Historians told to be 'evangelical' in their duty to inform public

June 24, 2010

Historians should strive for public impact in ways unimagined by the narrow "impact agenda", a conference has heard.

The debate on public history at the German Historical Institute London looked beyond the current push to measure the economic and social impact of British research.

Franziska Augstein, a German journalist and intellectual, said that in her country the past was fiercely disputed, with arguments about whether people who grew up in East Germany were even "allowed" to say they had happy childhoods. In this context, historians had played a vital role in resisting attempts to impose an official version of events, she told the conference this month.

The stakes are seldom as high for British academics taking on public-advocacy roles.

Kathleen Burk, professor of modern and contemporary history at University College London, said she was wary of participating in television documentaries after being told that "researchers ring you up at every hour of the day and night - and then ignore everything you tell them".

Justin Champion, head of the department of history at Royal Holloway, University of London, worried that with print runs for many monographs at just 300 copies, historians could end up talking only to each other. "University historians are privileged. Our work costs money - public money - which imposes certain duties. I am stunned by the resistance to our responsibilities."

He was unsympathetic to the argument recently set out in Times Higher Education by Richard Overy, professor of history at the University of Exeter, that cutting-edge historical research "has no less reason to be inaccessible than physics".

Those studying for the MA in public history at Royal Holloway are taught how to turn a complex scholarly thesis into a podcast or a 500-word tabloid article, he said.

Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at the University of Cambridge, told the conference that in justifying public investment in their work, historians had to be "loudly evangelical about the impact they can and do have".


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