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Where is Public History?

2014 June 1
corso vittorio

Corso Vittorio- a reminder of a pow camp in a Whitehaven garden centre….

I have just sent off a chapter entitled ‘Where is Public History?’  that I was commissioned to write for a Companion Handbook to Public History edited by David Dean for Wiley Press. Originally I was asked to write a chapter called ‘What is Public History?’ but thought that  ‘what’ implies a definitive and static response. I don’t see public history in this way. Having rigid definitions do not take an inquisitive reader further in thinking critically about ways in which people engage with the past and the processes by which this can become accessible and relevant to contemporary life.  ‘Where’, I suggest, offers a more expansive journey through a range of ideas.  ‘Where’ implies place in a broad sense rather than a definition more appropriate for a  dictionary style approach.

I looked, for example, at traces of past lives in the landscape including words I found some years ago in the concrete floor of a garden centre near Whitehaven, namely the words  ‘ Corso Vittorio’.  This had been the site of the Moota camp 103 which held Italian and then German prisoners of war during the Second World War. The buildings had long gone but Corso Vittorio remains, a reminder of the number of avenues named in Italy after Victor Emmanuel 11, the first king after unification in 1861. The wording made in the concrete was a direct reference to home in another country. Because these traces (and other ephemera) exist, local historians, including Gloria Edwards, could write about this hitherto unknown past and also mount a new exhibition in 2005 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War entitled ‘Cockermouth at War’.

This emphasis on the importance of seeing things in the present landscape was brought home forcefully by the fascinating talk by Dr Ruth Richardson at the public history group – now meeting in the archaeology/heritage department of UCL – on Saturday May 31st. Her terrier-like activities in the archive combined with walking through the streets near Tottenham Court Road had enabled her to make imaginative connections between Charles Dickens, the local workhouse building and Oliver Twist. The book on the topic is now available in paperback. More importantly, this knowledge has been used to try and preserve the workhouse as a site of historic importance and to stop its destruction.

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