Sunday, March 14, 2010

NCPH Presidential Address: Public History at Middle Age?

Outgoing NCPH President Marianne Babal used her presidential address to talk about the state of the field and the challenges she envisions for the next few years. Noting that public historians inhabit "those in-between spaces where points of contact are constantly changing," she spoke about generational change, technological innovation, and economic challenge, and suggested that NCPH is "overdue for a season of introspection" in which we plan how to negotiate our next few years.

One thing that caught my attention in Babal's speech was her characterization of public history as a field that is beginning to be "middle-aged." NCPH turns 30 this year; our journal has been in operation since 1978; if we are middle-aged, we're surely on the young side of "middle"! In some ways, the field always feels young and fresh to me, perhaps because we're so perpetually involved in the task of self-definition and reinvention (and perhaps also because NCPH has been so successful at attracting and engaging graduate students and other new and/or young members). NCPH itself has a great deal of dynamism at the moment, reflecting the cohort currently involved in running the organization (including, as Babal and others pointed out, our excellent staff), but the growth of public history programs and of public history as a discourse that circulates more and more internationally also contributes to this sense of youthful energy.

In other ways, it sometimes seems to me that public historians increasingly discover our deep roots in many kinds of historical practices and concerns, which lends that air of maturity that Babal was perhaps seeing as middle age. As I move farther into my own middle years and find myself still feeling poised between self-definition and a growing sense of connectedness to others in the past who have been occupied with trying to foster deeper historical consciousness in our fast-paced, surface-oriented modern world, it occurs to me that this is a positive definition of middle age as well as an explanation of why I feel so at home in this field!

No comments:

Post a Comment