List

Public historical projects by their very nature demand collaboration. Collaboration here is not simply between experts or professional historians but with the public who will primarily be the consumers of the project. I see public history as history by, with and for the public. Carl Becker, the former President of the American Historical Association said in his 1931 presidential address that everyman is his own historian.[1] Public history projects should reflect the fact that the audiences are not passive consumers of the history fed to them but they are a part of the history itself. It is their history and the public historian is like the handmaid. This requires a great deal of humility as it is tempting to think that he is the expert and knows more than the public. In terms of academic scholarship in that historical field, he is probably more knowledgeable than his audience but it will be a mistake to discount the perspectives and contributions his audience would make.

It is history by the people because they bring to the project their own experiences and perspectives that the historian may not have. In professional history, we attempt to be objective and our work is often devoid of emotions or feelings. Yet, our historical subjects and events are imbued with feelings. A public history project that does not capture these feelings could be considered dry and boring and the people may not be able to connect with it. How may the public historian’s project capture these feelings? It is by listening to the people and letting go of some of his authority so that the public can become part of the creative process. As John Kuo Wei Tchen writes of their experience with creating the Chinatown History Museum, the work has to be done in tandem with the people. He writes, “We want to bring together members from our various constituencies to talk, assess, and suggest. By so doing we hope to build a creative, convivial, and exciting educational space in which sustained cultural programming will facilitate the collaborative exploration of the memory and meaning of Chinatown’s past.”[2]

When the constituency becomes an active part of the creative process, they take ownership of the project. It is not something that is imposed on them reflecting a historical interpretation that they cannot identify with. The project becomes something for them. It is something that is created for them and the interpretation is one they understand. This is important because they will treasure it, patronize it and be engaged in it in ways that the interpretation enriches the community.

Keeping these three factors in mind: “by, with, and for” the people , I intend to share my authority with the people as I create a public history project on development schemes in Nigeria. It is possibly to source development data from the different institutions or organizations that do development work in Nigeria and this I would do. However, I also want to crowdsource my data. I want the people to tell their own stories of the development schemes or projects and I expect them to own the project. They can upload photos, record videos or audio and even submit text. My task as a public historian is to be the handmaid of the people’s development history.

Notes

[1] Katharine T. Corbett & Howard S. Miller  “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28.1 (2006): 18.

[2] John Kuo Wei Tchen, “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment” In Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, edited by Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine, 285-326. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, 286.