For historians, even 'historians of a postmodernist kind', 'presentation' is the word

Beck, Peter J. (2015) For historians, even 'historians of a postmodernist kind', 'presentation' is the word. Rethinking History, 19(3), pp. 429-449. ISSN (print) 1364-2529


Within academia most historians have concentrated upon doing academic history, writing for and talking to fellow academics and students rather than taking the past to the general public. Popular history remains a low priority. In turn, their fundamental reluctance to theorise about history is complemented by a tendency to take presentation and audiences for granted. Neither alternative modes of presenting the past nor the nature, changing character and responsiveness of audiences attract much attention. For the general public, historical knowledge is provided increasingly outside academia by more engaging and user-friendly aural, literary and visual media, whose presenters possess varying, frequently unhistorical, agenda. Some historians, particularly public historians, reach out already from the ivory tower, but more, it has been argued, should follow suit. At first sight postmodernist historians appear exempt from such strictures, given their focus upon historians as authors, the use of language, and the reception of histories by audiences. Various reasons, most notably the strong hold exerted by the traditional empirical-analytical-representationalist model upon historians, have been advanced to explain the limited impact of postmodernist texts upon the target academic audience. Hitherto, insufficient account has been taken of shortcomings in presentation in spite of the frequent criticism of the overly theoretical and jargonistic nature of postmodernist publications. In practice, ‘historians of a particular kind’ and ‘historians of a postmodernist kind’ have much in common in terms of needing to devote more attention to presentation, as opposed to re-presentation, and particularly the question of targeting, engaging and impacting upon specific audiences. Whatever their preference - academic history and/or popular history, the representational or postmodernist epistemic model - the guiding maxim for historians and history students should be ‘The better their presentation, the more effective their writing and other outputs will be in accessing, engaging and impacting upon the target audience.’

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