“History is us, no one feels excluded” sang Francesco De Gregori in a famous song of our tradition, anticipating what would happen in the near future. The time has come to turn this Italian song verse into reality, taking on a role of active participation in history, since we are its main users.

Today we are immersed in the historical phase that Luciano Floridi denotes with the term “fourth Revolution”, thus outlining the global infosphere in which the border between online and offline life is dispersed in the communication channel (Paci 2019, 81-82). The digital penetrates so much into our everyday life that we live in symbiosis with new technologies; we live within a virtual community that has modified the space-time dimension, “temporalizing time”, thus combining past, present and future in a single extension, perpetually perceived in the present time. In order to prevent cybernetic power from taking full possession of our lives and “dataism” from becoming orthodoxy, we have the task of rethinking the humanistic disciplines by adapting them to this moment to create new horizons (Pereira-Araujo 2019, 45). This is the task of public history: but what is it and what challenge does it present to us? The new science proposes a change of perspective that places the individual as a participatory actor of historical knowledge at the centre of attention, thus celebrating the advent of a humanism that combines the rediscovery of humanistic doctrines with computer practices.

Public history in Italy

The Associazione Italiana di Public History (AIPH) defines public history as “a field of the historical sciences [and] historians who adhere to Public History conduct activities related to research and communication outside academic circles, in the public sector as well as in the private sector, with and for different audiences. It is also a new university research and teaching area which aims at the formation of Public Historians” (AIPH 2018). Historians are therefore made mediators between academic knowledge and the public outside the building, according to Serge Noiret, president of the AIPH. This discipline therefore calls into question the role of the public, which from passive becomes an active and participatory actor in the historical practice in order to create a collective memory. “The practice of history has always been ‘public’ in a certain sense” (Noiret 2017, 18) but it becomes a collective domain thanks to new technologies, which have modified communication. In fact, the channels of diffusion of history, with the advent of web 2.0, are countless: films, documentaries, social media, theatrical performances, multimedia and interactive museums…

These digital storytelling practices represent modern tools for producing and communicating cross-media content that favour the union between formal and informal and the interweaving of educational, informative and learning planes (Felicitati 2019, 313-317); this is a positive factor if we consider the fact that there are no longer hierarchies among the recipients that, according to Prensky, diverge between digital natives (born in the digital era), digital settlers (those who witnessed the technological boom and were the first to experience it) and digital immigrants (who were forced to adapt to new media). The real risk is caused by the multiplication of participative platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, which have led to an intense phenomenon of production and sharing of stories among digital natives with viral effects and that allow little characters to take on an influential role, thus conveying mass behaviors using social media – potentially carriers of updated communication practices – in an unfair way (Felicitati 2019, 313-316). Therefore, the task of public history is to move against the current to restore the civil value that historical study and knowledge should represent through new forms of collaborative history, in order to create a more aware and scientifically informed public. Through the creation of blogs, the public historian is able to filter information and counteract the creation of collective or national memories based on a distorted perception of history.

A map of some social networks

Examples of collaborative platforms

Public history manifests itself in blogs and apps: “Resistenzapp“, to cite an example, is an app for smartphones that geo-references Liberation events and is useful for acquiring historical skills in schools or for personal interest. For digital natives who have a visual-multimedia memory, it is a valid support to easily store the events that characterized the Italian Resistance. Another proof of crowdsourching (research coming from below, i.e. from the public) is represented by “The September 11 Digital Archive“, an archive coming from the families of the victims of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers that shook the world in 2001. This is a blog in which the user can post memories and leave a comment to turn the past into collective history.

A participatory experience is also offered by the M9 Museum of Mestre, entirely dedicated to the history of the 20th century. Here films and special effects are created to project the visitor back in time, giving him or her the chance to identify with the desired historical period. This structure is so emblematic for public history that the next AIPH conference for 2020 will be held there.

The M9 Museum of Mestre (Venice)

Future prospects for a fast-growing discipline

An absolute novelty is the fact that public history springs from a request coming from the community that asks to meet the past in different forms: from media to squares, from the net to public discussions.

Saving the historical profession public history is necessary, because it brings with it a considerable renewal of the professional practice and the confluence of various professions under the common denominator of history and, consequently, a healthy openness to new professions.

Serge NoiretLa Public History: innovazioni metodologiche, in «Storia e futuro», 45, dicembre 2017

The reinvention of communicative forms and the interdisciplinary direction taken by the new sector underline the need to incorporate updated sources and methods to the traditional practice of history, to look at the past in its public dimension. In a country that lives on culture, archaeological and urban heritage, landscapes, museums and tourism, there will be many career opportunities, just think of how the new historical practice can have a positive and lasting influence on mainstream culture, so as to encourage it to improve the quality and accuracy of films, documentaries and novels on historical subjects. New professions will be found everywhere: in museums, archaeological sites and multimedia platforms. The debate is open and public history has become “a glocal discipline that considers history and the presence of the past in our societies outside the academic world”, as Noiret (quoted from Guerri 2018) said, and this has now become part of the cultural horizon of our country.

Serge Noiret clarifies the concept of public historian and its professional role

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