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‘I want to break free!’ – The unconventional nature of public history

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

Back in January 2020, I wrote about the need to foster respect for both public and scholarly history. This emphasised the different objectives of the two broad approaches to historical practice, and I briefly touched on how scholarly history is typically presented in ‘formal and conventional styles’, whereas public history is often ‘more flexible and open’. The ability for practitioners of public history to work in that flexible and open manner, and to break away from the established conventions and rules of scholarly history, means that it is often breaking innovative new ground in terms of creative and engaging outputs.

Often those outputs draw heavily on technological advances, such as Lyndall Ryan’s interactive online map of ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres’ in Australia from 1780 to 1930. Users can click a point on the map to retrieve additional details on individual massacres, such as the date, victims, attackers, weapons used, a summary of events, and sources for more information. At UNE, Dr Bronwyn Hopwood’s ‘The Past in Your Palm’ project makes innovative use of handheld audio devices as pseudo-‘Tour Guides’ to inform visitors of the campus’s range of historical buildings and exhibits. For several years, virtual reality has been seen as one of the most exciting ‘digital frontiers’ for historians, and sites such as CyArk enable people to view vivid ‘3D models’ of historical sites from the comfort of their own home. 

These examples, among countless others, are breaking valuable new ground in terms of both the way historians engage with the past, and the way they engage with audiences. The three examples cited above place the audience as an agent in that engagement process, and this stands those public history outputs far apart from traditional scholarly outputs. Users of Ryan’s mapping website decide where to navigate, what events to click on, and what information to retrieve. Users of Hopwood’s Past in Your Palm devices can determine the path they take around campus, while CyArk users can freely navigate and view the historic sites in question. As public historians continue to break free from convention and pave this new ground, the possibilities for the future of public history become ever more exciting!

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