This week The Economist published an article called ‘The study of history is in decline in Britain’. Which in summary was basically an argument that as the UK finds itself in the midst of political, social and economic upheaval, we’re standing right in the middle of history in the making. And yet, historians today suck at telling history. It’s dull, not engaging, uninspiring and basically nobody cares.
And to that I say:
Now was this article click bait, designed to rile up historians and get them to share it far and wide in their fury (thus resulting in more clicks)? Well of course. However, that really doesn’t make up for that fact that it’s poorly researched and misses the mark by a country mile.
Oh and while we’re here, putting the article behind a paywall kind of undermines it’s point about making accessible and entertaining history for the masses. Just saying.
Here’s the pretty big thing that The Economist missed:
We’re at the start of a reclamation of history revolution!
Note, ‘at the start’, we’re not there yet. But we are well on our way. Never before have so many historians, libraries, museums, teachers and writers, been so dedicated to making history fun and interesting for everyone.
The David Starkey breed is dying out. No longer does history have to remain under lock and key for (primarily) white old men in tweed jackets. It’s seeping into our everyday, through mass remembrance of historic milestones like Vote 100 and 14-18 Now, which created cultural moments that bought history alive and made it tangible to the present.
Then there’s the increase of TV shows Drunk History, Horrible Histories and the rise of the glory that is Philomena Cunk. There’s people like Rebecca Rideal trying out new types of inclusive history festivals with 2018’s HistFest. Greg Jenner not only making Horrible Histories a television (and now film) phenomenon but also creating books that bring history into the everyday. There’s documentary makers like Helen Tither, bringing suffrage to life on TV. Oh, and don’t forget social media heroes such as Whores of Yore (who gave us the unbridled joy that is ‘Historical Hotties’) and English Heritage (who just did a Georgian make up tutorial for crying out loud!!)
And we’re not even touching on all the people who don’t work on the public stage, but put their everything into the classroom, exhibitions, podcasts, books and websites.
I’m sorry to say this The Economist, but it’s looking like there’s a wealth of evidence that you might be waaaay off the mark on this whole, history is dying, shtick.
And what makes this even worse for your argument that historians are killing history because their too cocooned in their own bubble, is that these public history endeavours have succeeded because they tie into the world around them.
Take for example the celebration and commemoration around the centenary of some women getting the vote. One of the main reasons it succeeded was that it also linked in to current feminist issues.
Tens of thousands of women joined marches across the UK in 2018, that recreated the protest pageantry utilised by the suffragettes one hundred years ago. That’s thousands of women who made placards, wore the suffrage colours of green, purple and white and took to the street. Not because they were bored and just fancied a nice protest, but because that chapter of history inspired them to action.
There were suffrage placards right alongside those calling for equal pay, crying out #MeToo and for better period care for school girls.
And that was just one event. In a year that saw suffrage books shoot up to the top of the charts, Lucy Worsley’s documentary series, Suffragettes, getting prime time viewing figures, along with multiple museums and archives teaming up with Google to digitise suffrage archive materials and make them accessible (and free!) at just the click of button.
Now, lets be real The Economist, that’s not exactly cocooning yourself away from the modern world, is it?
So, now we can all agree that Economist article was BS, the real issue is – where does this history reclamation revolution go from here?
The truth is, it could go anywhere. But it needs to go to people.
One thing The Economist sort of got right, is that many still find history alienating. There’s been decades where the minute you stop doing history in school, the only clear way to interact with it, was to be told it by an Oxford/Cambridge grad. Understandably that made it felt elitist and untouchable.
No wonder then that with that image so cemented in peoples minds, even with the history landscape changing, many are still resistant to get on board. I mean, use me as an example, I write a history website and I only fell into history by accident!
I’d loved history as a kid, but when it got time to pick a degree, I figured that my straight B, working class, dyslexic arse was way to dumb (and not posh enough) to even try and get into this space.
It was only a few years later when I fell into doing history PR (an actual job, I swear) that I realised I didn’t need permission to delve into history. I was allowed to learn my way through an archive, how to do research and analyse different texts. I’ve now been doing this for years. I’ve been nominated for awards, I even get paid to write and research… and I still have people reject me purely because I don’t have a degree in history.
Now imagine what that’s like for people who stopped their education at GCSE, come from minority backgrounds or just don’t have the income needed to go off and spend thousands on student debt.
That’s why we need to empower people to get stuck into history. We already have the tools. Along with all the amazing TV, books and film, there’s digitised archives (god bless the internet), academic papers online and even free courses in history (thank you Suzanna Lipscombe!)
If we want to make history a cultural wave, then we can’t just tell people about it, we have to allow them to discover it for themselves too.
Sure the metaphorical history ivory tower is no longer under lock and key only for the chosen ones to access. But right now, it’s more like an ivory tower open day – come in, have a look around…don’t touch anything.
And who doesn’t love an open day! But today’s visitor wants more than that. They want to see, do and experience. So if we’re going to ensure that history doesn’t go back to that stuffy world The Economist is pedalling – we need to not only let people in, but give them the keys.