The idea of public history developed in the 1990s, partly as a self-conscious effort to mediate between ‘academic’ history and a wider public, partly in response to the growing presence of the museums and heritage sectors, partly as a reflection of the developing interest in object-based study and material culture, and partly as an interrogation of dominant conceptions of national and official histories.
Much work in the field of public history, in Brighton as more widely, has focused on studies of semi-official sites of historical construction, interpretation and meaning, in particular the changing interpretations of objectified cultures through formalised structures of display and exhibition in museum and similar settings; reconstructing, for example, the histories of indigenous or oppressed peoples. Other central concerns have included the presence (or, in some ideologically charged instances, absence) of public commemorative monuments; debates about the nature and cultural construction of ‘Britishness’, spanning official histories peddled at state sponsored events, the carefully constructed curricular history fed through an intellectually impoverished schools sector, and the lumpen historicism of much broadcast history; and investigation of the histories embedded in cultural and material landscapes.
Many of these concerns have been closely related to notions of heritage, a heavily contested concept but long at the centre of debates and controversies about preservation and conservation policies, about strategies and forms of public display – including exploration of the use and value of digital technologies – and about the ideological significance of idealised or nostalgic versions of the past. In the twenty-first century, the continuing salience of ‘heritage’ for practices of identity construction, community development and economic regeneration, often related to the tourism and leisure industries – together with the emergence of ‘critical heritage studies’ intent on questioning and problematising such practices – have ensured its increasing prominence as a focus for research in CMNH, as more widely. The Centre provides a fulcrum connecting the University’s diverse and evolving range of experience and expertise in this area, that traverses local, national and global arenas, encompasses the producers and users (or consumers) of heritage, and investigates its varied and contested construction by grassroots community groups as well as the institutions of capital and the State.