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Irmgard Zündorf

Contemporary History and Public History

Version: 2.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 16.03.2017


Artikelbild: Contemporary History and Public History

Shoes on the banks of the Danube in Budapest (Hungarian: Cipők a Duna-parton)
The 2005 memorial is dedicated to Jews shot by Arrow Cross Party members and thrown into the Danube between 1944 and 1945. Artists Gyula Pauer and Can Togay designed it in such a way that it was not immediately recognizable as a monument, requiring visitors to take a closer look to discover the story behind the shoes. Photo: Irmgard Zündorf, Budapest 2012, License: <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="">CC BY-NC 3.0 DE</a>

In a current revised and extended version 2.0, Irmgard Zündorf describes the formation of Public History as a technical answer to the challenges of the history boom in recent years. Public History discusses all representative forms of history, which are directed at the non-trained public at large and researches them. In her Docupedia article, she gives an overview of the diverse definitions of Public History, traces the institutional progress and finally asks how academical and public history could become more entangled.

Contemporary History and Public History

von Irmgard Zündorf


A growing international interest in history, often referred to as the "history boom", has been evident since the 1970s. This is reflected in a quantitative increase in the demand as well as the supply of a range of products communicating history, products aimed at a broad public and not at a limited readership with specialist training. The number of visitors to historical exhibits is increasing as new museums and memorials are opened and new monuments are dedicated. Historical movies – feature and documentary films as well as docudramas – are aired on prime-time television, and cinema is rediscovering historical themes. The number of scholarly historical publications is growing, alongside works for general readers as well as historical novels. More and more history magazines are being launched, and established political journals are developing additional products[1] with historical content.[2] The historical offerings of public and private websites are too numerous to count and quite varied in quality.

The following is not about the growing interest in history as such, but about the way historians in Germany and elsewhere are responding to this demand in the public sphere, the community of historians having been relatively slow to discern both the effects of and opportunities offered by this development. Public history, the focus of this essay, is understood as the response of professional historians to the challenges inherent in the history boom. Public history deals with and investigates every form of historiography aimed at a broad, non-specialist public.[3]

Historians in Germany and much of the world were initially rather clueless about how to react to the growing public interest in history. Two big conferences in the late 1970s dealt with the growing demand, and called on historians to venture into the public sphere so as not to leave it up to "others" – those without historical training – to engage in the task of historical reappraisal aimed at a general public. However, no specific suggestions were given as to how historians were to go about doing this.[4] Two more decades had to pass and various paths had to be tested both within and outside of academia before public history was properly established in an institutional framework in Germany, being referred to there both as Geschichte für die Öffentlichkeit (history for the public) and Geschichte in der Öffentlichkeit (history in the public sphere).

The following will provide a brief overview of the various definitions of public history, then outline its institutional growth from its origins in the United States to the current state of development in the German-speaking world. Finally, we will ask how academic and public history can be more closely intertwined in the future. The development of public history shows that it was always accompanied by the question of what it has in common with and what distinguishes it from historical scholarship in general. The discussion and its varied arguments will be outlined here. At the same time I will assert my own position and define public history as part of historiography. The study and analysis of how historical knowledge is conveyed to a broader audience is understood here as a key focus of public history.

History is enacted here with the help of historical objects and mannequins. These are presented opposite historical photos, some of which show images similar to the street scenes enacted here, thereby authenticating them. Photo: Irmgard Zündorf, Military Historical Museum, Brussels 2015, License: [ CC BY-NC 3.0 DE]
History is enacted here with the help of historical objects and mannequins. These are presented opposite historical photos, some of which show images similar to the street scenes enacted here, thereby authenticating them. Photo: Irmgard Zündorf, Military Historical Museum, Brussels 2015, License: CC BY-NC 3.0 DE


The term "public history" originally comes from the United States and initially referred for the most part to practical work done by historians. Thus, one of the first definitions ran as follows: "Public History refers to the employment of historians and the historical method outside of academia […]. Public Historians are at work whenever, in their professional capacity, they are part of the public process."[5] Working areas included political consulting, corporate histories, history of the mass media (cinema, television, periodicals), monuments, museums and memorials, associations and foundations, political education, archive work and documentation, family and local history, as well as publishing.[6] The definition says as little about the type of work as it does about contents and methods.

But public history nowadays implies more than just the work of trained historians in the public sphere. Public history is sometimes called "popular history"[7] to emphasize that it is a special form of history, different from the purely academic kind. Another, very broad definition from the United States construes public history as "history that is done anywhere outside the classroom by anybody who's not employed in a university"[8] or, in even more simple terms, "history for the public, about the public, and by the public."[9] This last definition from the 1990s clearly reflects the influence of the "history workshop movement"[10] of the 1970s and 1980s, with its increasing focus on local and regional history and its inclusion of local history enthusiasts. This view provoked considerable discussion, and the notion that public history includes all kinds of layman's historiography still encounters opposition today.

Thus, for example, in 2007 a protracted debate took place at the Internet-based H-Public network around the question "What is Public History?" The debate was centered on the definition espoused at the time by the National Council of Public History (NCPH): "Public history is a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public."[11] Many participants in the debate disagreed with this definition. Public history may have been a movement in the 1970s, they said, but it had meanwhile become an established area of study in the United States. Skeptics also had their doubts whether public history had developed its own unique methods. They emphasized instead that public historians were generally trained scholars and that their approach to history was therefore no different than that of historians working in academia. This view is also reflected in the courses offered to American students, especially at the graduate level. An alternate definition viewed public history as "a multidimensional effort by historians and their publics, collaborating in settings beyond the traditional classroom, to make the past useful in the present."[12]

The inclusion of university-trained historians in public history could also be seen as its distinguishing feature compared to "applied history" (angewandte Geschichte[13]) in Germany.[14] There is good reason, however, to object that this distinction is an arbitrary one and that the two terms are used synonymously in Germany. Some even argue that they should be used synonymously to counteract the division between them.[15]

The multitude of definitions shows that there is little agreement on the matter. This is evident in the seemingly helpless explanation offered at the NCPH website, which abstains from defining public history at all and offers a simple formula instead: "I know it when I see it."[16] Another attempted definition by the NCPH goes as follows: "public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world." Moreover, the NCPH website explicitly endorses equating it with the term applied history: "In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues. In fact, applied history was a term used synonymously and interchangeably with public history for a number of years. Although public history has gained ascendance in recent years as the preferred nomenclature especially in the academic world, applied history probably remains the more intuitive and self-defining term."[17] This statement could easily be used to describe the way public history and applied history are understood in a German context. The two terms are often used synonymously, public history being the favored term in German academia.

But in Germany too there is still no universally accepted definition of public history. One way of approximating a definition is by looking at its thematic focuses. In Germany these are largely in the area of contemporary history,[18] even though they needn't be. Stefanie Samida stresses that any topic, from antiquity through the Middle Ages down to the modern era, could be the focus of public history.[19] And yet a "gravitational center of varied interests and debates around contemporary history"[20] is discernible, explained by the proximity of contemporary history to its producers' and recipients' first-hand experience of the past as well as the strong public interest in the twentieth century as "the age of extremes." Examples of this in German contemporary history are discussions such as the Historikerstreit, the Goldhagen debate, and the conflict over the Wehrmacht exhibit.[21] This increased public awareness, putting scholars into the spotlight, usually focuses on questions of how to deal with the legacy of Nazism and the Holocaust. After 1989, the legacy of the GDR and thus Germany's "dual past"[22] became a further field of public debate. Apart from these "heavyweights" of (German) history, there is an increasing interest in family and local history, not focused on the "big" political events but on personal connections to historical events.

Delimiting the boundaries of public history's thematic and chronological focus is more the task of the public sphere than that of historical scholarship. Only those topics that attract a broad public interest become the working fields of public historians. Thus, the choice of subject matter follows that of the history boom, which – apart from institutionalized contemporary history – is concerned with historical events perceived as being exceptional. These events can go far back in history, as evidenced for instance in the renewed interest in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest on its two-thousand-year anniversary in 2009.

Starting from the idea that public history is basically a means of communicating history to the general public, various definitions list a number of skills that public historians should have – "historical skills and perspectives in the services of a largely nonacademic clientele."[23] Apart from mastering the methods of historical scholarship, they are able to take complex events and make them accessible to a lay public in a simple and interesting manner that is well-suited to the vehicle chosen to convey this knowledge. The confident use of written, pictorial, artifactual, film, and audio sources is a basic tool of the trade. In keeping with the definitions of public history mentioned earlier, emphasizing that it must be well-grounded in scholarship, it is particularly important for public historians to master the analysis of these sources and their use in historical representations, whether in museums or television, books or periodicals, in the Internet or on the radio. This can only be accomplished by employing the methods of media studies, gender studies, historical didactics, museum education, and literary studies. Communication and interdisciplinary cooperation are therefore important elements of public history.

The use of multimedia tools in museums lends itself to exhibits with media content. In this case a variety of monitors show the December 13, 1981 television address of General Jaruzelski in which he declared martial law in Poland as well as showing the effects of martial law.
Photo: Irmgard Zündorf, European Solidarity Center (Polish: Europejskie Centrum Solidarności), Gdańsk 2015, License: [ CC BY-NC 3.0 DE]
The use of multimedia tools in museums lends itself to exhibits with media content. In this case a variety of monitors show the December 13, 1981 television address of General Jaruzelski in which he declared martial law in Poland as well as showing the effects of martial law. Photo: Irmgard Zündorf, European Solidarity Center (Polish: Europejskie Centrum Solidarności), Gdańsk 2015, License: CC BY-NC 3.0 DE

Unlike university-based historians, public historians also work as contractors.[24] They respond to public demand with a range of services and do work on commission. In this case they follow the laws of supply and demand. But public history also comprises the offerings of museums and memorials, where market laws only apply to a limited extent. That said, weighing public demand – e.g., in the form of museum audience research – is also a task of public historians.

History in the public sphere in Germany is often linked to Jörn Rüsen's theory of history culture. Rüsen's definition of history culture as the "practically effective articulation of historical consciousness in the life of a society"[25] is quite close to some definitions of public history or, rather, some definitions of public history are quite similar to those of history culture. His division of history culture into the three areas of art, politics and science, each of which is mutually dependent on the other,[26] can also be applied to public history. Whereas Rüsen's concept of history culture tends more to a theoretical explanatory framework, the approaches to defining public history presented here are much more pragmatic in nature, focusing on historical practices in the public sphere. And yet the working areas of public historians can certainly be construed as history-cultural activities. The two are distinguished, however, by their different approaches to history culture. The theory of history culture comprises the analysis of history in the public sphere. Public history likewise reflects historical representations, but it goes even further, being understood as a field of application which, apart from analysis, also involves communicating history to the public. It includes the area of practice and its reverse effect on historical scholarship.[27] Thus, public history is both a part of historical scholarship as well as going beyond it in the form of a service provider. This is why the first full professor of Angewandte Geschichte – Public History (applied history – public history) in Germany, Cord Arendes, advocates the institutionalization of public history as an "academic subdiscipline" that in its self-understanding is "primarily a process-oriented agency of reflection and mediation between research and public interest."[28]

Based on the approaches presented above, public history is defined here as follows. Public history on the one hand comprises every form of public representation of history that is aimed at a broad, non-specialist public with no historical training while on the other hand entailing the historical investigation of the same. It responds to the increasing interest in history in purely quanitative terms as well as to the qualitative change in the standards of historical narrative. Professionally trained public historians have the tasks of narrating history in an academically rigorous yet understandable and illustrative way to a lay public, of integrating the subjective experiences of individuals, of illustrating the spatial dimensions of historical processes, of incorporating historical images, and, finally and more generally, of reconceiving "history as a space of cultural memory."[29] It therefore overlaps considerably with cultures of remembrance, as well as with the politics of memory and the past, which is why public history has been described elsewhere as an "umbrella" under which the other concepts can be subsumed.[30]

In methodological terms, it is also important to note that public history, though rooted in classic historical scholarship, greatly relies on elements of oral history, visual history, material culture, and digital history. Moreover, it is clearly marked by interdisciplinarity, employing the methods of other fields of scholarship. Public history may lack its own set of methodological approaches, which is why it has been criticized for its "lack of theoretical constructs,"[31] but this deficit can also be understood as an asset of public history, leading as it does to collaborative efforts with other disciplines. Its "cooperation with historical theory, historical research, culture and media studies, as well as with historical didactics"[32] offers the possibility of viewing historical representations from completely different angles and discussing a variety of analytical approaches. Thus, for example, the 2016 German Historians' Conference posed the question of how the categories of performativity, mediality, and authenticity can be profitable criteria of analysis in public history.[33] Other approaches emphasize even more strongly the connection with historical didactics, relying on the categories of narrativity,[34] historical imagination,[35] multiperspectivity,[36] and authenticity[37] in the sense of historical learning.[38] Despites its proximity to historical didactics, public history is nonetheless distinct from it. In fact it goes beyond it, embracing individual concepts of didactics while at the same time historicizing them and declaring them as objects of investigation.[39]

The relationship between public history and academic history has not yet been clearly defined either, although considerable overlap and a range of interdependencies are evident. The overlaps are gradually having an effect on the institutional development of historical scholarship. Even though the academy is sometimes highly critical of communicating historical knowledge to an audience outside of an academic context,[40] public history has an undeniable influence on historiography, both in terms of its subject matter and its methodology.[41]

The Development of Public History in the United States

The public history movement in the United States is rooted in "new social history" of the 1960s with its focus on history "from below."[42] New social history was marked by a shift in perspective in historical scholarship, accompanied by a broadening of topics, sources and methods. Traditional political history was expanded to include social, economic, and ultimately cultural history, with the concomitant inclusion of elements from regional history and the history of everyday life. New sources included first and foremost oral records, compiled using the methods developed by oral history.

Parallel to this there was an increasing public interest in history, with new and expanded target groups. But the public-history movement also criticized historical scholarship at universities, accusing it of not responding to these changes and of losing touch with the general public, publishing instead for a select audience, an inner circle of experts.[43] It thus understood itself more specifically as a counter-movement to academic history. Public historians wanted to maintain the ability to investigate their subject matter systematically while offering their services outside of academia.[44] The critique public historians levelled against academic historians resulted in an increasing dissociation between the two and ultimately to a kind of hierarchy, public historians feeling that their academic counterparts viewed them as second-class historians.[45]

They wanted to change this by establishing their own institutional basis. The expansion of colleges and universities in the United States in the 1970s resulted in a growing number of graduates in the field. Many of these individuals had no chance of finding full-time employment at schools and universities, but were being prepared for this career nonetheless. In an attempt to remedy this state of affairs, many university instructors endeavored to develop new career opportunities outside the traditional role of historian, with corresponding training at the university level.[46] The aim was to train so-called public historians: historians who could communicate history to a non-specialist public. The first public-history degree program was launched in 1976 at the University of California, Santa Barbara.[47] There were more to follow, tailored specifically to a variety of occupational fields outside of schools and academia.[48] All of them have a focus on communicating history to the public. These degree programs generally consist of seminars offering an overview of the development, theory, and methods of media and cultural studies, as well as classes teaching general methods of historical scholarship, oral history, and material culture. In addition, elective courses offer insights into a variety of practical applications in public history which are then expanded upon with an internship and a master's thesis. The unique thing about these programs of study is their practical orientation and group work intended to prepare the graduate for future employment.[49] Students are thus trained in "forms of presentation suitable for the media and information age."[50] The sources they use, analyzed with the methods of historical scholarship and presented using the technologies of the media age, are written and oral, iconographic and artefactual in nature. Thus, this aspect of the "visual turn" addressed more recently by cultural studies has been introduced in a concrete, work-related way with a link to historical practice.

The 1980s are referred to in the literature as the heyday of public-history degree programs in the United States. The number of programs declined somewhat thereafter, but has still remained relatively high. About 135 colleges and universities in the United States are currently offering degrees that fall under the rubric of public history.[51] The list includes Bachelor's as well as Master's and Ph.D. programs, along with postgraduate certificates.

In addition to the establishment of degree programs, the National Council on Public History (NCPH)[52] was founded in Pittsburgh in 1980 as a working group of public historians. The official scholarly publication of the public-history movement in the United States is The Public Historian, a quarterly journal appearing since 1978. Since 1986 the NCPH has also been publishing its newsletter Public History News[53] and it likewise maintains the "H-Public"[54] electronic mailing list set up in 1994 as part of H-Net.[55] The Public History Commons[56] blog was added in 2012, containing mostly crossposts from H-Public, the NCPH newsletter, and The Public Historian. The same website hosts the History@work blog, which increasingly serves as an exchange platform for questions relating to historical practice.

The NCPH's aim is to professionalize public history as a discipline, thus enhancing the movement's reputation among traditional historians. Alongside regular conferences, the NCPH promotes publications addressing underlying theoretical issues as well as analyzing fields of practice and providing guidelines for university instruction.[57] The emphasis here is on public history's basis in the methods and principles of historiography, the only difference being the way it is communicated, public history having a broader reach than academic history with its focus on pure research.[58]

International Public History

Apart from developments in the United States, a notable amount of professional public-history work is being done in Australia. The journal Public History Review has been published there since 1992 and available online since 2006.[59] The journal looks to answer the question, "how and to whom is the past communicated and how does the past operate in the present?"[60] The Australian Centre for Public History was founded in 1998 as a working group. Moreover, public-history degree programs are offered at five universities. In New Zealand, too, a public-history scene has been active since the 1980s, receiving more state support than similar programs in other countries.[61]

Another form of the public representation of history is the paratrooper effigy on the steeple of the church of Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy, France. It commemorates an American soldier who accidentally got caught on the church spire during the D-Day invasion of 1944. This playful monument shows a relatively casual approach to history, the effigy seeming almost like an advertisement for the Airborne Museum located across from the church. Photo: Irmgard Zündorf, Sainte-Mère-Église 2015, License [ CC BY-NC 3.0 DE]
Another form of the public representation of history is the paratrooper effigy on the steeple of the church of Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy, France. It commemorates an American soldier who accidentally got caught on the church spire during the D-Day invasion of 1944. This playful monument shows a relatively casual approach to history, the effigy seeming almost like an advertisement for the Airborne Museum located across from the church. Photo: Irmgard Zündorf, Sainte-Mère-Église 2015, License CC BY-NC 3.0 DE

In Britain, on the other hand, this movement originating in the United States has long been viewed with skepticism. Some saw the increasing public interest in representing English history in museums, at country manor houses, as well as in the media as a development comparable to that in the United States but one that did not require a separate university department to teach it.[62] Others saw the "history workshop" movement around Raphael Samuel at Oxford's Ruskin College as the bedrock of English public history. The latter have emphasized that public history carries on the basic principles of this movement, reworking history for a broad audience. Discussion groups and seminars to this end were formed at Oxford in 1998, bringing together a vast array of topics and participants.[63] The first British public-history degree course was also launched here, followed by seventeen more at other institutions. The first international public-history conference took place at Oxford in 2005 under the title "People and their Pasts." Most of the speakers were from the United States, Australia, and Great Britain. Their papers are collected in an edited volume and provide a good overview of the wide range of potential approaches to public history.[64] The common denominator of these approaches is their aiming to incorporate the past into the present, the spectrum of protagonists ranging from historians in an academic context to private scholars investigating family or local history. The avowed aim of the volume's editors is to broaden the perspective of history to the greatest extent possible and open up even more perspectives.[65] No attempt is made, however, to provide a clear definition of public history and hence delimit it from traditional historical scholarship or the varied forms of lay history.

Public-history degree programs outside the English-speaking world emerged much later. The University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands has had such a program since 2008 and the University of Wrocław in Poland since 2014.[66] In France and Italy the first public-history degree programs began in the winter semester of 2015-16 at the University of Paris-Est and the University of Modena, respectively. In its "Guide to Public History Programs," the NCPH currently lists 124 Master's programs und 80 Bachelor's programs around the world.[67]

All in all it is apparent that the term public history and its associated ideas are slowly gaining ground.[68] It is therefore no surprise that the International Federation for Public History (IFPH/FIHP) was founded in 2010 to promote the expansion of a global network. The federation's blog announces events and provides a forum for debates.[69] It also plans annual international conferences. The first of these took place in 2014 in Amsterdam on the topic "Public History in a Digital World: The Revolution Reconsidered,"[70] the second in 2015 in Jinan (China),[71] the third in 2016 in Bogotá (Colombia).

Developments in the German-Speaking World

The German variant of public history – "history of the public sphere", and "applied history" – has followed a different path than in the United States and is not nearly as widespread as it is there. Whereas there are hardly any degree programs in this field, it is a well-known phenomenon that only a small fraction of history students in Germany plan to pursue an academic career in their field.[72] In response to this the first textbooks on public history have now been developed for use in general history studies.[73] Books are also being published that aim to give history students new perspectives for subsequent employment,[74] and even general introductions to the study of history meanwhile contain sections on "the career of the historian" that point beyond traditional research and instruction at schools and universities.[75] Alongside a wealth of individual studies on special aspects of public history, such as historical representations at individual museums and memorial sites, in cinema or in publishing,[76] there are numerous studies dedicated to marketing public history.[77] Since the introduction of modularized degree programs following the Bologna reforms, most Bachelor's degree programs in history include practice-oriented tutorials or seminars with "additional work-related qualifications." Added to this is a mandatory internship, usually requiring a final report. Moreover, various universities offer information and guidance-counseling services, such as the University of Münster's "Schnittstelle Geschichte und Beruf" (History and Career Interface)[78] or the University of Bielefeld's "Arbeitsbereich Geschichte als Beruf" (Working Area on History as a Profession),[79] and organize their own career events.

The first complete course of studies in Germany corresponding to the notion of public history was the Master's program in historical journalism introduced in 1985 in Giessen.[80] The program was converted into a Bachelor's program in 2007, and now offers a Master's degree since the winter semester of 2015. Apart from history seminars, the program offers basic modules on media history as well as on the role of history and the media in the public sphere. The first Master's degree program in public history using that designation in English was started at the Free University of Berlin in 2008. Even though its follows the American model in name, the program is not a mere imitation. An important prerequisite is a B.A. in history or other proof of sufficient historical training. The course of study itself covers the topics of contemporary history as well as the theory and methodology of history. The main focus, however, is on the representation of history, "historical learning," and the practical application of history. The practical communication of history in the public sphere is addressed in different ways in each module. One way is by increasingly hiring practical historians as instructors to offer insight into their work. In sum, academic, aesthetic, political, and commercial issues are all addressed with regard to history.[81] In addition, another public-history Master's program has just started up in the 2015-16 winter semester at the University of Cologne,[82] and an equivalent program is being founded in 2016 at the Ruhr University of Bochum.

At the University of Heidelberg there is already a chair of public history, and junior chairs of public history have been established at the University of Cologne and Hamburg.[83] Other professorships, of history education in particular, are sometimes given the additional label "public history."[84] There is thus a shift in focus towards historical didactics whose future development remains to be seen, as it is unclear whether these chairs have merely been renamed or if there is a corresponding change in coursework in the area of teaching methodology, with a possible expansion of subject requirements.[85] Close ties to historical didactics are also evident in the scholarly blog-journal Public History Weekly founded in 2013, which despite its choice of name, or maybe (from the perspective of educationalists) precisely because of it, contains mostly articles from the field of historical didactics.

The institutionalization of public history in Germany is also apparent in the founding of a working group there. In 2012 the "applied history / public history" working group was set up within the German Historians' Association and has since held at least two workshops and conferences annually. The aim is to offer a "platform for exchange in the area of applied history / public history between historians working in academia and practice."[86]

This brief overview shows that public history has been expanding in recent years at universities. And yet there is no independent and institutionalized public history to speak of in the German-speaking world. Rather, the influence of public history is discernible in quite varied intensity at different universities, in the form of individual seminars, modules, and even a small number of Master's degree programs. What all of these approaches have in common is a growing number of instructors from outside academia, practitioners of applied history being integrated in the classroom alongside classic history professors, as well as the fact that students are doing an increasing number of internships in the field of memory culture outside of universities. Thus the link to historical practice is the focus of these programs. In addition, the syllabuses of seminars are being oriented more and more towards communicating history in the public sphere.

Finally, we can note that, in light of the history boom mentioned at the start of this essay, an institutionalization of public history at universities is evident around the world, but that a broad public history "movement" has only really emerged in the United States.[87] Degree programs outside the United States are still the exception to the rule. It remains to be seen if public history as an independent program of study will remain a permanent fixture.

History and historical symbols can serve marketing purposes or be treated as “cult objects.” As such they can become the subject of historical exhibits. Thus, the “Runde Ecke” Memorial Museum in Leipzig exhibits a host of household objects with GDR emblems on them, describing them as “glorifying the GDR.” Photo: Irmgard Zündorf, “Runden Ecke” Memorial Museum, Leipzig 2011, License [ CC BY-NC 3.0 DE]
History and historical symbols can serve marketing purposes or be treated as “cult objects.” As such they can become the subject of historical exhibits. Thus, the “Runde Ecke” Memorial Museum in Leipzig exhibits a host of household objects with GDR emblems on them, describing them as “glorifying the GDR.” Photo: Irmgard Zündorf, “Runden Ecke” Memorial Museum, Leipzig 2011, License CC BY-NC 3.0 DE


Public history must continue to be professionalized if new perspectives on history are to be developed in the public sphere. To this end supply and demand must be given more consideration and a kind of market research needs to be conducted. On the demand side it is necessary to investigate which "public" is actually meant and what its specific demands on historiography are. A lot has been written about the interests and needs of "the" public without really knowing this public very well. Just as little is known about how the supply side of history affects historical consciousness. Audience and consumer research is really in its infancy here. The existing offerings must also be identified and analyzed. This requires a broad assessment of all history in the public sphere, a breakdown of these offerings into different categories, as well as their classification according to the quality of content and their manner of communication. To complete this market analysis, supply and demand must be properly correlated. The results would be a kind of target-actual comparison, showing what the public or, rather, "publics,"[88] arranged according to target groups, expect from public history and which of these expectations are being met, what aspects of public history are currently being presented, and what it still would like to showcase. Finally, it is necessary to determine if and to what extent public history should be done by actual historians. There are certainly limits to what academic historians are willing to do to accommodate the public, beyond which other suppliers can pick up the slack. The greater the fictional elements in historical representations, the less academic historians are needed. This is the case for feature films or historical novels, which sometimes involve trained historians but are largely produced by suppliers in other branches, given that these projects don't meet scholarly standards. The question therefore arises whether public history should follow the same rigorous standards of historiography if both university-employed historians and those outside of academia are active in communicating history.[89] Finally, a minimum consensus must be reached about the limits of treating "historical products" as such, determining at what point they become mere fictional products. What's more, the participants of public history have to agree on a definition and accord it a place in historical scholarship.

In doing so, public history should communicate with the public and adapt itself to ever new forms of expression. It must learn how to use the prevailing media of the public sphere, stay flexible, and seek out interdisciplinary partners without forgetting its roots in historical scholarship.

Translated from the German by David Burnett.

German Version: Irmgard Zündorf, Zeitgeschichte und Public History, Version: 2.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 06.09.2016

Empfohlene Literatur zum Thema

Ashton, Paul / Kean, Hilda (Hrsg.), People and their Pasts. Public History Today, Basingstoke [u.a.] 2009: Palgrave Macmillan 
Bösch, Frank / Goschler, Constantin (Hrsg.), Public History: Öffentliche Darstellungen des Nationalsozialismus jenseits der Geschichtswissenschaft, Frankfurt/Main 2009: Campus-Verl. 
Horn, Sabine / Sauer, Michael (Hrsg.), Geschichte und Öffentlichkeit: Orte - Medien - Institutionen, Göttingen 2009: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 
Jordanova, Ludmilla, History in Practice, London [u.a.] 2000: Arnold 
Kean, Hilda / Martin, Paul (Hrsg.), The Public History Reader, 2013, London [u.a.] : Routledge 
Korte, Barbara / Paletschek, Sylvia (Hrsg.), History goes Pop: Zur Repräsentation von Geschichte in populären Medien und Genres, Bielefeld 2009: Transcript-Verl 
Lücke, Martin / Zündorf, Irmgard, Einführung in die Public History, Göttingen 2017 
Meringolo, Denise D. 1968-, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a new Genealogy of Public History, 2012, Amherst [u.a.] : Univ. of Massachusetts Press 
Nolte, Paul, Öffentliche Geschichte: Die neue Nähe von Fachwissenschaft, Massenmedien und Publikum: Ursachen, Chancen und Grenzen, Michele Barricelli/Julia Hornig (Hrsg.), Aufklärung, Bildung, „Histotainment“? Zeitgeschichte in Unterricht und Gesellschaft heute, Frankfurt a.M. 2008: Peter Lang 
Stanton, Cathy, „What Is Public History?“ Redux, in: Public History News 27, 4, 2007 
Irmgard Zündorf, Contemporary History and Public History, Version: 2.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 16.3.2017, URL:

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    1. Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, for instance, are now publishing their own history magazines. Der Spiegel has also set up a website to collect and present private historical narratives:
    2. See Susanne Popp et al. (eds.), Populäre Geschichtsmagazine in internationaler Perspektive. Interdisziplinäre Zugriffe und ausgewählte Fallbeispiele, Frankfurt am Main 2016.
    3. This broadened definition stems from Frank Bösch/Constantin Goschler, “Der Nationalsozialismus und die deutsche Public History”, in: idem (eds.), Public History. Öffentliche Darstellungen des Nationalsozialismus jenseits der Geschichtswissenschaft, Frankfurt am Main 2009, pp. 7-23, here p. 10.
    4. See the two conference reports: Joachim Rohlfes, “Geschichte in der Öffentlichkeit. Eine Tagung der Konferenz für Geschichtsdidaktik vom 5. bis 8. Oktober 1977 in Osnabrück,” in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 29 (1978), pp. 307-311; Hagen Schulze, “Geschichte im öffentlichen Leben der Nachkriegszeit. Die Jahrestagung der Ranke-Gesellschaft 1977,” in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 29 (1978), pp. 312-320.
    5. The term was coined by Robert Kelley, professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, see Robert Kelley, “Public History: Its Origins, Nature, and Prospects,” in: The Public Historian 1 (1978), no. 1, pp. 16-28, here p. 16, online at (11.10.2016); Martin Blatt, “Public History,” in: Peter N. Stearns (ed.), Encyclopedia of Social History, New York 1994, pp. 597-599, here p. 597.
    6. In 1980, eight fields of practice were identified in public history, most of which are covered in the fields listed above, see Simone Rauthe, Public History in den USA und der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Essen 2001, p. 88.
    7. Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice, London 2000, p. 141.
    8. Blatt, “Public History,” p. 597; see also David F. Trask/Robert W. Pomeroy III (eds.), The Craft of Public History: An Annotated Select Bibliography, Westport/Connecticut, 1983, p. xi.
    9. Charles C. Cole Jr., “Public History: What Difference Has it Made?,” in: The Public Historian 16 (1994), no. 4, pp. 9-35, here p. 11.
    10. Hilda Kean/Paul Ashton, “Introduction: People and their Pasts and Public History Today,” in: idem (eds.), People and their Pasts. Public History Today, Basingstoke 2009, pp. 1-20, here p. 2, online at (11.10.2016).
    11. Definition of the National Council on Public History, cited in: Kathy Corbett/Dick Miller, “What’s in a Name?” H-Public Discussion Networks, May 2007, (11.10.2016).
    12. H-Public Discussion, May 21, 2007, (11.10.2016).
    13. On the Definition of applied history see Juliane Tomann et. al., “Diskussion Angewandte Geschichte: Ein neuer Ansatz?”, Version: 1.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 15.02.2011, URL: (11.10.2016).
    14. On the distinction between applied history and public history see: Irmgard Zündorf, “Public History und Angewandte Geschichte – Konkurrenten oder Komplizen?”, in: Jacqueline Nießer/Juliane Tomann (eds.), Angewandte Geschichte. Neue Perspektiven auf Geschichte in der Öffentlichkeit, Paderborn 2014, pp. 63-76.
    15. Thorsten Logge, “Public History in Germany: Challenges and Opportunities,” in: German Studies Review 39 (2016), pp. 141-153, here p. 146.
    16. See NCPH website, “What is Public History”: (11.10.2016).
    17. See Website des NCPH, What is Public History: (11.10.2016).
    18. See Hanno Hochmuth/Irmgard Zündorf, “Public History als Zeitgeschichte“, Version: 1.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 21.05.2015, (11.10.2016).
    19. Stefanie Samida, “Public History als Historische Kulturwissenschaft: Ein Plädoyer,” Version: 1.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 17.06.2014, (11.10.2016).
    20. Paul Nolte, “Öffentliche Geschichte. Die neue Nähe von Fachwissenschaft, Massenmedien und Publikum: Ursachen, Chancen und Grenzen,” in: Michele Barricelli/Julia Hornig (eds.), Aufklärung, Bildung, „Histotainment“? Zeitgeschichte in Unterricht und Gesellschaft heute, Frankfurt am Main 2008, pp. 131-146, here p. 136.
    21. See Martin Sabrow/Ralph Jessen/Klaus Große Kracht (eds.), Zeitgeschichte als Streitgeschichte. Große Kontroversen seit 1945, Munich 2003.
    22. See Jürgen Habermas, “Was bedeutet ‚Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit‘ heute? Bemerkungen zur ‚doppelten Vergangenheit,‘” in: idem, Die Moderne – ein unvollendetes Projekt. Philosophisch-politische Aufsätze 1977-1992, Leipzig 1992², pp. 242-267.
    23. Alfred J. Andrea, “On Public History,” in: Historian 53 (1991), pp. 381-386, here pp. 381f.
    24. Simone Rauthe, “Geschichtsdidaktik – ein Auslaufmodell? Neue Impulse der amerikanischen Public History,” in: Zeithistorische Forschungen 2 (2005), pp. 287-291, here p. 289, online at (11.10.2016); Rauthe, Public History, p. 100.
    25. See Jörn Rüsen, “Was ist Geschichtskultur? Überlegungen zu einer neuen Art über Geschichte nachzudenken,” in: Klaus Füßmann/Heinrich Theodor Grütter/Jörn Rüsen (eds.), Historische Faszination. Geschichtskultur heute, Cologne 1994, pp. 3-26, here p. 5.
    26. Rüsen, Was ist Geschichtskultur, S. 17.
    27. A detailed comparison of the two terms can be found in Rauthe, Public History, pp. 242ff.
    28. Cord Arendes, cited in: Florian Peters, conference report: “Funktionalität von Geschichte in der Spätmoderne. Konzepte – Methoden – Forschungsperspektiven,” Sept. 17-18, 2015 Warsaw, H-Soz-Kult, January 5, 2016, (April 20, 2016).
    29. Nolte, “Öffentliche Geschichte,” pp. 138-141.
    30. Marko Demantowsky, „Public History – Aufhebung einer deutschsprachigen Debatte?,“ in: Public History Weekly 3 (2015), no. 2, (11.10.2016).
    31. Rauthe, Public History, p. 17 and p. 23.
    32. Holger Thünemann, “Public History – 9 Thesen, Kommentar zu Marko Demantowsky, ‚Public History‘ – Aufhebung einer deutschsprachigen Debatte?” in: Public History Weekly 3 (2015), no. 2, (11.10.2016).
    33. See Thorsten Logge/Christoph Hilgert, “Wie es wirklich war – Repräsentationen von Geschichte im öffentlichen Raum. Wege zu einem geschichtswissenschaftlichen Forschungsprogramm in der Public History,” Sektion auf dem 51. Deutschen Historikertag in Hamburg 2016, (11.10.2016).
    34. See, e.g., Michele Barricelli, “Narrativität,” in: idem/Martin Lücke (eds.), Handbuch Praxis des Geschichtsunterrichts, vol. 1, Schwalbach am Taunus 2012, pp. 255-280.
    35. See, e.g., Rolf Schörken, Historische Imagination und Geschichtsdidaktik, Paderborn 1994.
    36. See, e.g., Klaus Bergmann, Multiperspektivität. Geschichte selber denken, Schwalbach am Taunus 2000.
    37. See, e.g., Eva Ulrike Pirker/Mark Rüdiger, “Authentizitätsfiktionen in populären Geschichtskulturen,” in: idem et al. (eds.), Echte Geschichte. Authentizitätsfiktionen in populären Geschichtskulturen, Bielefeld 2010, pp. 11-30.
    38. See Irmgard Zündorf/Lena Eggers et al., “Die Präsenz der DDR im Internet. Zwischen Ostalgie und kritischer Aufarbeitung,” in: Hans-Joachim Veen (ed.), Das Bild der DDR in Literatur, Film & Internet. 25 Jahre Erinnerung und Deutung, Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2015, pp. 117-152.
    39. Hochmuth/Zündorf, “Public History als Zeitgeschichte”.
    40. Whereas Nolte sees a shift towards overcoming the gap between university historians and other conveyors of history, Bösch and Goschler see a sharp dividing line between the two areas in the German-speaking world, see Nolte, “Öffentliche Geschichte,” pp. 132-3; Bösch/Goschler, “Der Nationalsozialismus und die deutsche Public History,” p. 10.
    41. See, e.g., Gerhard Paul (ed.), Visual History. Ein Studienbuch, Göttingen 2006 or on artifactual history: Anke Ortlepp/Christoph Ribbat (eds.), Mit den Dingen leben. Zur Geschichte der Alltagsgegenstände, Stuttgart 2010.
    42. Blatt, “Public History,” p. 598; for an overview of the development of Public History, see also Rauthe, Public History, pp. 74ff.
    43. Ronald J. Grele, “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian,” in: The Public Historian 3/1 (1981), pp. 40-48, here pp. 41f.
    44. Kelley, “Public History,” p. 16.
    45. For an example of the critique of academic historians and the support of local historians, see: Grele, “Whose Public? Whose History?” pp. 40-48. See also Rauthe, Public History, p. 148.
    46. Rauthe, Public History, pp. 87ff.; Rauthe, “Geschichtsdidaktik,” p. 289; on the development of Public History majors in the United States from the 1970s to the early 1990s, see also Andrea, “On Public History”.
    47. Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, Amherst 2012, p. xiv. Meringolo sees the origins of public history not so much in universities but in the National Park Service.
    48. Rauthe, Public History, p. 17.
    49. Rauthe, Public History, p. 149.
    50. Rauthe, “Geschichtsdidaktik,” p. 290.
    51. See the website of the Public History Resource Center (11.10.2016).
    52. See the self-presentation of the NCPH at (11.10.2016).
    53. On the development of the NCPH see also Rauthe, Public History, pp. 93ff and p. 148.
    54. (11.10.2016).
    55. A brief overview of public history on the Internet in the United States, Australia, and Canada is provided by Gregor Horstkemper/Alessandra Sorbello Staub, “Public History – histoire publique – Geschichtskultur. Ein Thema mit vielen Varianten,” in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 60 (2009), no. 10, pp. 116-117.
    56. Public History Commons: (11.10.2016).
    57. A brief overview of the NCPH’s publications is offered by Rauthe, Public History, p. 96, as well as at the NCPH website.
    58. Additionally, the website of the Public History Resource Center (PHRC) provides overviews of definitions, course offerings and job offers, as well as a variety of reviews and review portals. Some of the contents have not been updated since 2003, however, see (11.10.2016).
    59. See the website of Public History Review: (11.10.2016).
    60. (11.10.2016).
    61. On the development in New Zealand, see Bronwyn Dalley, “Shades of Grey: Public History and Government in New Zealand,” in: Paul Ashton/Hilda Kean (eds.), People and their Pasts. Public History today, Basingstoke 2009, pp. 74-90.
    62. Jill Liddington, “Public History in Britain?” in: Public History News 23 (2003), no. 3, pp. 1-2.
    63. Hilda Kean/Paul Martin/Sally J. Morgan, “Introduction,” in: idem (eds.), Seeing History: Public History in Britain Now, London 2000, pp. 13-17, esp. p. 14.
    64. The edited volume based on the conference contains fourteen essays offering an overview of various Public History projects in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Great Britain, see Ashton/Kean (eds.), People and their Pasts.
    65. Hilda Kean/Paul Ashton, “Introduction: People and their Pasts and Public History Today,” in: Ashton/Kean (eds.), People and their Pasts, pp. 1-20, online at (11.10.2016).
    66. See the website of the public-history program at the University of Amsterdam: (11.10.2016). On the program in Wrocław, see the website of NCPH:
    67. See (11.10.2016).
    68. Serge Noiret, “Internationalisierung der Public History,” in: Public History Weekly 2 (2014), no. 34, DOI: (11.10.2016).
    69. IFPH International Federation for Public History: (11.10.2016).
    70. For the conference program, see (11.10.2016).
    71. For the conference program, see (11.10.2016).
    72. On the job persectives of historians, see Florian Neumann, “Geschichtsagenturen,” in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 60 (2009), pp. 90-98, here p. 90 and p. 97.
    73. See, e.g., Sabine Horn/Michael Sauer (eds.), Geschichte und Öffentlichkeit. Orte – Medien – Institutionen, Göttingen 2009.
    74. Margot Rühl (ed.), Berufe für Historiker, Darmstadt 2004. See also the new UTB series “Public History –Geschichte in der Praxis”:
    75. Lutz Raphael, “Der Beruf des Historikers seit 1945,” in: Christoph Cornelißen (ed.), Geschichtswissenschaften. Eine Einführung, Frankfurt am Main 2009, pp. 39-52.
    76. See, e.g,, Bernd Faulenbach/Franz-Josef Jelich (eds.), „Asymmetrisch verflochtene Parallelgeschichte? Die Geschichte der Bundesrepublik und der DDR in Ausstellungen, Museen und Gedenkstätten“, Essen 2005; Joachim Baur (ed.), Museumsanalyse. Methoden und Konturen eines neuen Forschungsfeldes, Bielefeld 2010; Dirk Rupnow/Heidemarie Uhl (eds.), Zeitgeschichte ausstellen in Österreich. Museen – Gedenkstätten – Ausstellungen, Vienna/Cologne/Weimar 2011; Thomas Fischer/Rainer Wirtz (eds.), Alles authentisch? Popularisierung der Geschichte im Fernsehen, Constance 2008; Fabio Crivellari et al. (eds.), Die Medien der Geschichte. Historizität und Medialität in interdisziplinärer Perspektive, Constance 2004; Barbara Korte / Sylvia Paletschek (eds.), History Goes Pop. Zur Repräsentation von Geschichte in populären Medien und Genres, Bielefeld 2009; Susanne Popp et al. (eds.), Zeitgeschichte – Medien – Historische Bildung, Göttingen 2010.
    77. See, e.g., Wolfgang Hardtwig/Alexander Schug (eds.), History Sells! Angewandte Geschichte als Wissenschaft und Markt, Stuttgart 2009; Christoph Kühberger/Andreas Pudlat (eds.), Vergangenheitsbewirtschaftung. Public History zwischen Wirtschaft und Wissenschaft, Innsbruck 2012, see also the special issue “Angewandte Geschichte,” Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 66 (2015), nos. 3-4.
    78. Schnittstelle Geschichte und Beruf: (11.10.2016).
    79. Arbeitsbereich Geschichte als Beruf: (11.10.2016).
    80. Fachjournalistik Geschichte an der Justus Liebig Universität in Gießen: (11.10.2016). See also Frank Bösch, “Medien und Geschichte: Ein Gießener Studien- und Forschungsschwerpunkt,” in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 60 (2009), pp. 83-89, here esp. pp. 86-88.
    81. See the information at the website of the Public History master’s program at the Free University of Berlin: (11.10.2016).
    82. Master’s program at the University of Cologne: (11.10.2016).
    83. Chair of Applied History/Public History at the University of Heidelberg:; Junior Professorship Public History at University of Cologne: (11.10.2016).
    84. E.g., the Historical Didactics Department at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich: (11.10.2016); The University of Flensburg listed a new position for a junior chair in “public history and historical learning in social studies and general science [Sachunterricht].”
    85. On the opening of historical didactics, see also the debate “Zeitgeschichte und Geschichtsdidaktik,” in: Zeithistorische Forschungen 2 (2005), pp. 266-291, online at (11.10.2016).
    86. (11.10.2016).
    87. Rauthe, Public History, p. 150.
    88. See, e.g., Arne Schirrmacher, “Nach der Popularisierung. Zur Relation von Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit im 20. Jahrhundert,” in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 34 (2008), pp. 73-95, here p. 86.
    89. Cord Arendes/Angela Siebold, “Zwischen akademischer Berufung und privatwirtschaftlichem Beruf. Für eine Debatte um Ethik- und Verhaltenskodizes in der historischen Profession,” in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 66 (2015), nos. 3/4, pp. 152-166.