What is Public History

London Life RAD Project

Students working at London Life as part of 9806A - Understanding Archives course


Public history is history as it is experienced by and interpreted for the public. It is history in films, on websites, in historical fiction, in museums, in popular books and magazines. It is a street corner commemorative plaque and a Steven Spielberg blockbuster. It is Canada: A People’s History, Ken Burns, Pierre Berton, the Bata Shoe Museum, genealogy, the National Archives, and your junior high Social Studies teacher. And it is the name given to the study of all these.

The discipline of public history sprang up in the United States in the 1970s. Some academic historians noticed that the public was getting most of its notions about the past from popular history books, films, and museums, rather than from university courses and university textbooks. These historians also noticed that there were more and more people just like themselves—people from the same schools, with the same degrees—doing the same quality historical work as themselves, but outside of universities. With their well-developed sense of intellectual curiosity (and perhaps dashes of suspicion and envy), academic historians began to study history in the public sphere—public history.

The term “public history” is an admittedly awkward one. Public practitioners of history do not tend to call their work by the name (especially in Canada). And why does history need such differentiation anyway?—there is no “Public Chemistry” or “Public Anthropology.” It could be said, though, that the awkwardness of the name is appropriate: it signals how alienated the worlds of academic and “public” history have become from one another.

Public history programs in American universities have thrived since the 1970s, serving something of an ambassadorial role between history departments and the outside world. They have taught students the skills needed for doing historical work outside academia. They have shown students how and why to bring their work to a broader audience. They have assisted in strengthening historical scholarship in the public sphere itself. And, by studying such matters as authenticity, historical significance, memory, and interpretation, they have helped all practitioners of history better understand how we communicate history, and how we might do better.

Public history has had a quieter life in Canada than in the U.S. But that is changing. Documentaries such as The Valour and the Horror, books such as Who Killed Canadian History?, and issues such as the building of the new Canadian War Museum have had Canadians debating about what history is and what it should be telling. Academic historians have taken notice: some of the most important Canadian scholarly work of the past decade—books like HV Nelles’ The Art of Nation-building, Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble, and Ian McKay’s Quest of the Folk—have concerned commemoration, memory, and the presentation of the past for tourism purposes. Public history is on the rise.

-Alan MacEachern, Director of the Network in Canadian History and the Environment