Is the role of the public historian more important than ever?

I was recently asked whether I considered myself a ‘public historian’, that is, am I committed to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere? My response was almost unflinchingly and emphatically yes, despite the contested nature of the term that means both a combination of academic shop window and media don, as well as something altogether more democratic. In the words of Ludamilla Jordanova, it is ‘all the means, deliberate and otherwise, through which those who are not professional historians acquire their sense of the past’.

My own lived experience of being a ‘public historian’ has been shaped over the past three decades by the rise of global challenges that demand the expertise and skills of the historian to take a long view on matters. These include Brexit and Europe, gender and race equality, the climate emergency, the rise of popularism, and even on understandings of the lifecycle, ageing, separation and loneliness – something that has been very acutely felt during the recent pandemic and lockdowns.

In other words, the role of the historian has never been more important in holding politicians to account and in understanding the very essence of humanity and the human condition.

Over the past 20 years, the way in which I do history has also been transformed in response to the seismic cultural shifts in the landscape of higher education. During this time, the critical humanities have been systematically devalued, while STEM has been lauded as some kind of 21st-century panacea. Historians are forced to address real world problems as measured through research, impact and knowledge exchange frameworks as well as public engagement and civic agendas. While it is tempting to blame philistine politicians and uncultured bureaucrats for these trends, it is these very agendas, as my scientist colleagues unwaveringly tell me that are a ‘gift’ to arts and humanities subjects.

As a Professor of Early Modern British History – who essentially plies his trade in rare 16th and 17th-century manuscripts and objects – I have actively embraced this agenda over the past decade, and reoriented my research to be make it more outward facing. As a result, my social role as a public historian has been in two main ways.

First, the world of heritage – working with historic sites and museums – has been an important pathway for translating my archival work for public benefit. Reconstructing narratives of the past is fundamental to people’s sense of self, community and identity – and thus it is imperative that these narratives be diverse, and that this diversity be reflected in a variety of sites where narratives are made. My work with the Universities of Lund, Leiden and Western Australia, at the V&A and the Vasa Museum in Stockholm sought to raise awareness of gender as an important interpretative category in museology. We did this by developing a gendered interpretative tool for studying museum objects, as a way of generating diverse narratives, which fed into curatorial practices as well as into interpretation through educational and public programming for schools and the public.

Museums are powerful cultural centres for individuals and communities to undertake life-long learning and to foster behavioural change. Our work here sought to have gender better integrated into narratives of the past and present.

The reach of a public historian can be far-stretching, as shown when working with the TV presenter and historian Dr Sam Willis on the Histories of the Unexpected podcast-turned-book-turned-live tour, which transforms the communication of history into an accessible, fun and creative format for new and global audiences with the mission to democratise both historical knowledge and historical practice. The podcast, with over 250 episodes, has received almost 3 million downloads in 193 countries and formed the basis for a home-schooling history series responding to the COVID-19 crisis and an online magazine.

Histories of the Unexpected acts as a very public platform for the broad range of my research which extends from Renaissance letters to 17th-century gloves. Its mission is threefold: to stimulate learning from and engagement with history globally, teaching people how to be historians; stimulating technological and practice innovation in the creative industries through working with Histories of the Unexpected Ltd; and lastly, changing modes of engagement with history in professional practice.

Overall then, I am at heart a historian with an archive fetish, who is never happier than when in a manuscript reading room. However, over the last decade or so, I have had to reinvent myself as an impact expert and reorient research in a much more outward facing direction than was previously necessary.

This redirection is not purely utilitarian in the sense that this is now what is expected of a modern-day scholar operating in the UK university sector, but it has in fact enriched my research in ways that are socially and cultural useful.


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