Public history is the practice of organizing, creating and presenting history in ways that communicate with a larger public in a variety of media. Academic and institutionalized versions of history often make no space for the narratives of ordinary people and the discipline of public history seeks to recover and document such narratives in order to create a more democratically nuanced account of our past. Public history engages in multiple sites – in museums, in places of pilgrimage and archaeological excavations. The discipline looks at modes of historical preservation by creating archives and creating modes of engagement and interventions at heritage sites. Public history explores history beyond the conventional classroom and brings together oral history, digital storytelling and archival practices with critical thinking through community memory, family history and institutional history projects.
Public historians make multiple histories available and accessible at different heritage and cultural sites. Public historians often work in museums, archives or heritage sites to develop an understanding of what is written about a particular historical subject and build a new interpretation based on research into source materials or create new interpretations by exploring new resources such as oral history. These interpretations are given a variety of forms – books, articles, exhibitions, websites, conducting historical walks, making films on historical subjects and creating sound and light shows at heritage sites and museums.
Public historians also work as consultants to various historical projects with a range of other professionals; for example, they work with heritage architects, exhibition designers and website designers. With the setting up of archives by numerous companies and business houses, public historians work on collecting, organizing and communicating the history of corporates and the values they represent. Finally, public historians also work within academia to research and interpret the past as well as teach students how to become professional public historians.
You do not need to have an undergraduate degree in history to become a public historian but you do need a deep and enthusiastic interest in the past.
In many countries, public history has been in existence for several decades; students with master’s degrees in public history have worked in national parks, in archives, museums or with local history societies. In India, although the field is new, most museums, archives and heritage sites have positions that require professionals who are able to communicate history and heritage through new media and technologies; the new field of public history would qualify a student for such positions. Public history could contribute significantly by bringing many museums and heritage sites alive.
In trying to decide if a career in public history is right for you, it might be helpful to think about the qualities and interests that many public historians share and see if they overlap with your own. Firstly, public historians are keenly interested in all aspects of the past – in documents that exist, in the sites which house ancient monuments, in materials that are displayed in museums and in people’s memories of events they have experienced in the past. Public historians look at the material, visual and textual world that bear traces of history. They make connections between objects, texts, photographs and memories and ask questions about how we understand the past. A curiosity about what places and things looked like, what technologies were used to create them and what objects, texts and memories meant to people, lies at the heart of the public historian’s interest.
Just asking questions and finding answers are not enough for public historians, they also need to communicate and share their understanding in accessible forms. The public historian would therefore have to understand elements of communication design in order to share insights and understanding of the past with the general public. Students who feel excited by history but feel the need to work hands-on with different narrative forms such as creating stories, puppets, performances and films often make good public historians.
Public historians are also deeply concerned about the politics of representation. They work towards collecting resources and giving shape to the history of those who have been treated as “people without history”. The collection of oral history therefore becomes an important tool in their hands. Students who enjoy talking to people in order to understand their experience of the past can build on their interests and become public historians.
Finally, people become public historians because they wish to engage with history beyond academia. They nurture multiple interests which enrich their understanding of the past. An interest in literature, art, music and performance arts might open up new vocabularies of expression. An interest in sociology, psychology or economics may lead to new ways of understanding human society. An interest in architecture might point towards understanding ways in which people live. Any combination of these interests could enable the practice of public history.
Apart from having a deep understanding of how we understand the past through raw materials – such as archival documents, photographs, oral recordings, the public historian requires specific skills and competencies. Public historians require the basic tools of the historian along with good writing and communication skills. They need to cultivate an appreciation local history and histories of institutions within which they work but also show an awareness of the larger historical questions that shape any event.
The public historian engages in history as practice by creating, collecting and interpreting historical resources. Public historians need to understand different audiences and cultivate the ability to communicate with them. They need to have a grasp of contemporary tools of communication so that they can effectively participate in the process of designing for history. Increasingly, public historians need to be digitally literate, both in order to sustain the life of the archives they maintain, as well as to use digital resources and tools for dissemination and interpreting resources.
While research and critical analysis are critical skills for the public historian, he or she also works with a range of people – with museum professionals, conservators, archivists and a range of clients from government institutions to corporates; such engagements might require you to nurture deep listening and negotiating skills. The public historian also needs to acquire basic administrative skills such as project managements, budget planning, time management, fundraising, marketing and people skills.
Public history works closely with a range of presentation formats now made possible by digital tools and visual communication design. These communication tools might belong to the realm of design but can help students create and build a unique historical practice within multiple public spaces. In training to become public historians students are trained develop a capacity to interpret, analyze and present archival material and integrate it with technical skills that enable them to create outreach programs that can educate, inspire and engage different audiences.
Srishti is the only institution worldwide that offers a course in public history within a design school setting. This program differs from programs that are offered in institutions abroad because it incorporates an active engagement with design tools. This program is offered as a part of the School of New Humanities and Design and therefore teaches students to focus on a broader knowledge base that enables them to understand how the past is constructed not only by history, but also by philosophy, religion, ideologies, literature and the social sciences. This widening of scope in the framework of the program enables students to critically question and contextualize historical research. Along with learning about the mechanisms of historical knowledge creation, students also learn through hands-on workshops the tools of presentation and dissemination including digital skills such as archiving and creating online resources. The program has a strong practical component and students collaborate with a range of professionals who engage with heritage in museums, archives and archaeological sites through internships. In this way, the program enables students to build a meaningful dialogue with history and heritage.
Students will gain the tools to work in museums, archives, galleries, neighborhood and community history projects, cultural conservation programs and corporate archives. Students will gain experience of working within projects undertaken by the Centre for Public History at Srishti during their internship. Students can also begin work as consultants to numerous historical projects. This program will be customized for corporates seeking to train their staff to create and manage their archives or business houses and institutions getting ready for a commemorative event.
A master’s degree in public history is an ideal qualification for those students who wish to pursue a career that entails researching, curating and delivering historical content for a range of audiences. There are a range of institutions and establishments that require this role to be fulfilled. Museums, galleries, archives, libraries (both public and private), corporate bodies, NGOs and media companies are some possible venues where a course in public history would be considered a great asset.