American and British public history: learning from one another

Posted on August 14, 2013 by

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Our editor Natalie Haly reflects on her experience of public history in America and asks whether we can learn anything from the different approaches to public history used in America.

A few weeks ago I visited the United States of America and it really got me thinking about the differences between British and American interpretations of public history. Admittedly, I’d gone to get a taste of the California lifestyle rather than sample the local history offerings, but nonetheless history was all around us and we spent a great deal of time witnessing public history in action. It was the relaxed vibe of these attractions which really stood out to me with their confident and bold presentations of the past.  In San Diego we spent the best part of a day exploring Old Town, a charming 17th century reconstruction of what became California’s founding town, and which was a shining example of the American zest for public history.  It had the works – museums, historic homes and employees in full period costume. I have to admit that the British in me initially dismissed this last touch as too ‘disney’, but as I looked around and began to embrace the atmosphere I allowed myself to slip back into the reconstructed past. Certainly, the masses of school children being led around the town by their “17th century” guides were captivated; for them, it was as though they had crossed an invisible divide and emerged in the 1800s.  And yet, in spite of this effect or perhaps because of it, the whole place felt a touch two-dimensional with its overly simple historical presentation. The reconstructed town to some degree appeared to have valued entertainment and commercial revenue above historical accuracy.  This highlighted for me the idea that perhaps American public history can on occasion lack the awareness of historical conflict which British public history assumes.  In turn, Britain could definitely benefit from adopting some of the American enthusiasm and skill for creating interpretations which are fun, confident and interesting.  Surely we should be doing more to work together as public historians, sharing ideas and practices internationally to seek out the best methods of historical presentation.  After all, isn’t that what we are striving for as public historians? To find the best methods of creating interpretations which are at once engaging and accessible with an awareness of conflicting views of the past.

Natalie

Posted in: Editor's Blog