Story: Public history

Government support for public history projects has waxed and waned, but the demand for useful historical information has remained constant. Public history includes books, websites, museum exhibitions, heritage trails, walking tours, Waitangi Tribunal reports and more.

Story by Nancy Swarbrick
Main image: Historic site interpretation, Potters Number Two gold-mining site, Central Otago

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What is public history?

Public history is tricky to define. Public history projects may source information from the public, be for a non-specialist audience, or be produced by teams including people who are not trained historians. Often these projects are funded by public or private institutions.

Most members of PHANZA, the Professional Historians Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa, are public historians.

Government publications, 1900–1970s

The government began supporting history projects from the late 19th century. From 1935 war commemorations and major anniversaries inspired even greater government interest in publishing historical works.

Government-sponsored historical works were published to celebrate the nation’s centennial in 1940. Second World War histories were produced from 1946.

The landmark three-volume work An encyclopaedia of New Zealand appeared in 1966.

Government publications, 1980s–2000

The 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s saw a resurgence of government support for history publishing. The innovative Dictionary of New Zealand biography project began in 1983, involving the public through regional working parties, and aiming for significant representation of Māori and women.

After seven years of work, the New Zealand historical atlas was published in 1997, breaking new ground in its spatial representation of history.

From 2005 Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand exploited the possibilities of the internet to become the world’s first digital-born national encyclopedia.

Historic places and objects

At first unpaid historians did most of the work identifying and classifying historic sites and objects. For example, members of Historic Places Trust regional committees researched sites, and in museums volunteers often cared for history collections.

Museums employed trained historians from the late 1960s. From the 1970s a series of law changes required historic sites to be better identified and protected, and this led to the employment of more professional historians by government departments, local bodies and the Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand).

Treaty of Waitangi history

In 1984 The Waitangi Tribunal was granted the power to hear claims dating from 1840. It employed historians both as permanent staff and contractors, while freelance historians worked directly for claimant groups. Historians employed by the Office of Treaty settlements, Crown Forestry Rental Trust and the Crown Law Office also did claims research.

Some have said that because of work carried out in New Zealand for treaty claims, no other country boasts such a comprehensive body of research into its colonial history.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Public history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 October 2014