What is Public History?

The term “public history” is relatively new term that has been coined to reflect history that is practiced with a focus on the general public, rather than on academia. In other words, it is history practically applied.  Since this term is so open to interpretation, there are many different defintions that exsist.  Below we’ve listed some of our own personal definitions of what Public History is:

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Public history is a discipline in itself. It focuses on how we present history to the public: what we choose to include, what we choose to exclude, what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget, and the reasons for those inclusions or exclusions.

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As a student of public history, I aim to investigate public interaction with, and interest in history in all its various forms, particularly in an Irish context. I am particularly keen to explore the culture of interest in history in contemporary Ireland.

A practicing public historian, on the other hand, engages with the public as a vital part of his or her research and the presentation of work. The ‘public’ is commonly taken to consist of non-historians, which prompts the question: who qualifies as a historian? If public libraries, digitised historical documents, internet sites and other resources are (in theory) universally accessible, can any user conducting research and presenting it as history be called a historian? What, specifically, is meant by ‘access’? Has the proliferation of media forms that are employed in the research and presentation of history made historical knowledge more accessible and thus made the study of history more democratic?

These questions cannot be answered without investigation of power relations and key status markers as factors in the evaluation of historical work. The role of the media cannot be overlooked either, especially when considering that the whole notion of the ‘public sphere’, at least in its rudimentary forms, would have been inconceivable without newspapers and periodicals (not to mention a critical, reasoning, educated populace). That was a few hundred years ago, and according to Jürgen Habermas, we can no longer speak of such a public sphere. So what is the situation today? These are questions that have consistently come up as I continue in my study of this recent introduction to the Irish university.

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