Our contributors – including historians, novelists, activists and artists – reflect on their experiences of working with History Workshop, and the importance of doing public history in a digital era.
Josh Allen, writer and contemporary historian based in Birmingham
In the course of a lifetime there are revelations which hit you instantly and others which steadily build up in waves before finally breaking on you.
My interest in how people and communities use history in their day-to-day lives to explore and articulate identities and create individual and collective narratives and meanings sits very much in the latter camp. I trace it back to when I was a fairly indifferent undergraduate History student at the University of York in the early 2010s. Whilst I attended lectures and seminars diligently and always submitted coursework on time, most of my attention was on politics and writing and editing various student publications.
What did grip me from time-to-time in the course of my engagement with my degree, was the intricacies of historiography, how history is lived and constructed, manipulated and argued over. Most undergraduates recoil from this – not considering it real history™ – but it was this subgenre of the study of the past which really got under my skin.
I then graduated into the tailend of the post-credit crunch recession, tumbling through a rapid fire sequence of short term journalism jobs, freelancing and spells on the dole. It was during this time that I ended up back in my hometown Birmingham, planning to stay there only as long as was necessary to secure a more substantial journalistic job somewhere, anywhere, else.
One afternoon during this uncertain, cash strapped and quite isolated phase of my life, I wandered a couple of miles from where I was living to the Midlands Arts Centre on the edge of Cannon Hill Park between Moseley and Edgbaston. Here I encountered 50 Years On: The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, an exhibition inspired by the contested, ever potent, legacy of the University of Birmingham’s most consequential contribution to the humanities and social sciences.
The little exhibition sucked me in. I had seldom encountered something that did such an effective job of marrying history with contemporary visual arts in a way which was – dare I say it – highly “relevant”.
Looking back this was a key moment in which the wave built up for me. A wave which carried me towards doing a part-time masters at the University of Birmingham where (beyond my MA dissertation which was on the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies of course…) I specialised in how people outside the academy engage with the past, creating meanings from it which are significant in their own right. Since then I have worked in public history in a variety of situations and contexts, always fascinated by the capacity that the past has to provide all manner of people with the raw materials to create understandings of where they have come from, what is happening now, and chart a course for where they may be headed in future.
It is not surprising therefore that these interests had led me to Raphael Samuel and the History Workshop. Parallel life paths, shared political dreams and concern for what could be called “cultural democracy” created a fruitful dialogue between the History Workshop Movement and the emerging field of cultural studies.
To my mind the digital magazine of History Workshop is a pretty unique and special platform which continues this aspect of the history workshop tradition. There are not many spaces which seek contributions and encourage dialogue about what the past means to people and history in constructed and used in everyday life. This is despite these being vital questions for anyone who seeks to understand the contemporary cultural and collective imaginary of any society. For these reasons I am pleased to be an occasional contributor to History Workshop and to play a small part in continuing these vital conversations.
Ruth Beecher, Lecturer in Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London
I think that the best public history tackles difficult questions. It brings historians side by side with local people or specific communities of interest to untangle the past and its relationship to the present. To me, History Workshop is the cornerstone of that endeavour; encouraging radical critique underpinned by rigorous scholarship. I want my research on the histories of child sexual abuse to be useful for children, survivors and practitioners. HW doesn’t shy away from topics that are uncomfortable for its audiences; it provides a platform to respond very quickly with a historical perspective on contemporary concerns. Along with my colleagues in the Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters research hub, I wrote an article and was a guest on the podcast. I was really proud to be a part of it.
Andy Drummond, novelist based in Edinburgh
I am a novelist, translator and biographer. I am also what might euphemistically be described as an ‘independent’ historian – one never attached to any particular institution, and indeed unburdened by any formal degree in History. In this position, it can be difficult for me to access recent historiographical research, much of which appears in entirely respectable, but usually expensive and – outside of university libraries – inaccessible publications. HW (also entirely respectable!) is therefore something of a cornucopia of delights, with thought-provoking material popping up every week.
HW also offers me the option of sharing my own research with a wide community of like-minded people. Having serious historiographical work accepted for publication elsewhere is, as I have discovered, a slow, painful and frequently unrewarding experience. But with HW, once an article is accepted, the editorial and publication process is swift and painless, and I have always felt completely in control of what finally appears online.
Long may it continue this way!
Roisin Dunnett, writer and author of Animal, Vegetable
I turn to History Workshop for history presented in an unusual, innovative yet always highly accessible format. As a fiction writer, I’ve used the website again and again for research, and for my novel in particular I have returned to and repeatedly recommended The Memory Map of the Jewish East End, linking out to an interactive map of sites of Jewish memory in East London. I loved HW’s series on Radical Friendship and recommend the Radical Objects series too! A practical and invaluable resource.
Imogen Knox, PhD candidate in Early Modern History at the University of Warwick
It was a privilege to work with History Workshop and to contribute to the ‘Risk and Uncertainty’ series. I have long been a fan of the innovative work done by History Workshop (a particular favourite in the Journal is Karen Harvey’s ‘What Mary Toft Felt’), so to have the opportunity to publish shorter form work online was something I jumped at. History Workshop is fantastic at providing a spotlight for the work of early career researchers like myself.
My research, which explores early modern British attitudes towards suicide, seeks to uncover how people responded to self-destructive thoughts in themselves and others. For me, it is incredibly important to share this work more widely to dismantle stereotypes and to challenge stigma of mental illness. Though suicide and mental illness can be difficult subjects, it’s important to normalise these discussions so that people feel more comfortable opening up about their struggles. I really appreciate History Workshop’s willingness to work with me on this post to ensure the material was presented in a sensitive and appropriate way.
We often think of the early modern period as one uncaring towards the mentally ill, but, as I explored in my article, these people clearly cared and had a range of strategies to prevent suicide (which in some cases are not so different from our own). I also think it’s valuable to reflect on why we think the things we do in the present day, and how this is informed by what has come before.
Sumita Mukherjee, Associate Professor of History at the University of Bristol
I really enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Rosa Campbell and James Keating about Transnational Suffragettes for the History Workshop Podcast. Being in conversation really helped draw out important connections between our work that might not have otherwise been obvious through our publications. History Workshop Journal has always represented the best of the radical tradition of history scholarship for me. The digital magazine of History Workshop has continued that tradition in recent years with some great commissions and themes (such as ‘global feminisms’ in this instance) and it’s been a pleasure to be involved.
Zoe Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Illustration at the University of Northampton
Collaborating with History Workshop was a great experience for our Year 2 illustration students; not only were they given complex and sensitive historical material to interpret but they had to explore ways of engaging a broad online audience with this material through their image making. HW editors were enormously supportive, offering constructive and encouraging critical feedback throughout as students developed their ideas from sketches to finished illustrations. Our students gained new insight into both the potential of illustration and the creative challenges involved in making it with, and for, others. Seeing their finished illustrations published online at the end of the project was hugely rewarding!
Spencer Weinreich, PhD candidate in the History of Science at Princeton University
I was invited to contribute to History Workshop in the course of publishing an article with History Workshop Journal, and both experiences were marked by an enthusiasm, degree of editorial care, and fellow-feeling all too rare. Writing for HW afforded me a liberating opportunity to engage with the ethical dimensions of my own work, a chance for self-reflection on the significance of the stories we tell and how we tell them. I believe that the ideals of the History Workshop movement – that history belongs to the people, that it is the work of the many – are as vital a north star now as they were when the movement began. History Workshop adapts that spirit to the possibilities of the internet, where new kinds of collaborative, communal history are to be made.