Every historian knows the challenge of bringing history to the public. However, these challenges bring with them exciting possibilities. Public History takes as its raison d’etre the belief that people – communities, individuals, social groups – can and should engage with historical forces at work in their lives. There is (I find) a belief of empowerment, of bringing to light lost silences and new nuances in local and national narratives.
However, this vision becomes complicated when the grids of time and space are enlarged. When one studies pre-modern, non-American societies, can he or she go about the task of public history? Ostensibly, those publics are long dead. In a world (and a field) that largely sees the United States as its frame of reference, looking to a distant past – whether it be Han China or 8th-century Gaul – seems eclectically antiquarian at best, and puffed-up navel-gazing at worst. Unto temporal remoteness is added the hurdle of geographical remoteness. Outside of daily news, the rest of the globe is a distant other, mindfully shoved aside to deal with our day-to-day lives. How much more so the distant past, which cannot even shout for our attention! Adding further to these difficulties, these artifacts are housed within art museums where visitors are predisposed and preconditioned to engage with the objects for their aesthetic qualities than their historical qualities. Continue reading “Making Pre-Modern History Public: David and Goliath”