Writing locally, thinking globally

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globe puzzleIt is welcome news to hear about all the many ways that NCPH and the field of public history are internationalizing these days.

Our annual meeting in Ottawa this spring has a program rich with participants from Europe, Asia, and the Pacific.  The meeting also marks the inaugural conference of the International Federation for Public History, which NCPH as an organization – and many of our members individually –  have been actively supporting from its inception.

Much of the brainstorming about the future of The Public Historian has also been focusing on how to incorporate more international content, building on the good foundation the journal has constructed in recent years. The data collected by the readers’ survey this summer indicate that almost two-thirds of respondents consider the international dimension to be a  “very important” or “somewhat important” feature of the NCPH journal going forward.

Always a revealing benchmark, the NCPH Guide to Public History Programs now lists curricula at colleges and universities in ten countries beyond North America: Australia, Belgium, China, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.  Let us know of other new programs starting up.

As we embrace the global, let’s not forget the local.  It seems to me that the location-specific case study remains the bedrock of public history.

I’ve heard colleagues ask whether public history’s long-standing (even defining) interest in the local can co-exist with our newfound commitment to the global.  Some have remarked on these two seemingly opposed directions for the organization and the journal as a “tension,” or at least a “paradox.”  Why would someone in Berlin, they ask, care about a local archive in Berlin, New Hampshire?  Why would anyone in Colombia care to hear about a public history project in Columbia, South Carolina?  In fairness, though, shouldn’t we invert the question and ask why someone in Columbia should care about a public history project in Colombia?  Does a public history project in a South American country necessarily trump one in the American South?

In casting our net globally we are only partially interested in far-flung geography.  Of course we value national perspectives, the transnational and the comparative, the mosaic of cultural and racial variety, the relation of historical memory to diverse political circumstances, theoretical synthesis.  All that I am suggesting is that an international address for a public history project does not necessarily confer significance or import.

Instead, it is the intellectual apparatus that the public historian brings to the case study that draws our attention and makes us want to read the journal article or listen to the conference presentation.  The question is: why is the project important outside its small core of participants and beyond its region?

Thinking about what he saw in the High Sierra on one of his many rambles into the remote, the California naturalist John Muir famously remarked “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  I’d urge that we apply this ecological observation to our work in the trenches of public history, by reflecting on how and why the case study is “hitched to everything else.”

 It seems to me that we care about the local case study when:

•  it transcends the parochial for the contextual

•  the specifics of place open up conversations about big issues and large debates

 •  it engages issues of social justice and the role of the past in the present

•  the story is framed analytically and answers the  question “so what?”

I like to tell my students that good public historians have the ability to cast down their buckets wherever they land and find interesting projects.  This advice has always been less about place (where they are studying as graduate students or working afterwards as professionals) and more about themselves (whether they can dig deeply into nearby history and discover broad patterns and meanings).

I may be over-stating the argument for the location-specific case study as the bedrock of public history, but if NCPH is perceived as too academic in its concerns and constituencies, I think this is an especially important message to practitioners. By seeking to internationalize, NCPH is not turning its back on practitioners – anywhere.  We value the case study, whether in Berlin or Berlin, New Hampshire, Colombia or Columbia, Monterrey or Monterey.

~ Robert Weyeneth is the President of the National Council on Public History’s Board of Directors and Professor of History/Director of the Public History Program at the University of South Carolina.  He can be reached at [email protected] This article is also published in the December 2012 NCPH newsletter.