Family, voice, sense of place, and time travel. According to Benjamin Filene, these are the core themes in history created by non professionals, all of which are driven by a personal and emotional approach to the past. Filene’s recent Public Historian article, “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us,” grapples with the development, validity, and spread of history created by persons outside of the formal history profession.
The struggle to quantify what constitutes ‘real’ or ‘good’ history is nothing new. Public history as a field faced considerable from traditional academia during its rise to acceptance. Genealogists are often scoffed at by academic historians and local historians are over looked. Filene does not ignore the professional/outside divide in the history field. Rather, he suggestions that both parties could learn from each others strengths. Granted, suggesting two segregated sects work together is a lot easier said than done.
Public history that doesn’t reach the public isn’t very good public history. Similarly, it wouldn’t hurt more traditional historians to try new avenues of disseminating their research. History practitioners outside of the formal field have interpretation and display techniques that could easily be adapted to public history. Focusing on individual stories, using clear language, providing specific examples instead of broad themes, and relating history to present events are all approaches which can assist in interpretation. Some museums have already begun adapting new methods of interpretation. This often means changing their exhibit style to be more personal and emotional and less telling an overarching story of a historical event.
Academic and professional history can be emotionally compelling. However, this typically isn’t the aim of professional history or something that is considered a top priority in presentation. But, when people identify and can relate to history they show greater interest and are more likely to actively participate. Historians of all shapes and sizes need to look at how they are reaching the public and begin to draw on interpretation and outreach work done by those outside of their immediate circle.