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Regular version of the site

Constructing Usable Pasts: Why Have Interdisciplinary Approaches to History?

Julia Lajus, Associate Professor at HSE Faculty of History, Senior Researcher, Center for Historical Research, HSE St. Petersburg, Co-chair of the Master’s programme in Applied and Interdisciplinary History and Vice President of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH), spoke to the HSE English language news service about the subject of a conference hosted by the Faculty of History at St. Petersburg campus on 28-29 March 'A Usable Past: Applied and Interdisciplinary History'.

― Who took part in the conference and what was it all about?

― About forty historians from universities in Russia:  St. Petersburg, Moscow, Volgograd, Chelyabinsk, Petrozavodsk, Arkhangelsk, and European countries: Sweden, Norway, UK, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, France and Hungary participated in the conference.

The idea of the conference is tightly connected with the strategy of the Faculty that is working now towards establishing a new international MA programme in applied and interdisciplinary history to be opened in 2015. 

Today history is becoming more involved in interactions with other disciplines. This helps create new interdisciplinary research fields. A large part of such research is of an applied nature. In addition to presenting theoretical approaches and case-studies from different fields of historical research, especially those developing on the edges of history with other disciplines (among them economy, development and environmental studies, law, technologies, design, architecture), the main aim of the conference was to provide a venue for discussion on what we as professional historians mean in terms of applied and public history and how we see their role in the profession and in society.

Applied history embraces methods and practices dealing with identification, preservation, interpretation, and presentation of historical artifacts, texts, structures, and landscapes. In spite of a current fashion for the  interdisciplinarity, applied history still suffers from insufficient dialogue with research in other disciplines and cross-disciplinary work is especially important when dealing with complex cultural-natural heritage. We should not forget, as it was put by the great philosopher Karl Popper, 'We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline'.

When historians work with the public as a target audience and in dialogue with the public as a partner in historical research, they are entering the field of public history. Is public history a separate historical discipline? No, the conference participants agreed that it is not a discipline but a set of practices which historians use when presenting their findings to  the public and creating new knowledge  together with the public.  Public history needs to be distinguished from popular history, which does not involve the public in historical research but only presents their results in popular forms. Professional historians put questions to a public, which often thinks  it knows its own history. Public history pays attention to local understandings of history, one of its slogans is “every man is his own historian”.

Using and interpreting data enables the historian to construct ‘a usable past’ as a tool for understanding the present and considering possible avenues of future development. However, as participants of the conference emphasized, the concept of ‘usable past’ is itself quite ambivalent.  It was stressed that we need to pay more attention not only to the product that is constructed and offered for public use by historians but also to the agencies and actors who construct this product and the processes of its construction. Because different agents construct different pasts, one of the results of the discussion was the notion that it is better to use a plural form – ‘usable pasts’.

― It is not by chance that the conference was organized in St. Petersburg is it?  What do you think?

― As  urbanity is seen as the setting for public history it looks seminal that the conference took place at St. Petersburg, which is a UNESCO World site -- a city where the past is interwoven with the present in a very sophisticated way. In recent years it has been at the centre of heated discussions about the balance between historical preservation and economic development and modernization.  The history of the metropolitan imperial city and its complex environment provide ample opportunities for us to think more deeply on the variegated practices of how to preserve the material legacy and about approaches to historical memory studies including symbolic representations of the imperial and Soviet past of St Petersburg/Leningrad.

― What were the areas of expertise of the historians at  the conference? How did you devise  the programme?

― As I already explained we were particularly interested to present interdisciplinary historical research, thus on the first day of the conference we provided a venue for economic and environmental historians, historians dealing with industrial heritage and history of science, history of technology, architecture and design. We also organized a session on history and law where historians and legal scientists met.  The second day of the conference was devoted to public history. It was opened by a plenary lecture of Irina Savelieva, professor of the Faculty of History at HSE  Moscow and a Director of the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities. She provided a comprehensive overview on what is public history and what strategies and practices historians applied to become public historians. The following sessions were devoted to public history and historical memory on the European periphery and in Russia, and embraced broader issues of the role of public history in politics, culture and media.  The conference ended with a roundtable on teaching applied and public history where participants shared their experience and offered some useful advice in connection with our new MA programme.

In addition to diversity of countries and disciplines represented at the conference, there was great diversity in the career stages of the participants: not only well-known professors and middle-career specialists attended the conference but also a  good number of PhD students and young researchers.  We very much hope to continue collaboration with all of our participants, and hope that some associations will become long-lasting. For instance we are especially interested in closer acquaintance and interaction with the Institute for Public Understanding of the Past at the University of York (UK), which was represented by two historians at our conference.      

― Why does history provoke so much heated debate and attract the public’s attention today?

― History is about choice. As in everyday life people are making decisions on the basis of their previous experiences, the same is true for  society. Traumatic experiences of the past, traditions and particular patterns of thinking as well as path-dependencies in the economy lie at the core of the processes of our understanding of the present and construction of the future.  History becomes especially important in times of change and uncertainty.  But history also serves as a therapy. The ‘Usable past’ is a communicative construct which connects past and present. History provides us with the knowledge of human interaction, interpretations and what is most valuable – a comparative perspective. In order to be ‘usable’ the past needs to be understood as comparable. As it was brilliantly shown at the second plenary lecture at our conference by professor Poul Holm from Trinity College, Dublin, ‘historical research enable us not only to criticise the world but to help create a better one’.

― What is important for you in studying the past?

― I am historian of science and an environmental historian. My first education was in biology and then  I got a degree in history, thus the interdisciplinary approach lies at the core of my research practices and thinking about the past. Being an environmental historian I am especially interested in the history of resource use and technological development related to  the way humans deal with nature. I am particularly interested in questions of how natural resources were described by experts, and how this knowledge was communicated to governments and society in general; how conflict between global international scientific knowledge and local knowledge shaped the destiny of local communities; who was given the opportunity to articulate their visions on the future of resource use, whose voices were listened and whose were not and why; how resources themselves were constructed for human use at different stages of history and what were the consequences of their use for our planet.  Thus I am convinced that historians need to work more closely with scientists and provide a ‘usable past’ to them and to broader society.

To find answers on these broad questions as a historian I work particularly on cases from the history of the Arctic, especially dealing with the history of fisheries and marine and river environments. I am also interested in cultural environmental history, for instance in the role of rivers in the urban environment, I have published especially on the role of the Neva River and all the cultural and ecological services it provided in the development and everyday life of St. Petersburg.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for the HSE news service

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