History Making: The Historian as Consultant

Jorma Kalela

Abstract

History is not just a genre of knowledge but also a basic feature of human life. Accounting for the past, or creating histories, to quote David Thelen, is ‘as natural a part of life as eating or breathing’. Casual references to what has taken place make up the vast majority of these accounts. But there are also a great number of deliberately created expositions of the past. They are produced in every field of society and by a wide variety of actors, from private persons to, for example, politicians and various media. The totality of them can be called everyday history. These accounts of the past serve present purposes – histories have innumerable functions and are of countless types. Divergent accounts also influence each other, and my suggestion is that their interaction be called the never-ending social process of history-making. History making, in other words, is not the preserve of academically-trained historians. They are experts but not outside observers. Scholarly historians are inescapably involved in the social process of history making. Their work goes beyond prevailing histories: they seek interpretations that make better sense of the past than the existing ones. Embedded in this effort is another constructivist function: they demonstrate ways to think about the past and how to use it. When demonstrating ‘that’s not how it was’, historians at the same display ‘how the presentation should have been constructed’. Even if they don’t think of themselves as consultants on history making they act in this capacity.

Keywords

Public History; Historical Authority; Consultants; Shared Authority

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