National Council on Public History

Unconventional History? A history which is born digital, a history which is born public (poster session)

@ #ncph2013 Annual Meeting

Introduction: Why unconventional?

Digital History is not a very common practice in History field of Brazilian academy yet. Although the use of the most recent information and communication technologies by historians has been increased, it still sounds like an unconventional habit.  The first signs of Digital History in Brazil arrive as a result of the increasing use of those technologies inside the History field, but indeed, it does not mean that Brazilian historians are already thinking about Digital History.

A problem that derives from this narrow understanding of Digital Media interaction with History is about the historical contents available on Internet. If they are not from universities or distinctive institutions (i.e. archives, libraries, museums), they are not taken into consideration. In other words: non-academical works – like those published on the Internet by common people – are not welcome in our scholar tradition. It could be too dilettante.

Nowadays, also in Portuguese, there are lots of websites with some historical vocation created by common people and amateurs, such as blogs, forums, social network pages, profiles, etc. It shows that a social interest in the past exists. Even though, historians still ignore these sites and consequently those people. The question is not about a prejudice related to them, but a crystallized view that hierarchizes information generators and supports. For instance, there is a small number of researchers that consider work with digital born materials in their projects.

Resources from the Internet do not inspire confidence yet.They cannot prove anything. They cannot be part of History!

What is going on in Brazil?

Historians do not want loose the control of History. Thus, they prefer to create official Digital History projects instead of considering what is already on the Internet. The main outcome of this way of thinking is that we have started to create digital projects before having accepted born digital contents as a valid format of source for History.

Therefore, the history available on the Internet that was created by historians is good. The others are not.In such scene, there are some official initiatives that are stamping their authority in digital projects to communicate historical subjects on the World Wide Web. By using digital technologies, these projects shows that different media can create new spaces where share history knowledge.  Moreover, they indicate, even for those historians that are most resistant to technology, that it can be useful to encounter fresh and varied audiences.

Case study – Identidades do Rio de Janeiro: desafios de um patrimônio compartilhado (Identities of Rio de Janeiro: challenges of a shared heritage)

As an illustration of this process, we have selected the publicly funded project “Identities of Rio de Janeiro: challenges of a shared heritage”, which is interesting even by its own name, that brings together the “sharing” and “challenge” ideas. It is also important to realize that it was a project of the Oral History and Image Lab (Laboratório de História Oral e Imagem – LABHOI) of Universidade Federal Fluminense (Niterói-RJ, UFF).

The Project:

The project received a grant named “Support to Study Strategic and Relevant Issues to the State of Rio de Janeiro ”from the Carlos Chagas Filho Foundationfor Research Support of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Fundação Carlos Chagas Filho de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro – FAPERJ) in 2009. It is coordinated by Professor Hebe Maria da Costa Mattos Gomes de Castro, a Brazilian notably oral historian. This close relation to the Oral History field is not a coincidence. It is just one more feature of the problem that converges with Public History. Equally relevant is the composition of the staff: the team is multidisciplinary, composed by historians, anthropologists and educators. In the total, there are 34 researchers in the project, that are involved in 05 Postgraduate Programmes of the state, besides those whom are from Public Archiveof the State of Rio de Janeiro (ArquivoPúblico do Estado do Rio de Janeiro), the General Archives of the City of Rio de Janeiro (Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro), the Museum of History and Art of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Museu de História e Arte do Estado do Rio de Janeiro) and the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage (Instituto de Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional).

How does it work?

It presents hypermedia collections that allow users navigating on the historical maps, get into different pathways and periods of Rio’s history. All the paths offered deal with identity  and local memory issues in some way, from 17th Century until nowadays (in some topics). The collections present maps, texts, videos, 3D digital mockup of the city and also direct access to digital sources.

Pathways: Fire, urban life and public service in the nineteenth century; Niterói: City of memories; The Illegal trade of africans enslaved; Coffee farms; Slavery and Catholic Church; Rio de Janeiro in the time of D. João (1808-1821); Political-administrative chronology; The natives in Rio de Janeiro; Choro Chronology.

Pathways: Fire, urban life and public service in the nineteenth century; Niterói: City of memories; The Illegal trade of africans enslaved; Coffee farms; Slavery and Catholic Church; Rio de Janeiro in the time of D. João (1808-1821); Political-administrative chronology; The natives in Rio de Janeiro; Choro Chronology.

The overview bellow is from the “Slavery and Catholic Church” pathway. What is interesting to observe in this collection is the partnership between Identidades do Rio and the digitalization project “Ecclesiastical Sources in Slave Societies“. Also this project were developed in a collaborative shape, involving researches and students from three different countries: Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil, UFF), Vanderbilt University (USA, VU) and York University (Canada, YU).

The first step of the “Slavery and Catholic Church” collection is specifically about “Ecclesiastical Sources”

The first step of the “Slavery and Catholic Church” collection is specifically about “Ecclesiastical Sources”

The movement of “Identidades do Rio” toward a digitalization project such as “Ecclesiastical Sources in Slave Societies” shows that in some way, even if we change support, we are still looking for official sources. On the one hand, it indicates a resistance to use other kind of digital sources, instead of those from authorized projects and sites. On the other hand, perhaps, it could mean that the Brazilian historians involved in this project are not avoiding use digital media, but they still feeling more comfortable working with familiar codes. Thus, they prefer work with scanned sources that are safeguarded by scientific instituitions and have their stamp of authority.


Notably, it could be helpful in the educational process of citizens in general, to open a dialogue between universities and popular culture. Maybe, one way to start an exchange between community and academy is giving them a voice and a space to see themselves represented by History. But not by that distant History, confined between the walls of the university. They must feel part of a History that they can touch and feel closer.To sum up it: Public History would be a good manner to break the ice and start off a conversation between academy and everybody else!

As we could see a Digital History project can be a step toward this horizon but maybe, before anything else, we need to learn how to deal with those issues that intimidate historians when they start to work digitally. In the Brazilian case, at first sight, the problem seems to be related to the “shared authority” and the “professionalization” debates.

Afinal, o que é História Pública?

Tenho me interessado pela relação entre Digital e Public History. Recentemente afiliei-me ao National Council on Public History e à International Federation for Public History e comecei a participar de algumas listas de discussões a respeito. Penso que seja um extraordinário terreno (não mais baldio) para explorarmos e descobrirmos mais ainda como o Brasil pode e tem feito iniciativas de Public History internet afora.

Segundo o NCPH, Public History seria a história aplicada, a história e os diversos modos como ela é colocada no/para o mundo. Este ano o Núcleo de Estudos em História da Cultura Intelectual (NEHCI) da USP, organizou um evento sobre, o “Simpósio Internacional de História Pública: A história e seus públicos(cujo site atualmente encontra-se vazio). Pela proposta, parece ter sido um evento e tanto (infelizmente não participei), mas acredito que um evento como este, pelo que já googlei e sondei aqui e ali sobre História Pública no Brasil, mereça reedições em 2013.

Questões, dentre as colocadas pelo seminário,devem continuar a ser discutidas em encontros do tipo para, finalmente, entrar em pauta em nossa tão ortodoxa academia. Só lendo e discutindo isso entre os pares estaremos em grado, penso eu, de criticar quando um não historiador produz algo para a divulgação do difusão do conhecimento histórico para amplas audiências (desde quadros históricos no Fantásticos, vídeos no Youtube, artigos de Revistas, como “Aventuras na História”, até novelas scripts para novelas como “Lado a Lado”):

  • o lugar da história pública na academia brasileira;
  • os trajetos da história pública no Brasil e no exterior;
  • a ampliação dos horizontes de atuação para o historiador;
  • a exploração de novos modos de fazer história;
  • a relação entre historiadores e a diversidade de públicos a que eles se dirigem, bem como a influência dos mesmos sobre os produtores desse conhecimento;
  • o impacto social e público da produção acadêmica brasileira na área de história;
  • a função da história pública na divulgação e no gerenciamento do patrimônio material e imaterial;
  • o impacto das novas mídias sobre as estratégias de produção e publicização da história;
  • os cruzamentos entre história pública e outras áreas de conhecimento aplicado, como o jornalismo, as relações públicas, a gestão de organizações, o turismo;
  • o papel do historiador profissional diante de celebrações, comemorações, memoriais;
  • a relação entre história e literatura, em múltiplos âmbitos de narrativa histórica: as biografias, os testemunhos, a ficção histórica.

Vale a leitura da descrição simpática do NCPH “What is Public History“:

When it comes to defining public history, practicing public historians might be tempted to recall the United States Supreme Court justice who offered this provocative short-hand definition of obscenity and pornography back in 1964: “I know it when I see it.”  For veterans and new professionals in the field, this might be good enough.  But for those unfamiliar with the term, a little more elaboration is in order.

The name of the NCPH blog – History@Work – offers a handy distillation: public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.  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.

Public historians come in all shapes and sizes.  They call themselves historical consultants, museum professionals, government historians, archivists, oral historians, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, historical interpreters, historic preservationists, policy advisers, local historians, and community activists, among many many other job descriptions.  All share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere.

Although public historians can sometimes be teachers, public history is usually defined as history beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.  It can include the myriad ways that history is consumed by the general public. Those who don’t always remember their high school and college history classes fondly are often the same people who spend holidays, vacations, and their spare time seeking out history by choice: making pilgrimages to battlefields and memorials, visiting museums, watching television documentaries, volunteering with historical societies, participating in a community history project, and researching family histories.

Less familiar are the ways that history can be created for – and utilized by – specialized audiences.   These forms of public history are not necessarily intended for public consumption, although they can sometimes affect the general public, as when a state park system undertakes a management plan to reinterpret an historic site or when a local non-profit organizes a community oral history project that provides the research for an historic walking tour.  It’s also important to remember that while public history can promote popular understanding of history, the goal of many projects may not be explicitly educational at all.  Thus, an institutional history written by an historical consultant for a business client might be used to help organize a corporate archive.  Another sort of “product” or “deliverable” might be an environmental and  land use history used by a court to decide an issue of western water rights.  A town that commissions an architectural survey is likely looking to encourage historic preservation and to enhance the quality of life, as well as perhaps to promote heritage tourism and economic development.

In terms of intellectual approach, the theory and methodology of public history remain firmly in the discipline of history, and all good public history rests on sound scholarship.  Most university public history programs, for example, teach their students to be historians first and foremost, with additional training in the skills and perspectives useful in public history practice.  Over the years, some have argued that public historians are more self-consciously interdisciplinary than traditional historians, but this distinction seems to be disappearing as the discipline of history itself has become more broadly multi-disciplinary.  Unlike many historians in the academy, public historians routinely engage in collaborative work, with community members, stakeholders, and professional colleagues, and some contend that collaboration is a fundamental and defining characteristic of what public historians do.  The collaborative approach inspires regular debates about a role for “shared authority” and the proper place for the “professionalization” of local history.   As with public scholarship in general, digital technologies play an increasingly important role in the work of public historians, creating new spaces where they share their work and encounter fresh and varied audiences.

Historians have always engaged in public history work, inside and outside the academy, although by the 1960s and 1970s, in the midst of a woeful job crisis for PhD’s, the profession had largely forgotten its professional roots in historical societies, museums, archives, and government offices.  The public history “movement” emerged in the United States and Canada in the 1970s, gaining visibility and influence through the establishment of public and applied history programs at universities.  The founding of the National Council on Public History dates to this period, as does its scholarly journal, The Public Historian.  Today it is difficult to view public history as a movement, when it has been incorporated into the curricular offerings of hundreds of institutions of higher learning across the globe, in Canada and the United States, but also in Australia, China, Germany, India, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.  Some would argue, however, that it retains characteristics of a movement through the on-going commitments of many current practitioners to ideals of social justice, political activism, and community engagement.


Há muito mais neste blog History@Work!

Interessados em trabalhar com Public History podem ver também: NCPH Guide to Public History Programs