This week is the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA). It is happening at the University of Regina and has the handy hashtag #chashc2018 so that those unable to attend can follow some of the conversations and sessions remotely. I appreciate the time taken by attendees to share what they are experiencing through social media. It means people like me can use their lunch breaks to catch-up on what is happening at the CHA; which is what I am doing now.
At the Day 2 marker there are a two topics of conversation have me thinking – public history and pipelines. My thoughts on these two conversations are not yet refined enough for the word limits of Twitter but I wanted to put them out there anyway as a non-academic working in public history in a province demonized for wanting a pipeline.
Thought 1: Pipelines
The timing of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline decision with the CHA is flooding my twitter with a lot of comments and opinions and debate about pipelines. The environmentalists are all “no pipeline” all the time. The indigenous groups seem divided depending on where their lands are along the pipeline route. The politicians are politicking, so the usual there. The academics are starting to sound like the environmentalists — I am going to put that down to the historians I follow generally being environmental historians and the conference including a panel on carbon democracy. I am loving the comments from historians to that provide context to the current situation and debate. History does matter and it is important to understand the situations we find ourselves in today. Which brings me to the second set of thoughts around public history and the apparent explosion of references to it in the live-tweeting this year.
Thought 2: Public History
Public history is not just the act of doing history in public, it is doing history for the public. The new generation of academic historians came through grad school as social media, blogs, podcasts, and various other self-directed forms of communicating information with the masses were taking off. Many of them have integrated these platforms into their academic work as a means of sharing ideas they are working on, promoting their work broadly, or having conversations with colleagues far away.The website ActiveHistory.org is a great example of how academic historians are finding ways to do their work in public using a platform that can make their work accessible and useful for the public. All of this is great because it brings academics into the public sphere and quoted as experts in news articles or brought on programs like CBC’s The Current to provide context and commentary on contemporary issues.
I would argue that tweeting and blogs and commentaries are ways we can do history in public but are not necessarily public history in the sense of history that is for the public. This comes from my own the very different experiences of doing history in public and doing history for the public. This blog is one of the places I do history in public. I got into twitter for the same reason, to engage with historians and conversations in public through live-tweeting at conferences. When I write for this blog I know my audience is mostly other historians, in the same way that I know most of my followers on twitter are connected to the academic practice of history. That informs how I write, the voice I use, the way I present arguments, and the level of detail I go into on certain topics. The way I write for this blog and twitter is a completely different way than when I write a text panel or tour script or exhibit summary. The platform of this blog might be public but I assume a pre-existing level of knowledge because my audience is a niche within the public. This is not how I approach voice and audience when I am practicing public history. When I write public history content I assume the base level of knowledge is a passing interest in the subject matter and consider how to engage and convey information to that broad segment of the public. I keep in mind that a subject matter expert will probably also read what I am writing so strive to ensure factual accuracy, but I am not writing with the level of detail or with the flourishes I would for a subject area expert. I am writing for the majority who are not subject area experts. I am writing to engage them with information and ideas that might be completely new to them. I am writing to make them want to know more, to pique their curiosity. In short I am not writing for myself or to make my work public, I am writing for the public to provide them with an accessible entrance to a topic. I write differently for the public than I write in public.
This quickly got longer than I intended. Now my lunch break is over and it is time to get back to work on museum accreditation and emergency preparedness planning and deaccessioning.