Do Public Audiences Care About History For Its Own Sake?

On January 21 Columbia University hosted a “History in Action” conference that received a lot of attention within the history community on Twitter. I was not at the conference, but I followed along online with much interest. The noted Harvard University historian Jill Lepore gave the keynote for the conference, which focused on writing for public audiences. Based on the tweets I saw it appears Lepore made a number of arguments about the state of the field today, most notably that historians have “retreated into the academy” and are hesitant to engage public audiences, that the speed by which they produce their work is “indefensibly slow,” and perhaps most provocatively:

The public doesn’t care about the past for its own sake, just about the relationship between the past and the present.

I want to address this last claim. While it’s something I might have agreed with while studying public history in graduate school a few years ago, I no longer agree with it.

The first problem lies in assuming that there is a singular non-academic audience–“The Public”–that exists for consuming historical scholarship. Public historians have argued since 2013 and probably earlier that there exists no singular public audience but many public audiences that approach history from a number of different perspectives. Students, activists, politicians, senior citizens, and other community members all bring different levels of pre-existing knowledge and interest with them when approaching historical scholarship in a book or at a public history site. If we wish to spark an interest and appreciation for history among these many publics, we must work to meet them where they are. That means working to move some people’s interest level and historical knowledge from square one to square two and other people from square nine to square ten. I think it’s great to see articles written by historians in The New Yorker and popular history books on the bestseller lists, but we need to think more broadly about the ways people consume history besides books and articles and acknowledge that the idea of “The Public” is a myth. Know your audience.

My personal observation is that many people interested in the past are interested for the sake of the past itself. Again, we have to look beyond the writing of op-eds, magazine features, and academic scholarship that can sometimes delve into contemporary issues. Why do people visit history museums and National Parks or watch history-related movies and television programming, things that get far more attention than most historical scholarship in print? One of the latest studies on visitor motivations suggests that people visit cultural sites to fulfill their identity-based needs, one of which is the desire to “escape the mundane, work-a-day world” and learn about things out of the ordinary like past historical societies. I contend that there are far more people that visit public history sites out of a genuine curiosity about the past than people who come specifically to find something relevant to the present. I am sympathetic to the idea of connecting historical interpretations to present-day issues, but we should acknowledge that such efforts are difficult to implement, often uncomfortable for both historians and audiences, and far from accepted practice in either written historical scholarship or at public history sites. The problem at many historic house museums is not that public historians are facilitating deep, thoughtful dialogues with audiences about the role of history in shaping contemporary political circumstances, but that too many house tours focus on giving “furniture tours” and offering positive anecdotes about happy slaves, benevolent enslavers, and the mythical good old days. The past is a foreign country, but it’s a country many people are still willing to travel to without the filter of a present-day connection.

Another consideration we need to keep in mind is that Lepore is an Americanist whose recent books include historical analyses of Wonder Woman and the conservative Tea Party movement, both popular subjects in recent U.S. historical memory and arguably relevant to present-day political issues and topics. But is every historian in a position to study and interpret historical topics that are so easily relevant to the present? Should Medieval and Ancient historians make their scholarship more accessible by only focusing on topics that are relevant to today? I’m just not sure how a Medievalist would respond to Lepore’s claim given that a topic like burial practices in 10th century France is going to be much tougher to relate to the present (although no less important) than the Tea Party’s use of American history to justify their movement’s political convictions and advocacy for conservative candidates in public office.

Finally, we should also keep in mind that what counts as “relevant” is subject to debate among historians and their many publics. Who in society gets to determine what history is relevant and irrelevant? Historians are not the only ones with the power to shape historical narratives and make connections to the present. What I as a historian may consider relevant to the state of society today may be dismissed by someone else as wholly irrelevant. If I wish to connect something like American slavery to present-day racism and mass incarceration, the onus is on me to craft those connections and prove their worth through a reasoned interpretation of available historical evidence. “Relevance” is not a self-evident concept.

What do you think?