Learn to tell history with a popular touch

A new masters course aims to train graduates to communicate their passion, writes Matthew Reisz

June 25, 2009

For budding David Starkeys or Simon Schamas, this could be just the place to start.

Royal Holloway, University of London has followed in the footsteps of institutions in the US and Australia and launched the country's first MA in public history.

For Justin Champion, head of history at Royal Holloway, the subject has only now "come of age" in the UK.

The course consists of three units. One covers research methods and provides introductions to oral history and the skills needed to write for the media, including magazines, newspapers, radio and television.

The second explores debates around the presentation of the history of the British Empire, slavery and the Holocaust.

The final part of the course comprises a dissertation, which could take the form of an exhibition plan, an oral-history project or a radio programme. The aim, Professor Champion said, is "to create people capable of communicating ideas about the past in a variety of public spaces".

Applications for the 30 places, mainly from people who have recently completed undergraduate history degrees, are pouring in.

A recent "taster" event for potential students made clear the sheer variety of settings within which public historians operate - from the dustiest of museum archives through the whole spectrum of creative and heritage industries to glitzy television documentaries.

Representatives of several partner institutions, which will provide sessions on the course and assist with student projects, explained how and why they need historians.

Lalage Grundy, of the Surrey History Centre, explained how outreach to groups that traditional archivists tended to ignore - such as Muslim, gay and traveller communities - was now an essential part of their role.

Students on the MA course will also get a chance to learn from and work alongside institutions ranging from the National Trust, the Royal Archives and the Imperial War Museum to Ancestry.com and History Today.

But what about the really high-profile areas of public history?

The final speaker at the session was classicist and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, whom one reviewer has described as "the ancient historian with whom men would most like to share a Hittite burial site".

Historians working in television, she said, had to abandon their footnotes and "forget a lot of what they had learnt in seminar rooms".

She described the years of lobbying to secure a prime-time slot, and the heroic feats of editing required to summarise a complex subject such as Athenian democracy in the 3,000 words of commentary possible in a one-hour television programme.

And at the end of all this, she said, fellow academics would sniff about "dumbing down" while critics would often devote half their review to the size of your bottom.

But at least you could be sure that millions of new people were getting to hear about the subjects you are passionate about, she added.


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