This post is an introduction to our online symposium, ‘The Voices of the People’. For more information on this event see our symposium homepage.
The doors of the ivory tower are being dismantled, and it’s no bad thing that historians are being forced out of hiding. Indeed, debates about the role that professional academic historians should be playing in wider society seem as pressing as they have done for many years – not least because research funding has come to be increasingly linked with the requirement to demonstrate that the resulting research has ‘impact’ on the economy, society, culture, or public policy, ‘beyond academia’. Historians are finding their voices, and are starting to intervene in public debates with greater regularity.
The resulting interventions have not been without controversy, as the recent exchanges in History Today over the historic role of Britain in Europe have shown. In fact, much of the public debate involving historians is really a debate between them about the type of history we should be doing. The History Manifesto, a recent high profile open access publication, called for historians to focus their efforts on the analysis of ‘big data’ and very long-term trends so as to make their conclusions more applicable to contemporary policy questions. Yet the authors of the manifesto, and the Eurosceptic ‘Historians for Britain’ collective, have been criticised for leaning towards over-simplified ‘big stories’ and clear ‘lessons from history’ at the expense of the complexity and nuance that many see as central to what the study of history should really be about (something our own Laura Sangha has written about on this blog recently).
But debates about the type of history that is best suited to bridging the gap between academics and a wider public need to be about more than just the scale we adopt: there is also the issue of what – or who – that broader public history should be focusing on. Great institutions, great men, and national stories of war and conquest, have long dominated our collective sense of the past: the historical experiences of ordinary women and men, it is fair to say, have not. It is telling that The People’s History Museum in Manchester, the UK’s principal museum for working class history, has lost government funding because it is not considered to be a ‘national’ museum: the history of ordinary people is not part of the national story. Telling too that the Prime Minister, in a speech to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, saw human rights as ‘the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons’. No place here for the Trade Unions, Chartists, Suffragettes – and countless other grassroots movements across the world – that have fought for the rights of ordinary citizens: for Mr Cameron it was the barons wot won it.
There remains, then, a dangerously inaccurate imbalance in the way that public history marginalises the experiences and the importance of ordinary women and men. As we note on our symposium homepage, such neglect is not found in academic history, where ‘history from below’ remains influential. It would benefit everyone if this approach could reach new audiences outside academia. And whilst the contribution of ‘history from below’ to wider society may not involve ‘big data’ and sweeping grand narratives that can be neatly applied to policy decisions, it does have the potential to make a political difference. Perhaps above all, it can persuade us to regard our fellow humans with a greater degree of empathy than much of our current public discourse seems to encourage – a point which Tim Hitchcock discusses in our next post.
This symposium is therefore an attempt to raise the profile of ‘history from below’ by featuring a range of perspectives on recovering ‘the voices of the people’ in a freely accessible online forum. One of our tasks is to interrogate these terms – ‘voices’ and ‘the people’ – in order to strengthen our understanding of the role of non-elites in the past, and what historians can, and cannot, recover of that role. In fact, this blog has already featured a number of posts reflecting on what exactly historians might mean by ‘the people’, and when the contributors to this symposium met to discuss our posts at a workshop in Birkbeck in May, we agreed that it might be useful to think in terms of at least two related but different ‘history from below’ projects. One an attempt to recover the common or majority experience in the past, the other an attempt to recover the voices of marginal individuals or minority groups. The term ‘the people’ might, we felt, be more appropriate for the former endeavour – but both approaches are nonetheless strongly represented in what follows.
What united us, we agreed, was that we are all interested in recovering voices – or as we will see in some cases, even silences – that are generally difficult for the historian to find, and especially those of historical subjects who had relatively little formal power: whether on the basis of class, gender, race, sexuality, colonialism, institutional hierarchies, and so on. We also agreed that none of us really think that ‘the people’ were ever a homogenous group who spoke with one voice, and that most of us were really only trying to recover the voices of some people. But we thought that didn’t make for such a good title.
What you will find in the posts that follow is plenty of this kind of reflection on the complexities and challenges of trying to study ‘history from below’. We accept that it is far from easy: what we do not accept is that this an excuse for it to remain marginalised. By bringing to bear a wide range of tools at the historian’s disposal, our contributors show that it is both possible and important to recover what we can of the ‘voices of the people’, and in the process we hope that the symposium will serve to demonstrate that there are forces other than barons that have shaped – and will continue to shape – the course of our history.
*The symposium continues on Monday with a call to arms from Tim Hitchcock…*