and overall satisfaction so that potential students
can gauge which college provides the best experience. http://www.unistats.com;http://www.the
studentsurvey.com / home.asp.
43. Students specifically use their new skills to undertake particular assignments. For example
an older student was commissioned by the religious order of which he is a member to write a
history of the order. Another who worked in two historic houses explored aspects of heritage in
order to persuade the house owners to adopt more imaginative approaches for visitors.

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36 THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN

community who understood their significance.44 In such examples personal


experience of the past is not being treated discretely from local or national
pasts: rather the validation of the personal results in re-readings of such pasts.
Exploration of familial pasts has often been dismissed as amateur, an-
tiquarian, or not proper history, as Ruth Finnegan, former chair of the
team responsible for an innovative course on family and community history
at the Open University has shown.45 However, as Australian public historian
Graeme Davison has argued, there are radical possibilities in apparently
personal histories. He emphasizes the changing forms of family history writ-
ing which significantly begin in the here and now, with the writer, and de-
scribe a journey backwards in time, and often through space, towards an un-
certain destination.46
One of the best-known examples of relating personal experience to na-
tional (and international) pasts can be found in the popular UK television se-
ries Who Do You Think You Are? Personal aspects of the past introduce
new insights and understandings of the world. In this innovative hourly tel-
evision program a celebrity is taken on a journey to find his or her past, re-
trieving information from family memory and photographs, objects, and
working with archivists, curators, and a range of historians resulting in an
analysis of both individual material and broader contexts.47 Not only have
these programs responded to an engaged interest in pasts broader than the
personal, but through the format of the programsand the Web siteshave
encouraged viewers to undertake their own research. This has been achieved
in part because of the format of the program, which does not rely on the au-
thoritative single voice of a professional historian. Rather, the format has
drawn on those with different expertise and experiences, including members
of the subjects own family and a range of people with different knowledge,
which might relate to the subjects past. One of the most popular programs
in the last series was that devoted to Jerry Springer, in which, amongst other
things, the Holocaust was re-explored and made personally engaging through
the lens of the individual family experience. The corollary, of course, was that

44. Jon Newman, Harry Jacobs: The studio photographers and the visual archive, in People
and their Pasts, eds. Ashton and Kean, 26078. Similarly, Paul Gough has noted the ways in
which visitors to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire have asserted their indi-
vidual voices through private plantings, small words and handwritten tags to complement the
didactic grandiosity of the official design. Paul Gough, Garden of Gratitude: The National
Memorial Arboretum and Strategic Remembering, in People and their Pasts, eds. Ashton and
Kean, 95112.
45. Ruth Finnegan, The Open University Course on Family and Community History, Ge-
nealogists Magazine, 25, no. 2 (1995), 49; Michael Drake, Inside out or Outside in? The
case of Family and Local History, in Participating in the Knowledge Society. Researchers be-
yond the University Walls, ed. Ruth Finnegan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 11819.
46. Graeme Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History (Sydney: Allen and Unwin,
2000), 8.
47. There are also additional programs and a Web site assisting people wanting to research
their own ancestors, a magazine, and from 2007 the sponsorship of a family and local history fair,
previously organized by the Society of Genealogists.

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HISTORIANS AND PUBLIC HISTORY 37

the broader narrative was made more meaningful by the framework of the
individual experience.48
Such approaches are not without their critics. In a peevish article in the
Guardian in Autumn 2007, television historian Tristram Hunt criticized the
series. For Hunt this was history presented as a form of psychological mas-
sage or warm-bath TV. For Hunt, television history was apparently now in
danger of telling comforting stories about ourselves to ourselves rather than
confronting the past. Todays TV history he argued, all too often retreats
into therapy: an attempt not to explain the past and its modern meaning, but
an indulgent search for identity and understanding. However, the often-dif-
ficult subject matter of racism, poverty, and immigration is routinely tackled
in the programs, creating different ways of engaging with the past and present.
The chief executive of the program company, Alex Graham, responded, This
is surely an elitist view. Is a quest for understanding or indeed identity some-
thing to be denigrated? Or celebrated?49 Certainly, while the subject mat-
ter is celebrity-centred, the approach is not. Through showing the method-
ologies of historical research, the process is demystified and viewers are
encouraged to undertake their own research.50 It is not simply that subject
matter has been engaging, but that through a methodology showing the way
in joint endeavours of people and professionals the framework has moved
beyond the accessible.
A participant at a recent conference suggested that in such scenarios, aca-
demic historians can offer broader subject matter context than the family his-
torian.51 This might be true. But family historiansand members of the
publicare often well able to read up on social and political contexts. How-
ever, they may not have the confidence to pursue imaginative ways of think-
ing about the past and using materials in different ways. Professional histo-
rians may still have a distinctive role in the public history pedagogic process,
as facilitators and voices of encouragement providing a safe but challenging
environment in which people can develop confidence in their own abilities.Lec-
turers may also provide the permission that many unconfident students seek

48. This particular program was viewed by some 6.5 million people even though it competed
with a football match on another channel. Tara Conlan, TV ratings: 6.5m watch Jerry Springer
trace his roots, guardian.co.uk, Thursday, August 28 2008.
49. Hunt contrasted the programs unfavorably with series on national identity by Simon
Schama and Niall Ferguson, seen respectively as an extended meditation on national identity
and a provocative re-assessment of our colonial legacy. Tristram Hunt, Time Bandits,
Guardian, September 10, 2007, and Alex Graham, Who do you think you are, Tristram Hunt?
Guardian, September 17, 2007 (accessed online).
50. A survey conducted by the National Archives after the screening of the first WDYTYA
in 2006 notice a percentage growth of 7 percent amongst new readers undertaking family his-
tory research compared with 2005 and that 30 percent compared to 20 percent were just start-
ing their research. There was also an increase of nearly 10 percent of new researchers visiting
with their friends or family compared to 2005. Information taken from new readers survey 2005
6, The National Archives. Thanks to Paul Sturm of the Public Services development section for
this information by e-mail, August 12, 2009.
51. Launch Symposium for The Centre for Research in Memory, Narrative and Histories,
University of Brighton, December 6, 2008.

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38 THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN

in order to pursue their research in different directions and can de-mystify


the introspective world of scholarship through sharing their own experiences
of writing and researching.52 John Tosh has rightly criticized a definition of
public history as an option to be pursued by a handful of publicity-seeking
academics. However for him the emphasis in public history is both upon the
injection of historical perspective into crucial public issues and of academ-
ics sharing with the public their own scholarly expertise.53 Such sharing is
surely positive. However, in his definition it is rather one-sided. We might
also go beyond this pedagogically, recognizing the need to share, participate,
and engage not so much as experts in history but as people with an in-
terest in the relationship between the past and presentwilling to explore,
acknowledge, and value different ways of configuring this. If history does em-
brace an acknowledgement of peoples role in making historyand includes
historians within this idea of peoplethis presents challenges. 54 It can be an
unsettling but perhaps a good place to start in opening up the process of his-
tory-making.55 Exploring our engagement as people with our own and others
pasts may help us develop different ways of thinking about public history and
of sharing ideas and validatingor scrutinizingexperience.

Hilda Kean is Dean of Ruskin College, Oxford, where she is also a tutor in history,
and has served as director of the innovative M.A. in Public History since its inception in
1996. She has published widely on public and cultural history. Her books include People
and their Pasts: Public History Today, Palgrave Macmillan (ed. with Paul Ashton) (2009);
London Stories: Personal Lives, Public Histories (Rivers Oram Press, 2004); Seeing His-
tory: Public History in Britain Now (ed. with Paul Martin & Sally Morgan), (Francis
Boutle, 2000); Animal Rights: Social and Political Change in Britain since 1800, (Reak-
tion Books, 2000). She is currently completing a book on the great British cat and dog
massacre of World War II.

52. I have frequently witnessed this when teaching short courses on Writing Family or Lo-
cal History.
53. Tosh, Why History Matters, 14243.
54. Samuel, Island Stories, 222.
55. Kean, London Stories, 18690.

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