A conversation with Viviane Trindade Borges, Rede Brasileira de História Pública

Serge Noiret has been interviewed by Viviane Trindade Borges, (Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina) of the “Rede Brasileira de História Pública”. The interview will be published in Portuguese in the book “História pública e história do presente“, edited by Rogério Rosa Rodrigues and Viviane Trindade Borges for Letra e Voz, Rua Doutor João Ferraz, 67, Belenzinho – São Paulo – SP


1.We would like you to introduce yourself briefly, telling us about your academic and professional career, pointing out when did you meet Public history?

2.We would like you to tell us a little about the creation of the International Federation of Public history, in what context it was created, what were its objectives, how did they act in recognizing the experiences and reflections already existing in other countries?

3.Following the previous question, would you have any criticism regarding the different appropriations of Public history in different countries? What would you say is not public history?

4.Is there any peculiarity in public history produced in Italy in relation to what is developed in the USA and also in European countries?

5.From your experience with public history and contemporary history, could you tell us about the approximations and differences between public history and the history of the present time?

6.What is the political and social importance of Public history and the History of the Present Time in the face of attacks on research work developed by historians today (negationism, anti-intellectualism, fake news, etc.)?

7.What are your diagnoses about the challenges of public history today?

  1. We would like you to introduce yourself briefly, telling us about your academic and professional career, pointing out when did you meet Public history?

I was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1957 and my mother tongue is French. I studied and got a degree in contemporary history at the Free University in Brussels in 1979. I obtained my PH.D. in Contemporary History in 1985 at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy where I had been a researcher from 1979 to 1982; I also obtained the equivalent legal Belgian title of Docteur en Philosophie et Lettres that same year. My Ph.D. thesis was about the crisis of the liberal state in Italy after WWI. Presently, I am a European civil servant at the European University Institute where my job as a History Information Specialist (Fachreferent in German or Subject Specialist in English) is to support the academic activities of the History and Civilization Department. I develop the history collection in an academic library, to support all research projects, individuals and collectives and I teach seminars for the members of the history department from digital history (software and databases training) to information literacy issues.

After my thesis, I worked as a historian of politics: I studied governments, political parties, and electoral laws and published widely in this area. I taught a course on the comparative history of electoral systems in Europe for two years in 1996 and 1997 at the University of Urbino in Italy where I collaborated with the political science chair.[1] Around the mid ’90, I became webmaster of the EUI library and I started to study only digital and public history issues and the impact of the new digital technologies on the craft of historians. After 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, doing digital history added new ways to narrate history. Different publics were now able to share history and memory contents on the web through user-generated content & crowdsourcing activities.

Therefore, if I cannot remember a specific date I met “public history”, I may say that it has been more of a relatively long process of understanding what the field was about especially in the digital realm. Starting in 1997, I studied the role of the internet and its impact on the history profession. Only from some years now, I realize that between 1997 and 2005, studying the internet, I engaged in public history activities without knowing about the field yet.

My first public history activity “without using its name” has been my involvement in a three years interdisciplinary project, between 2001 and 2003 (the results were published in 2004)[2] about the presence and the use of history by specific communities in the Italian web. A chapter of this project focused on negationist websites. It showed at that time already, just before new Web 2.0 developments, that everyone with some knowledge of technology had the capacity to use the media for personal/social goals, even providing fake and biased content about the past. It became evident through this project, that history on the web was often disconnected from traditional academic activities and open to anyone accessing the internet. At that time, I was not yet aware of the existence of digital public history as a standalone field within a broad area of digital humanities and history.

Similar to what Carl Becker said during the American Historical Association annual meeting in 1931 about “every man his own historian”,[3] with the spreading of the web in the new millennium, anybody was now able to write one’s own history without the mediation of professional historians. When I wrote an essay about the developments of a new digital historiography in the USA,[4] 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, mentioned explicitly the role of public history in the process of building a website for sharing research findings. These reflections on the public presence of history on 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 and in continental Europe. This study became a written essay in 2008-2009, my first essay directly dealing with the history of the public history written for an Italian journal and an Italian public unaware of these developments in the discipline.[5]

In 2010 in Portland, Oregon during the NCPH annual conference, I met some international public historians when I joined Anna Adamek’s roundtable aiming at creating an International Council on Public history and 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, Trevor Owen, and Chuck Harning.

I realized then, that my own digital history activities were all about public history. public history was at that time already a mature discipline in the US, which was taught in universities and promoted by an important association like the NCPH. Finally, I connected all the dots of my different activities within a stronger theoretical framework. I discovered that the applied practices that characterized my work as a history information specialist in a European academic history department and its library, was all about public history. 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.

2. We would like you to tell us a little about the creation of the International Federation of Public history, in what context it was created, what were its objectives, how did they act in recognizing the experiences and reflections already existing in other countries?

The NCPH annual conference in 2010 in Portland, Oregon was the first NCPH conference I attended. I discovered in the H-Net lists, H-Public, the call for a roundtable organized by Anna Adamek, curator at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, who aimed at founding an International Council for Public history on the NCPH model. I had been following NCPH from some years now. I remember how excited I was when I knew I had been selected for this roundtable and that my institution, the European University Institute, would have financed my participation.

After Portland, it was possible to launch an International Federation for Public history. The roundtable organized there by Anna Adamek, structured the International Task Force, which had to found an International Council as a continuation of the discussion in Portland. Prepared by Arnita Jones, a founder of NCPH and executive director of the American Historical Association until 2010, another important initiative obtained the support of the NCPH.

On behalf of the NCPH, in June 2010, Arnita Jones went to Berlin for a conference on “Public history in Germany and the United States.” The aim of her visit was to help to organize the first Public history program in Germany at the Free University Berlin. “The meeting was convened to help historians working with the new public history program at Berlin’s Free University, to benefit from the American experience in designing and managing such efforts. During the course of the two days there, I was struck -wrote Jones- … [by] the growing international dimension of public history and the need for public historians to find more frequent opportunities to come together and discuss their needs and concerns across national boundaries.”[6] Arnita Jones had also to move from Berlin to Rome, because of a meeting of a subcommittee of the International Congress of Historical Sciences (ICHS-CISH http://www.cish.org/.) she was the US representative at the ICHS. “At the Rome meeting, she wrote, one of the topics under discussion was how to improve the organization’s efforts by engaging historians from newer fields and encouraging more comparative work. We discussed various ways to do this, but one, in particular, started me thinking. CISH’s internal commissions afford the opportunity for self-selected international groups of organizations or individual scholars to meet under the auspices of the Congress and make use of its established networks to promote international discussion in their fields. […] Why not an internal commission on public history? […]. On returning home I contacted John Dichtl[7] who was and was reminded that NCPH had recently established an international task force, which included members from several countries […]. In the end, we crafted a proposal for an International Federation for Public history under NCPH sponsorship and presented it to the CISH General Assembly at the 21st Annual International Congress of Historical Sciences in Amsterdam [in August 2010]. It was unanimously approved.So here we are. International Task Force Chair Anna Adamek […] signals our intention to elect a formal steering committee at the upcoming NCPH meeting in Pensacola. To do that NCPH needs to hear from as many groups as possible—national associations of public historians, public history institutions with an international mission—as well as interested individuals….

I have quoted extensively these notes by Anita Jones because in the same NCPH news bulletin, Anna Adamek explained[8] what would have been the next step for the foundation of an international network of public historians during the 2011 NCPH conference in Pensacola, Florida.

It is not incorrect to say that it was thanks to Arnita Jones, that the creation of the IFPH had been made possible. Arnita’s supported Anna Adamek’s idea to promote an international association of public history already between 2009 and 2010. Some of the participants in the 2010 roundtable -I was one of them- continued their international discussion online about how best organizing what had become the IFPH-FIHP because of these new international developments. Individuals and associations of historians had to be contacted in different countries and a steering committee for the IFPH to be elected. In 2010, the Federation was still a sub-committee of the NCPH at the ICHS until the election of its steering committee took place in Pensacola.

Anna Adamek tells us that “national committees representing individuals, societies, institutes, programs or other organizations concerned primarily with public history activities may become members of the federation. The federation will offer a venue for public historians from around the world to create an international network of public history programs and scholars to facilitate the international exchange of information on teaching and research; share recommended professional and academic best practices, including standards for evaluating public history scholarship; foster participation of public historians and their organizations in international congresses and other meetings of scholars in the field; encourage the formation of national committees of historians working in the field of public history.[9]

These were the goals of the IFPH when the adventure started. The NCPH International Task Force created in 2010,[10] met in Pensacola in 2011 and elected the steering committee of the IFPH, a new forum for international cooperation in the field of public history.

Therefore, the idea of the International Federation started in Rome, in a meeting in which Arnita Jones represented the NCPH and Anna Adamek’s task force provided interested people to this small community of convinced internationalists during the 2011 NCPH Pensacola conference. I had discussions there with Anna and Arnita about the possibility to become a candidature to the steering committee of the IFPH. They convince me to apply to the presidency or the vice-presidency of the steering committee of the IFPH and I was elected, Jean-Pierre Morin from Canada becoming vice-president.

I also answered the call for the Pensacola NCPH conference and was present there with a panel. on European public history. This panel showed different examples from different EU countries, Belgium, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The panel called European Approaches to Public history: Identifying Common Needs and Practices introduced four very different practices well highlighting public history practices in EU countries. Thomas Cauvin dealt with difficult pasts in museums: When Public history is at Stake: Museum and Controversial Past in Ireland and Northern Ireland during the Peace Process; Cristina Blanco Sío-López illustrated a digital public history project about the history of the European integration: The “European NAvigator” (ENA): a transdisciplinary European contribution for a Digital History of the European integration; Delphine Lauwers looked at the history until today of a battlefield landscape and battlefield tourism in Flanders after WW1: The Western Front, a European Site of Memory: Battlefield Tourism as a Vector of History; Hinke Piersma illustrated the role of historians as consultants in important trials after WW2 in the Netherlands: Public Educators: Dutch Historians Influence Contemporary Politics. [11] Our aim was to illustrate very different case studies of public history practices in Europe at that time.

Once elected, the first steering committee of the IFPH promoted international public history between the NCPH annual conference in Pensacola in 2011, a conference in Luxembourg early in 2012, and the 2012 NCPH annual conference, which took place in Milwaukee.[12] The newly elected Committee met twice in 2012.[13] The first meeting was held in Luxembourg, thanks to the Centre Virtuel de la Connaissance de l’Europe (CVCE), on 21-22 March; the second was during the NCPH annual meeting in Milwaukee, in April 20. The IFPH Luxembourg steering committee meeting concentrated on the IFPH Membership and Finances. Until 2012, IFPH members had only to express their interest in the field and for the federation by sending an email to the chair of the IFPH. It was essential to decide on a proper fee membership for individuals and organizations. Moreover, to avoid more complicated and expensive matters, the Steering Committee decided to rely on the NCPH’s long experience for collecting its own money and used the NCPH website and office for the first IFPH membership fees collected in 2012-2013.[14] AS president of the IFPH, and with our Brazilian treasurer in the Steering Committee, Anita Lucchesi, I succeeded in creating a specific bank account in Florence, Italy, only for the IFPH at the end of my mandate in December 2017 so to become independent of the NCPH administrative support.

Meanwhile, the IFPH Steering Committee had been working to foster public history presence worldwide in organizing international conferences. The April 2013 NCPH Ottawa annual meeting became the conference “zero” of the IFPH (the local Canadian organizer, Michelle A. Hamilton wrote recently that Ottawa was the “real” first IFPH conference)[15] with more than forty participants mainly from European countries. In Ottawa, the IFPH had a chance to present internationally oriented public history panels and roundtables. Thomas Cauvin, a former member of the 2011 IFPH Nominating Committee who organized the election in Pensacola and is today the second President of the IFPH, proposed a roundtable comparing public history programs in line with the goals Anna Adamek task force had proposed for the new Federation. In June 2012, the IFPH made an agreement with the University of Amsterdam Public history program and the NIOD (the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies): its first annual conference, based on the model of NCPH conferences, would take place at the University of Amsterdam in September 2014. International Public history was launched.

3. Following the previous question, would you have any criticism regarding the different appropriations of Public history in different countries? What would you say is not public history?

As we have seen, the international federation was born in the USA, thanks to the NCPH support. IFPH has been founded thinking of what had been until then, the intellectual and methodological discussions that happened in North America (the USA and Canada). The reading of essays published in The Public Historian and a number of monographs published by eminent North American public historians helped in defining the field. Moreover, its practices in society, the different way the new discipline had to be thought in universities, and even some ethical issues about how public history practices could enter the market, or where to sell applied competencies, were tackled by American public historians.  The idea that public history could even generate profits through the activity of private companies was explicitly mentioned.

Personally, I have not systematic knowledge about how single countries approached public history, and the globalization of public history is a very recent topic of inquiry in the new journal of the IFPF-FIHP International Public history and in new handbooks and encyclopedias recently published and books in many languages. In 2019, What is public history globally? Working with the past in the present, edited by Paul Ashton and Alex Trapeznik reviews how Public history has been introduced in some key countries worldwide.[16]

Of course, my knowledge of the field has been deeply influenced by the American founding fathers and experience, if you read what I answered to the two former questions. It has been through the study of the history of public history in that country that I learned about public history practices and global movement. I wrote my first Italian essay about public history in 2008. It narrated the history of public history in the UK and USA and looked at how, a pioneer like Wesley Johnson (I had the pleasure to meet him twice during NCPH conferences in Nashville in 2014 -see enclosed picture- and Las Vegas in 2018 before his death that same year), described what public history was about, in different professional areas. Wesley mentioned eight sub-fields, from heritage sites, to museums, the public, and private sectors, etc., and wrote about who were the public historians at the end of the ’70 when he launched the discipline with Robert Kelley.[17] (German public historians Thorsten Logge and Nico Nolden coined an innovative interpretation, which can easily describe today these different practices described many years ago by Johnson, as being a different kind of “history types”, in which public history types are more concerned with active history competencies and practices.[18])

Then, I had the possibility to discover a very different national experience when I met Brazilian public historians during their second conference in Niteroi, in 2014. I tried to understand better, following their very animated discussions at the Fluminense University, their anthropological and transdisciplinary understanding of public history: the nuts and buts of the Brazilian public history approach seemed to be made of oral history practices and shared authority methods.[19]

I can say something about other European countries, but I recently focused my reflection on the history and peculiar characteristics of public history in Italy. I published some essays about proto-public history in Italy and the specific forms of public history experienced in Italy before the recognition of the field and after the foundation of a national public history association,[20] the AIPH, Associazione Italiana di Public History. [21]

An important member of the international public history community like Michael Frisch wrote in 2009, in an Italian journal, that Public history follows its own route in each country. Frisch: “It is inviting to dwell on these interesting differences, to observe the variations in public history as a sort of dependent variable, defined by the diversity of contexts and from the constellation of forces operating in the history of each nation and, therefore, in the public representation of it”.[22]

I have still to complete my answer to the difficult question about what is not public history. Who does not prepare a public history work/research/project thinking from the start with which public and for which public, he/she will deal with, is not doing public history. In addition, we must keep in mind that doing public history is always about connecting the past to the present and adding knowledge of the past to different communities today: who is not convinced of the importance of a civic role played publically by history is maybe not a public historian. Public historians bring all pasts into the present of local and national communities. In Italy for example, many historians think that differentiating the primary sources and doing traditional cultural history in academic essays, is about performing public history research. Many others think that public and popular history are synonymous or, that everything becomes public history when you “communicate” history to a wider public. These are all symptoms of inherent difficulties we all have worldwide in defining precisely what public history is. It is much less about defining what is not public history globally.

4. Is there any peculiarity in public history produced in Italy in relation to what is developed in the USA and in European countries?

As it has been documented for the USA, Public history in Italy is old. Local institutions dealing with the past have performed Public history practices already in the 19th century. The profession of history consolidated through the nation-building process like in other countries when archives, libraries, and national museums were created. However, only during the nineties in parallel to what has been called a second Italian republic after 1992, Italian historians started thinking about the “public use of history” stimulated by politicians and journalists supporting political and revisionist ideas. Italian Public historians engage with conflictual collective memories, the way they were formed. How museums, exhibitions, heritage and memory sites, but also street names and statutes and even a civic calendar of commemorations, is modeling a collective way to look at the past and is an important part of Italian Public history practices.

The political and instrumental use of the past has strong roots embedded in the country’s republican party system, especially regarding the memory of World War II, the resistance and the civil war between 1943 and 1945.[23] In Republican Italy, since the end of the war, there have been disputes about who “controlled” the past and its memory and who has owned the past in public. Local proto-public history practices and projects engaged with the way this country has looked at its past and at difficult memories, through the activities of cultural institutions who have developed a territorial and community-based approach to history.

Therefore, like in other countries, Public history in Italy followed its own path and methods. The decentralized organization of Italian cultural institutions and their contact with local communities has been evident for many years. One of the most important nationwide industries, cultural tourism, is concerned with the Italian past and heritage. The presence of the past in cultural and archaeological heritage is ubiquitous in the country, even in small villages, towns, and through historical landscapes. Local communities feel heritage is about their own identity and memory. Memory is a social battlefield in a country that never accepted to recognize its role during WW2 because Mussolini and fascism were allies of the Germans and National Socialism. Fighting to control civic memories, national and European, is an important issue for contemporary public historians in Italy

Both historians and cultural institutions are curious about the field today and, in general, Italians are amenable to discussing and importing concepts and disciplines from other countries and adapting them to local realities. Thus, the fact that the field was originally concerned with applied history practices in public 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 that offered a context to what they already practiced and, in an interdisciplinary way, without the sole lead of university history professors. Many Italians who practice public history in cultural institutions now feel they have always been part of the field and, a recently founded Italian Association of Public history (AIPH, 2016) has reinforced this awareness. Since the foundation of the AIPH, Italians have engaged in fruitful discussions about the definition of the field itself, between heritage studies, memory studies, museum studies, oral and digital history, popular history, and the communication of history through different media outlets. Hence a question that some colleagues, international public historians, raised already during the IFPH-AIPH common conference held in Ravenna in 2017: how could you explain such a success for the AIPH? Is there something special in Italy?

We can answer yes with no hesitation to such a question. In Italy there’s not one cultural center unlike Paris in France, but, rather, a capillary 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 communities, 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 strong and actively maintained by local populations. In Italy, each village organizes forms of re-enactments of their ancient and medieval pasts, inaugurate museums, and look at the unicity of their historical material and immaterial heritage and historical landscapes. Italian citizens and governmental bodies, at all levels, value their own local communities and their local pasts.

Compared to the US but also to other countries, Italy has a much wider and differentiated past to deal with in the present. Italian public history practices are about enormous chronological differences from prehistory, ancient, medieval, and early modern history and archaeology; all pasts are present and alive (and, like I already mentioned, often re-enacted) today in Italy. This is a very important difference with American Public Historians engaged in projects that utilize archaeological practices with a high level of technology for the 18th and 19th centuries. They want to discover, for example, some objects belonging to the Civil war POWs (1860-1865). On the contrary, in Italy these same methods are used but for the retrieval of daily life objects of the Etruscan people who lived and dominated Central Italy before Rome, between 600 and 200 years before Christ.

As far as the profession of public historian and public history are concerned in Italy, there are no fundamental differences in how history is professionally applied in other countries. Public history deals with local communities that want to take care of their pasts and memories. However, the way a historian becomes a public historian in Italy is very different if compared to other countries. It is rare that somebody would give you today, a business card on which reading these words “Public Historian”. If public history is applied in many professional areas in the country, it is often still without the name.

The teaching of public history in Italy is very recent. Universities -and the government- are not yet preparing historians to become public historians because there is no specific academic teaching curriculum. It only started very recently. One can become a Public Historian enrolling in few local master programs and specialized courses in public history and masters in the communication of history. Of course, today we have a national association and one of the first aims of the AIPH is to foster the creation of new university teaching programs and suggests that the ministries of research, culture, tourism, and education recognize officially the discipline.

Notwithstanding this situation, the field receives much attention from governmental bodies and practitioners outside universities. In addition, the Catholic Church is looking at public history practices especially because of its huge cultural heritage that requires be better managed and better shared with the public. In addition, because of an important public curiosity for public history in Italy, I think, that the field and its practices have a bright future and could help to solve the crisis of academic history in society. What we need to make sure, is that educational programs will acknowledge officially that public history has become part of the humanities curriculum. This is a challenge for the near future.

5. From your experience with public history and contemporary history, could you tell us about the approximations and differences between public history and the history of the present time?

Benedetto Croce, the eminent Italian historian, said once that all history is contemporary history. The way Romans accepted multiple religions and ethnicities in their empire could become important for the making of the public history of the present time shared with local and national communities. All periods of the past, if dealt with through the work and practices of public historians, are alive in the present and conditioned by it. All pasts, even the most remote ones, can teach us something for today. Public history tends to dig into the reasons why we are today as we are and where we are going because of what we were yesterday. It is continuously about experiencing and reactivating the past in the present with very different means, languages, and narratives speaking to the wider public.

In France, they have the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent founded in the ’80 by François Bédarida.[24] They tackle memory issues and the usage of the past in the media, for instance, a specific field in global public history. Nevertheless, they never mention l’Histoire Publique the way a master of public history held at the University of Paris-Est calls it.[25] So, in France, there’s no need to differentiate between historians of the present days and public historians, what is done by public historians in other countries is part of the craft of historians of the present time in France. Eventually who is dealing with the “Patrimoine” (heritage), is doing forms of applied public history but here again without ever using the name.

In Italy, as I already described, we had no problem introducing the two words in English in order to differentiate the study of the instrumental usage of the past in the present to sustain collective memories or political issues and public history field practices, projects, and research. Maintaining the English names was about a field institutionalized by American historians in more than forty years, and including in our debates, all their more theoretical and methodological discussions about definitions and differences between applied history and public history.

6. What is the political and social importance of Public history and the History of the Present Time in the face of attacks on research work developed by historians today (negationism, anti-intellectualism, fake news, etc.)?

The history of the present time is contemporary history in Italy, and it can become a public history of the present time. I already mentioned the importance of collective and social memories and the fights engaged to control them in the present. The way to discriminate a public history approach from a traditional contemporary history approach is not distinct from how we look at the differences between traditional history and public history, which engage with the public outside the academy. In Italy, public history could be about informing why some street names should be taken away and replaced by others. Public historians with the support of local civic organizations discuss these public issues. I take an example. During our next annual AIPH conference in Mestre-Venice in early June 2020, the president of Libera,[26] a national association fighting all Italian mafia in civil society, Don Ciotti, will come and deliver a talk about the memory of the mafia in Italian society today. A Public historian like Marcello Ravveduto whose work is about the history of the cultural and social imagination of the mafia in Italian society is involved in local conferences sometimes directly organized thanks to local sections of Libera. Presenting his research during the 2017 Indianapolis NCPH conference, he mentioned how much toponomastic and onomastic are shaping urban memories: street names dedicated to members of the mafia should be replaced by who fought the mafia in small communities, names of heroes killed by the mafia, individual citizens who stood against the mafia, judges, journalists or policemen. This is happening today because of new support for the state and its legality fostered by Libera. The role and the mediation of journalists and public historians are part of an activist policy on the field. This is the history of the present time using public history practices: historians become cultural mediators between local communities and their violent pasts.[27]

Today, because of the early developments of the web, even before what has been called an interactive web 2.0 in which everyone had a chance to convince the public, negationists’ interpretations of the Shoah, loss of contextualization of historical events, and the creation of false collective memories based on a misleading interpretation of a divisive past are spreading in public. Everyone can become a historian thanks to the disappearance of all professionalisms and specialisms in the digital realm. Experts wrote Tom Nichols in 2017,[28] are not respected anymore; scientific discourses are contested. This happens not only in history but also in biology or medicine. Gloria Origgi shows the differences between experts and connoisseurs, especially in the web.[29] In such a context, public historians become important mediators. Their commitment to local communities and their capacity to work with different publics is essential for maintaining a correct approach to contemporary history. Their work is needed to consolidate collective memories through a real knowledge of the past. In Italy especially, the fascists -today called post-fascists- who lost the Second World War side by side with the Nazis, want to nurture a contradictory memory forgetting what happened during the war and what caused the war. Recently they succeeded in using a single event called “genocide of the Italians”, without considering its context made of a longer historical dimension anchored in the fascist regime.

In 2004 a day of remembrance has been introduced in the civil calendar in honor of the more or less 3000 Italians who were killed on the 10 of February 1947 by the Yugoslav communist partisans. After 1945, entire families sent away from their homes in the Italian part of the Adriatic Sea were pushed alive and killed tragically in the so-called foibe (sinkholes in English). The commemorative day of the “foibe” intends to preserve the memory of this tragedy and the exodus of their lands by Istrians, Fiumians, and Dalmatians after the Second World War because of Tito’s partisans’ pressures to abandon their lands.

This event has been magnified in support of a right-wing nationalistic and populist propaganda that wants to equate two commemorations. The day of remembrance is an important moment connected to the foibe, places that became a real site of conscience and remembrance, but it cannot be equated to the day of the memory, the 27th of January when, in Europe, the holocaust and the genocide of millions of Jews and other minorities is commemorated. Who wants to speak about two genocides does it in an instrumental way, ignoring historical researches produced during the last years, which contextualizes both events: what happened because of the Yugoslav communists is not a genocide but a horrible mass-murdering like the many perpetrated during WW2. Public historians are here on the frontline of these fights over Italian collective and divisive memories and we hope their voices will have a public impact.

7. What are your diagnoses about the challenges of public history today?

Today public history is really becoming a global public phenomenon. The need to engage with the past in communities and take care of civic and social issues locally is, in many countries, also an empirical answer to what David Armitage and Jo Guldi called in their History Manifesto, the crisis of the humanities and of history as an academic discipline worldwide.[30] However, as we have seen before, the understanding of public history is peculiar in each country. Connected to how the social sciences and humanities developed institutionally it depends at the same time, on how public history developed through bottom-up and grassroots initiatives corresponding to local and popular needs. Moreover, these needs are different in countries where first nations were colonized or, on the contrary, -and essentially from the ’70 onwards- in colonial countries where social claims and deep social inequalities reoriented historiography towards social history research. The study and understanding of lower classes history stimulated a very important field in public history, what has also been called “activism” if we think about Howard Zinn in the USA or Raphael Samuel and the History Workshop Journal in the United Kingdom

In other words, public history is an archipelago. History in public and with the public is conducted differently in the many islands in this global archipelago.[31] Therefore, the discipline could be compared to digital humanities, often called by their practitioners, a “big tent”, or an “umbrella field” which includes different sub-disciplines and practices, like, for instance, digital history or digital public history that concerns us most. The field is now growing strongly outside North America and the Anglo-Saxon countries, which introduced public history starting in the ’70 of the last century. Today, public history is a glocal public history phenomenon and discipline. This is what I argued in an essay written together with Thomas Cauvin for the Oxford Handbook of Public history in 2017.[32]

If we must think about the next challenges, these are also very different in each country and depending on national contexts. I think that, as far as public history is concerned globally, the discipline faces, first of all, an academic challenge: public history has to be recognized everywhere as an important field in the humanities which need autonomous teaching and an ad hoc curriculum for their practitioners who will mainly work outside universities when not teaching public history itself of course.

A second important challenge today is not an institutional or pedagogical one, it is about the need to engage in civic campaigns about the past against the proliferation of fake histories that pervades communities and foster clashes between divisive memories like the one I mentioned for Italy. The result of a battlefield for historicizing collective memories, forget and/or remember, depends on where each of these two behaviors is more important to cement a peaceful social cohesion and the pacific coexistence of antithetic memories that have to be healed. This battlefield is of course part of the history of our present times. What is at stake here, is a public history battlefield that promotes a common acceptance and a better collective understanding of why nations are what they are today because of their difficult and often violent pasts. Knowing better our pasts is not enough: these must be delivered publicly.

Such a battlefield could be against Confederates monuments or around a public campaign like #BlackLivesMatter started in 2013 in the USA, or about a recovery of European memories of the post WW2 history between Eastern European countries suffering the communist totalitarianism until 1989 and Western countries who were liberated from Nazi-fascism already in 1945. The goals of public history are also about helping and consolidating the right of autochthones peoples, first nations and local communities and the different ethnizes in all continents, to rediscover their own pasts and differences, and valorize their different cultures and memories. In many cases, public historians are concerned by the building of sites of consciences and must foster transitional justice processes, building on a strong capacity to rewrite a history accepted by everybody in post-colonial societies and to process collective mourning thanks to a stable and consolidated memory.

So yes, there is plenty of work for public historians today and tomorrow because their role is not less than contributing to the building of better democratic societies, respectful of human rights, and to the possibility of all minorities to access their own history and to cultivate their memory without any abuse and violence. One of the first human rights is the right for minorities and different cultures, to be respected. I think that such a duty is embedded in each public historian’s work and that a global public historians’ community can do a lot to reach such a goal.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Carl Becker: “Everyman His Own Historian”, in The American Historical Review, vol. 37, n. 2, January 1932, pp. 221-236, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1838208.

[4]La “nuova storiografia digitale” negli Stati Uniti, (1999-2004).” in Memoria e Ricerca, n. s., n.18, January-April 2005, pp.169-185.

[5]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

[6] Arnita Jones: “Creating the International Federation for Public History, in Public History News, Volume 31, Number 1, December 2010, p.1 and p.4, https://ncph.org/wp-content/uploads/2010-Dec-Newsletter-FINAL-compressed1.pdf.

[7] John Dichtl was at that time the Executive Director of the NCPH. It is thanks to John Dichtl that I was able to attend the 2nd Rede Brasileira de Historia Publica conference in Niteroi in 2014. John and the NCPH suggested to partially finance my trip to Brazil because he was, like Arnita Jones, aware of the necessity to develop an international networks in the field.

[8] Anna Adamek: “International Task Force”, in Public History News, Vol.3, n.1, Dicembre 2010, p.8,http://ncph.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2010-Dec-Newsletter-FINAL-compressed.pdf .

[9] Ibid.

[10] Members of the International Task Force in Portland were: Justin Champion, Royal Holloway, University of London; H.A. Akku Chowdhury, Liberation War Museum (Bangladesh); Kate Christen, Smithsonian National Zoo; Andreas Etges, The John F.Kennedy Institute for North American Studies; James Gardner, National Museum of American History; Erika Gee, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience; Michelle Hamilton, University of Western Ontario; Jon Hunner, New Mexico State University; Serge Noiret, European University Institute; Jean-Pierre Morin, Treaty Relations Directorate, Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada; Linda Norris, Riverhill; Jon Olsen, University of Massachusetts; Manon Parry, National Library of Medicine-National Institutes of Health; Sonaren Phy, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Phnom Penh, Cambodia); Cecilia Rusnak, Penn State University; Lisa Singleton, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre; Ioana Teodorescu, McGill University, Montreal and Algonquin College, Ottawa; Jonathan Whalley, Independent Public Historian. (See Annual Meeting Of The American Society For Environmental History And The National Council On Public History, 10-14 March 2010 Hilton Portland & Executive Tower, Portland, Oregon, p.15, https://ncph.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Final-2010-Annual-Meeting-Program-without-Cover.pdf

[11] https://ncph.org/wp-content/uploads/2011-Annual-Meeting-Program.pdf, p.25

[12] Serge Noiret “Next Steps for the International Federation“, in Public History News, Vol.32, N.4, September 2012, p.10, https://ncph.org/wp-content/uploads/PHN-2012-September1.pdf

[13] IFPH elected Steering Committee: Chair, Serge Noiret, European University Institute, Italy; Vice-Chair, Jean-Pierre Morin, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada; Treasurer, Michael Devine, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, United States; Secretary, Arnita Jones, Historian/Consultant, Arlington, Virginia, United States; Delegate, Anna Adamek, Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Canada; Delegate, Andreas Etges, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

[14] The official address was: IFPH c/o National Council on Public History (NCPH) 327 Cavanaugh Hall – IUPUI 425 University Blvd. Indianapolis, IN 46202.

[15] Michael Dove and Michelle A.Hamilton: “Public History in Canada: public service or public service?” in Paul Ashton and Alex Trapeznik (eds.): What Is Public History Globally? Working with the Past in the Present, London, Bloomsbury, 2019, pp.37-49, here p.44.

[16] On the history of national paths to Public History, in 2010, The Public Historian devoted a full issue to Public History in the United Kingdom: Holger Hook (ed.) Public History in Britain, in «The Public Historian», Vol. 32 No. 3, summer 2010. Na Li, Public History in China: Is it Possible?, in Public History Review, Vol.21 (2014), pp. 20-40, https://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/phrj/article/view/4135/4602. Greece was tackled by E. Lemonidou, Public History: The International Landscape and the Greek Case, in «Ricerche Storiche», XLVI, 1, January – April 2016, pp.93-103, http://www.ricerchestoriche.org/?page_id=693; T.Logge, Public History in Germany: Challenges and Opportunities, in German Studies Review, pp. 141-153, DOI: 10.1353/gsr.2016.0020; see in the new IFPH journal International Public History, Japan (M. Okamoto, Public History in Japan, in IPH, 1/1, doi: doi.org/10.1515/iph-2018-0004) and China M. Jiang, The Background, Development and Problems of Public History in China, in «International Public History», 1/2, 2018, DOI: 10.1515/iph-2018-0017; J. Niesser-J, Tomann, Public and Applied History in Germany. Just another Brick in the Wall of the Academic Ivory Tower?, in «The Public Historian», 40/4, November 2018, pp. 11-27, DOI: 10.1525/tph.2018.40.4.11; C. Muñoz, Colombian Historians and the Public, in «The Public Historian», Vol.40, No. 4, November 2018, pp. 28-32, DOI: 10.1525/tph.2018.40.4.28. Finally, in 2019, Paul Ashton and Alex Trapeznik (eds.): What Is Public History Globally? , cit., describe the following countries approach to the field in Britain, Canada, Australia, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and the USA.

[17] Serge Noiret: Public History” e “storia pubblica” nella rete”, cit..

[18] Thorsten Lodge and Nico Holden: “Public History in Germany: opening new spaces”, in Paul Ashton and Axel Trapeznik: What Is Public History Globally? Working with the Past in the Present, London, Bloomsbury, 2019, pp.63-78, here p.74.

[19] I published an English version of Linda Shopes keynote in Niteroi in an Italian journal as: “The Evolving Relationship between Oral History and Public History”, in Ricerche Storiche, vol. 46, no. 1, 2016, pp. 105–118.

[20] Serge Noiret: “An Overview of Public History in Italy: No Longer A Field Without a Name.” in International Public History, 2(1), 2019, 5 pages, doi: 10.1515/iph-2019-0009; “Il Manifesto della Public History Italiana” – The Italian Public History Manifesto – Das italienische Public-History-Manifest, in Public History Weekly 7 (2019) 27, September 19 2019, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2019-14196. And more recently, “The birth of a new discipline of the past? Public History in Italy”, in Ricerche Storiche, Anno XLVIII, n.3, September-December 2019, pp.131-165.

[21] Associazione Italiana di Public History, http://www.aiph.it

[22] Michael Frisch: “Public History: una via a senso unico? in Elisabetta Vezzosi (ed), “I festival di storia e il loro pubblico”, in «Contemporanea», 4/2009, pp. 717-742, doi: 10.1409/30646, pp. 720-724, here pp. 720-721.

[23] See for this my essay “Il Ruolo della Public History nei Luoghi della Guerra Civile Italiana, 1943-1945“, in Ricerche storiche, XLIII/2, May-August 2013, pp.315-338.


[25] https://www.u-pec.fr/fr/formation/master-histoire-parcours-histoire-publique

[26] Libera, Associazioni, nomi e numeri contro le mafie https://www.libera.it/

[27] Marcello Ravveduto: “La toponomastica della seconda Repubblica. Falcone e Borsellino, vittime della mafia.”, in Memoria e Ricerca, 2018, Vol. 57, pp.158-174 DOI: 10.14647/88861 and, in general, from the same author, Lo spettacolo della mafia : storia di un immaginario tra realtà e finzione, Torino: Edizioni Gruppo Abele, 2019.

[28] Tom Nichols: The death of expertise : the campaign against established knowledge and why it matters, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, [2017]

[29] Gloria Origgi: Reputation: what it is and why it matters., translated by Stephen Holmes and Noga Arikha, Princeton: Princeton University Press, [2018].

[30] «The History Manifesto»: a discussion, introduction by Serge Noiret, with contributions by Ramses Delafontaine (ed.), Quentin Verreycken, Eric Arnesen, in «Memoria e Ricerca», 1/2016, pp. 97-126, DOI: 10.14647/83225.

[31] Marcello Ravveduto, Il viaggio della storia: dalla terra ferma all’arcipelago, in Paolo Bertella Farnetti, Lorenzo Bertucelli and Alfonso Botti (eds.), Public History. Discussioni e pratiche, Milano: Mimesis, 2017, pp. 131-146, here, p. 136.

[32] Thomas Cauvin and Serge Noiret, Internationalizing Public History, in James B. Gardner and Paula Hamilton (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public History, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp.25-43

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