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“Our history teachers readied us for this dumb sh*t”: public history and the political present

This blog has been reposted with the permission of the author, Dr Alix Green. The original post can be found here.

If ever we need historians, it’s now.

Niall Ferguson has recently urged the President to convene a Council of Historians for the ‘United States of Amnesia’. It seems unlikely that Trump would be interested in understanding the past – ever the assertive businessman, he insisted on Twitter he calls his own shots – or that any historical perspective would survive the ‘alternative facts’ treatment.

Historians may find the current political climate frankly pretty scary. In November, three judges ruled that the British Prime Minister needed Parliament’s support to begin the process of leaving the EU – and were duly accused of being ‘enemies of the people’ on the Daily Mail front page. The historical alarm bells were deafening.

On the other hand, the ignorance of and hostility to history around at the moment can be a galvanising force. The social historian George Gosling (@gcgosling) posted the photo below of a protest placard in Birmingham. As someone interested in the potential of public history as activism, this was an encouraging moment in the midst of widely felt distress and anger.

‘Our history teachers readied us for this dumb sh*t’. @J_C_Graney_Art‘s placard at protest against US travel ban, Birmingham. Via @gcgosling

So, for me, finding the ‘public’ in public history is no longer just intellectually interesting but politically pressing. What I mean is that public history can’t just be popular history. It has to also be about giving people – the public – historical resources to think with. History with public purpose if you like.

The idea that history was key to sound political judgement – that history and politics belong to one another – is as old as the discipline itself. But historians in the UK have only really been engaging seriously with policymakers in the last ten years or so, led by the efforts of History and Policy. Public history, however, has never really claimed this territory as its own, wary perhaps of ceding the more politically conducive ground of history-from-below informed collaborative projects with local institutions and community heritage groups.

We don’t have the luxury of that choice any more. My latest post for the international blog-journal Public History Weekly  makes the case:

In a world in which the “voice of the people” is being celebrated by populist politicians in defence of often xenophobic nativist agendas, we need to revisit what the “public” in “public history” means. While popular engagement with the past may always provide orientation for the field, a truly public history must also be concerned with the political present. If we don’t give people access to intellectual resources of our discipline, we cannot then lament the use and abuse of history in public debate. Let’s unpick our terms.

Read on here: Keywording the Field: From Popular to Public History? – Public History Weekly


Author: Alix Green, IHR Public History Seminar Convenor & Lecturer at University of Essex

Public History and the British Extreme Right Seminar Report

How much do you know about or understand the politics, history and the beliefs of the extreme right in Britain? Is it important to know more and what social responsibilities would go hand in hand with this type of knowledge?

These were questions I asked myself as we welcome Dr Paul Jackson, the most recent speaker at the IHR Public History Seminar. Dr Jackson works on post-war neo-Nazi and other extreme right ideologies and cultures in Britain and his most recent book, Colin Jordan and Britain’s Neo-Nazi Movement, examines the life, work and networks of a notorious British post-war fascist. For the seminar Jackson was exploring what it meant to be a historian of the extreme right, asking if it was possible to be objective and how historians could engage with the nature of these ideologies.

Jackson has written for and worked with the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, but he did not feel this meant his work was overtly ‘anti-fascist’ in its objective. The magazine holds an extensive archive of fascist and far-right material and has been a fruitful source for research and collaboration without bringing a political agenda to Jackson’s work. (Our next seminar looks at this archive). In addition, his work has even received some favourable reviews in far-right circles, though not always kind about Jackson himself, they agreed with large parts of his research. Though this in itself presents different challenges, something that became even more apparent as the range of groups, divisions and networks amongst current supporters of the extreme right became clear.

There is no standard ideology, set of beliefs or culture and the work of historians like Dr Jackson is important to provide an informed understanding of the complexities of these groups. There is even a word, ‘groupuscule’, which is used to define the way factions and groups emerge and interact. Furthermore the size of the group did not necessarily reflect success, there could be a small collection of members which saw itself as an elite or select grouping though with, perhaps, some connections to larger groups. Jackson’s work on Colin Jordan and other areas has shown how small groups and individuals can have national and international ties to many groups, weaving a web of varying ring-wing elements and making it hard to pin down any tight definition of a group and its believes.

In terms of engaging with the public, Jackson’s work has featured in the press, notably his work on the myth of the lone wolf in far-right political violence and he has also done some consulting work related to the Prevent Agenda. When there is a threat of violence the need for greater understanding far-right politics and beliefs is clear, and those working with the Prevent Agenda would obviously benefit from learning about the historical context to the current far-right groups as well as demonstrate the cultural differences. Though, again, Jackson warned of the dangerous of the politics of others trying to creep into how his research is presented. His awareness of other agendas was important for keeping his presentation of the facts and historical contexts as objective as possible.


Dr Paul Jackson and is closing questions. Image rights: Dr Alix Green

The evening came to an end with the closing questions posed in the above image. All history is political but there is a delicate balance that needs to be struck when handling a research area of such potency. Through Paul Jackson’s work we gained a fascinating insight into researching a controversial topic which brings with it the weight of political importance and contemporary relevance.

Our next seminar will be with Daniel Jones, the archivist of the Searchlight Archive, an anti-fascist magazine that also holds an extensive archive of fascist literature on 22 February at 5:30pm.

Cataloguing Far-Right Hate and Public History Seminar


Join us on 22nd February for our second seminar in the ‘Difficult Pasts and Objects’ series:

Daniel Jones
(Searchlight Archive, University of Northampton)

‘Archiving the Extreme:
Cataloguing Far-Right Hate and Public History’

The University of Northampton has a large holding of anti-fascist and far right material, based around their large Searchlight Archive, which has been gradually made available since it came into being in 2012. The collection’s archivist, Dan Jones, looks at some of the problems that have been faced in making this material available for study as part of our shared public history, and how the University has tried to make best use of the material for education.

5.30pm, 22 February 2017
John S Cohen Room, N203, Senate House

IHR Seminar: Thomas Cauvin and his new book ‘Public History – A Textbook of Practice’

Defining the field: Public History – A Textbook of Practice



This Wednesday, 16 November, please join us for a seminar with Thomas Cauvin (University of Louisiana, Lafayette).

Location: Senate House – John S. Cohen Room N203

Public history continues to elude consensus regarding its parameters and purposes and its complexities and ambiguities have only multiplied as the field has gone global in recent years. Thomas Cauvin’s Textbook of Practice addresses this challenge head-on, aiming to fill a gap in the literature on the pedagogy of public history and bringing theories and practices together. The IHR public history seminar is the ideal place to begin the UK field’s engagement with this important book.

Seminar: Jerome de Groot on the use of DNA in Popular Genealogy

Join us next Wednesday 16th March at 5:30 pm in IHR 202 for the next IHR Public History Seminar. We are delighted that Jerome de Groot will be joining us to discuss DNA in popular genealogy. Details below.

Double Helix History: the use of DNA in Popular Genealogy?

Dr Jerome de Groot (University of Manchester)

Genealogy is one of the biggest and most profitable activities on the planet. Generally undertaken via massive gateway websites like (14 billion family history records; 60 million member trees) it involves investigators around the world formulating their ‘family tree’ and imagining their relationship to the past accordingly.
Increasingly these websites are adding a new tool to the researcher’s armoury: DNA sequencing. The armchair genealogist investigates their past by spitting in a tube. The creation of huge repositories of DNA databases allows for analysis to be undertaken that leads to ‘scientific’ speculation about the ancestry of the individual.
This paper investigates this intersection of genetics and popular narratives of the self/ the past.How is this science represented and understood? How, particularly, is it visualised? What does this mean for privacy, and the projection of the self online? What are the imaginative implications of sharing DNA data? Does DNA render an identity ‘outside of history’? Certainly it seems to allow for entire populations ejected from the archive to find their ancestors – Henry Louis Gates Jr. has claimed ‘we are able, symbolically at least, to reverse the Middle Passage’.

Seminar Event: The personal heritage research environment in the 21st century

Join us for our first seminar of 2016. All welcome, no need to book.

The personal heritage research environment in the 21st century

Dr Nick Barratt (Author, historian and consultant for BBC ‘Who Do You think You Are?’)

Date: 3 February

Time: 17:30

VenuePast & Present Room 202, 2nd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House

Drawing upon case studies and examples, Dr Barratt will explore changing approaches to personal heritage – including genealogy, local and social history – over the last decade and a half, arguing that current practice threatens to undermine the evolving research infrastructure.

_MG_7829Dr Nick Barratt is a medieval historian, author of several books including The Forgotten Spy andGreater London: the Story of the Suburbs, and a broadcaster best known for his work on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are. Having previously worked at The National Archives, he is now the Associate Director of Collections and Engagement at Senate House Library, University of London, and is working on a major exhibition and events programme to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare.

Seminar Event: The Generational Transmission of Memory and Identity through ‘Family Heritage’

The Generational Transmission of Memory and Identity through ‘Family Heritage’
Anne-Marie Kramer (University of Nottingham)

Date: 2 December 2015

Time: 17:30

Venue:  Past & Present Room 202, 2nd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House
This paper will explore the generational transmission of memory and identity through a focus on the role of ‘family heritage’. It will analyse what form remembrance practices take, map and problematize the relationship between the family and public archive/history in understanding and interpreting the legacy of the past, and begin to tease out some consequences of these acts of ‘remembrance’. It will therefore ask a number of related questions. First, what forms of ‘value’ accrue to family history and heritage? Second, what does performing ‘remembrance’ mean in this context, and what role are texts and material objects expected to play in ‘remembering’? Third, who and what is remembered, to what ends, and with what effects? Fourth, what role does family history and heritage play in reproducing and/or challenging official histories, and how do such projects imagine the relationship between individual, family, community and ‘nation’? Lastly, how are these practices of remembrance used to re/construct relationships and connectedness in the past/present/future, between and among the generations?

Anne-Marie Kramer is a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham.