Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
In Theatres of Memory Raphael Samuel notes that: ‘If history was thought of as an activity rather than a profession, then the number of its practitioners would be legion.’ For several reasons I’ve been thinking about Samuel’s demotic and inclusive vision of history a lot over the past few days. I’ve been reading Guy Beiner’s amazing Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory for the book group I’m part of. It’s a book that is genuinely hard to put down. Imaginative and creative, Beiner shows how the French invasion of the west of Ireland in 1798 was woven into the warp and weft of everyday life through the successive generations of storytellers and poets who fashioned vibrant vernacular histories. Drawing on folk traditions recorded in the 1930s (yet usually ignored or dismissed by ‘professional’ historians), Remember the Year of the French provides compelling reasons for taking the activities of diverse ‘history-tellers’ seriously. It should be required reading for anyone interested in how we understand the past, not least because it forces us to think very carefully about who and what counts as history.
I met someone who would probably count as one of Beiner’s ‘history-tellers’ a couple of weeks ago—another reason that I have been thinking about the activity of history. Wandering around Leicester Cathedral we approached one of the volunteers—I guess she was probably retired—for guidance. We’d only asked a question about how much of the building had been restored by the Victorians, but she launched into an energetic and engaging encounter of the cathedral’s history that moved easily and often unexpectedly between its medieval past, Victorian reconstruction, and the Duchess of Cambridge’s recent visit. Listening to her was bracing and humbling: she reminded me of why I remain fascinated by the study of the past, and of the activities of history-telling in which she, and I and countless others all engage on a daily basis. In five minutes I learned a hell of a lot from her.
We had talked at one point about the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III—still then unconfirmed—in the car park around the corner. I thought of our conversation a few days later, when the skeleton’s identity was confirmed and my Twitter feed was suddenly filled with comments from ‘professional’ historians carping about a TV programme that they presented as ‘bad’ history. That has also made me think about the activity of history. Although most days it doesn’t feel like it, I guess I am a ‘professional’ historian. I’m lucky enough to get paid to read and write and teach about the past—to do something that I have always loved. Yet I still think about what I do as part of far more expansive activities of history-telling that are diffuse, demotic and ordinary.
Although I understand the political and ethical imperatives behind the emphasis on ‘public engagement’ and ‘knowledge transfer’ that pervades contemporary higher education, this is one of the reasons that I’m uneasy about this shift. Rather than treating the development of our knowledge of the past as part of a common project, buzzwords like these suggest a distinction between ‘public’ and ‘expert’—the ‘uninformed’ and the ‘informed’. They give the ‘professional’ historian a privileged position from which to speak authoritatively about the past. Like many others, I use social media like Twitter and this blog to talk to the broadest possible range of people about the practice of history and about modern British society and culture. Yet I wonder what is happening when so many ‘professional’ academics insistently perform that status by adding ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ to their online identity. Tags like these mark you out as different—they claim a position of special expertise or authority that is often defined against those without specific qualifications. Is this really the kind of opposition that we want to set up? In this sense, tweeting or blogging as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ as ‘public engagement’ strikes me as deeply problematic. It’s exclusive rather than inclusive; it limits rather than enables; at the very least, it doesn’t fit with Samuel’s demotic vision of history as an activity, and its practitioners as legion.