The renewed responsibilities of Public Histories.

For the longest time, I held the belief that Public histories were not just a commendable, but a vital part of the promotion of history in the 21st century. It is undeniable that books, films and television shows are brilliant forums to engage the wider public in periods and events from the past. However, recently I have been rethinking Public History’s place within the entertainment industry. Whilst so many wonderful fictions have paved the way, I truly believe it is time for film and television creators to start working towards a better version of Public History.

By definition, Public History does not have a difficult criteria to meet. Linda Shopes described it as “the attempt to make thoughtful, critical history meaningful and accessible to nontraditional audiences”. Therefore, Public History must represents the past in a way that is appealing and entertaining to a wider audience outside of the academic field. There are hundreds of films and television shows which have done this. The problem does not come with engagement, but rather with the long held debate: what is more important, entertainment or accuracy.

No Historical fiction is completely accurate, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be. There are valid reasons why stories should be exaggerated or even elaborated to fit within the narrative that creators are trying to achieve. Moreover there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, Public History would not work if it was not actually entertaining and sometimes fiction is the only way to do that. But I think there is a way to achieve better accuracy AND still maintain audience investment. For example, many films exclude or avoid difficult and upsetting aspects of History for fear of alienating audience members. The director of Pride (2014) outrightly stated that though his film featured LGBT characters and plots, he wanted it to be “something that straight people go and see in a town where there are no gay bars”. Though his intentions are understandable, and do fit within Public Histories definition of widening the audience, he compromised the integrity of the story he was telling. Pride presents a happier and more lighthearted picture of a period that was in reality suffering from discrimination, oppression and a gruesome AIDS epidemic. 

This is where the main issue with Public history lies. It is not in the larger narrative stories that are embellished or made up, but rather in the controversial and difficult periods of the past that are overlooked or ignored to make the story more appealing. So far historical fictions have done a good job at pulling in larger audiences, and making the public interested in learning about history. In this regard they are invaluable. But it is time they do more. It is time they tell the difficult stories, the stories that do not appeal to the mass but are presented in a way that can be understood and emphasised. LGBT representation is a good example of this, creators should strive to make their audiences empathise with the characters even despite their differences rather than trying to diminish these differences in order to make their work more accessible.

Whilst film and television creators have the right to create the story they want, when it comes to history they also have a responsibility to tell the true story, not the appealing one. It is this responsibility that needs to be remembered and applied when it comes to the future of Public History.



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