Negotiations – Week 3 in History Beyond the Classroom

In an essay entitled “Public History” in Clark and Ashton, eds., Australian History Now (2013), Paul Ashton reflected on his experiences as a public historian and the growth of the field in general. He concluded by noting his working definition of public history as “the practice of historical work in a wide range of forums and sites which involves the negotiation of different understandings about the nature of the past and its meaning and uses in the present” (179). Such a definition draws on Raphael Samuel’s idea (discussed last week) that “history is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands,” and also points forward to Martha Sears’ ecological view of different forms of history-making as “part of a dynamic system where every diverse and distinctive element contributes to the vigour and health of the whole” (Sears, “History in Communities,” in Clark and Ashton, Australian History Now (2013), 212-213).
For me, this is a useful way of thinking about public history, and immediately encourages us to reflect on the practice of history in the University and classroom, which often (though not always) precludes these kinds of negotiations about different kinds of understandings about the past, and present uses. Our reading this week about the Enola Gay controversy in the United States in the early 1990s reinforced the dangers of not doing so, but also how difficult it might be to do so. Our discussions invariably shifted to the History Wars in Australia, but particularly the commemoration of Gallipoli and the ANZAC tradition. Is there a historical middle ground between commemoration and historical analysis? What role should the historian play in negotiating a kind of common ground that might move the debate forward, too? Opinions varied… Of course the Enola Gay controversy has resurfaced once again, especially in the USA and Japan, where the seventieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has just passed. History News Network, a useful clearing house for history-related news has been alive with discussion of this event (see, for example, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/159701http://).
We were also fortunate to have Bruce Baskerville https://twitter.com/mrbbaskerville join us to share his story of how he became a professional historian and the many challenges and opportunities he has faced. We were impressed with just how hard he has had to work at this and yet how many interesting projects he has been involved with. Students were keen to know how he got started, and also his hints on practical issues such as how to approach local and community organisations. Questions about ethics and responsibilities of the historian doing public history again came up in the discussion. Bruce, who is the current chair of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT http://www.phansw.org.au, talked about some of this and also noted that the Professional Historians Association of Australia has some guidelines that might be useful in their “Code of Ethics” (see http://www.historians.org.au/). But Bruce also recognised that there are many grey areas that need more fulsome discussion. No doubt we’ll be coming back to some of these questions throughout the unit.

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