I have been fascinated by history since a young age. In early memories I find myself looking at family photo albums, books of old movie posters, and captivated by the stories of gods and saints. It makes me feel closer to others to know of their experiences and our shared history. But, as early as high school I began to wonder about the losers of the battle, the peasants out of royal frame, my own ancestors who somehow made it to Appalachia via ports and gates.
For some the idea of a “public history”, one that is accessible and speaks of many voices, is a radical idea. Howard Zinn, an academic “saint” to be sure, is sometimes seen as an American threat because he dared to bring the experiences of those who built the country onto the stage of those who own. This is just one example of the mid-20th Century paradigm shift for the discipline of History (big H) that goes from ivory tower lectures on the greatness of white men to the significant contributions of all human groups in creating the world of the present. Public History is a dynamic telling of historical events using their words, and deliberately excavating obscured lives previously deemed marginal or insignificant.
What I’ve discovered in my first class in the new phase of my life studying public history is that it also encompasses he presentation of this information. Just as C Wright Mills and his peers advocated for “public sociology” to go from academia to social change, history underwent a more “res publica” approach- not for historians but for the people. Canon was revisited to include women, non-whites, etc. (forgive the brevity there). The way in which it is collected also expanded for inclusiveness* and more importantly the intended audience is for everyone, increasing access, scope, reach, application, and listening to feedback. This utilizes emerging technology that can reach schools and libraries as well as public spaces and museums which are aimed at educating and revealing more precise and universal experiences and truths.
The first site I’ll review here is the ROY ROSENZWEIG CENTER FOR HISTORY AND NEW MEDIA (RRCHNM). Essentially they are “a multi-disciplinary team that develops online teaching resources, digital collections and exhibits, open-source software, and training in digital literacy and skills.” Based at George Mason University, the group collects and lists public history exhibits and programs found online and presents a searchable directory. Think of it as a static trade magazine that highlights individuals, engagement opportunities, and news items related to public history in its many forms. The benefit of such a site is that it can bring you to a collection that might be harder to search casually online. As we know, Google tells you what its friends are doing above all else, and those not in the in-crowd might have a goldmine you’ll never see. Beyond this opportunity to find what you seek you can also browse and find the wealth of other points of view and sites that open up complimentary or contrary information to the more mainstream versions of history that remain in traditional education curricula.
For instance, consider the narratives that can come from exploring these two sites:
- Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution: a lively introduction to the French Revolution presents an extraordinary archive of some of the most important documentary evidence from the Revolution, including 338 texts, 245 images, and a number of maps and songs. Lynn Hunt of UCLA and Jack Censer of George Mason University—both internationally renowned scholars of the Revolution—served as principal authors and editors. The site is a collaboration of CHNM and American Social History Project (City University of New York), and supported by grants from the Florence Gould Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
- Children and Youth in History: website was designed to help teachers and students learn about young people throughout history by providing access to information about the lived experiences of children and youth from multiple perspectives as well as changing notions about childhood and adolescence in past cultures and civilizations.
The RRCHNM, while not being a snappy acronym, it a great example of the new face of public history. The scholars who lead the projects and collect the information invite collaboration and highlight achievements and opportunities to share history, not just their own. Presenting it online and for free allows educators at all levels to search the material and share among students or hobbyists or the unidentified.
When we think about “net neutrality” or vocation and grade-driven budgeting for educational institutions and libraries, we should consider sites like these and the people behind them. Wealthy endowments can only go so far. Public history would be successful when it is a dialog all can attend to and participate in.
Feel free to share links to other archives or projects along these lines. That’s the point 😀
*Inclusiveness has been discussed recently as a term describing a benevolent invitation by those in power. It’s worth looking into.