Why should Lilly’s story be of interest to historians, and why is this public History?
Public history is perhaps one of the fastest growing sub fields within the historical profession, as it allows the use of the traditional historical skills and methods of the historian outside of the traditional academic realm of history.
It is the audience that differentiates the public historian’s work; therefore different audiences often require the public historian to employ unconventional skills, answer difficult questions, and respond to unique situations.
Public history offers a theoretical framework for posing challenging questions on the relationships between specialist collections, the interests of the professional and the public. It has been defined as a set of theories, assumptions and practices guiding the preservation, interpretation and presentation of historical artifacts and texts in conjunction with and for the public. It investigates how past events and artifacts are fabricated and operate in the present and it explicitly analyses how and to whom the past is communicated.
Public History examines how it is possible to change, and influence values of objects and collections by opening up and laying out, for all to see, the imaginative potential of the objects and collections in their former lives.
It also shows how objects and collections are imbued with a history and geography all of their own. Theoretically, all the things of material culture have the potential to become meaningful again, even when they have been effectively withdrawn and deactivated as commodities through, disposal, damage or decay.
Collections of objects can be astonishingly powerful and revealing, creating history and helping people acquire a sense of the past. A characteristic of a collection is as a collection of objects, the value of the whole, becomes more than the sum of the entire single items together.
In the example I have chosen, a television drama by Stephen Poliakoff, Shooting the Past delves into a world quite separate from modern life, and demonstrates that the preservation of the past, and the power of the collection, can be used in order to tell the extraordinary stories of the lives of ordinary people, and how these stories can be astonishingly powerful and revealing.
An American company buys a building in which a collection of ten million images are kept as a Photo Library. The company’s plan is to turn the building into a business school. The company has already ordered one of the staff, Oswald, to dispose of all ten million photographs, but Oswald fails to pass on the news.
On their arrival, having expected the library of ten million photographs to have been disposed of and the building evacuated, the company tell the staff that the majority of the collection must be destroyed if they cannot sell it. However, the staff members believe that the collection must be kept in its entirety, not broken up or sold to different buyers.
To prove the value of their library, the group presents the company chairman with intriguing stories put together by researching photos from all over the collection. The research has been conducted largely by Oswald….