A personal journey into Public History, an interview by Thomas Cauvin
This interview was organized asynchronously by Thomas Cauvin, (Colorado State University) at the end of July 2017 and after the first AIPH national conference and 4th IFPH international conference which took place in Ravenna (5-9 June 2017)
1) When was the first time you heard about Public History?
There’s not a specific date I can mention, it has been a process of maturation and understanding of what the field was about. This process started as early as in 1997, when I was studying the role of internet and its impact on the history profession. I now realize that between 1997 and 2005 I engaged in public history activities without knowing about the field yet. My first public history activity “without the name” has been my involvement in a three years interdisciplinary project, between 2001 and 2003 (the results were published in 2004) about the presence and the usage of history in the Italian web and by specific communities. This project focused also on negationist websites and on the capacity for everyone to use the media for personal goals, even providing fake and biased contents using the past, (Antonino Criscione, Serge Noiret, Carlo Spagnolo and Stefano Vitali:La Storia a(l) tempo di Internet: indagine sui siti italiani di storia contemporanea, (2001-2003)., Bologna, Pátron editore, 2004).
During that same period, I wrote a short essay on WW1 museums with a presence in the web for Memoria e Ricerca, an Italian contemporary history journal: I musei della Grande Guerra sul web (Memoria e Ricerca, 7, January-June 2001, pp.185-190). I focus on digital public history issues in that same journal and I opened a rubric called Spazi Online (online spaces) in 1998, without knowing that this kind of study was also about (digital) public history. For me, it is then, that it became evident, that history in the web was often disconnected from academic activities, but I was not yet aware of the existence of public history as a standalone discipline at that time. Then I deepened the study of the presence of ordinary people’s history in the web –especially history done in the web by who was not a professional historian- participating to a French project about digital history coordinated by the medievalist Jean-Philippe Genet and published only some years later (Y a t-il une Histoire Numérique 2.0 ? in Les historiens et l’informatique. Un métier à réinventer, “Etudes réunies” by Jean-Philippe Genet and Andrea Zorzi, Rome: Ecole Française de Rome, 2011, pp.235-288). I wrote a conference paper exploring how everybody using web 2.0 features (2004-) was now able to collaborate to history projects in the web through user generated content & crowdsourcing activities. Everybody was now able to write one’s own history without the mediation of professional historians. These reflections on the public presence of history in the web brought me to the website of the American National Council of Public History (NCPH), the only national public history association existing at that time. I started to study its history and to dig with curiosity into the broader field of Public History. The field was different in the UK and in the USA but also in continental Europe. This study became a written essay in 2008-2009 and it was my first essay directly dealing with the history of public history written in Italy and for an Italian journal and an Italian public where I focused also on the public use of photography and public history practices with photography, (“Public History” e “storia pubblica” nella rete”, in Francesco Mineccia and Luigi Tomassini (eds.): Media e storia, special issue of Ricerche storiche, year 39, n.2-3, May-December 2009, pp.275-327.).
-Whom was it from?
When I wrote an essay about the developments of a new digital historiography in the USA (“La “nuova storiografia digitale” negli Stati Uniti, (1999-2004).” in Memoria e Ricerca, n. s., n.18, January-April 2005, pp.169-185), I discovered the work of some American historians such as Roy Rosenzweig and Edward L. Ayers, the latter through his pioneering digital project, A Valley of the Shadow, which explicitly mentioned the role of public history in the process of building a website for sharing research findings. Sharon Leon and Tom Scheinfeld from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University became my first interlocutors in 2010 in Portland, Oregon during the NCPH annual conference, together with Trevor Owens and Jeremy Boggs organizers of a Zotero worshop (I met some international public historians in Anna Adamek’s roundtable organised in Portland to foster an International Council on Public History. Bringing Global Public History closer.) During that same NCPH meeting, I met key figures in the field like James Gardner, Michelle Hamilton, Andreas Etges, Jon Hunner, Jean-Pierre Morin, Manon Parry, Jon Olsen and Chuck Harning, who was then organizing a panel on environmental history issues together with the ASEH.
The field, which I discovered reading essays in The Public Historian and looking at the NCPH website, made me realize that my own digital history activities were in effect all about public history. PH was at that time already a mature discipline in the US, that was taught in universities and promoted by an important association like the NCPH. When I discovered the NCPH, around 2004, and also what was happening in the field of professional and applied public history in the USA, it helped me to reflect on the meanings and boundaries of the discipline and on the study of the past and some of the possibilities to share it in public. Finally I found a theoretical framework and, at the same time, an applied discipline that illuminated and explained what my work as history information specialist in a European academic institution and library connected to a history department, was about. In my case, it was especially illuminating because this discipline was concerned with new digital media and the web, a dimension “banned” from traditional academic programs in history. I was involved in studying the impact of digital technologies on the skills and practices of historians already from 1997-98 when I became for a short period the webmaster of the EUI library.
2 ) What was the first PH conference you attended?
NCPH 2010 in Portland, Oregon was my 1st NCPH conference. I discovered in the H-Net lists, the call for a roundtable organized by Anna Adamek which aimed at founding an International Council for Public History on the NCPH model. I had been following NCPH from some years and I remember being so excited and happy when I knew I had been selected for this roundtable and that my institution, the European University Institute, would have sponsored my participation.
3 ) Do you remember whom from the NCPH you first talked to? What was it about?
Trevor Owens and Jeremy Boggs organized a Zotero training session and brought me around in Portland during my first NCPH annual conference in 2010. They introduced me to Powell’s wonderful bookstore near the Chinese neighborhood! I met also Chuck Arning, Park Ranger at Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, in Portland in 2010. We became friends and he organized a panel on environmental history sponsored also by the IFPH during the NCPH annual conference in Ottawa in 2013 with the participation of an economic historian, Mauro Agnoletti, associate professor at the Department of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Systems (GESAAF) of the University of Florence and author of the The Italian Historical Rural Landscape National Register. It was also the case with Connie Schultz, whom I met for the first time in Portland and had always been very close to the IFPH and to all IFPH activities and meetings and with Sharon Leon with whom I discussed issues dealing with digital history and the role of the CHNM in Fairfax and especially of Roy Rosenszeig activities as director of the CHNM. Rosenzweig deeply influenced our researches on the Italian history web between 2001 and 2004.
But it was Anna Adamek, the organizer of the roundtable on International Public History who had been my first contact with NCPH during the 2010 Portland conference. Anna was part of the first IFPH steering committee and we met several times since then.
The next year in 2011 in Pensacola, I met Jean-Pierre Morin, James Gardner, Michael J. Devine, Manon Parry, Anne Mitchell Whisnant, John Dichtl, Carrie Dowdy, Patrick Moore, and many other North American public historians always present at the annual NCPH meetings. Jon Hunner and Dwight T. Pitcaithley engaged in Pensacola with our small group of European participants and we had a very interesting conversation on the power of monuments and on the active memory of the confederates in the South. I quoted this important conversation when I wrote my essay about Public History a discipline without the name published in Italian in 2011.
It was thanks to Arnita Jones, that the creation of the IFPH had been possible. Arnita’s supported Anna Adamek’s idea to
promote an international association of public history between 2009 and 2010 and this was the way I was able to join the first IFPH team. I applied to the presidency of the steering committee of the IFPH and I was elected in 2011. The IFPH promoted international public history between the NCPH annual conference in Pensacola in 2011, a conference in Luxembourg that I organized early in 2012, and the NCPH annual conference in 2012 in Milwaukee (See “Next Steps for the International Federation“, in Public History News, Vol.32, N.4, September 2012, p.10).
4 ) Can you give me some details about your profile ?
I was born in Brussels, Belgium, on March 31, 1957. My mother tongue is French and I studied at the Université Libre in Brussels. Presently, I am a European civil servant serving as the History Information Specialist (Fachreferent in German or Subject Specialist in English) at the European University Institute’s library, Florence, Italy, to sustain the academic activities of the History & Civilization Department. It’s a public historian’s job and I have to develop the history collection in an academic library, to support all research projects, individuals and collectives, to introduce to digital history projects, softwares and databases and to teach information literacy courses to the members of the EUI. I obtained my Ph.D. in Contemporary History in 1985 at the European University Institute and the equivalent legal Belgian title of Docteur en Philosophie et Lettres that same year. My thesis was the biography of Nicola Bombacci, a socialist who shifted from trade unionism to left-wing activism in the Italian socialist party. The “maximalist” current in the PSI he represented, was in favour of the Russian revolution and in 1921, founded the communist party. Nicola Bombacci was a friend of Mussolini since childhood , but he was one of the founders of the Italian communist party after having been the secretary of the socialist party, elected in Bologna, in 1919. He was then ostracized by the first communist party and worked for the Russian embassy in Rome after 1924. He resumed contact with Mussolini in 1931 and started publishing a monthly journal called, La Verità (Pravda) until 1943 when the fascist regime collapsed. He then moved North sustaining the Salò Republic and was with Mussolini when the “Duce” was captured by the partisans near Como. He was shot and then hanged in Piazzale Loreto in Milan together with Mussolini and other hierarchs.
After my thesis I worked as a historian of politics: I studied governments, political parties, electoral laws, etc. because Bombacci was one of the mentors of the proportional law introduced in 1919 by the socialists. I taught a course on comparative history of electoral systems in Europe for two years at the University of Urbino where I collaborated with the political science chair. My last publications in the field of electoral laws was the entry on “Electoral Systems” for an Encyclopedia dealing with the history of Europe (“Electoral Systems” in John Merriman and Jay Winter (eds.): Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914 – Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction., New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006, Vol.2, pp.953-956.). After this publications, I turned only to the study of digital and public history and to the impact of the new digital technologies on the craft of historians.
5 ) What, in your profile, connects you with PH
My profession is all about applied history, in the context of an academic library and a postgraduate department of history. I already mentioned my interests for the impact of the internet and of the early web, in the 90’ and for the historian’s professional skills and history profession as a whole. The web (version 2.0) opened the study of the past to everyone. I collaborated to some international digital projects. Between 1999 and 2002, I became part of the World Language Board, of the Journal of the American Association for History and Computing: I translated abstracts from English to French and Italian. More importantly, I maintained the global project WWW-VL: History Central Catalogue, which was launched on 21st September 1993 by Lynn H. Nelson, a professor of medieval history at Kansas University. From April 2004, the project was relocated under my supervision at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy where the history central catalogue is still available as a piece of history of the web. Lynn, who had been a “virtual” friend for many years, wrote an essay for our Italian journal Memoria e Ricerca called Before the Web: The Early Development of History Online which has been mentioned by Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig: Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). This essay was part of a first journal issue dedicated in Italy to digital history: Linguaggi e Siti, la Storia online in 1999.
I also focused on digital photography and photography archives available in the web. I studied the presence of photos in the web as public primary sources for “new” historians. Also new kind of open access publications were made available to narrate the past thanks to the digital Web 2.0 revolution and through new digital media and, especially thanks to the new and complex public role of social media after 2004.
6 ) Can you tell me more about your meeting with Andrea Giardina, President of the ICHS? Did you present him the idea of PH, what was his first reaction? Why him?
I met Andrea Giardina for the first time in Jinan, China, during the 22nd ICHS conference, during an Italian meeting and evening held at the bar in our hotel where many other historians who joined the Italian delegation in China were also present. They introduced me to Andrea. Then Giardina was elected president of the ICHS-CIHS during the concluding ceremony in Jinan I also attended.
Our public history panel, during the ICHS conference, and a digital history evening I organized with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason had been very successful events together with the Digital History day (one of the 4 thematic days of the 22nd conference) that I helped to prepare with Robert Frank, who at the time, was the executive secretary of the ICHS. Furthermore, the IFPH public and digital history panels during the IFPH-FIHP second conference in China, attracted Chinese public and media. For all these reasons I guess, Giardina who also was -and still is- the president of the Giunta centrale per gli studi storici (a governmental body) in Rome and professor of Ancient History at the Scuola Normale in Pisa, contacted me through Agostino Bistarelli, secretary of the Giunta, who was also in China. Bistarelli told me, as president of the IFPH, that Giardina wanted to help developing the field of Public History in Italy and had offered to organize a first meeting in Rome at the Giunta. Bistarelli suggested on behalf of Giardina, that the IFPH-FIHP that I represented as President of the Steering Committee had to select 3 people and 3 others had to be selected by the Giunta, in order to create a first provisional committee of 8 members (6 members, Giardina and myself) with the task to reflect on how to best create an Italian Association of Public History.
Giardina and this committee accepted to keep the English name for the discipline (public history) and a first meeting was held in January 2016, in preparation of the constituent meeting of June 21st 2016, which was also held in Rome at the Giunta Centrale. The latter meeting founded the AIPH with delegates from 15 Italian professional and historical societies, the master of communication in Bologna and the new public history master in Modena together with the M9 museum in Mestre. From then on, Andrea Giardina became president of this advisory scientific committee of the AIPH. From the start, Giardina (directly or through the intermediary of Agostino Bistarelli, now treasurer of the AIPH), has been supportive of the field and of the AIPH and has helped to organise the 1st AIPH Ravenna conference and the first public meeting with the election of the AIPH steering committee in June 2017. (*)
7 ) Why it is important to have a national association of PH in Italy? Was the idea first to gather historical societies and institutions?
In Italy, public history has always been practiced. The AIPH gave a name to the field and to applied heritage, memory and history activities. What is now important today in this country, is to bring PH into universities curricula and to convince local historical and cultural associations born after WW2, that they actually perform public history activities. Many local cultural institutions understand that their activities with the past and the local public had always been about public history issues. Public Archeology has also been present in Italy and in 2014-2015, a first national conference was organized in Florence. The decentralized organization of Italian cultural institutions and their contact with local communities is evident since many years. Moreover, in Italy, the political and instrumental use of the past had strong roots embedded in the cultural policies and in the country’s party system , especially regarding the memory of WW2, the resistance and the civil war. There have been ongoing disputes about who “controls” the past and its memory and who owns the past in public.
But both individual historians and cultural institutions are open to the field and Italians are amenable to importing concepts and disciplines from other countries and to adapt them to the local reality. Thus, the fact that the field concerned applied history and had been first developed in Anglo-Saxon countries, especially the USA did not raise any major controversy. Local institutions, archives, libraries, museums were prepared to adopt the name of a field which offered a context to what they already practiced and, in an interdisciplinary way, without the sole lead of university history professors: they feel now that they are part of the field and the new association can reinforce this movement. There are also fruitful discussions about the definition of the field itself between heritage studies, memory studies, museum studies, oral and digital history, popular history, communication of history through different media, and especially about the differences if any, between the public use of history and public history and but much more marginally, about applied history and public history.
The so-called “producers” of history for the public and the necessity to have them on board of the AIPH is also important. This is why I strongly supported the presence within the AIPH of professional associations dealing with the past (libraries, archives, museums, digital humanists, photographers, etc..), of archaeologists and historians dealing with all chronological periods and of associations promoting the study of the past, like oral history, digital humanities association, photography association, etc.. Individual members represent the professional associations within the AIPH scientific committee advisory board. This presence helps to consolidate the representativeness of the Italian public history association. The idea is to have all professions dealing with the past on board to promote PH in Italy.
The creation of the PH association with the support of existing historical associations, was also part of the tradition of the Giunta Centrale founded in 1934. It has always been the purpose of the Giunta to organize and bring together and coordinate history associations to foster the “storia patria” (homeland history). Thus, on June 21st 2016, when the PH constituent assembly addressed the need to create a PH association in close connection with representatives of already existing societies, the interdisciplinary architecture of the new association was born. This procedure was strongly advocated by Andrea Giardina and by the Giunta and our bylaws have addressed this Italian specific context. This constituent body of representatives has been transformed in the AIPH Scientific Committee as mentioned in the AIPH bylaws. Historical societies are now part of a consulting body of representatives chaired by Andrea Giardina as president of the Giunta Centrale and for the duration of his mandate.
8 ) How could you explain such a success for the AIPH? Is there something special in Italy?
Yes, in Italy there’s not one cultural center unlike Paris in France, but, rather, a capilar network of decentralized regional local and urban communities in which many territorial cultural institutions work with the different chronological pasts: ancient and medieval history like archaeology are very present in Italy as part of the heritage and cultural tourism industry. Local cultural institutions work closely with the people locally and nationally. The remembrance of Italy’s magnificent pasts (Etruscans, Romans, medieval cities, renaissance, etc.) plays a crucial role. One of the most important nationwide industries, cultural tourism, is about Italian past and heritage. The presence of the past and of cultural and archaeological heritage is ubiquitous in the country, even in small villages and towns. Local identities and memories are strongly maintained by the local populations. Italian citizens and governmental bodies, at all levels, value their own local communities and their local pasts. It has to be mentioned that Italy is also confronted with a deep crisis of academic history and with a scarcity of academic jobs for historians, thus, that PH could become a new resource for cultural workers in this and many other fields in the public history area. Finally, it can be said that academic historians lost their social role already in the ’80 and that public historians should take the lead in bringing back the civic and public role of history.
9 ) Do you see any difference between the approaches to PH in Italy and in the USA?
Yes, compared to the US, Italy has a much wider and differentiated past to deal with in the present. Italian public history practices are about enormous chronological difference and deal with from prehistory, ancient, medieval and early modern history and archaeology; all pasts are presents and alive (and often reenacted) today in Italy and this is a very important difference. As far as the profession of public historian and public history are concerned, there’s no fundamental differences in how history is professionally applied to and with the public or with the fact that local communities want to take care of their pasts and memories. But there is a fundamental difference in the way a historian becomes a public historian: the teaching of PH in Italy is very recent and universities -and the government- are not yet preparing historians to become public historians because there is no specific academic teaching curriculum. One can become a Public Historian enrolling in few local master programs and specialized courses. Now the AIPH fosters the creation of new university teaching programs and suggests that the ministries of research and education recognize officially the discipline.
Notwithstanding this situation, the field receives much attention from governmental bodies and practitioners outside universities and also from the Church with its enormous cultural heritage. And because of this public support for public history, often a discipline which is not anymore without the name has, I think, a bright future in Italy. But we need to make sure that educational programs will acknowledge officially that public history has become part of the humanities curriculum. This is the challenge for the near future that we will discuss also during the 2nd national annual conference at the University of Pisa in June 2018.
President of the AIPH, Associazione Italiana di Public History
26th of July 2017, revised in April 2018
(*) He also delivered the keynote lecture of the 2nd AIPH annual conference at the Scuola Normale in Pisa in June 2018 paraphrasing Orwell on “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”, Antidoti Storici a una Profezia, (Historical Antidotes to a Prophecy) (Added in March 2019)