Story: Public history

Page 1. What is public history?

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Public history is a term that has been used in New Zealand since the 1990s to describe the creation of a broad range of historical products, including book-length histories, reference works, websites, museum exhibitions, heritage trails, walking tours, conservation and policy advice, film and television scripts and Waitangi Tribunal reports.


The definition of public history has been much debated.

  • It is often suggested that public history aims to interpret history for a non-specialist audience. This may be small, for instance conservation and management plans are usually read only by those who approve or implement them, but it invariably includes people without much or any knowledge of history. As a result, public history is typically accessible in style.
  • Many public history projects are funded by public or private institutions, which often set the research agenda and parameters.
  • Public history projects may directly involve the public by soliciting information or comments.
  • Often public history projects are produced by interdisciplinary teams, including members with experience other than historical training.

Public vs academic history

Once, public history was defined as history created outside universities, by people other than academics, for public use. This is now seen as problematic, because both types of history call on skills in research, analysis and writing that are taught in universities; can be produced by professional historians working either inside or outside universities; and often appeal to both academics and non-academics.

Public history in universities

In the early 2000s Victoria University of Wellington offered a Masters in Public History, and in 2009 the Waikato University Centre for Public History was established to facilitate and promote public history projects. However, in 2014 the Victoria degree course had lapsed and the Waikato Centre was about to change its name and focus.

Professional standards

PHANZA, the Professional Historians Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa, was established in 1994 to represent historians both inside and outside of universities. Most of its members are public historians. PHANZA restricts entry to those with a research-based degree or demonstrated research experience or publications.

By any other name

The title ‘historian’ is only sometimes given to those people employed across government to do historical research, writing and editing. Some alternative titles include ‘research analyst’, ‘curator’ and ‘technical advisor’.

Government support for public history

In New Zealand local and central government have sponsored many public history projects since the late 19th century, when interest in both Māori and Pākehā history burgeoned in response to milestone anniversaries of the arrival of British settlers, and study of Māori origins and culture. Government support grew from the 1930s, and flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. It has provided numerous opportunities for public historians.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public history - What is public history?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 Oct 2014