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What's at stake for public history? Answers from Thomas Cauvin

June 30th, 2023

Associate Professor of Public History at the University of Luxembourg, Thomas Cauvin heads the Department of Public History at the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History. He spoke to David Glaser, geneveMonde.ch reporter, on the occasion of his presence at the Journée d'études internationale sur l'histoire, organized at the University of Lausanne, on June 8, 2023.

David Glaser - How do you define public history?

Thomas Cauvin - As I see it, public history is about making history more public, and therefore more accessible to different audiences, not always the same ones. It's also about making history participatory, including groups, archives, individuals and partners in the production of history. And making history important. In other words, the resonance of history for the people is important. We also start with the communities, their needs, their demands, their questions about the past, and include them in the production of history.

DG - **There are challenges when it comes to public history. It's not always accepted by the community of historians. Is this really changing?

PC - I think public history answers questions we've had for decades about the role of history, its importance and who made it. With the proliferation of online discourse and opinions, we're asking the question of who can make history, how can we make history, or how can we reinvent it? Public history provides some answers, or at least I think it provides a space for discussion of these debates. I think that's why public history is developing today.

DG - geneveMonde.ch is a shared history project, combining historical sources and the private archives of individuals connected with international Geneva. Is this kind of initiative developing elsewhere?

PC - Yes, it is. There are several forms of participation, more or less developed, with different types of public and different types of partners. In your example, what's interesting is the collaboration between the University, institutions, groups and individuals. The more these partners are linked to an issue, the richer the public history becomes. So it develops with issues, and sometimes conflicts too. But these conflicts, these networks and these discussions are formative.

DG - How do you deal with the digital issue when you want to carry out a public history project?

PC - It's a bit of a double-edged sword for historians. Digital technology is both a means of communication - we're happy to make podcasts, we're also going to be on social networks and platforms. But it's also a fact that anyone can communicate, without any real expertise. There's a confusion between opinion and knowledge. The challenge for public history is to have the weapons to occupy public space. There are plenty of people who will go to Google and type in a word to get information. The more accessible we are, the more useful we'll be and the more we'll resonate with members of the public.

To listen to the full interview, click here

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