Public history - what is it?
Age of Commemoration is how Olga Manojlović Pintar, Serbian historian, has named the beginning of the 21st century – “the time in which revolutionary visions of the future are being replaced by revisions of the past”. Dealing with the past, she notices, has become one of the crucial social and political concepts, and history itself has gained a commercial/market value. Explanations and legitimacy for the current social and political circumstances are being found in allegedly authentic historical interpretations. Historical symbols and memorabilia are ubiquitous in contemporary societies. Therefore, the need for practitioners and history promoters to do historical work “beyond the walls of the traditional classroom” is constantly growing. In other words, Public History represents interpreting the past outside of specialized academic settings with the focus on history for the general public, rather than academics or specialists.
Challenges of public history
Active communication with the public faces numerous challenges and obstacles. Reenactments of historical events, anniversaries, and commemorations, (re)constructions of monuments and memorials hardly take place without public disputes or severe discussions and critiques. There are struggles to identify and critically reconsider historical continuities in order to explain present phenomena. To fulfil its task, Public History needs to break with traditional historical methodology and often look for alternative ways of bridging the gap among researchers of the past, contemporary analysts, and the audience.
The thesis of French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwach, about the social frameworks of memory, includes the significance of collective memory operating on the systems of family, religion, and social communities. Thus, there is not only an individual memory but also a group memory that exists outside of and lives beyond the individual. Consequently, an individual's understanding of the past is strongly linked to his/her group consciousness and defined by the ideas and values that the group possesses.For that reason, Aleida Assman, a German scientist in cultural anthropology and Cultural and Communicative Memory, stresses that perceiving the past through identity lenses always goes with affection and strong sentiments. Therefore, the principal challenge for Public History is answering the question of what will be omitted from the memory of a particular collectivity and what will be remembered. Afterward, it has to explain how this already selected past will be celebrated/commemorated.
An Instagrammable image of "Us" - German museological practices
On a study trip to Berlin in May 2022, historians and representatives of different museums, memorial sites, and NGOs from the former Yugoslav states got the chance to meet and discuss the culture of remembrance and memory politics with their German counterparts.
The first visit was to the Ethnological Museum in Humboldt Forum. The museum's holdings comprise ethnographic, archaeological, and historico-cultural objects from Africa, Asia, America, and Oceania. From the entrance, it was clear that it would definitely not be a typical exhibition created on a well-known colonial narrative. Media installations with a varied selection of objects prepared as an introduction to the exhibition pose questions about the history of the objects and place the collections in the context of the present-day world. Certain segments of the exhibition and rooms openly show the demanding battle with the colonial past. However, the overall impression is that there is a quite an elusive message about colonialism, and it is uncertain whether a less-informed visitor could entirely understand the main goal of the exhibition and its modern questioning of colonialism and its consequences. It is rather “Instagrammable" as one of the group participants said, which means – those who do not want to see the controversial, and often tragic past of the objects presented, do not need to do so, which makes it visually appealing and suitable for being photographed and posted on social media. Despite very convincing anti-colonial discourse shown in the introduction to the exhibition and intriguing reflections throughout the rest of it, the attractiveness of the objects and their presentation (usually without explanations as to how they found their way to Germany) in the reconstructed neoclassicist building that has the air of imperialist times, renders the criticism of colonial past rather unclear.
The second visit was to the former Stasi prison, the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, which focuses on personal stories of the inmates detained in this center by the East Germany Ministry of State Security, this site reveals one side of the GDR's history and its arbitrary approach to imprisonment. Compared to the exhibition in the Ethnological Museum, the message transferred to the visitors of the prison is very clear. There is an emphasis on political prisoners, victims of a harsh regime. Nevertheless, a broader context is missing. The politics of the Soviet Union as well as of the GDR went through significant change during almost five decades of the existence of this prison. Along the same line, the inmates, the reasons for their imprisonment, and the treatment they received were not alike. The chronology demonstrated on the site is quite blurred and it does not provide necessary contextualization. Along with the curatorial choice of using former prisoners as guides, this can mislead to a one-sided and selective narrative.
The Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation in Berlin offers a very thorough approach to extremely controversial and sensitive issues such as forced migration. Being a multi-perspective and methodically very well-organized exhibition with inclusive access to visitors of different generations, it opens complex questions about identity and national roles in the past, and it makes an effort to "reconcile" all the identities of the German people. The industrious work to cover this topic as much as possible is noticeable, but aiming to provide all aspects of forced displacement in general, the authors of the exhibition failed to contextualize the examples presented. Explaining this complex phenomenon in such a comprehensible way is amazing, but historically speaking, a few words about the causes can change the perception entirely and they are essential.
Visits to all three institutions were followed by very constructive and open discussions, and the readiness among the curators to rethink and reflect on their own concepts was obvious.
Struggle with "petit colonialism" - public history in the post-Yugoslav region
On the other hand, the concept of petit-colonialism is present in the performative practices of the political elites in ex-Yugoslav states. It is introduced by the Bulgarian philosopher, Stanimir Panayotov, to describe an ideological position of a group that once was in the position of supremacy over another, and it cannot comprehend the current emancipation of the group that it had ruled before, thus the lost power relation is played once again in the historical frames of the past.From Skopje to Belgrade and all around the region, monuments and memorials are constructed either to celebrate the glorious past of domination, or to commemorate one’s own victimhood. However, certain non-governmental institutions and organizations are resisting that kind of memory politics.
During the study trip, following visits to some memorial places in Berlin, some of the participants from the Balkans presented their work, showcasing entirely different voices and innovative approaches. For instance, the work by the Centre for Public History (CPH) from Belgrade combines scientific research with education and public interventions to promote the application of history for the benefit of society, so as to develop critical thinking about historical processes and build a culture of peace. Its focus is on the Holocaust and Genocide (killing sites, anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsysm, commemorations) and the Culture of remembrance (WWII and anti-fascism, Yugoslavia and the legacy of socialism, disintegration of Yugoslavia, resistance to war) (https://www.cpi.rs/en/). Researchers engaged with the CPH could nowadays be considered to be the real activists for public history.
Furthermore, there was a presentation of the Childhood War Museum from Sarajevo. This independent, youth-led organization is the only museum focused exclusively on childhoods affected by war. It shows a perspective that does not recognize national frames and has the vision of mutual understanding at the collective level in order to enhance personal and social development (https://warchildhood.org/).
Last, but not least, there was a word about the new initiative coming from Belgrade to establish the Museum of the ‘90s. As the decades in question marks not only the political and ideological dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia, but a severe recomposition of the successor states' entire value system, this initiative aims to provide an entirely multiperspective and limit-free overlook of that period. Creating a platform to house all kinds of sources concerning different actors, events, and phenomena significant for the last decade of the 20th century, the goal is to provide a database for the future researchers as well as to develop pedagogical tools to teach such a controversial and sensitive issue in non-biased ways.
One of the main takeaways from the study trip to Berlin is that public and open discussions about the past and remembering are crucial for building future welfare. History already lives in society through historical conventions, cultural traditions, and socially preferred answers and it shapes mindsets and creates citizens. So, maybe it is time to give Public History a chance…
 I. Hadjievska, „The Trouble with National History: the case of North Macedonia’s EU accession“, Analysis, Eastern Europe, Politics, 4.
 Ibid, 188.
 M. Albvaks, Društveni okviri pamćenja, Mediterran publishing, Novi Sad 2013.
 A. Asman, Duga senka prošlosti. Kultura sećanja i politika povesti, Biblioteka XX vek, Belgrade 2011, 44.
 O. Manojlović Pintar, „On Public/Applied History”, Tokovi istorije 3/2018, 173-176.
This article first appeared here: rs.boell.org