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What is Public History?

Broadly speaking it is a term that describes a broad range of disciplines undertaken by people who have an understanding of history, but wish to work outside of the restraints of academic history. In general, those of us who embrace the term public historian accept that the boundaries of the field are somewhat fluid and that its definition remains a work still evolving.

The historian Ludmilla Jordanova tells us that public history is:

All the means deliberate and otherwise, through which those who are not professional historians acquire their sense of the past .

This sense of the past can be acquired through various means; objects, oral histories, family stories, photographs, nostalgia and landscape. It is history that is seen, heard, read, and interpreted by us as a popular audience, the public.

The Public History resource centre of New York University writes:

Public historians expand on the methods of academic history by emphasizing non-traditional evidence and presentation formats, reframing questions, and in the process creating a distinctive historical practice….Public history is also history that belongs to the public….

With the application of the disciplines of public history, it is therefore possible to use the things like objects, oral histories and family stories, photographs, nostalgia and landscape to seek to unlock the past. Public history will also help us to understand how this past get turned into history: after all, family history, local history, oral history, history based on artefacts and material culture, along with the study of human landscape and geography have become legitimised methods as sources for serious study and discourse which I believe can be considered as external sources.

Most of these external sources are of course buried beneath layers of a commercially, socially modified and constructed landscapes and are contained within the objects and the minds and memories of people only accessible through none traditional, none academic means.
Ludmilla Jordanova again makes a very good point by saying:

What we must remember is it is not only special heritage sites, documents and archives that are important portals to the past, or if they are, could they be a measure of public interest and appreciation of history?

So what I am inviting you to consider is, public history is a way of approaching the past from outside of the normal academic routes, the routes of well thumbed and well quoted preciously guarded documents, accessible only to a privileged few, or the scholarly writing academics, all in keeping with its rigorous and systematic approach to accruing knowledge or setting out the results of study.

Instead public history is an approach that takes a sequence of roads, paths, or places passed through and travelling from one place to another for other sources of information, for example artifacts, oral histories, photographs, films, landscape and memory.

With this fresh pair of eyes approach, we can examine our environment, its objects and artefacts and see them as a storage facility of the past. By combining this with oral testimony, family histories and stories, folk-lore, and people’s skills we can begin to understand that it a rich and fascinating past that can tell remarkable stories about ordinary people.

By adopting the disciplines of Public History we can then begin to understand that is in fact our none professional historians who are the keepers of memories, and are alternative source of the past.

By understanding how people get their sense of the past we can begin to answer the questions;

• How by applying the practices of public history, can we create a device that can understand the voices that are not heard, the voices who want to speak: the very same voices that allow ordinary people to make history?

• Can we use the writings of people like Brian Waters and use the River Severn as a device to open up a portal into the past, the pasts of ordinary people?

• Can we begin to understand the importance of time, memory and morality, and answer the questions; what things meant to them?

• Can we begin to understand why their history is important to them, and how this may be related to their identity?

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