It pays to help the public to meet the ancestors

April 20, 2001

Academics need to take stock of their role and support public interest in history, writes Simon Ditchfield.

There is nothing like a good crisis to concentrate the mind. The closure of Luton University's history department is imminent. It follows last year's decision by Thames Valley University to, in effect, cease teaching history altogether.

The prospect of a substantial decline in undergraduate recruitment for the second successive year presages some hard thinking for administrators of many history programmes in the newer universities and colleges.

Sixth-form teachers are becoming accustomed to an inexorable chronological narrowing of the A/AS-level curriculum to the 1930s and 1940s (characterised with mordant wit by Peter Mandler as "the Hitlerisation of history"), matched by a steady decline in student numbers.

Neither is history, a non-compulsory subject in the national curriculum, doing as well as it might in the GCSE marketplace. And primary school teachers are struggling to fit any historically themed teaching into an overcrowded curriculum that has been squeezed further by literacy and numeracy initiatives.

Yet interest in popular history seems to be at an all-time high. The BBC History magazine boasts sales of 50,000 after only six months. Its launch last autumn coincided with the prime-time television broadcast of Simon Schama's History of Britain series. Meanwhile, an independently conceived, revisionist narrative of Scotland's past, fronted by Stirling University historian Fiona Watson, has been engaging Scottish television audiences since February.

Such initiatives are only the tip of the BBC history iceberg. Its website allegedly receives more than a million hits after each Time Team episode. There has always been an interest in the past, but people now have more leisure time and resources to indulge their retro-hobbies.

Should the vogue for history in the media be a cause for celebration and even self-satisfaction in the thinning groves of academe? Today in York, "Historians and their Publics", a conference convened by the Royal Historical Society in association with the University of York's history department, brings together leading practitioners of academic and public history to join the debate over the public's interest in the past and what role there can or should be for scholarship.

Today, the academic history profession is engaging as never before with the issues and opportunities raised by the extra-academic consumption of the past. The York-led Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL) project - Heritage studies as applied history (1996-2000) - was designed to pilot and financially support the academic study of the consumption and presentation of the past as a means of promoting students' transferable skills.

Building on its success, several university history departments offer modules or pathways in public or applied history, including Anglia Polytechnic University, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education and University College Chichester. Huddersfield and Wolverhampton universities will offer stand-alone undergraduate degrees in applied history from this autumn. Ruskin College, Oxford, has won validation for a part-time MA in public history.

Cynics might say that such initiatives are simply obeying the logic of the marketplace in which problems of undergraduate recruitment have forced departments to repackage their products and give them a more vocational spin.

However, complementary developments suggest that there is more to this than a simple public relations exercise.

One speaker at the conference in York today, Ludmilla Jordanova, professor of visual arts at the University of East Anglia, says public history should not be dismissed as popularisation, entertainment or propaganda, but integrated into the professional academic historian's practice.

Members of the public who visited the recent exhibition she curated on scientific and medical portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery can testify to the rich public benefits that accrue from such collaboration.

The rapid diffusion of the worldwide web and satellite broadcasting have redefined the meaning of access, as more individuals and institutions become conscious consumers of the past and active manipulators of cultural memory.

The need to take stock of the current state of relations between academic historians and other stakeholders in the past, its preservation and presentation - from archivists to archaeologists, museum curators to media editors - is, therefore, urgent.

Simon Ditchfield is lecturer in history at the University of York and former director of the FDTL Heritage studies as applied history project (1996-2000)


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