What is it to ‘do’ public history? This is a question our students are asked to address in a number of different modules and which I was forced to ask myself as a result of attending a couple of recent events. One rather bland answer is, of course, that it is a performance. In addressing an audience in public, rather than in the classroom, we are somehow performing the past into (and to) the present.
Depending on which ‘national tradition’ (Australian; American; British) you belong to, your view on the nature of public history may well be very different. The British tradition, for instance, draws on both the more radical Australian approach and the more conservative American. This means that we can have both the History Workshop movement (and the many community history projects it has spawned), alongside the academic-driven events I recently attended.
The first of these was a hugely interesting talk by Professor Roy Foster (University of Oxford) on the Dublin Uprising of 1916 and given as part of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, to which the School of Humanities has very close ties. Foster is a historian (of Ireland) of considerable repute and has published a number of important books, quite a few of which we use here on modules in both second and third year. As this was a literature festival Professor Foster was inevitably promoting his latest book: Vivid Faces which focuses on the intellectual environment that gave rise to the Uprising. His thesis is that here was the radicalisation of a set of unlikely radicals, prompted by a need to wage war on their parents as much as on the government. It was as much of a generational rebellion as that of the counter-culture of the 1960s, the Spanish Civil War or the Italian Risorgimento. I spent a compelling hour in Professor Foster’s company and his talk definitely made me want to buy the book (I haven’t!). But it was much more of a public lecture than anything either Raphael Samuel or Hilda Kean would identify as public history. But does that matter?
A much more entertaining and relaxed hour was spent later the same evening in the company of our own Christian O’Connell. This was the first of this year’s Showcasing History events and it took the form of a musical documentary on ‘The Discovery of the Blues’. Christian both performed songs and talked about how the blues was ‘re-discovered’ during the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on the way this blurred the lines between myth and reality, and between folk and popular culture. Opening and closing on electric guitar and performing in the student union bar, for this participant here was a really interesting attempt to close the gap between the public and academic forms of presenting the past. Like Professor Foster, Christian is a professional historian specialising in (inevitably) US history. But this was more than just a public lecture and it was also more than a performance. It was the performing of the past into the present.