Professor Linda Colley
What happens when a Written Constitution is printed? A history across boundaries.
RHS Prothero Lecture 2020
Tuesday 8 December
RHS Prothero Lecture 2020
Tuesday 8 December
RHS Virtual Lecture
23 July 2020
A full recording of the lecture, slide presentation and live Q&A.
On Friday 5 July, the Royal Historical Society welcomed a full lecture theatre to hear Dr Sujit Sivasundaram give the 2019 Prothero Lecture, entitled “Waves Across the South: Monarchs, Travellers and Empire in the Pacific”.
At a Reception following the Lecture, the President and Officers of the Royal Historical Society were delighted to announce the winners of the 2019 RHS Publication, Fellowship and Teaching Awards, and to welcome new Fellows and Members to the Society.
The full lists of award winners, new Fellows and Members admitted to the Society are:
Awarded to: Ryan Hanley for a volume Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing, c.1770-1830 (Cambridge University Press: 2018).
Judges’ citation: This year’s submissions for the Whitfield Award featured rigorous and innovative works of historical research, many of which will endure among classic studies in their fields. That said, Ryan Hanley’s superb study, Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing, c.1770-1830, stands apart for its audacious engagement with debates on the cultural positioning of black participants in British literary, political, and intellectual culture during a transitional period in British domestic and imperial history. Hanley’s rich and lively examination shows that black authors engaged in a comprehensive range of topics, from legal debates, the nature of celebrity, religious controversy, spiritual memoir, radical politics, to epistemology – extending far beyond the abolitionist paradigm that historians have long assumed and thus have tended to impose. Like their fellow intellectuals, black authors disagreed with each other, they led debate, cultivated their style, and courted new readers. We have Hanley to thank for drawing renewed attention to these voices, and for showing us why these authors mattered then and matter now.
Awarded to: Duncan Hardy for a volume Associative Political Culture in the Holy Roman Empire: Upper Germany, 1346-1521 (Oxford University Press: 2018).
Judges’ citation: This is an outstanding first book and it deserves the highest of praise. Hardy builds an ambitious and convincing thesis about the structure and workings of the Holy Roman Empire in the late medieval period, arguing that it is best understood in terms of various forms of political association. This is a significant and original contribution to the historiography of the period and region. It encourages scholars to consider sixteenth-century Germany not only through the lens of the Reformation but in terms of underlying late-medieval political structures and practices. The writing is clear and precise throughout, and the author reveals a deep knowledge of the archival sources. The organisation of the book allows its argument to build steadily, and the high quality of the writing and analysis is sustained from start to finish (it also has a gorgeous front cover). Associative political culture fills a gap in the existing literature and deserves to be very widely read.
Awarded to: Jake Richards for an article ‘Anti-Slave-Trade Law, “Liberated Africans” and the State in the South Atlantic World, c. 1839-1852’, Past and Present, 241 (2018), 170-219.
Judges’ citation: This rich and thoughtful article follows the experiences of ‘liberated Africans’ after the formal abolition of the slave trade, as the seizure of ‘prize negroes’ from slave ships opened a complicated chapter in the establishment of their rights and status. Based on detailed and wide-ranging research, tracking histories between Britain, South Africa and Brazil, the article reaches beyond existing debates to consider the experience of those who were liberated by the anti-slave patrols in the Atlantic ocean: the ways in which they understood and negotiated a way through the legal processes that faced them, and their claims to what Richards refers to as ‘unguaranteed entitlements’ in their transition from enslavement. Achieving a satisfying balance between specific cases and more general reflections, the article makes an important contribution to research, offering fresh ways of thinking about the topic and exploring the fascinating context of the port cities of Salvador da Bahia and Cape Town as testing grounds for the impact of abolition and the future prospects of the ‘liberated Africans’.
Proxime accesit: Stephanie Wright for an article ‘Glorious Brothers, Unsuitable Lovers: Moroccan Veterans, Spanish Women, and the Mechanisms of Francoist Paternalism’, Journal of Contemporary History (2018), 1-23.
Judges’ citation: With a rich base in archival work, this article explores the position of Moroccan military veterans in Spanish policy under Franco. Wright demonstrates that certain categories of disabled Moroccan veterans actually received higher levels of state support than their Spanish counterparts, but that this reflected attitudes towards them shaped by paternalism and distinctive understandings of their masculinity. Ideas about race and gender also contributed to anxieties about relationships between Moroccans and Spaniards in the period after the Civil War, which Spanish bureaucrats even tried to sabotage on occasion. Wright argues that the treatment of Moroccan veterans can be read as part of Francoist heightening of the status of Spanish masculinity, and also as a part of its management of the Moroccan protectorate. The article is well written and grounded in detailed research, offering an original and well-articulated contribution to scholarship on modern Spain, gender, race and disability.
Awarded to: Philip Loft for an article ‘Litigation, the Anglo-Scottish Union, and the House of Lords as the High Court, 1660-1875’, Historical Journal, 61 (2018), 943-967.
Judges’ citation: The judges thought that this was a very accomplished treatment of an ambitious topic, marked by a maturity of approach. It deftly analyses a substantial source base to advance new arguments about not only eighteenth-century legal history but, above all, the nature of the composite British state after the Union of 1707. The article investigates Scottish cases brought before parliament, as part of a wider body of 8,500 appeals over the period, a sample of which is analysed here. The analysis demonstrates that the number of Scottish appeals grew after 1745, and that from the 1760s Scots increasingly lobbied for legislation to promote their fisheries and linen industries. Appeals were often used as a way of forcing compromise on parties that ensured that Westminster affected only the localities and individuals involved in a case. The author convincingly argues that local interests co-opted the state in defence of their interests, thereby keeping their autonomy, as often in England too, and also briefly draws comparisons with appellate courts elsewhere in Europe, notably Castile.
Awarded to: Robert Fitt for a dissertation ‘Texan textbooks: Cranks, Conservatives and the Contest for America in High School History, 1976-1986’.
Judges’ citation: This piece is beautifully written, and the prose shows real verve. In a well-argued way, it makes a significant historiographical intervention based upon the analysis activism around school textbooks. This allows the author to argue for a more germinal understanding of ideology, looking at the ways in which cultural shift occurs and redefining the scope of peripheral actors to influence that shift. There is a strong archival source base and the argument is strongly supported throughout. The dissertation features interesting discussions around the use of history, and the ways in which the shaping of narratives can influence conceptions of political norms and shape broader consensus. At times, I felt there could have been a little more agency shown for those who read the textbooks, though the focus was clearly on the authors and activists who altered the text. This was outstanding work and a real pleasure to read
Proxime accesit: Leanne Smith for a dissertation ‘“In the Revolution of Times, the Changes will run their round out, and then the Lord will come to Reign” John Rogers: A Fifth Monarchy Man’s Commonwealth of Saints’.
Judges’ citation: This was a very strong and meticulously detailed intervention into debates around republicanism in early-modern England. The dissertation shows an excellent command of the historiography and seeks to offer a more nuanced understanding of how religious thoughts influenced and intertwined with discussions of radical political change. Through close engagement with Rogers’ output, the dissertation explores the reflexive influence of millenarian beliefs on the febrile political climate of the seventeenth century and also the lingering influence of classical political philosophy.
Awarded to: Professor Julia Crick (King’s College London)
Judges’ citation: Professor Julia Crick receives the Jinty Nelson Award in recognition of her superlative contribution to the teaching and mentoring of younger generations of historians. Palaeography is challenging but integral to the subject of history. It underpins so much else in the field, and manuscripts in particular are windows onto much that would otherwise be inaccessible. Professor Crick has spent a life time advocating the importance of Palaeography to the global academic community and has demonstrated this specifically through her teaching and mentoring. Throughout her career (including appointments at the universities of Cambridge and Exeter, and in her current position at King’s College London), Professor Crick has been a wonderful teacher, not just of Palaeography, but also in training students of any level to think critically, to ask questions, and to build historical arguments based on visual and physical evidence. Professor Crick’s classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels bring history and palaeography to life and she mentors research students in the same way, whether they are at King’s or elsewhere, in History or in another discipline. Crick treats her students more like peers than pupils, which creates a sense that the work can be valued and taken seriously even from a very early stage. Crick’s commitment to the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation is especially evident in her establishment of networks and events that highlight postgraduate research. She has frequently organised seminars, symposia and conferences which include equal space for early career researchers. Over the course of her career, Professor Crick has demonstrated a wide-ranging and sustained commitment to inspiring and training new generations of historians to excel.
Awarded to: Dr Sharon Webb and Dr James Baker (University of Sussex)
Judges’ citation: Over the last four years Drs Webb and Baker have delivered a series of first-year digital history workshop/lectures taken by all undergraduates at the University of Sussex in either History or Art History. These radically update the notion of the ‘historian’s craft’ to include the skills and practices required to engage critically with online sources (both inherited and born digital). The programme is a unique response to the challenges posed by the changes in historical research and debate, designed to turn history undergraduates into digitally savvy, expert navigators of this new landscape of knowledge. What sets the series apart is the self-conscious way in which it seeks to intervene in the history curriculum more generally. By building a skills/apprenticeship model into first-year teaching, it lays the foundations for the development of advanced approaches in the second and third year. The guiding narrative is to move gradually from ‘Doing History in the Digital Age’ to ‘Doing Digital History’ – taking students from referencing, search, and using online databases to compiling datasets, digitisation, and making data visualisations. It is this accumulation of skills, and layering of multiple approaches, that creates a comprehensive and sophisticated understanding. Second-year students move on to modules on the analysis of historical networks and the technologies of print, and then in the third year to a co-taught module on digital archiving. These same skills are also re-enforced in teaching by colleagues across the degree. The first full cohort of students introduced to these skills in their first year have now graduated. Standards of research and practice have improved across the board.
Awarded to: Purba Hossain (University of Leeds)
For research on: ‘Situating the Coolie Question: Indentured Labour and Mid-Nineteenth-Century Calcutta’
Awarded to: Jack Newman (University of Kent)
For research on: ‘Corruption, Entropy and Conflict: Institutional Adaptation in Pre-Black Death England c.1307-1348’
Awarded to Helen Esfandiary (King’s College London) for her paper, given at the Life Cycles seminar, on Maternal Obligations and Knowledge of Smallpox Inoculation in Eighteenth-Century Elite Society.
The Pollard Prize is awarded annually by the Institute of Historicla Research for the best paper presented at an Institute of Historical Research seminar by a postgraduate student or by a researcher within one year of completing the PhD.
Awarded to Sarah Johanesen (King’s College London) for her essay ‘That silken Priest: Catholic disguise and anti-popery on the English Mission (1569-1640)’.
The Neale Prize is awarded annually by the Institute of Historical Research to a historian in the early stages of their career for an essay of up to 8,000 words on a theme related to the history of early modern Britain.
Giuseppe De Luca
Bruno De Nicola
Dip Chi Kon Lai
George K W Mak
Chun Kei Chow
RHS Lecture, Gustave Tuck lecture theatre, Friday 5 February 2016
From Lebanese immigrants in Argentina to Iraqi refugees in Sweden, Eastern Christians can be found today scattered across the entire world. Too often, however, this global migration has been seen purely as a modern development, one arising from contemporary political and confessional events in the Middle East. In fact, this phenomenon had its roots in the early modern period. From the sixteenth century onwards, Christians from the Ottoman Empire set out for distant worlds and foreign lands, travelling as far as Europe, India, Russia, and even the Americas and leaving traces of themselves in countless European and Middle Eastern archives, chanceries, and libraries. Some of these individuals created new lives for themselves as copyists, translators, and librarians in Europe, while others struggled to eke out a living for themselves as alms-collectors. Their stories of survival and adaptation have long been overlooked. While historians have tended to study these individuals in a piecemeal fashion, this lecture will assess the extent to which the movement of such individuals to Europe constituted a wider phenomenon of migration and exchange between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The lecture will focus especially on the experiences of a handful of these newcomers in an attempt to paint a picture of what life was like for Eastern Christians in early modern Europe.
John-Paul Ghobrial is Associate Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Balliol College. He is an historian of the Middle East with a special interest in exchanges between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. His first book, The Whispers of Cities (Oxford, 2013), explored the circulation of information between Istanbul, London, and Paris in the late seventeenth century. Since 2015, he has been the Principal Investigator for an ERC-funded project, ‘Stories of Survival: Recovering the Connected Histories of Eastern Christianity in the Early Modern World’.
RHS Presidential Address, Friday 27th November, 6pm, Chadwick BO5 lecture theatre, UCL
What is social mobility, who benefits from it, how does it ebb and flow over time, and what contribution does education make to it? These thorny questions have been amply addressed by sociologists and economists, but using their own disciplinary conventions, sources of data and definitions, and rarely across multiple generations. This lecture tries to provide an historian’s overview of social mobility in Britain since the Second World War. It will be argued, somewhat paradoxically, that social mobility has been a constant feature of the second half of the 20th century, but that this has not led to greater ‘equality of opportunity’. The wider experience of social mobility has, however, implanted this aspiration firmly at the centre of public opinion and, as a result, politicians’ discourse. This has in turn raised expectations of education, which public opinion looks to as a basis for social mobility and which politicians feel they have some control over. But what if education isn’t the prime mover of social mobility at all? Where does this leave politics and particularly the politics of education?
RHS President, Peter Mandler, is Professor of Modern Cultural History, University of Cambridge and Bailey Lecturer in History, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. His specialisms are Modern British history, especially cultural, intellectual and social; the histories of the humanities and social sciences in comparative perspective. In 2015 he was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy.
It is anticipated that the workshop will become an annual event, which every second year will also celebrate the award of one postgraduate and one undergraduate prize in public history, in conjunction with the Historical Association. Part of the workshop will be devoted to discussing how a vibrant community of research and practice can be developed in Britain and what support students and early-career researchers need. The idea behind the workshop is to give those at the beginning of their academic lives a supportive forum to share their ideas, make contacts and help shape the future of the field.
The workshop is free and refreshments will be provided on the day, but no travel bursaries are available for this first running of the workshop
Justin Champion, Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London, and President of the Historical Association.
Pamela Cox, Professor of Sociology, University of Essex, and presenter of the BBC series Shopgirls: the True Story Behind the Counter and Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs.
Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor of History and Visual Arts and Cultures, Durham University; Trustee of the Science Museum Group and chair of its collections and research committees; author of History in Practice and The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice..
10.00 Lawrence Goldman to open event
10.20 Pam Cox: Public Audience History (+Q&A)
10.50 Daniel Johnson: Public Engagement and the Making of the Twenty-First Century Museum
Michael Mantin: From Pithead to Sick Bed: Disability and the South Welsh Coal Industry in the Museum
11.50 Ludmilla Jordanova: Public History – A Provocation (+Q&A)
13.20 Alexander Hutton: Golden Age Thinking: Historians of the Industrial Revolution and their Publics
Claire Hayward: Memorialising the Past and Representing the Present in ‘homomonuments’: the commemoration of same-sex love and LGBTQ communities
14.20 Activity: Advocating Public History
15.20 Justin Champion: ‘Making public, making a difference’: designing research questions with a public purpose?
Ludmilla Jordanova is Professor of History and Visual Cultures at Durham University. She is a Trustee of the Science Museum Group and chair of its collections and research committees. She is the author of History in Practice and The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice.
She presented a paper entitled ‘A Provocation’ at the first Public History Workshop, held at the Institute of History Research on Thursday 29 October 2015.
She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The term ‘public history’ is distinctly tricky by virtue of its range of meanings and the diverse reactions it elicits. Everyone is familiar with E.P. Thompson’s phrase about rescuing the working-class from the condescension of posterity in his The Making of the English Working Class, 1963. Recent weeks have seen Niall Ferguson condescend to Jane Smiley, a historical novelist, on R4’s Start the Week, and her riposte in the Guardian on 15 October 2015. For him fiction cannot be history in any meaningful sense, for her it can. For him history is research intensive, but so is her work, she protested.
Condescension is common in the face of some forms of public history, as words such as ‘populariser’ can easily suggest, and so does the assumption that writing for wider audiences is somehow diluting not just the past but the scholarship of those who do so. There are some notable exceptions, of course, the books by and reactions to Christopher Clark and Adam Tooze, for example. So it would be worth examining these instances to see what sets them apart. But in the Ferguson/Smiley case, there is an all too familiar hierarchy of historical genres.
I consider historical fiction to be a major form of public history, hence this episode is of considerable interest for our discussions today. It would take far longer than I have this morning to disentangle the disagreements, the misunderstandings and the strong feelings involved. But I take the Ferguson/Smiley encounter as a telling example of some of the difficulties that arise in talking about ‘history’ in public. Whether we ‘like’ or sympathise with one or other side is hardly the point. I happen to feel that novelists can also be historians, if in ways we want to specify, case by case, book by book as we would with any historical genre. All genres, like the works within them, invite such careful analysis.
There are three issues arising from Ferguson’s condescension to Smiley that we may want to consider today. The first and perhaps most obvious is the forms of paring down that may be involved in presenting accounts of the past to non-specialists. For example, accounts may be deemed simplified if they do not include footnotes and bibliographies, since readers are relying on a persuasive narrative without having the option to assess for themselves the kinds of mediation necessarily involved. Although some novels have footnotes, on the whole general readers do not want a massive scholarly apparatus. Many non-fiction trade books have a rather light supporting structure, often at the publisher’s request. The problem becomes more acute with forms of representation where the authority behind any claims may be unclear – exhibitions some websites, TV and Film, for instance. Jane Smiley doesn’t parade the depth of her research, so it is difficult to assess it in conventional ways.
The second issue concerns the role of the imagination: ‘I have to use my imagination to make connections, to evoke feelings, to show patterns, to build a logical structure’, Smiley insisted in her Guardian piece. She continues ‘But then, my historian colleague must do the same.’ It is unclear to me precisely what Ferguson’s position is on the role of imagination in historical practice, but it is evident that most forms of public history, however we define the term, involve not only the imagination but forms of imaginative collusion, that is, audiences actively participate in some way. It is worth reflecting on such collusions, no matter what kind of history one practices, or consumes.
The third issue revolves around the language we use to analyse historical practice. In the radio programme, Smiley characterized history in terms of ‘events’, which allowed Ferguson to come right back to her with a riposte: it’s about much more than this, he claimed. But, without defining their terms, and some philosophical discussion, what are broadcasters supposed to do? Smiley was reaching for a quick way of making a point, and the term used tripped her up, I think. ‘Truth’ is another such term, and so is ‘fact’, and indeed ‘history’. Smiley has a doctorate, is a Pulitzer Prize winner and has published non-fiction works, but she is not a historiographer, as it were. And would it be appropriate to go into these matters on Radio 4 or in the Guardian? Commonsense, and often quite reductionist, meanings of such terms do inhibit public discussion, channel debate into simplistic polarities. I am not sure what the solution is here, but one conclusion might be that it is the role of public history as a field to address the difficulty.
Running through all these points, however, are questions about hierarchies, especially of knowledge. All scholars can benefit from engaging with them. My main provocation consists of just this – public history, both the field and the range of practices – history in public, crystalizes many central issues of historical practice, and hence is relevant to all historians as well as to others, and should not be seen just as a new specialism and accordingly as only for a select new group of specialists, since this can easily tip into a sense that other people/historians don’t have to bother with it.
As historians, as citizens, public history touches us directly if in a multitude of intricate ways that are difficult to disentangle. Jane Smiley suggests that we think of genres not as a hierarchy but as ‘a flower bouquet, with different colours, scents and forms…’ It is a delightful simile: social and political realities, however, demand that we are thinking all the time about the quality of knowledge and the broad implications of historical claims, topics that must also be central to public history in so far as it claims to be an academic field.
I’d like to draw your attention to what I see as an irony here. On one reading, much public history is under-conceptualised; for instance, popular history may concentrate on lists of key facts, often surprising or piquant in some way – this is common in history magazines. Such formats reinforce common beliefs about facts and dates lying at the heart of history. I am bemoaning a separation of public history from other parts of the discipline, yet at the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, we have had another field emerging over the same period – variously referred to as history and theory, historiography, or historical theory. These two more or less simultaneous changes show how easy it is for the discipline of history to fragment, and for this to happen in ways that generally affirm rather than challenge existing intellectual hierarchies, which tend to rate refined theoretical perspectives more highly than assemblages of information. It is a further irony that many historical websites – a major form of public history and frequently connected to the sophisticated field of digital history – consist of and celebrate just such assemblages.
So I thought it would be useful to put, in the most direct way possible, some of the issues that ‘public history’ raises. Some further context may provide a fuller sense of my perspectives.
I first became aware of the phrase ‘public history’ in the 1990s, and when preparing the first edition of History in Practice (first edition, 2000, second edition,2006), I asked all the historians I interviewed in order to get a more rounded view of the discipline, what they understood by it. Most replied that did not know what it meant. I devoted a whole chapter to the topic because I cannot see how any practicing historian can responsibly ignore the ways in which their field is alive in the world beyond educational institutions and professional associations. This is why my main point today is that public history is about history in its broadest sense and that consequently there are costs to treating it as a specialist field more about ‘popularization’ than about ‘real’ history.
The vast majority of practicing historians do now have some idea of what public history refers to, even if there are many different ways of construing it. There are posts and courses, journals and textbooks. Hence we might assume that public history has arrived. However, this is only a partial account, and I suggest that we need to adopt a more critical perspective. In part this is precisely because, as I hope I have already shown, the meanings of public history are both unclear and contested. One obvious fissure here is between those who believe that it should be generated through grass roots activity, and those for whom it should be practiced by professionals. My Ferguson/Smiley example has not addressed the grass roots question, since novelists too tend to be ‘professionals’. As it happens, I do not see any obvious professional/amateur polarity. In any case, advocating forms of public history from below and stressing the need for trained historians to be involved are not wholly incompatible positions: a crowd sourced exhibition can nonetheless be curated by a museum professional. An exhibition in the Bankfield Museum, Halifax, For King and Country, is a good example, while authoritative websites are made possible by volunteers – the Clergy of the Church of England database, for instance.
Nonetheless there are important political issues here: if we think about the activities at Ruskin College, Oxford as a case in point, these are more bottom up than many of the forms of public history in the USA and Canada, where the field is considerably more professionalized. And their emphasis is certainly a considered political position.
But why should ‘public history’ be a separate, delineated field at all? Perhaps a curious question, and there are two rather different ways of thinking about it. The first follows patterns of professionalization and of the deployment of historical expertise in public life, which, in a world that places great emphasis on structured occupations, formal qualifications, and the recognition of specialized knowledge is highly likely to result in a new field, with all the paraphernalia that goes with it. With ever more pressure on jobs related to history since the Second World War, these phenomena help people build careers, while institutions and organisations assist practitioners in their interactions with pre-existing structures, such as legal systems. This pattern is so common that it would be surprising to find any field, especially if it made claims to public value, not following it. Since historians study just such shifts, it is helpful if they are aware of them in their own lives and settings.
The second route is rather different. It recognizes that ‘public history’ refers to highly diverse phenomena, and that it is these phenomena with their complex ‘public’ status that invite our attention. Such complexities require skills, insights and knowledge that are ‘specialized’. This line of thought might be developed further to stress the activities that are involved with making history public, in which we might well be participants rather than observers. Many academic historians, for example, have little idea how museums work, and this leads to frustrations on the part of museum professionals when, largely because of the Impact agenda, they are expected to conjure up exhibitions for nothing in a short period of time. The point has implications for the practice of history, certainly for forms of education, which are now building relevant forms of training in, especially at doctoral level. Arguably, making and responding to public history has become or is becoming integral to our professional lives. But, as I have already suggested, public history is also central to our lives as citizens, and perhaps we can also use our roles as consumers of ‘public’ culture more fully. Having a domain called ‘public history’, then, should help us to think through these issues as well as to practise history more energetically, openly and in more diverse forms.
It’s important to accept that there cannot be stability when it comes to what is meant by ‘public’. Its generative qualities come from its richness – it is better to embrace this rather than bemoan ambiguity. When I told a colleague that I was interested in public history, he responded, ‘I didn’t know there was any other kind’. I was initially flummoxed by the comment, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting it became. What would ‘private’ history look like, if we take a term commonly thought to be the opposite of ‘public’? When we publish, we enter a public realm. And can there really be watertight distinctions between history by and for the public and the history produced in and for academic settings? Here again the writings of Tooze and Clark are relevant. Nonetheless the heterogeneity of what falls under at least some definitions of public history should give us pause for thought. There are many significant differences between, say, war memorials that were designed to remind future generations of the conflict in question, of those who lost their lives, and to provide a focus for survivors, and an exhibition designed to provide visitors with historical understanding of that very same war.
One possible way of tackling this is to consider the level of historical focus involved. Buildings, squares, street names and so on are largely out of focus, brought sharply in when threatened in some way, or changed in a controversial manner. A paying exhibition, by contrast, will be in focus for visitors, who have chosen to engage with it, although what they may ‘learn’ in the process is likely to be highly variable. Another way is to take what we might think of as boundary cases: costume drama, historical fiction, art exhibitions, for example. Let us take all ‘historical’ forms seriously, precisely because they help us attend to questions such as the nature of historical imagination, the representation of moral complexities in the past, and forms of identification with people, places, and processes in earlier times. All these are themes that concern scholars with a theoretical bent.
To conclude: public history in all its senses stands for the ways in which the past is mediated and for the continual need to reflect critically on those ways. Accordingly it is central to the discipline and to citizenship. It must not be condescended to. Yet to engage with it fully, it is necessary to have a certain tool kit, which brings together sympathy, knowledge, experience and reflection. As a field public history can help to assemble, refine and refresh these tools. I have argued that the ranking mentality is unhelpful, perhaps it is even pernicious. But in saying this, I am not inviting a thousand flowers to bloom; on the contrary I am suggesting we get out there and engage with the diverse practices of public history – there is much to engage with, some of it deeply worrying – the ways in which some popular history magazines sensationalise past violence is a case in point. Public history in its fullest sense enjoins us all to think and practice history more openly and thoughtfully.
The RHS Public History Workshop was held in the Wolfson suite at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) on Thursday 29th October 2015. It was organized by Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor Jo Fox and Dr Alix Green in partnership with the IHR’s Public History seminar.
RHS Research and Communications officer, Dr Jane Gerson, reports:
The Public History workshop is part of a new initiative to promote and recognise this developing field alongside the new biennial RHS Public History Prize. It was the first of what we hope will be an annual event to profile public history and assess its importance, impact and role in contemporary historical studies.
The RHS is excited to be supporting such an innovative approach to the work of historians, which enhances public understanding of the place of the past in today’s social, political and cultural life. But what is public history exactly and why is it important? The workshop aimed to explore these questions from a number of perspectives as well as focusing on the work of upcoming early career researchers and postgraduates. The programme for the day interwove keynote addresses by three well-known historians, Pam Cox, Ludmilla Jordanova and Justin Champion, with four presentations by historians starting out on their careers, Daniel Johnson, Mike Mantin, Alexander Hutton and Claire Hayward.
The event was opened by IHR Director Lawrence Goldman who paid poignant tribute to the historian of modern Jewish history, David Cesarani, whose death had just been announced. Goldman drew attention to the way Cesarani’s work intersected with pressing educational, political and cultural issues. In a personal reminiscence, especially commissioned by the RHS, Goldman writes, “In a profession that sometimes talks airily and vaguely about ‘public historians’, David Cesarani was the real thing.” One of the aims of the workshop was to dispel any ‘airy’ and ‘vague’ talk and bring a precise focus to what public history is and what it can achieve.
The first keynote address was given by Pam Cox, Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. She is perhaps best-known for her outstanding series for the BBC – Shopgirls: the True Story Behind the Counter and Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs, both of which provide intimate insights into the daily lives of ordinary working people in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. She gave a scintillating presentation drawing on the promotional materials produced by the BBC to trail and publicise the series, showing how skilful editing of images and speech can reach audiences unfamiliar with the traditional approaches of academic historians. She explained how her producer urged her not only to encourage her audience to ‘learn’ these histories but also to ‘feel’ them. Initial reserve about adopting the strategies of broadcasters, which can seem at odds with the methodologies of the historical profession, gave way to excitement at the possibilities opened up by new ways of communicating the past and reaching new audiences.
The theme of ‘feeling’ as well as ‘thinking’ as a means to understand history and connect with audiences recurred throughout the day. It emerged as one of the central defining features to help us understand what makes public history – or indeed what makes history public. These ideas were further explored in the next session which addressed the theme of public engagement with museums. Daniel Johnson, a public history MA student at the University of York, talked about his involvement with the Blackpool Museum Project. This is a large-scale development, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which aims to build a museum that captures the spirit and character of Blackpool. Blackpool Council envisages the museum will be “immersive, participatory and inclusive”. Johnson has acted as a volunteer for the project, collecting oral histories and working on cultural events to promote its work. Given Blackpool’s long association with popular entertainment, his talk stressed the interactive, playful approach the museum intends to adopt to engage its audience.
Mike Mantin, research fellow at Swansea University for the Wellcome Trust project ‘Disability and Industrial Society’, also addressed approaches to engaging local audiences in their histories. Mantin was co-curator of the exhibition ‘From Pithead to Sick Bed: Disability and the South Welsh Coal industry’ which ran at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea from June to October this year. His paper focused on their attempts to link the historical material with contemporary societal issues through talks, events, podcasts, blogposts and working with local disability groups. He described this as adding “a much-needed conversation on representation, of both disability and labour history in museums.” It was also a plea for academic historians to lead this public conversation themselves.
The second keynote address by Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor of History and Visual Cultures at Durham University and author of the essential text, History in Practice, challenged habitual thinking, not just about public history, but history per se. After all, she asked, can’t all history be described as being in some sense ‘public’? Titled ‘a provocation’, her talk probed the qualities of public history, defending its importance, for example in historical fiction as practised by the author Jane Smiley, whose recent bruising encounter with Niall Ferguson on BBC R4’s Start the Week, exposed the attitudes some established historians hold about ‘fiction’ as a pathway to historical understanding. But Jordanova also cautioned against the dangers of reductive populism as evidenced in the numerous Top 10 history ‘fact’ lists now so prevalent in some publications. Public history, she made clear, is not the same as ‘selling’ history. Read Jordanova’s paper in full.
The afternoon commenced with two thoughtful presentations on what might be termed ‘outsider’ history; that is history conducted by unorthodox practitioners about individuals and groups marginalised in society. Alexander Hutton, a post-doctoral researcher at King’s College London, proposed an alternative model to our ideas about public history. His doctoral research revealed that well-known historians of the Industrial Revolution developed their ideas through intense interaction with non-historians associated with interest groups such as the adult education movement. For these people history was not “the passive consumption of material produced by experts” we so often assume it to be. It was rather a dynamic, interactive process between professional historians and interested publics, which suggests new ways to engage with the historiography of the Industrial Revolution, as well as other histories.
Claire Hayward, a final year PhD student at Kingston University who is working on representations of same-sex love in public history, also looked at individuals and groups who have been omitted from conventional histories and heritage practices, in this case with respect to LGBTQ communities. While there are some high-profile figures such as Oscar Wilde, and more recently Alan Turing, who are commemorated, this masks the vast number of LGBTQ men and women who are eradicated from public memory. She also discussed the gendering of memorialisation, with the history of same-sex love between women even less acknowledged than that between men. The UK, in particular, lags behind both Europe and America in its representation of LGBTQ communities. The talk ended with ideas for the future of commemoration that could represent the existence of past, present and future acts of same-sex love and LGBTQ communities in the UK.
The workshop broke into groups to discuss how to advocate public history before Justin Champion gave the final keynote speech of the day. Champion, who is Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London, and President of the Historical Association, gave what was probably the most overtly political address of the workshop in a talk entitled ‘ “Making public, making a difference” – designing research questions with a public purpose.’ He made a powerful case for public history to return to the idea of ‘making a difference’, attacking top-down intervention by government that determined the kinds of research historians should be conducting, particularly in exercises such as the REF which assess funding on the basis of prescribed definitions of ‘impact’. He contrasted this with the more authentic, grass roots evolution of research projects by historians genuinely engaged with their communities and research topics. He made a plea to enquire into why people become historians and have more understanding as to what motivated their choice of research. Respect and latitude to allow these involvements to develop without political pressure was important to achieve the best standards of historical research as well as the highest levels of reciprocal public engagement. Champion wrapped up his talk by asking “is public history by definition a political act?” In a day of some excellent live tweeting this assertion gained the highest number of retweets!
The speech closed a fascinating and stimulating day that left many avenues still to explore.
The RHS and Public History steering committee actively welcome comments about the workshop and ideas for its future as an annual event. Please send these to RHS Honorary Director of Communications, Jo Fox at email@example.com
Many thanks to the Public History steering committee: Ludmilla Jordanova, Alix Green and Jo Fox.
Colin Matthew (1941-1999), Professor of Modern History (Oxford), was a long time Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (1976-1999). He served as its Literary Director from 1985-1989 and as a Vice-President from 1993-1997. Simultaneously a Fellow of the British Academy, Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, Chairman of the Friends of the Bodleian Library, editor of the New Dictionary of National Biography, and much else besides, Colin was deeply committed to the principle that academic history should be accessible to a wide public. The lecture is named in his honour.
A growing number of countries have so-called memory laws, ranging from the criminalisation of Holocaust denial, to prescriptions for the teaching of certain subjects, memorial days and public monuments. Which, if any, of these are justified? Which are more effective in combatting evils they are supposed to combat, based on misinterpretations of the past?
Timothy Garton Ash, who has just completed a book on free speech, will argue that phenomena such as Holocaust denial are better contested by the completely free, robust exchange of scholarly, journalistic and political debate, and that the state should not use its coercive power to limit the study of history.
Timothy Garton Ash is the author of nine books of political writing or ‘history of the present’ which have charted the transformation of Europe over the last thirty years. He is Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
You do not need to register for this free public event. It will be run on a “first come, first served” basis, so please feel free to arrive a little early to ensure that you can get a seat. Doors will be opened half an hour before the start of the event.
The Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture for Public Understanding of History is co-hosted
by Gresham College and the Royal Historical Society.
On Saturday 25 April, a conference was held to discuss why there are so few history students and teachers of African and Caribbean heritage. A short video was made of the conference highlighting the key issues, which you can view here.
Some disturbing facts:
The History Matters Conference explored these questions aiming to understand why such low numbers of Black students are engaging with History as a subject. Teachers, school and university students, as well as professional historians convened to discuss their experiences of studying history and to suggest ways forward. The objectives were to identify the reasons for this under-representation and to encourage more young black people to study history.