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Fostering respect for public history and scholarly history

By Associate Professor Nathan Wise, Public and Applied History, University of New England (UNE).

As Associate Professor of Public and Applied History at the University of New England (UNE), I’m often asked to explain the differences between public and scholarly history. In my foundation unit HINQ100: What is History? we spend the first half of the unit exploring the nature of scholarly history: why we do it, how it’s done, and why it’s done in that particular way (in essence, a history of the conventions of scholarly history). Our students are expected to write their essays in a scholarly manner, and it’s important that they understand and have a firm grasp of those core concepts (and the reasons they exist) before heading off to commence their own scholarly research and writing. 

But, at UNE, many of our students are enthusiastic practitioners of public history (many work in museums, pursue family and local history, or are active in a range of public history projects), and thus, we spend the second half of the unit exploring the diverse nature of public history.

That exploration begins with a simple definition, that public history is every form of historical representation that lies outside of scholarly history. That definition is simple, broad, and open to encompassing the many diverse forms of public history output.

We make it clear that, while scholarly history seeks to expand knowledge about the past in fresh ways, using new methods, theories, approaches, sources and arguments presented in several formal and conventional styles, public history is more flexible and open. It can be crafted and designed, often without any clear convention in mind, to fulfil a range of different objectives for an immense range of audiences. While scholarly history is typically peer-reviewed, and often has to adhere to rules and conventions around presentation and structure, public history can break free of moulds and engage audiences in new and exciting ways.

Scholars are often very critical, even dismissive, of public history, often on the basis that it is not ‘scholarly enough’. But then, as I regularly repeat to my students, public history is not necessarily designed for scholars, and it is not necessarily designed to be scholarly.

There is room in our world for both scholarly and public history, but an appreciation of either form of history must be built on a foundation of respect for the other, and what the authors or creators of that type of history are trying to achieve.

Dr Nathan Wise

Associate Professor in Public and Applied History

University of New England

Image courtesy of iStock: 475181496

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