New Horizons in Public History

By Dr Katharine Blake, PHA Blog Editor

Public history — history for the general public — is a ‘broad church.’ Diagrammatically it looks like a tree: with its roots in academic history, growing and branching out in many directions. It encompasses various styles; it caters to different audiences; and it’s created by different practitioners in a variety of workplaces. One of the strengths of public history is this cadence of possibilities.

We are all trained as consulting historians ‘inside the lab,’ which is, metaphorically speaking, academic history. But we are the scientists who leave the lab, who use our training to create historical products in real-world conditions — books, novels, exhibitions, photographs, paintings, movies, and seminars, for consumers who expect returns on their time and money.

As a practice, professional history has a range of demands, and it requires skills which are never raised or addressed in the course of academic training. The original discipline of history as it is taught doesn’t imagine history being practised anywhere other than inside a university. With commissioned histories, so much is about client management, but the idea of a client is completely absent from what we teach historians at university.

Two of the biggest assumptions that historians make in real-world conditions are to assume that if a client commissions a history, they have history in their sights as a goal, or, that they understand what a history project is likely to involve. Those two presumptions are easy to make. Immersed in a love for historical things, sometimes we don’t even realise that they are not naturally connected.

In my experience, an understanding or a liking for history isn’t a prerequisite for a client commissioning a history. There are many reasons that clients enjoy engaging with history, and ‘History with a capital H’ is infrequently one of them. In a fee-for-service arrangement, such disjunction in intent between consulting historian and client can be difficult to navigate.

Consulting historians have the sometimes-perplexing task of retaining the best of what we have been trained to do, whilst being flexible enough to let go those aspects of our training which do not fit the commercial or public environment. And what’s more, what parts of our training that do not fit will change from client to client, and from context to context. That’s why flexibility, creativity, and innovation, are all developed as part of a consulting historian’s kit-bag, and why client management can be a key to our ability to do our work successfully.

In client management, for example, it helps to be aware that the client’s aim in undertaking a project may not be the one that they state in their first meeting with you. Despite their claims to a particular view, it may take weeks or even months of interactions with you for the real motivations for a project to emerge. This is the hidden, sometimes unconscious, agenda. This delayed reveal can be confronting, or more seriously, disruptive to your methodology, but it’s part of what happens when you’re working in the field.

It can help to see your initial engagements with a client as the basis for cultivating a fuller awareness in them about what you do and what a history project run by you will look like. You’re building a rapport in this early stages not to get the job, but to establish a basis upon which to advise the client later. The more thorough you can be in these early stages, the more likely you will have a legitimate basis upon which to advise or even challenge them later, if necessary.

Why see your role, partly, as about making demands on the client? The answer is to compare the way that other specialists work with their clients. If you take a client’s relationship with a barrister, for example, the client will often approach a barrister (through a solicitor) not with a single legal problem but rather with a cluster of interrelated concerns. It is frequently the barrister’s job, as part of advising, to understand those concerns and offer specialist remedies, while also influencing the client to open themselves up to certain realities and to choose accordingly.

Blindspots and assumptions can happen on both sides throughout a project, and its best to understand that a consulting role includes identifying and adjusting expectations for both. The ability to do this comes from a delicate mix of authority, rapport, and trust, which is created consciously by the specialist from the first meeting. This is not about ego as a specialist but about getting a better outcome for the client.

We had a demonstration of this point recently raised by the case of a biography commissioned from academic, Nichola Garvey, by mining magnate, Twiggy Forrest. Twiggy had been aware that biographer Garvey, a PhD candidate in ANU’s School of History, was writing a history of the Fortescue Metals Group. He had the idea in 2011 to commission his biography—then approaching Nichola for a recommendation for a possible ‘famous’ author.

Garvey would eventually get the job, recounting some of her experience in the Australian Journal of Biography and History (No.3, 2020). It’s an article worth reading for its candid assessment of what Garvey describes as the challenges of working with living subjects and maintaining the “distance required for objective analysis.” She says that, in hindsight, she got the job for the wrong reason, and this would continue to hamper the project until it eventually fell over:

I knew him, I could write, I wrote biography, but above all (and with the benefit of hindsight), I think I ended up with the job because I was a person Forrest thought he could control.

This casts light on the difference between the normal approach to history ‘in the lab,’ and what happens to the academic approach once the practitioner is in the field. Consulting historians will frequently ask themselves what it means to have a live client who is directing, to varying extents, their research and its outcomes.

It is a delicate balance between building an affinity or accord on the one hand, and on the other hand, being ready and able to push the client to the edges of their comfort zone, or if needed, beyond it. A lot can be done in the early stages of a project to set the boundaries for such interaction, but if that is avoided, whether through lack of awareness or because the client pushes for a close relationship that feels more like ownership, the consulting historian will pay for it for the duration of the project. It is not a lesson learned once but over and again with each new client.

This question of control arises in any funded exercise. It would be fanciful to suggest, for example, that academic history itself can be purist about money—once history is funded, what follows are the wishes of those who offer the money.

Funding will always reflect the desires of the funding body or bodies. The most topical example is the current conditions of a growing national debt in a global pandemic, with the government stating an intention to strengthen a preference for STEM subjects over humanities topics. We have also, unrelatedly, seen in Australian television a loosening of regulations about a minimum amount of local content, which raises the danger that locally-made and themed content may cease to be economically viable.

We are enriched by sharing with each other how Australians have each taken the paths to be where we are today as a collection of people. Now, more than ever, you might say that the privately-funded demand for history, or the demand from the general public for history, will play a crucial role in ensuring that history gets made in Australia and local stories get told. Consulting historians are always learning about what stories are valued by the public. But we can also have a role to play in opening others’ eyes to what stories might yet be valued and shared.