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Public history seeks harmony in professionalism and popularity

TAN XING | 2020-12-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Museum is an important venue of public history promotion. This picture shows a visitor viewing the recent exhibition entitled Everlasting Splendor: Six Centuries at the Forbidden City at the Palace Museum in Beijing. Photo:XINHUA

In recent years, public history has become trendy due to increasing public interest and developments in information and technology. Particularly, the rise of the internet and We-media has pushed practitioners to explore history's potential applications beyond academia. In spite of popular interest, public history faces major doubts from historians. One issue is identity, are public historians experts or laymen? Will the professionalism of public historians' works ever be recognized by academia? Doubts and debates over public history are mounting as the divide between public historians and traditional academia broadens.
The public history boom in China remains problematic. Scholars critique the many commercial or entertainment elements which have been added to public history. Some so-called public history works or activities are vulgar, shallow, and even distort the facts. 
Meanwhile, traditional historians fail to meet the public demand for dynamic history works, and many professional historians downplay popular history writing. Scholarly critics hold that public historians base their studies on existing methodologies, placing more emphasis on conceptual differentiation over the practice. They argue that the absence of an original and systematic theoretical framework results in scattered and disorganized studies. Exchanges and interdisciplinary cooperation have yet to develop in the field of public history. In addition, the field lacks collective thinking and candid dialogues. 
These problems are due to the divide between professional acclaim and public reach, as historians either suffer from insufficient professionalism or small public reach. Some popular films, television shows, or Wechat articles are eye-catching but specious. They may grab a large market share and attract a large audience, but they fall short in terms of professionalism. 
The same problems cripple some academic papers. For example, some scholars explore fields outside their research focus. Their academic training and habitual thinking, however, inevitably leads to prejudices and deviations, impacting the professionalism of their work. The absence of an original and systemized theoretical framework comes from inadequate professionalism. History circles are starting to hold historians to higher requirements, as they regard public history as an independent discipline and are focusing on its long-term development.
Chen Xin, director of the Research Center for Public History at Zhejiang University, spoke on the limited public reach. Most historians have no plan to earn fame through public history, so "eventually the traditional relevancy between historical knowledge, authenticity, and value orientation is ignored by the public. Therefore, public history works allow bad money to drive out good, and the tendency is to put more emphasis on sensory pleasure over refinement cultivation." He criticized historians' insufficient involvement in public history. He also criticized historians for overemphasizing learning on campus while neglecting public outreach and demonstrating social commitment. 
Li Na, the research center's founder, pointed out that public history researchers are apt to emphasize theory and overlook practice.
Acting as a bridge that connects historical study and society, public history should use historical research outcomes to serve society, so that academic value can be applied to society. This is not merely public history's mission and significance, but also what is expected by society and the public. In terms of public history’s status quo, China has yet to achieve the consistent union of professionalism and popularity.
Some scholars believe that historians lack the motivation to engage in public history due to academic edifice and personal disinterest. For example, Zhao Dongmei, a history professor at Peking University, said that technology is not the problem with public history. Apart from face-to-face lectures, many forms of public media and We-media are available. Mediums such as popular history writing, TV or online lectures, documentaries, and Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, all have the potential to offer public access to history. The key lies in scholars' attitudes, and the attitudes depend on personal understandings of the function of historical study, as well as ideal career development. 
Some scholars argue that historical study increasingly demands professionalism as it is subdivided into more concrete fields, which reduces narrative elements and decreases public interest. Historians complain that laymen (who have been encouraged and coerced by capital) have created a substantial number of inferior historical and cultural products by taking advantage of public interest in history. Public history's complex and challenging nature has become an obstacle for scholars who are interested in supporting the cause.
The inconsistency between professionalism and popularity is the barrier between historians and history lovers. This is not peculiar to public history, but a general problem that historical study has come across amid its development.
History is the carrier of people's common memories and the inheritance of ancestors' wisdom and culture, therefore, the public naturally develops an interest in history. Historiography, as an important discipline in academia, should embark on a professional development path. As long as history remains a discipline devoted to professional academic study, the segregation between historical circles and the general public will exist. The birth of public history showcases historians' efforts to step out of academia. 
Public attention to history, the pursuit of truth, and finding practical uses for research, have put forward dual requirements for public history; namely professionalism and public reach. Segregation does exist. There is no possibility nor need to eliminate it. What matters is the sincere and beneficial communication between the two sides. This calls for collective efforts between academia and society, in which academia should take more responsibilities. 
Historians decide whether or not to engage in public history research and they practice this out of personal choice. If we want to increase professionalism in public history, at least two aspects must be improved. Historians should strive to nourish the public with professional research. Valuable professional research is the foundation of public history. Public history is not tasked with making history vulgar, entertaining, and shallow. It aims to maintain its influence in the age of information and marketization and provide the public with accurate historical knowledge and high-quality historical and cultural products. 
In addition, historians should enhance the professionalism of public history by developing theoretical methods and exploratory practices, promoting the long-term development of this field. 
Wang Xi, a history professor at Peking University, pointed out, "No matter how we define it, public history, first of all, must be a discipline. It needs to obtain recognition of academia, and have a place in the historical research and teaching system. This is a prerequisite for public history to develop as a discipline or a scholarly field (unless the professional historical circle refuses to admit the necessity of public history)." 
Public historians must have a global perspective and an awareness of comparative history, holding an inclusive attitude towards both foreign and local methodologies, and contributing to a deeper overall historical understanding and social development.
Public history needs to uphold its role as a popular discipline. It should guarantee historical authenticity and, at the same time, seek readability and interest. Historians can convert abstruse professional knowledge to easy-to-understand expressions, and illustrate complex history in a lively and interesting way. Online platforms can help record, disseminate, and share history in diverse forms. 
Also, historians should guide the public to take history more seriously and develop critical thinking in regard to history, so that society will reach the point where "everyone is his or her own historian." Rather than shirk their public responsibilities, historians should bring professional skills and codes into service, helping the public participate in public history. 
Apart from being an academic field and a discipline, public history is a form of public practice. Its evolution is inseparable from historians' participation, let alone public participation. It is not only about the dissemination of historical knowledge to the public, but also about historical writing created by the public. The public, as a passive "receiver" and an active "producer" of history, also can contribute to the development of professionalism. People with cognitive, aesthetic, and analytic abilities can remarkably push forward public history development. 
Participants in public history, the public, need to conduct a self-study and sharpen their ability to differentiate. "History, as a learning, is a training about reason and conscience," said Yan Buke, a history professor at Peking University. For some history lovers, history can go beyond entertainment, leisure, or conversation topics. They can focus on training the conscience or their sense of reason, to gain more wisdom and value from history.  
In the 21st century, historians have achieved fruitful outcomes in terms of public history theories and practice. The gap between professionalism and popularity still calls for further efforts to fully bridge the divide. Public history is challenging and promising. Those within history's academic circle and history lovers who are willing to build public history can address the challenges together. In this way, a bright future for public history is within reach.
Tan Xing is from the Institute of Historical Theories at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
Edited by MA YUHONG