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Doing Public History

Now is a timely opportunity to prompt public debate about the nature and role of history in Britain. Indeed, for example, the current discussion in the press about ‘Britishness’ and the selection of a national memorial day, as well as TV series like Monarchy, Great Britons, and others, indicates that there is popular context and demand for such discussion.

Beyond engaging with the local commemoration of important anniversaries, centenaries and bicentenaries (think of  recent events associated with 1807, or more traditional moments like the Gunpowder Plot, Trafalgar Day, Magna Carta Day, Holocaust Memorial Day, Black History Month and a number of WW2 events) there is little cogent reflection on the relationship between the academic historian and the public.

On the contrary in the USA, Australia, and France during the late 1980s and after, (for example the 500th anniversary of Columbus, the bicentenary of white settlement/First Fleet in 1988 for Australia, The 200th anniversary of the 1776 and 1789 Revolutions) the public events were driven, reflected in and prompted considerable scholarly and public debate. These were all huge, government funded productions which brought in academics to serve a national agenda with the possibilities of attempting to narrate a 'national history'.

In other cultures control and definition of the historical past has very significant current political ramifications; the example of a contested public history is more evident in the case of Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK.


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