On academic ambivalence towards public history

I was prompted to write this post by a storm that blew up on Twitter a few days ago. In case you missed it, here is a short summary: A Guardian interview with Rebecca Rideal about her new book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire gave the impression that Rideal claimed some historiographical novelty for her approach; some academic historians on Twitter commented that it did not appear particularly novel. The ensuing (and often bad-tempered) discussion took in a wide range of issues from the propriety of senior academics using Twitter to criticise a PhD student’s work, to news values in the reporting of research, to the question of whether the title ‘historian’ should be accorded to someone without a doctorate.

The issue that struck me most, however, was the wide reporting from many people working in public history, particularly young women, that they had experienced hostile or unsupportive responses to their work from academics. As someone who works in academia but who also does (and teaches about doing) public history, I am interested in understanding why this happens and how we might deal with it. I should say that my observations here are not based solely on the Twitter row, which I have no desire to re-open, but on many conversations over the twelve years since I began my PhD.

First, I am not surprised that academics in the humanities feel defensive. (I think this is often not understood by outsiders, who think our salaries and relative professional autonomy are actually a pretty good deal.) Our work is subsidised by taxpayers: the Arts & Humanities Research Council (UK) had government funding of £103 million in 2015-16. But both within and outside universities, we have to fight hard to justify that level of spending and to make the case for humanities research more broadly. The vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast had to apologise earlier this year after suggesting sixth-century history wasn’t relevant to 21-year-olds. In Australia, the Treasurer (Finance Minister) recently suggested academic projects seeking public funding should have to pass a ‘pub test’, implying many are too obscure.

But of course it’s often this ‘obscure’, publicly-funded research that is later synthesised into more popular histories for wider consumption. Very few academics object to that, but I often hear complaints that work is insufficiently credited, which I think are understandable against the constant demands to justify our work. TV rarely credits at all, except for major consultancy roles or book adaptations; trade books credit in acknowledgements or endnotes but often not (for reasons of style) in the main text. Moreover, both TV and trade publishing rely on presenter/author ‘brand’ to pull in an audience: you are reading or watching Smith’s latest because it’s Smith, not because of the topic. That model does not lend itself to emphasising research as a collaborative process. Instead, a TV programme becomes the sole presenter’s exciting quest to uncover secrets of the past, while the Amazon algorithm tells you that as you bought Smith’s last book, you might like to buy her next one.

Moreover, in my experience, these workings of public history are not well understood, even by academics who value engagement with wide audiences. This is a problem because increasingly we (academics) have to supervise doctoral students who may want to consider these career options (and given how niche they are we can’t rely on the Careers Service here). We have to think about how our students might combine academic work and public historical practice. Thanks to the provision of Collaborative Doctoral Awards we’ve got better at doing this with museums and galleries, but the world of commercial history is still very alien to most. I don’t have all the answers, but we should have a discussion about what would be helpful, involving supervisors, students and former students.

We should also think about ‘gatekeeping’ and how we talk about professionalism and authority. Again, the question of money – and public money – is pertinent to some of the anxieties I detect in academia. If one doesn’t need a PhD to be a historian, and can do history quite well without one, ought taxpayers really to be funding so many humanities PhDs? After all, the majority of History PhDs will not go on to an academic job. Personally I think it is possible to be a historian without a professional qualification, but I also think the PhD is worth having, and that it is more difficult to be a good historian without that apprenticeship. I could not have written the books I have without the time my (publicly funded) doctoral and postdoctoral research gave me to explore archives and think and talk about history. But I doubt that’s very obvious to the average person who buys them in a bookshop. We should talk more about how to communicate the value of the PhD – which in turn would help those PhDs who go on to work outside academia in a world that often doesn’t understand the point of the qualification.

Finally, I think academics who are unhappy about aspects of public historical discourse should discuss whether there are things that might be done to tackle the problems. A couple of years ago I had an enlightening conversation with a scientist about this. He and his colleagues were frustrated that TV’s go-to expert in their field was someone with a poor reputation among his peers on ethical issues. They got together and worked with a media officer to promote alternative voices, and now the coverage, in their view, is much improved, the one problematic individual no longer dominates and overall their field has a better relationship with the media. Could historians do likewise? We should at least talk about it.

 

 

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Eight things Henry VIII’s break with Rome can teach us about negotiating #Brexit

It’s almost five hundred years since Henry VIII fundamentally changed English and Welsh relations with Europe’s supranational political institution, the Papacy. Some things haven’t changed much.

  1. They didn’t have a plan in 1527 either. For the first two years of negotiating with the Pope to end Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon everyone just hoped that with enough pressure they’d get a better deal. It didn’t work then and there’s no obvious reason it should work now.
  2. Henry’s fundamental problem was that the largest power in Europe – the Holy Roman Empire, incorporating Spain, the Netherlands, the German States and Austria – wasn’t on his side. (Now known as Angela Merkel not being keen on the whole thing.)
  3. You don’t want to be the Cardinal Wolsey of this situation (as many politicians appear to be realising).
  4. You might think you want to be the Thomas Cromwell of this situation. But a few years later you really really won’t want to be Thomas Cromwell, so enjoy it while it lasts.*
  5. The European lawyers are going to make an absolute fortune. Italian legal advisers in Henry VIII’s divorce case boasted of the ‘lucre’ to be made from it and hoped it could be strung out.
  6. There will be a lot of shouting in the negotiations. Pope Clement VII, according to a diplomatic report, turned the air blue with his blaspheming over Henry’s ‘obstinate desire’, denounced the king’s ‘devilish inspiration’ and declared that the divorce would cause chaos. That was when he was in a good mood.
  7. At the end of the day, the rest of Europe have bigger fish to fry.  As one Spanish cardinal said of Henry’s antics: ‘If for some short while, the Holy See should lose the obedience of one unfruitful isle, it will win it from many other realms of far greater importance.’
  8. Henry’s divorce negotiations lasted six years. And that was just for one divorce. Think #Brexit can be done in two? You’re having a laugh.

* Part III of Wolf Hall just got a whole new metaphorical weight. My commiserations to Hilary Mantel. That must be tough.

Read the tortuous tale of Henry’s exit negotiations in my book The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story (aka Our Man in Rome): vintage | amazon.co.uk | amazon.com | kobo | waterstones

 

Tudormania: a challenge for university history teachers

Last week, lots of my Twitter followers were busy posting links to a Guardian ‘Long Read’. Charlotte Higgins’ Tudormania: Why can’t we get over it? is a thought-provoking essay about society’s fascination with the Tudors. About to embark on a pile of Tudor-themed marking, I decided some displacement activity was in order, and read it. But it’s thanks to a combination of Tudormania and the increasingly commercial world of the university that I had that marking to do in the first place. Students are far from immune from the influence of popular history, and its relationship with their studies is something we should talk about more.

Academics spend a lot of time (though perhaps still not enough) thinking about how to help students make the transition from school to university. The Tudors obviously come in there. Until very recently, the dynasty featured prominently on the primary school history curriculum, and even now they’re optional plenty of teachers are deciding to stick with their tried-and-tested resources. They’re on the GCSE syllabus, an option at A-Level: there’s a longstanding complaint that children leave school knowing Henry, Hitler and not much in between. Although there are many other choices on the curriculum, in an exam-focused system it’s tempting to play safe. It’s tempting to play safe at university too. Anxious about exam results and the job market, students often veer back to the familiar as the end of their studies approaches. Here influences from both school and popular history kick in, hence the popularity of Tudor specialist modules and dissertations.

While most university History students in England and Wales arrive with a History A-Level, many have also learnt about the past outside school: from TV documentary and drama, in popular history books, at museums and heritage sites. Some of the history they see in those places draws on academic research: often it diverges. Tudor history is particularly difficult in this regard. As Hilary Mantel points out in the Long Read, it’s about ‘sex and violence’. It’s about personalities, passion, intrigue, adventure. But it’s frequently about all those things in a timeless sort of way, outside their historical context.

Historians are as prone as anyone else to a fascination with the salacious, so of course there are thoughtful histories of sex (and violence) in early modern Europe that try to avoid anachronism (though we all, inevitably, write in our own time). If any enterprising students are still casting around for a dissertation topic for next year, they could do worse than write a study of Tudor emotion, or of the economics of Tudor adventure. Yet for many the switch from Tudormania narrative into historical analysis isn’t easy to achieve. Hardly surprising, when so much of the popular history insistently writes our present back into their past – Elizabeth as career girl, Catherine of Aragon not as dynastic bride but as universal wronged wife. The popular histories assure us we can tell how the leading players at the Tudor court felt – but in fact,  in the absence of diaries, and when letters were often drafted by others, certainty is hard to come by. Not to mention the distance that a royal education gives from a typical emotional experience.

One of the answers is to step back and invite students to study the film and TV portrayals in their own right. There’s much to enjoy: a splendidly queer Elizabeth I, played by Quentin Crisp in Sally Potter’s take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1992). The infamous ‘slash’ Tudors fan-fic (discussed in Tudorism – see below). The postmodern Elizabeth as text, in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), a film made in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars (to give just a European context) where sectarian religious tension is very present; a film also made in the aftermath of Blair, and full of Tudor spin-doctoring. These tell stories both of the Tudor court and of their own time. They also prompt the question: how many more serious history books do that in more subtle ways? (It’s no accident, for example, that the Tudor secret service came to historical prominence during the Cold War.) If we acknowledge that that history can be as much about its writers as about its subjects, it just might make us think more about our own society – as well as about the past. And it might help students think about how we use history in the present, and why.

P. S. Just briefly, on Martin Davidson’s complaint that ‘the seventeenth century is too complex’ for TV. Yes, it’s complex, but I’m sure there are ways in. I remember one date from my secondary school education. I didn’t learn it in History (which I dropped early and came back to as an adult). No, this date was graffiti on the school toilet wall: 1690. This was Scotland in the 1980s and we had anti-Catholic historical graffiti. How’s about that for a way into seventeenth-century history? And the leading figures of the seventeenth century have no sex lives? You might try the trial of the Earl of Castlehaven. That’s a gripping, horrific courtroom drama, and it happened in 1631.

Want to read more on Tudormania? Try:

Photo: Gunnar Grimnes on Flickr. Used under a CC-BY-2.0 licence.

Empire, family and public history: thoughts on the 44%

Last week Twitter was very chatty and (in my timeline generally displeased) about an opinion poll suggesting that 44% of Britons think we should be proud of our history of colonialism.

As many historians have pointed out, this isn’t exactly a cheering result for anyone who knows about the range of atrocities that happened in the context of Empire, from the Amritsar Massacre to the Bengal Famine (in one part of the red-splattered map) to the enslavement of some millions of Africans (on another).

Why, I wondered, would 44% of those polled think the British Empire was something to be proud of? Well, there’s not a lot of critical imperial history in the school curriculum; nor is there on television. (There’s more on slavery, and I suspect a poll that mentioned slavery would get different answers.) Better education is no doubt part of the answer. But I think the problem runs deeper, and that has to do with the weight we place on different sources of information as we arrive at conclusions about what to make of Britain’s imperial past.

I’ve been reflecting on attitudes to imperialism in the last couple of months, not particularly because this is part of my research (though I read a lot around early ideas of ‘race’ for my forthcoming book), but because in December 2015 for the first time I went to visit India, where my grandparents were missionaries.

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Serampore College, where my grandfather worked as a missionary and teacher

I’m interested in how family histories might affect replies to that poll. A lot of popular family history emphasises the idea that we might inherit personality traits and talents from our forebears. Think how many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? feature a showbiz celebrity excitedly discovering that his/her ancestor also had some musical gift. On the other hand, as the controversy over Ben Affleck’s Roots highlighted, it’s very much harder to accept that your ancestors did the Bad Things. (Slave-owning, in his case.) Because, in the narrative of these shows, that might imply that you also are a person who given half a chance would enslave or exploit.

Were it not for the fact that I know quite a lot about history, I suspect that my attitude to Britain’s colonial past would be heavily determined by the fact that my missionary grandparents were very nice people, who despite religious views that I don’t share did lots of valuable educational and welfare work (including on unpopular issues like welcoming migrants to Britain in the late 1960s) and that as very nice people they surely couldn’t have been implicit in any Bad Imperial Things. In fact, most of their mission took place post-Independence, and the interests of missionaries and the Imperial establishment did not always coincide. Still, on a structural level the alleged superiority of Christianity over other belief systems was used to justify all manner of dubious Imperial projects. But if I didn’t know that it would be tempting to draw my conclusions about colonialism on the basis of warm family ties and not much else.

If I didn’t have those grandparents, and I’d just taken my holiday to India out of interest, would I have learnt along the way that I shouldn’t be proud of the British Empire? Strangely enough – and this surprised me – I don’t think I would. When I walked around the National Museum in Delhi, or the Indian Museum in Kolkata, I came away with the impression that the ‘British period’ was just one of many periods in Indian history when parts of the continent were ruled by one or other dynasty. Not by any means uniquely bad.

I also came away with the impression that most of the kids in the school party visiting the National Museum wanted to shake my hand, say hello in English and pose for a selfie with me. Several parents wanted a snap of me with their kids too. Which didn’t give me the sense of a generalised hostility to the British. Rather the opposite. For sure, a fair number of the people I met in India who were jolly friendly to me had a professional interest in my TripAdvisor rating of their hotel, city tour or restaurant. But these children and families didn’t.

When I went to the Victoria Mameorial in Kolkata, an Imperial monument par excellence, it was selfie-central again, Indian visitors posing against the statue of Queen Vic for their Sunday snaps. The massive crowds meant the museum in the monument was hard to engage with but my impression was of light Bengali nationalism and mild criticism of the British for accommodating to local conservatism. I certainly didn’t get the impression it was bluntly anti-imperialist.

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Posing for photos with the status of Queen Victoria outside the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

So if my view of British colonial history had been shaped by my visit to India, and if I wasn’t a historian who tried to think about the complexity of the human past, well, I could easily have come home thinking that in general Indian people really quite like British people and they don’t appear to have an axe to grind against us for the various Bad Stuff.

Returning to the poll, if I had nothing else to base my opinion on, both my family history and my experience of public history in India would incline me to the view that (in India at least) the British Empire was just another set of rulers, and that some, perhaps the majority, of the British in India were good people. So why not be proud? Or at least neutral?

As an educator, I like to think that better formal education about imperial history might change things, but I’m well aware that family, tourist experience and public history can easily trump anything I say in class.

Besides, I’ve seen those TV programmes about the Indian railways. Damn good. Don’t tell me this is an Evil Imperialist Train. I won’t believe it.

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The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

 

Indian history photo galleries

All this week I’m going to be sharing photos of Indian heritage sites on this blog. I ended up with hundreds of these after my December trip and I’m sure they’ll be useful to other people besides me who teach heritage studies, architectural history, the history of India and/or the British Empire, and so on. Today I’m starting with three sets from Mughal-period sites in Delhi:

Holidays and history

It’s the last week of term, and next week I’m off on holiday. (Sorry to those of you who have a week to go – I used to work that pattern and I feel your pain.) For two and a bit weeks I’m not going to be doing any work. At least, no work related to my main research interest in Renaissance Europe. I might take some photos of some world heritage sites, and I might show them to my heritage students next semester. But that’s it.

Except it isn’t, because this holiday is also something of a trip into family history. Specifically, into twenty-odd years of family history that happened in India between 1943 and 1967. It’s funny how you discover what’s significant in other periods. Until I started chatting to historians of modern India about my family history it was just a strange heap of childhood tales, saris in a dressing-up box, pictures of Mount Everest and jewellery from my grandparents’ house (oh, and my grandfather’s claim that he understood Goodness Gracious Me better than the rest of us because he’d spent so long in India).

What I didn’t get as a child, though, was how this bit of personal history fitted into the twentieth century. The British Empire wasn’t on my school curriculum. And yet, like many British families, our history is all tangled up in it.

My grandfather, Donald F. Hudson, was a missionary. (You can read more about his life here.) He travelled to India in 1940 and spent most of his twenty-seven years there as a teacher at Serampore College. He and my grandmother, Miriam, had a wartime romance by correspondence, and she went out to join him in 1945. The dramatic tale of waiting for wartime notice of when the ship might sail – and from where – is one of the things I do remember hearing when I was young.

Founded in 1818 by three British missionaries, Serampore College was intended to provide not only training in ministry for their converts, but also a general education in the arts and sciences. It became – so I’m told – an important institution of what today might be called ‘soft power’ in India under British rule.

I’m not going to become an expert in this history overnight, but I am interested in seeing how the stories I heard as a child fit into a bigger picture. I’m interested in thinking about how historians’ own pasts shape our interests and our work. And I’m interested in how personal experience can shed light on the things I often tell my students about the fragile relationship between memory and history.

To be continued…