Why Public History? Building a Round Table for the CISH Jinan World History Congress, August 2015


As permanent internal commission of the CISH-ICHS, the IFPH-FIHP is fostering the broadest possible international participation to the Call for Paper launched by the Comité International des Sciences Historiques – International Committee of Historical Sciences and especially for the round table on “Why Public History?”, organized by Arnita Jones (American Historical Association, USA, Secretary of the IFPH Steering Committee) together with Alix Green (University of Hertfordshire, UK, Member of the IFPH-FIHP) during the next 22nd world history congress that will take place in Jinan, China in August 2015.

 The deadline for the call for discussants is November 30, 2013.


 The full CFP is available as a PDF document on the CISH-ICHS website but is also fully reproduced here below. 

XXIInd Comité International des Sciences Historiques 

(CISH-ICHS) Congress

Jinan, China 23 to 29 August 2015


 Round Table n.9: Why Public History?


One of the major difficulties in exploring and explaining public history—and the role of public historians—is the on-going issue of definition. Definitions are shaped by context, and can display significant differences and tensions, both within national disciplinary communities and between them.

Writing in 1991, former World History Association president, Alfred J. Andrea, offered a breadth of scope in his definition that offers, at least, a point of departure. He sees public history as the application of ‘historical skills and perspectives in the services of a largely non-academic clientele,’ and of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’. His range of examples of public history take in public policy analysis, the understanding of cultural heritage, and helping a corporation ‘plan its future through an understanding of its past’.1

Yet it is easy to become overly pre-occupied with definition. The inevitable difficulties involved – and the reality that any outcome will be contested – can prevent further enquiry. We can ask what public historians do, and present the diversity of activities as a proxy for definition, but there is a need to be more intellectually ambitious. The paper that this roundtable will discuss will propose a different way to proceed. One powerful way to explore what public history is is to ask ‘why is public history as it is?’. This approach allows us to consider those important questions of context, to draw out the influences that have shaped public history fields in different contexts and to make comparisons that point to further development and dialogue.

This roundtable will therefore have a comparative dynamic. Taking a global perspective will undoubtedly reveal many differences in terms of public history’s concerns, priorities and self-conceptions. But we imagine we will identify far more things in common. The search of affinities – as the basis by which international conversations about public history can begin – is one of our central aims.

We do not anticipate or prescribe the topics or questions respondents will want to focus on. Rather, we suggest here a number of purposes to which history can be put in public as a way to start the thinking process.

We do not anticipate or prescribe the topics or questions respondents will want to focus on. Rather, we suggest here a number of purposes to which history can be put in public as a way to start the thinking process.

The purpose of a distinctive form of knowledge will affect how people should be prepared for practice. What are the requirements of a public history education and how might those be captured in qualifications? The term ‘public’ conceals a whole array of constituencies with different, sometimes conflicting, perspectives and interests. What might determine their relative prominence and how might we understand and mediate between groups? The legitimacy of collaboration with certain groups, for example policymakers or marginalized constituencies such as offenders, is an area for consideration. For every purpose, a set of responsibilities is entailed: how can public historians respond to and manage these obligations?

Commentators are not limited to these areas of enquiry; we welcome consideration of any aspect of public history that responds to the paper with the broad aims of the roundtable in mind.


Alix Green

a.r.green [at] herts.ac.uk

Lecturer in History and Policy University of Hertfordshire

Arnita Jones

arnitajones [at] gmail.com

Executive Director Emerita, American Historical Association

(1) Andrea, ‘On public history’, Historian 53 (1991) p. 381.


Les propositions ne doivent pas dépasser 2.500 signes et doivent être envoyées avec une courte biographie, simultanément aux organisateurs (Alix Green et Arnita Jones) et au secrétaire général du CISH Robert Frank : sgcish1@gmail.com au plus tard le 30 novembre 2013

Proposals should be a maximum of 2.500 characters – 350 words and should be sent with a short biographical note to the organizers (Alix Green and Arnita Jones) and to the Secretary General Robert Frank : sgcish1@gmail.com. by the 30th November 2013.

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