Public History – a short introduction


Ljubinka Petrovic-Ziemer

Public history can be described as a wide range of activities that relate to the past, create and shape historical knowledge in the public sphere for and with a non-academic audience. The post offers basic information on the linkage between Public history and civic engagement, collaborative practice and ‘shared authority’ as key elements of public history, and finally formats and sites exemplary for public history.  

Public history as a link between research and civic engagement
The rise of public history was prompted by several developments that enabled a broader participation of citizens in the production of historical knowledge and meaning making of the past in the second half of the 20th century and onwards. The interest of some historians in the social and political exclusion of marginalized and subordinated groups and their affinity to the social justice movement in the 1960s and 1970s was most strikingly evidenced in the emergence of the branch of new social history, entailing subfields like black, women’s, labor, ethnic and racial history.

In contrast to the dominant master narrative, new social history focuses on the experience of ordinary people with social changes rather than on the history of the great white men. In Britain, the History Workshop Movement (HWM) that developed in the 1960s offered a frame for laypersons to conduct historical research outside an academic setting as collaborative practice. The HWM aimed to combine applied research with emancipatory politics, social justice issues and political involvement. 

In the wake of the collapse of dictatorial regimes and contemporary armed conflicts and struggles, public history expanded its concern for the neglected and marginalized to the survivors of repression and armed conflicts as well as to respective sites of atrocities and human suffering that were gradually transformed into ‘sites of conscience’ like the Memorial Center for the History of Political Repression near Perm in Russia or the Memoria Abierta in Argentine.

Collaborative practice and ‘shared authority’ (Frisch) as key elements of Public history

The democratization of (historical) knowledge production radically changed the general assumption that knowledge and truth is generated and owned by academia, trained professionals and political elites. Public history breaks with the tradition to monopolize history writing by professional historians and policy makers and premises that the role of public historians is not reduced to the transmission of knowledge and the lecturing on historical events and facts.

Instead professionals should guide and supply local initiatives and non-professionals with analytical tools and methodology to study - mostly blind spots - in local and regional history, and finally to encourage ordinary people to participate in (re)writing (their) history. The aim is to allow a more encompassing and differentiated understanding of the past.

The conviction that history and the past is owned and created by all members of a society finds its expression in the quite resonate phrase “shared authority”, first coined by the historian Michael Frisch. Consequently, public historians collaborate with a broad spectrum of stakeholders (community members, laypersons, history-related institutions, donors, policy makers, curators, artists, architects, researchers, interest groups, consulting firms etc.) and facilitate a joint endeavor in which the different perspectives, experiences and interests of the involved partners are duly integrated in multi-perspective and multifaceted narratives.

To assure multi-perspectivity and uphold the principle of shared authority and interpretative power when conflicting narratives dominate is a well-known challenge that has already been discussed in other posts. Collaborative practice in respect to museums would for example entail interdisciplinary work and the active engagement of the visitors in exhibitions as to stimulate critical thinking, and to foster the ability to make own historical judgements based on verified facts and personal experiences. An interactive exhibition furthermore avoids to keep the visitor in a position of a thoughtless consumer.     

Formats and sites of Public history   
Since the 1970s an increasing interest in popular history can be noticed. Being in the ascendancy, history and the past have notably become multifunctional. They serve as learning field, sources of information and orientation for present issues, cause for dispute, reference point to address human rights violations, hobby, a component of entertainment or even (dark) tourism. Prominent examples of public history that link their work to the principles of transitional justice and educational work are the Camp de Milles in Aix-en-Provence, and the War Child Museum.  

This expanding interest in history exerts an innovative influence on designing new formats and sites. The most traditional formats and sites are museums, archives, libraries, sites of heritage, archeological sites, exhibitions, to name but a few. Very popular genres are also documentaries, radio programs, historical literature and movies as well as nonfictional press and magazines. Additionally, social practices like rituals and commemorations­­­ also present formats that are familiar in a majority of cultures. In the performing arts history is related to in theater plays, performances, or reenactments of historical scenes and events.

Digital technologies and media have opened up numerous new opportunities to collect, archive and make available historical content and material to worldwide audience. Digital tools are for instance supportive in creating virtual museums and exhibitions, on-line games and presentations, history-related platforms and journals. Digital history is commonly understood as public digital history.   



  1. Cauvin, Thomas, Public History. A Textbook of Practice, Routledge 2016. 
  2. Dean, David (ed), A Companion to Public History, Wiley-Blackwell 2018.
  3. Demantowsky, Marko (ed), Public history and school: International Perspectives, De Gruyter 2019.
  4. De Groot, Jerome, Consuming history: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture, Routledge 2016.
  5. Hamilton, Paula and James Gardner, The Oxford handbook of public history, Oxford  University Press 2017.
  6. Lücke, Martin and Irmgard Zündorf, EinführungindiePublicHistory, Vandehoeck
    & Ruprecht 2018.
  7. Maerker, Anna, Simon Sleight et al. (eds): History, Memory and Public Life: The Past in the Present, Routledge 2018.
  8. Niesser, Jacqueline and Juliane Tomann: Angewandte Geschichte: neue Perspektiven auf Geschichte in der Öffentlichkeit, Shöningh 2014.
  9. Sayer, Faye, Public History: A Practical Guide, 2nd ed, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.
  10. Willner, Sarah, Georg Koch and Stefanie Samida (eds), Doing History: Performative Praktiken in der Geschichtskultur, Waxmann 2016.
  11. Wineburg, Sam, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), University of Chicago Press 2018.


Useful Links

Associations, Centers, Platforms:
National Council on Public History (NCPH):

Public History Resource Center:
International Federation for Public History:

Journals, Newsletters, Blogs:

The Public Historian:

Public History News:

Public History Review:

Public History Weekly (Blog-Journal):

Public History Commons (blog):

History@work (blog):


Study Courses

The Australian Center for Public History at UTS:

Public History at the University of California, Santa Barbara:

MA in Public History at Ruskin College, UK:

MA in Public History, Institute for the Public Understanding the Past, University of York:

MA in Public History, University of Amsterdam:

Public History Program, Institute for Public History, University of Ghent:

Public History Program, University of Wroclaw:

Public History Master, Freie Universität Berlin:

Applied History, Universität Heidelberg:

Public History, Universität Köln (Cologne):


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Dr. Ljubinka Petrovic-Ziemer is Head of the Academy for Conflict Transformation in forumZFD.

Issue: Digital/Public History

a. Which opportunities are opened up by the digitalisation of memory? What can be done to minimise risks and avert hazards?
b. How can knowledge and narratives about the past reach the general public?