The Value of Public History

Tanya Evans and Melanie Burkett, Macquarie University

Semester 1 has just begun. I’m as excited as ever about meeting my new 3rd year Cultural Heritage and Public History Professional and Community Engagement (PACE) students. But I’m also a little wary as tertiary teachers and learners here in Australia and elsewhere around the world face another challenging year in the sector.

Arts and humanities disciplines remain under frequent attack from governments and commentators, and it seems to me that we need to find better ways of defending our turf. Social historians need to make absolutely clear the political motivations of our work and the value of history teaching and learning for all. We simply cannot sit and watch while history is demeaned, the Arts and creative industries are destroyed, and STEM subjects and pathways are revered, funded generously and declared the answer to all our neoliberal world’s problems. Many of today’s political leaders who benefitted from Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts degrees themselves now devalue and dismiss those same degrees. This is profoundly hypocritical. Everyone who loves history as much as we do needs to work a good deal harder at revealing the importance of the subject in all our lives and its significance for the world around us.

Some people think public history is an easy response to our neoliberal world’s obsession with work, money-making, and homeownership. We argue in our article that serious scholarly engagement with public history holds the potential to demonstrate the value of a history degree to students, giving them a language of ‘critical public history’, thereby combating some of the neoliberal forces that endanger our discipline today. Public history is not only ‘outreach’ for university-based historians or an obvious path to paid work for history students. Public history teaching and scholarship, that emerged from the sub-discipline of social and cultural history in many geographical contexts, can have a significant impact on learners with social benefits far beyond the academy.

History PACE students enjoying team work on an exhibition at Mosman Library in 2017.

The growth of the teaching of public history has resulted in a proliferation of practice-based learning at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. PACE Students at Macquarie obtain practical experience as part of internships, practicums, field work, community projects and collaborative research projects with public history and cultural heritage organisations. This allows students to grasp the discipline’s potential to encourage employability as well as social awareness, inclusion, and active citizenship beyond the university. As John Saltmarsh suggests, a focus on community engagement rather than employability within universities shows how ‘an emerging “public engagement knowledge/learning regime” is competing for ascendancy in the current historical moment as a counter to the neoliberal logic of the academic capitalist regime.’

Our surveys, focus groups and interviews with public history students in the Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University reveals public history’s transformative impact on students. Our research shows how work-integrated learning prepares students to become ‘professional persons’. It teaches them hard as well as soft skills and makes them better aware of the varied and diverse skills their degree has imparted. It also gives them the confidence to better articulate these skills to employers but also, more importantly, family, friends and loved ones. In the process they learn the power of storytelling for different purposes. This is enormously gratifying for students who have been indoctrinated in linear career thinking. Moreover, pervasive public perceptions of arts degrees as ‘useless’ weigh heavily on our students. As a result of undertaking practical internships students’ self-efficacy increases and they realise they are qualified for lots of jobs, not just history teaching and museum work. They become aware that many different industries value history graduates. As one student articulated ‘I’m probably in an ok position to get a job in something that is completely unrelated to history.’ It boosts all of their confidence.

But it also does much more than this. Some of our students make an explicit connection between their public history work and their intention to engage in active citizenship. It is our suggestion that the impact of this work-integrated learning with public history organisations can last long into students’ lives post-graduation, politicising their lives in significant ways. One student continues to work on behalf of the Aboriginal community in her neighbourhood. Others became committed to pursuing social justice through their day-to-day actions. However, the research also reveals the extent that future employment detracts from service to the community and from students pursuing careers in history. Unfortunately, society’s structures don’t allow them to spread their wings as far as they might like.


About the author

Associate Professor Tanya Evans is Director of the Centre for Applied History at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia where she teaches public history and modern history. Her books include Family History, Historical Consciousness and Citizenship: A New Social History (Bloomsbury, 2022), Making Histories (De Gruyter, 2020), with Paul Ashton and Paula Hamilton (as co-eds), Fractured Families: Life On The Margins in Colonial New South Wales (New South, 2015); (ed.) Swimming with the Spit, 100 Years of the Spit Amateur Swimming Club (New South, 2016); with Pat Thane, Sinners, Scroungers, Saints: Unmarried Motherhood in Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) and ‘Unfortunate Objects’: Lone Mothers in Eighteenth-Century London (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).


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