Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage
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Brief Definition of the Topic
Public humanists – public historians, oral historians, folklorists, curators and museum educators, public art administrators, cultural media producers, and cultural policy planners, as well as cultural heritage workers – encourage the public’s participation in the creation of meaning about history, art, and culture. They do this in many ways: sometimes as mediators between the academy and the public, interpreting the work of scholars for the public, sometimes as facilitators of public engagement with culture, and sometimes producing cultural work on behalf of communities. Public humanists work with academic humanists, communities, community cultural organizations, and individuals to explore, preserve, understand, and make use of cultural heritage, values, beliefs, knowledge, and traditions, promoting a shared examination of culture, art, and history to encourage civic engagement.
Public humanists, like workers in the cognate fields of public anthropology and public sociology, strike a balance between serving as translators for the work of academic humanists, on the one hand, and as the spokespeople for the cultural work of communities, on the other. The work of translation (or serving as public intellectuals themselves) represents a traditional approach to the field. Serving as spokespeople for communities, or in Gramsci’s term, as organic intellectuals, represents the other end of the spectrum. Most public humanists position themselves somewhere in between these extremes, preferring words like “engagement” to describe their interaction with the public. They provide ways to connect academic and public knowledge, thus creating new understandings.
Public humanities provides a theoretical framework for work in cultural heritage and an expertise useful for balancing and merging academic, community, and personal cultures. Its focus on community serves to put the work of cultural heritage into a larger context by framing heritage as part of the ongoing, contested, creation of meaning about the past and about contemporary culture. It connects cultural heritage to the lives and memories of community members and to community institutions, as well as to academic work. It can open up discussion of community, too often taken as given in cultural heritage work, by asking questions about the nature of community and the relationship of community and culture.
Public humanities can also provide a broader understanding of culture, allowing for greater integration of intangible and tangible cultural heritage with current concerns by subsuming heritage under the heading of community cultural production. Its focus on public engagement and on sharing authority with communities grounds cultural heritage work in cultural policy and ongoing cultural production. And its insistence on the role of community institutions encourages community building that creates longer-term sustainability for cultural heritage work.
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- Commission on the Humanities. 1980. The humanities in American life: Report of the commission on the humanities. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
- Hylland Eriksen, T. 2006. Engaging anthropology: The case for a public presence. Oxford/New York: Berg.Google Scholar
- Sommer, D. 2014. The work of art in the world: Civic agency and public humanities. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar