"Public History" in Germany and the United States: Fields, Developments and Debates in Praxis and Theory

Jun 25, 2009 - Jun 27, 2009

Conference at the Freie Universität Berlin | Conveners: Andreas Etges and Paul Nolte (FU Berlin) and Anke Ortlepp (GHI)

The conference provided a fresh look at Public History in Germany and the United States exploring current fields of research, recent developments and debates in both theoretical discourses and practical endeavors. It brought together an international group of scholars and practitioners from the United States and Germany.
The conference opened with a session on contested memories, history, and the public. Kathleen Franz gave "a report from the trenches," in which she reflected on the training next generation of Public Historians. Reflecting on the training recommendations of the National Council of Public History, she pointed out strengths and shortcomings of current public history curricula. She also reflected on the value of on-site practical training for public history graduate students, recommending the development of more integrated programs across the United States. Leora Auslander's remarks focused on state-sponsored memorialization of domestic shame in Germany and the United States. Looking at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the National Museum for African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) the Smithsonian Institution is planning to open in Washington, DC in 2015, she reflected on the museums' mission, their (prospective) exhibits and historical narratives. Devoting most of her attention to the Jewish Museum in Berlin as the one that exists and is accessible to the public she investigated what is being commemorated and who the museum is addressing as an audience. Pointing to the museum's attempt to tell the long and complex history of Jewish Germans, she described the ways in which it deals with the Holocaust and the issue of national shame as effective. It remains to be seen, she pointed out, how the NMAACH will deal with this issue.
In his keynote address, NMAAHC's founding director Lonnie Bunch talked about his vision for the creation of a national museum devoted to the history and culture of African Americans and the broader challenges of interpreting race in American museums. Situating the museum in the lieu de mémoire that the National Mall in Washington, DC constitutes, Bunch elaborated on the plan to tell the story of one minority culture in ways that are meaningful to both its members and a broader American public. Hoping to attract millions of visitors of different backgrounds - like the other Smithsonian museums - he in particular reflected on the challenges of portraying the history of slavery and of presenting the issues of victimization and perpetration it entails. Bunch also elaborated on the more immediate challenges of construction an attractive museum building and assembling a collection.
The second session on policy of history in museums and exhibitions opened with a paper by Erik Christiansen, who explored the Cold War origins of the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology (now the Museum of American History), and the history exhibits displayed at the Smithsonian between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s. Constructing and displaying a distinctly national history for American citizens to see and comprehend as their own unique and superior heritage, Christiansen argued that the museum and its history exhibits played a significant role in influencing contemporary political and economic thought. Its authoritative location, between the Washington Monument, the White House, and the U.S. Capitol, made it difficult to doubt the museum's content or interpretation, unless one was also willing to doubt the legitimacy of the government that surrounded and supported it. Jacob Eder explored West German efforts to promote in the United States a positive interpretation of German history, considerate of, yet not overburdened by the legacies of the Holocaust during the 1980s. According to this interpretation, the history of the Federal Republic was a "success story," characterized by its stable democracy, reliability as a military partner in the Western Alliance, a strong commitment to Israel, and restitution payments for the victims of National Socialism. Eder demonstrated how this interpretation of German Zeitgeschichte, championed by Helmut Kohl, collided with the growing impact of Holocaust memory on American historical consciousness, a phenomenon often referred to as the "Americanization of the Holocaust." Warren Rosenblum discussed recent exhibits in the U.S. and Germany dealing with the history of justice and legal repression. Focusing on exhibits like "Im Namen des deutschen Volkes - Justiz und Nationalsozialismus," (Ministry of Justice, 1989) and "Justiz im Nationalsozialismus - über Verbrechen im Namen des Deutschen Volkes" (Ministry of Justice in Lower Saxony, 1999) in Germany and "The Story of We, the People" at National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he elaborated on how and why they stirred up public discussions about the historic failures of the court system, particularly in regard to racial justice, and the fragility of legal norms during times of national crisis. The session concluded with Katja Roeckner and her remarks on industrial museums, which present the history of industries and industrialisation in industrial heritage sites such as former factories. Roeckner argued that these museums afford excellent opportunities to study how institutions of public history deal with historical change: as museums they conserve images of the past while at the same time they become agents of change in environment of changing economic, social, and cultural parameters.

The third session focused on the connections between landscapes and memory. David Glassberg discussed his involvement in two projects in historic preservation and cultural resources management conducted for the United States National Park Service. According to Glassberg, both projects, Pinelands National Reserve and Cape Cod National Seashore, initially did not adequately take into account that local residents, government officials, and tourists had widely different perceptions of the environment and its future use. He showed how public history methods were employed to try to take into account the different memories attached to the landscape in future planning efforts. Elizabeth Lambert explored the contested memory of Weimarer Klassik and Gedenkstätte Buchenwald. Contending that Weimar's legacy reveals much about the construction of postwar German national identity, she explored the polarity between elements of the Weimar-Buchenwald complex because the National Socialist and East German states designated Weimar as a central site of ritual connected to the different ways that each imagined and appropriated the city's past. She thus explored the challenges in separating culture from terror, in order to elucidate the ways in which the landscapes, sites and narratives of Weimar and Buchenwald have been marshaled to reinforce the dominant narrative of national identity. Janet Ward's paper explored the interrelationship between two highly charged sites of urban trauma in Germany and the United States - the postwar ruin and post-reunification rebuilding of Dresden's Frauenkirche, emblem of the Allies' terror bombing of German cities during World War II, as well as the ongoing reconstructive transformations at the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. Comparing the two sites she pointed out two key representational strategies of the memorialization of civilian sacrifice: rubble aesthetics, on the one hand, and redemptive reconstruction, on the other. She demonstrated how the commemoration of 9/11 at Ground Zero is, in part, a dialogic response to the rubble thematics and reconstructive practices that have served affected urban centers since World War II.
Session four dealt with the history of lost causes. John Berndt Olson explored post-unification debates on places of memory in Eastern Germany like the Buchenwald memorial, the German Historical Museum, the monuments to Ernst Thälmann and to Marx and Engels in Berlin, and the planned Memorial for Freedom and Unity designed to commemorate the 1989 revolution and the 1990 (re)unification of Germany. Olson argued that these debates about the monuments, museums, and commemoration traditions of the GDR provide a unique point of departure for the examination of the role of history within the larger political and social debates surrounding issues related to the unification of Germany. He posited that new monuments will continue to find both proponents and opponents as popular memories of the GDR continue to be formed and contested in the public sphere while we might also see a loosening up of how these sites of memory are treated. David Zonderman, focusing on the teaching of public history in the American South, described it as a pedagogical project that challenges instructors and students to pay heed to many myths swirling throughout the region. He argued that public historians must be trained to understand the roots of regional mythologies and their current expression in popular memory. Only then, he underlined, can they successfully guide their audiences through the process of unpacking and understanding these myths in ways that respect regional identity, without letting that identity subordinate serious engagement with historical facts and scholarly interpretations.
Session five explored the connections between politics and public history. Joseph Harahan outlined the historical origins, development, and growth of public history in the U.S. government. He argued that their work mirrors the diverse interests of the institutions and bureaucracies carrying out the functions of a large democratic government. He moreover pointed out that the creation of this bureaucratic state following the 1930s, came at a time when dissemination of public information, victory in the global war, Cold War nationalism, and domestic imperatives, led to the acceptance of employing historians to document, interpret, and publish histories of the federal government's events and programs. Arnita Jones reflected on US public history as policy history. She argued that in stark contrast to developments in the historical profession at large, where scholars have paid less attention to studying the institutions of government and political history, policy history has accelerated over the last several years, as exemplified by the work of the Kennedy Assassination Board, the 911 Commission, and the currently much discussed federal history critical of the American effort to rebuild Iraq. Martin Sabrow explored history politics in post-reunification Germany by looking at the issue of "DDR Aufarbeitung" and his own involvement in the debate about it. He detailed the work of the Sabrow Commission, a panel of scholars and public history practitioners appointed by the German Bundestag, and its recommendations for ways to deal with and explore the GDR past, which were widely received among the German public.
Session six concerned itself with the marketing of history. Dietmar Pieper sketched the short history of Spiegel Geschichte, the history magazine series published by the German news magazine Der Spiegel. He detailed topics, approaches, and target audiences. Hanno Hochmuths' paper focused on the tourism industry in Berlin. He argued that the city's booming tourism is largely based on Public History. He demonstrated that the majority of Berlin's most visited museums exhibit contemporary history. Moreover, Hochmuth showed that a significant heritage industry has developed in Berlin. Supported by the local government of the post-Fordist city both public and private players compete for the visitors' attention. Hence, he concluded, they supply the tourists with what they seek most: Histotainment and authenticity.
The conference was characterized by lively discussion and exchange. It closed with a tour through the German Historical Museum lead by the museum's director Hans Ottomeyer.
Anke Ortlepp (GHI)

Call for Papers

In the past decades "history" has become more and more "public history." Using new ways to present history, a larger audience has been reached. At the same time, the presentation of (national) history and memory has become a public arena where different groups debate the correct interpretation of the past or fight for their inclusion. This is true for both the United States and Germany, where tragic and traumatic parts of their respective histories have dominated the discourse.

While in the United States public history is an established field at many universities, in Germany institutions like the Freie Universität Berlin only recently began to offer more practically oriented ways to study history. By bringing together those who practice public history in a wide range of institutions as well academic historians the conference aims to both cover a wide range of forms of public history and also to critically discuss national traditions and developments in the field.

Presentation can cover topics like history and the public, history and memory, museums and exhibits, national sites; living and oral history; historical movies and documentaries; Holocaust memory; master narratives of national histories; history and the media, historical consulting, problems of corporate sponsorship, and many others. Comparisons as well as proposals focusing one country/case are welcome. A "national" perspective is not mandatory, though.

The GHI-FUB conference will be held at the John F. Kennedy Institute of the Freie Universität in Berlin-Dahlem from June 25 - 27, 2009. Participants will receive a lump sum contribution to cover travel expenses and accommodation. Proposals (one page abstract plus a short CV) should be e-mailed by December 20, 2008, and be submitted to Anke Ortlepp.