Global and International Public History

This post is an extended version of “Internationalizing Public History. In: Public History Weekly 2 (2014) 34, DOI:” (German and French translations are also available).

Public History Weekly   BlogJournal for History and Civics EducationPublic History today is a worldwide discipline which considers the presence of the past -and the construction of history- outside academic settings. The practice of History has always been “public” in a way but individual and collective memories are nowadays invading the public sphere. Conflicting perceptions of the past and the inability to forget are asking for professional mediation because the past is not becoming history anymore. Public Historians answer the increasing demand for history worldwide and interpret the past with and for the public. Awareness of their global role fosters the internationalizing process of PH.

• Everybody’s interpreting its own past.

During the last thirty years, not only in Anglo-Saxon countries, historians engaged into public discussions about the past. Especially public historians were interested in collecting and interpreting memories using Oral History and digital technologies. Through social media and the web, conflicting collective memories of genocidal pasts, dictatorships, violent civil wars, have been displayed for a better public understanding in virtual and physical museums. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and remembrance portals like the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, interacted with local communities using public historians to recover forgotten and uncomfortable civil memories.

Looking at the presence of the past in the American society, David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig noted something that can be extended to other countries (Australia and Canada studies the characteristics of national pasts in popular memories): even before the start of a participatory web 2.0 allowing individuals and communities to crowd-source their own vision of history, nonacademic public’s were eager to re-memorize their family and local history. People also knew about history visiting memory and battlefield parks, true “lieux de Mémoire, and wandering in thematic museums and exhibitions with their popular narratives about nearby pasts.

Professional public historians, especially within the digital realm, are confronted with everybody’s public pasts. Historical expertise is needed worldwide for acquiring deeper contextualized understandings of history. Working within communities and for the public, public historians are the answer to such an universal quest for the past. Their task is to communicate history publically.

• Self-conscious or institutionalized ? Different paths to Public History.

If we want to understand to what extend the discipline is existing internationally, we have to consider different settings. International Public History aims at understanding divergent historical paths to the discipline with specific professional skills. Forty years after its institutionalization as a university discipline in California, public history contaminated new countries. So what makes history public and public history growingly self-conscious today?
rede-brasileiraThis September in Brazil, during the 2nd Simpósio Internacional de História Pública, on Perspectivas da História Pública no Brasil, the Rede Brasileira de História Pública showcased a variety of multi-racial, social, political and local public history practices. Brazilian historians fostered workshops and participative media ateliers analyzing different facets of Brazilian PH as described in an introductory volume to the discipline (2011). But why the Rede, a federal decentralized network of historians belonging to different universities, used the term “international” for a conference about Brazilian public history? Universal practices and theoretical reflections on the impact of digital history and on the presence of oral history in Brazil populated roundtables and officinas (10-12 Sept.2014, Niterói, Rio de Janeiro) together with the participation of few international scholars.

Pioneer American oral historian Linda Shopes focused on the close integration between oral and public history. She discussed the concept of “shared authority” (Max Frisch) inaugurated by Raphael Samuel during the Seventies in Oxford. Samuel resurrectionism delivered to the miners their scattered memories sharing like Socrates, his own professional authority.2nd Conference Public History Brazil In Belgium and the Netherlands were the first international public history conference has been organized in October 2014 at the University of Amsterdam together with the NIOD, public history programs are being created within universities. Like with the International Committee for the Historical Sciences hosting PH panels in China in 2015, in Italy and in Germany, academic historical associations added public history panels to their conferences (Cantieri di Storia Sissco 2013; 50 Deutscher Historikertag 2014).

In Greece, Public History and the role of the past in the present are openly discussed because of the dramatic financial crisis which brought new consensus to neo-Nazi parties. So, for Greek historians, making history in public is also a civil duty necessary to maintain the memory of the civil war, the resistance and the colonel dictatorship. Historians are challenging the present misuses of the past in Greece and they looked at how much the past is active in the present during a Greek Public History conference in Volos in August 2013, (some papers have been recently published in the Italian journal Ricerche Storiche). But the same pattern is also evident in Brazil where the violent history of the military dictatorship is showcased in museums and exhibitions; or in Sri Lanka, where the Colomboscope 2014 on “making history”, a national history festival remembered Herstories, women oral interviews telling about the horrors of a thirty years civil war.Sri_Lanka_herstories

When Greek neo-Nazis re-interpreted the national past to support their political claims, public historians questioned the political usefulness of history in the agora. Academic Historians answered this challenge publishing books, organizing conferences, commenting in the media the Greek civil war, the resistance and the colonel dictatorship and addressing local communities and their individual and collective memories.

• Glocal Public History meant consciousness of the past surrounding us.

Ricerche storiche   A. XLIV  N. 1  gennaio aprile 2014

Different ideas about what history is about socially developed differently and following different patterns globally. Nevertheless, Public History remains often a discipline without the name. Historians entering the public arena and creating narratives through the media weren’t always aware of the existence of a sub-field or a discipline called Public History. Academic historians have the tendency to call public history what is, de facto, a “public use of history”, engaging the discipline, its skills and practices with contemporary debates about the past in the polis. Only from few years now, and shifted by the digital turn in history which had a huge impact on Public History practices, new forms of awareness and of an overwhelming necessity of the field arose. This phenomena happened globally nonetheless the universal ambiguities and contradictions about a common professional definition of the field. The internationalization process is happening worldwide following such a multi-faceted process of globalization. It derives also from the crisis of academic history in our post-colonial societies. Emblematic of this process was the creation of the International Federation for Public History. A NCPH international Public History Task Force transformed in 2010 into an internal commission of the Comité International des Sciences Historiques. Today, the IFPH is mandated to create international linkages between public historians and promote the development of our growing worldwide network of practitioners and foster national public history programs and associations.

• A decentralized glocal history asking for a global public role?

Answering to this question qualifies glocally and internationally the role of public historians. Our world is now glocal, Europe have lost his central role in defining a universal idea of the past through its Eurocentric narrative, its colonial and post-colonial history. Subaltern studies theorized what was already evident publically: local pasts everywhere emerged forming multi-centered globalized pasts. This decentralization of history fostered the field worldwide, and favored the birth of what could be called glocal public history discipline.

Public History meant often working on the past with local communities and, in general, for their better understanding of their local-global memories. The process in itself is all about International Public History interpreted globally the same way: building oral interviews, remembering individual and collective memories, collecting and preserving sources, creating museums and exhibitions, confronting with difficult pasts and their interpretation. The usefulness of international public history relies on the universality of these glocal practices.


• Giorgos Antoniou (ed.): History and the Public Sphere in Contemporary Greece in “Ricerche Storiche”, XLIV/1, January-April 2014.
• Silke Arnold-de Simine: Mediating memory in the museum: trauma, empathy, nostalgia., Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
• Paul Ashton and Paula Hamilton: History At The Crossroad: Australians and The Past., Ultimo: Halstead Press, 2010
• Dipesh Chakrabarty: Provincializing Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
• Margaret Conrad, Jocelyn Létourneau and David Northrup: Canadians and their Pasts: An Exploration in Historical Consciousness, in The Public Historian, vol.31, n.1, February 2009, pp.15-34.
• Michael Frisch: A Shared Authority: Essays On The Craft And Meaning Of Oral And Public History., Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
• Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes (eds.): Oral History And Public Memories., Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.
• François Hartog and Jacques Revel: Les usages politiques du passé., Paris : Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2001
• Denise D. Meringolo: Museums, monuments, and national parks : toward a new genealogy of public history., Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
• Wolfgang Muchitsch: Does war belong in museums? The representation of violence in exhibitions., Bielefeld: Transcript, 2013.
• Serge Noiret: “La “Public History”, una Disciplina Fantasma?” in Public History. Pratiche nazionali e Identità Globale., in “Memoria e Ricerca”, n.37, May-August 2011, pp.10-35.
• Serge Noiret: “Digital History 2.0”, in Frédéric Clavert and Serge Noiret (eds.): Contemporary History in the Digital Age, Bruxelles: Peter Lang, 2013, pp.155-190.
• Juniele Rabêlo de Almeida and Marta Gouveia de Oliveira Rovai (eds.) Introdução à história pública. São Paulo: Letra e Voz, 2011
• Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. Columbia University Press, 1998
• Raphael Samuel: Past and present in contemporary culture., London: Verso, 1994.
• Robert Weyeneth: “Writing Locally, Thinking Globally”, in “Public History News”, vol.33, n.1, December 2012, p.8.
• Guy Zelis (ed.): L’historien dans l’espace public: l’histoire face à la mémoire, à la justice et au politique., Loverval: Labor, 2005.


International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
Public History Commons, International section
International Federation for Public History
Rede Brasileira de Historia Publica
Perspectivas da História Pública no Brasil
Comité International des Sciences Historiques
National Coalition for Public History
Digital & Public History
50 Deutscher Historikertag 2014
Società Italiana per lo Studio della Storia contemporanea
Colomboscope 2014 – Making History
Metapedia. The Alternative Encyclopedia

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