About G. Wesley Johnson and a maiden voyage which started international public history forty years ago

NCPH Nashville, 2014, G. Wesley Johnson with from left to right, Thomas Cauvin, Serge Noiret and Paul Knevel (Photo NCPH staff)

About a year ago, the 15th of April 2019, Perspectives on History, the newsletter of the American Historical Association (AHA), published an obituary on G. Wesley Johnson, one of the founding fathers of Public History in the USA (Johnson founded the first public history program at the University of California Santa Barbara, at the end of the 70′). In the early 80′, Johnson had not been only a founder of Public History in North America but, also, his first international pioneer, an “evangelist” of the new discipline of public history in at least two other continents, Europe and Africa. He passed away on the 16 of November 2018, at the age of 86.[1]

In 1980, G. Wesley Johnson, chairmen of the NCPH, who studied the history of French colonialism in Africa, was invited by the British and the Dutch to join what became the first applied and public history conference held in continental Europe, in Rotterdam. Johnson came back with some new notes to his first trip to Europe and Africa, after a second trip to Europe, in an essay he wrote in 1984 for The Public Historian.[2]

The 1981 Rotterdam seminar called “applied historical studies” or “public historical studies” like it was sometimes mentioned in the ’80,[3] was organized by the Social Science Council of Great Britain together with the new-born University of Rotterdam. An urban historian, Anthony Sutcliffe of the University of Sheffield[4] who opened the first public history program in the UK few years later,[5] and a historian and journalist, Henk Van Dijk of the University of Rotterdam, conceived the event. In turn, they invited to the seminar historians from other countries like François Bedarida, director of the new Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent in Paris and many others.[6] The conference addressed some of the central themes, which characterize public historians’ activities, such as their professional ethic and responsibility towards non-academic employers and the differences between applied and public history. The seminar was based on a dialogue between politicians, responsible for the decision making process in Parliament, and historians capable to analyse such a process thanks to their professional skills. “Prof. A. Offer of York, “drew a distinction between applied history as having the subject matter determined by the historian, and public history, which he viewed as client-oriented, and hence potentially “dangerous.”[7] His definition was disputed by other participants and furnished one of the main themes running throughout the conference”.[8] The central concept of “objectivity” in historical practices had been confronted with, in The Public Historian, Wesley Johnson’s recently founded (1978) UCLA Santa Barbara new journal.[9] Wesley Johnson was surprised to verify, during the conference, how ignorant were Europeans of the rapid development of the new field of Public History in the USA. “Johnson reported on the origins and growth of public history as a new subject in American universities, the new public history programs, and the work of the National Council on Public History.” The intervention of François Bedarida -the most interesting speaker in Rotterdam wrote W. Johnson- mentioned that, in France, in 1980, a first public history seminar had been held at the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent (IHTP) in Paris. “Bedarida, wrote Johnson for the NCPH Newsletter, well known as an urban historian, has launched the first public history seminar in France this fall. He has endorsed the goals of public history and seeks to promote a dialogue between decision-makers and historians; his institute is trying to stimulate interest in contemporary history in France, in an effort to furnish historical perspectives to planners and decision-makers. Bedarida stressed the primacy of the utility of more recent historical study as opposed to long-term history. He also stressed the importance of historians in planning commemorative events (the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution is approaching) […]. Perhaps more important noted Johnson, the seminar of Sutcliffe and Van Dijk launched public history professionally for all of Europe, and there are rumors that Germans may be the next to host a conference. Some of the Rotterdam participants will be in evidence at the forthcoming fifth national conference of the National Council on Public History at Waterloo, Canada, [1981] to help initiate a trans-Atlantic dialogue.”[10] Wesley Johnson’s notes about the conference suggested that Europe would have included Public History soon in academic settings. He was nevertheless aware that, in any case, it would have been better to privilege a transatlantic relationship with British historians.

Felix Torres, a young French historian had followed the results of this Dutch seminar and was enthusiastic about Bedarida’s willingness to engage with public history and the creation of his contemporary history center directed in Paris, the IHTP.[11] Torres wanted to understand better, how Public History developed in California and decided to go to the USA in 1982 and meet Wesley Johnson. Back from the homeland of Public History, he founded in 1983, a publishing house called Public Histoire, a French translation for Public History.[12] Many years after his first visit to the USA, Torres joined an IFPH panel at the NCPH conference in Indianapolis (April 19-22, 2017). He told about his experience with Public Histoire and why the creation of a private start-up dealing with Public Business History in France, happened as early as 1983 after his meeting with Wesley Johnson in California in 1982.[13]

In his thesis discussed at the Sorbonne, University of Paris 1, in September 2018, he writes: “my destiny as a public historian, a job I’ve been doing for 35 years, began in August 1982 at the University of Santa Barbara, California, when I met Wesley Johnson, one of the founders of American Public History. I can still see the long, sunny corridor in which I seek the office of this professor of African Studies, the long and narrow office invaded classically by books. I do not really remember our warm encounter, except vaguely the portrait, he drew of the nascent discipline of which he was one of the founders. “Wes” will become a friend that same Wes of which, one will say of those he met, “He met Wes, so he became a public historian!” I went to the Greyhound station whose bus took me back to Los Angeles. I made my decision and I announced to him: “I will create an agency of Public History in France”. This is what I would do in 1983, with friends: Public Histoire, the Public History & Applied History Agency, a still ongoing adventure, was born.”[14]


[1] Arnita Jones, Thomas Cauvin, and Serge Noiret: “In memoriam G. WESLEY JOHNSON (1932–2018), Public Historian”, in Perspectives on History, April 15, 2019, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/april-2019/g-wesley-johnson-(1932%E2%80%932018). See also Rebecca Conard: “In Memoriam G. Wesley Johnson, Jr. April 28, 1932 – November 16, 2018”, in History@Work, 18 February 2019, https://ncph.org/history-at-work/in-memoriam-g-wesley-johnson-jr-april-28-1932-november-16-2018/.

[2] G. Wesley Johnson, Jr.: “An American Impression of Public History in Europe”, in The Public Historian, Vol. 6 No. 4, Autumn, 1984, pp.87-97, DOI: 10.2307/3377384. On the internationalization of public history between the USA and Europe see the detailed description by Thomas Cauvin: “The Rise of Public History: An International Perspective”, in Historia Crítica, n.68, 2018, pp.3-26, https://doi.org/10.7440/histcrit68.2018.01

[3] G. Wesley Johnson and R.L. Nye: Public historical studies monograph, Santa Barbara, Graduate Program in Public Historical Studies, University of California, 1979.

[4] See what wrote some years later Anthony R. Sutcliffe, organizer of the conference: Anthony Sutcliffe: “Gleams and Echoes of Public History in Western Europe: Before and after the Rotterdam Conference.”, in The Public Historian, vol. 6, no. 4, 1984, pp. 7–16. http:// www.jstor.org/stable/3377379.

[5] G. Wesley Johnson, Jr.: “An American Impression of Public History in Europe”, cit., p.89.

[6] See also on the conference and Wesley Johnson’s trip in Europe from Paul Knevel “Public History. The European Reception of an American Idea?” in Levend Erfgoed. Vakblad voor public folklore & public history, Vol.6, n.2, 2009, pp.4-8.

[7] See some years later Avner Offer: “Using the Past in Britain: Retrospect and Prospect.” in The Public Historian, vol. 6, no. 4, 1984, pp. 17–36. http:// www.jstor.org/stable/3377380 or doi:10.2307/3377380

[8] G. Wesley Johnson: “Public History in Europe: Maiden voyage”, in Newsletter of the National Council of Public History, 2/4 e 3/1, summer/fall 1982, URL: https://ncph.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/NCPH-Vol-2-No-4-and-Vol-3-No-1.pdf.

[9] G. Wesley Johnson: The Origins of “The Public Historian” and the National Council on Public History, The Public Historian, Vol. 21 No. 3, Summer, 1999; (pp. 167-179) DOI: 10.2307/3378969

[10] G. Wesley Johnson: “Public History in Europe: Maiden voyage”, cit..

[11] Johnson who wrote that important would be, for the development of Public History in Europe, the enthusiastic support of students. He mentioned Félix Torres as an example, Torres « who started the first historical consulting firm in France”, see G. Wesley Johnson, Jr.: “An American Impression of Public History in Europe”, cit., p.94.

[12] Public Histoire : l’histoire et la mémoire de l’entreprise, URL : http://www.public-histoire.com/

[13] NCPH: The Middle: Where did we come from? Where are we going? , April 19-22, 2017, Indianapolis, URL: https://ncph.org/conference/2017-annual-meeting/. Torres was part of the following panel: We Interpret Our Present and Try to Share Our Past: European Public History Experiences and Projects.

[14]Mon destin d’historien public, métier que j’exerce depuis 35 ans, a débuté en août 1982 à l’université de Santa Barbara, en Californie, quand j’ai rencontré Wesley Johnson, l’un des fondateurs de la Public History américaine. Je revois encore le grand couloir ensoleillé dans lequel je cherche le bureau de ce professeur d’African Studies, le long et étroit bureau envahi classiquement de livres. Je ne me souviens pas vraiment de notre rencontre chaleureuse, hormis vaguement le portrait qu’il dressa de la discipline naissante dont il était l’un des fondateurs. « Wes » qui deviendra un ami – et dont on dira de ceux qu’il rencontrait « He met Wes, he became a public historian! (il a fait la connaissance de Wes, il est devenu un historien public…) – m’accompagne à la station Greyhound dont le bus me ramène à Los Angeles. J’ai pris ma décision et je lui annonce: « Je vais créer une agence de Public History en France ». Ce que je ferais en 1983, avec des amis : l’agence d’histoire appliquée Public Histoire, une aventure toujours en cours, est née.”Sorbonne Université, Habilitation à diriger des recherches (HDR), Dossier présenté par Félix Torres: Le temps de l’entreprise. Anthropologie, histoire publique, histoire d’entreprise  un itinéraire., Volume I, Document de Synthèse., Paris, Sorbonne Université, 19 septembre 2018, p.41.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search