The love/hate relation of public history and historians (Summary Session 3)

During the third sessions of the Spring Conference “Towards a new historiography of the Second World War”, public history was at the center of attention. A debate took place, chaired by Kees Ribbens between two historians and one Television Studies expert on the use of academic historians for public history.

The discussion started off with some daring statements of the Television Studies expert Judith Keilbach (University of Utrecht) about the uselessness of historians for public history in the media. According to her, public history in the form of documentaries and museum exhibition do not per se need historians. Curators, app developers, journalists, all can provide the necessary historical input, even if they are not trained historians. Sometimes, they are even better at it since they do understand the logic of the media industry. The question all historians in the field of public history and media should ask themselves is: if and why they want to be involved? She suspects that the answers to these questions will mostly be connected to competition and authority. Historians tend to try to fight against the loss of authority in the field of public history and tend to feel that they are the chosen ones who should write this history. According to Keilbach, historians are no longer the only ones who are facilitating critical debates. Other actors might do it as well and are maybe even better at it in the field of media and public history.

Roel Vande Winkel, historian and communication studies expert, commented on the value of documentaries, movies, novels based on historical events, for the broader public as well as for us historians. He emphasized two important aspects from which we could learn from popular public history. First of all, artists such as writers and movie producers have a kind of liberty that historians do not possess. They are able to fill in certain aspects of the narrative. For example, in a historical novel the reasoning and mind-set of a mass murderer can be described in detail without having any sources to base this on. Showing emotions, thoughts and deep insights. This is something, which would be almost impossible for most academic historical work, since most of the time we miss these details in our sources. If the novels can learn us one thing, it would be that it makes us aware of all the information we do not know, such as their specific emotion, some conversations etc.

A second aspect, which we should not forget, is that we as historians are also part of the “receiving end”. Apart from our own specific field of expertise, we get our historical knowledge mainly from movies, documentaries, exhibitions etc. So we ourselves are also part of the public that receives history.

The third expert, Chantal Kesteloot, is a big advocate of academic historians being active in public history. According to her, we need to listen to the demands of the public, work with new tools to transfer our knowledge to this broader public and try to work together with the media. They might not need us, but we might need them!

Historians need to try to find ways to work with other disciplines, such as documentary makers, without losing site of their historical methods. Using part of the liberty of artists, historians could help create exhibitions with fictional people, based on real historical research. Here, Kesteloot seems to use the artistic freedom Vande Winkel was talking about for the advantage of closing the gap between academic and public history while trying to provide information that suits both the academics and the public. The new historian should not only surround him- or herself with books in the library but also with actors in the broader society.

The question remains that if we want to be involved in public history, why and maybe more importantly how with adjusting to the logic of media but without losing our historical accuracy.

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