This week we began principal filming on a project I cannot yet name with a partner I cannot yet mention. However, I can say that the process was both thrilling and humbling. The ultimate example of how much public history is a collaborative endeavor. There are sometimes more than fifty people on set, and everyone from the writer to the costumer, from the director to the makeup artist, had a slightly different interpretation of the history they were trying to interpret.
In the world of traditional academic history you spend many hours alone in thought. You may interact with archivists or librarians, but this is generally a more transactional relationship than it is a collaborative one. Once the manuscript is ready for publication you send it to peers for evaluation before it goes to the journal or press for formal review. Any input from these associates is normally silent in the final version of the work, with possibly a brief mention in the acknowledgements. Ultimately, the author takes sole responsibility for the project, but is also the master of the history interpreted in the piece.
Public history often requires a large number of people to work together reconciling various interpretations of history towards a mutually acceptable whole. This can be frustrating for people coming from the field of traditional academia. I would argue it should be a notion more regularly presented to undergraduate and graduate students, especially when it comes to working with non-specialists in the field.
In the months to come, I’ll be able to elaborate on these points and showcase some specific examples of what I mean. Until then, this rather vague post promoting the encomiums of collaboration in public history will have to suffice…