Tag Archives: historians

Why being a historian is about so much more than producing displays for museums

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A display at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester.
David McKelvey via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Tim Cole, University of Bristol

What does society want and need from the arts and humanities? That’s a question that we’ve been asking in a recent project called Bridging the Gap, which explored the wider social, cultural and economic value of arts and humanities research and how to better unlock that value.

One thing that has emerged are the ways that the arts and humanities, like any academic discipline, contribute specific content to the wider world. That could be content about a particular place or point in history, or detail about an artist.
Content isn’t to be dismissed, and as my colleagues and I discovered during our research, there is a continuing demand for specific subject expertise in a range of quarters. One thing we heard time and again from those working in the heritage sector is how important knowledge of a particular historical issue is to the way that content is interpreted. In a stately home for example, academic expertise on something like the changing nature of domestic service across the 19th and 20th centuries feeds in to shaping visitor experiences.

But there are times when the link is far less obvious. It isn’t always easy to predict what knowledge will be relevant where and when. During the recent Ebola outbreak, it was not just specific medical knowledge that was crucial, but also the more seemingly esoteric knowledge of anthropologists with expertise in West African mourning and burial rituals. The specific content knowledge of the arts and humanities is a rich resource that can be drawn upon to inform and shape anything from policy to museum display.

But academic research into the arts and humanities is also much more than just content.

A wider skillset

What we were particularly interested in examining were those moments when arts and humanities researchers bring something more than their subject specialism to the table. To test this we undertook something of an experiment, sending two groups of arts and humanities researchers into the wild. We chose two National Trust sites at Stourhead and Sherborne, which none of the researchers had specialist knowledge of. In both cases, they knew far less than the staff there who possess in-depth and intimate knowledge of these places. We were interested in seeing what, if anything, they brought from the wider skill set of the arts and humanities.

We were surprised by the results. In both cases, something very similar happened. The teams ended up falling into a set of ways of working that characterise arts and humanities research. They asked questions, read the various texts they discovered, looked for stories and isolated a range of broader themes. The results were “big narratives” that provided those working at these sites with novel ways of looking at, and thinking about these familiar places. For example at Sherborne, they connected two seemingly unconnected buildings – a 17th-century hunting lodge and 20th-century airfield building – through their balconies and ideas of the view.

Lodge Park at Sherborne, Gloucestershire.
Celuici via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The researchers brought something of value to the heritage sector, but in a less obvious, direct and measurable way than the subject-specific knowledge of a historian of domestic service who helps shape display practice both upstairs and downstairs in a country house.

Unlocking value

Being both a specialist and generalist is something that academics are well used to as they combine research and teaching within their day-to-day life and persona. And it is something that we discovered more arts and humanities researchers are embracing, in particular in their interactions with the creative industries.

Here we were struck by the way that the most successful collaborations were ones where the distinct identities of arts and humanities researchers and businesses in the creative industries blurred. One inspiring example was Olion/Traces, an app offering visitors to St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff an innovative way of experiencing the museum grounds as it melds fact and fiction, the archives and the site itself. This innovative interpretative tool was co-developed by an academic, Jenny Kidd from Cardiff University, a creative producer, Allie John at yellobrick, and a heritage professional, and Sara Huws from the digital media department at Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum of Wales.

What the team found was that Kidd wasn’t simply involved at the “ideas” stage, inputting her specialist knowledge and then stepping back. But rather, all three were involved at each and every stage of development and feedback. Olion/Traces is one example of new and fruitful ways of working, where arts and humanities researchers become active participants in the creative economy.

The ConversationThis sense of new ways of working in the arts and humanities is something that I’ve thought a lot about personally. In some ways I am still a traditional researcher whose specialist knowledge of the Holocaust is, for example, drawn upon by museums who want content to create a new display. But, alongside that, I’ve also discovered the opportunities, and challenges, of working alongside others in the creative economy, in my case working with artists Stand+Stare to develop a sound journal called Mayfly. In our research, we discovered plenty of other academics from the arts and humanities who are using their knowledge and skills in unexpected – as well as expected – ways.

Tim Cole, Professor of Social History, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How women historians smashed the glass ceiling

Anne Rees, University of Sydney

Earlier this year, I visited Federation University to partake in the ritual get-together of Australian historians: the Australian Historical Association annual conference. Each July, around 500 historians converge upon a nominated university, and spend a week sharing research, catching up with colleagues and drinking too much coffee.

This year, as we contended with the Ballarat drizzle, I was struck by the number of women who had descended upon this iconic working man’s town. I presented my paper on an all-female panel – one of many listed on the program. At tea breaks, I was greeted by a sea of female faces. When I tallied up the names in the conference program, the results were striking: 64% of papers were presented by a woman.

Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel (2016).
Black Inc.

Several months later, I read ANU historian Tom Griffiths’ The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft (2016). An eloquent meditation on “the art and craft of history in Australia,” Griffiths’ account of 14 prominent historians has deservedly received high praise. But the book, as Griffiths freely admits, is a “personal” account of his “favourite historians.” The individuals highlighted reflect Griffiths’ own passion for environmental history and the creative aspects of history making. Five chapters profile women, but gender is not the focus here.

Yet as my conference experience suggests, we can also give an account of the “craft of history in Australia” that has women and gender at its heart. Since the 1970s, the profession has become conspicuous for the number of women in its ranks and the widespread acceptance of feminist scholarship. Compared to both the male-dominated STEM disciplines, and other social sciences like philosophy and political science, Australian history has been remarkably feminised.

This was the conclusion of a recent ANU enquiry into the status of gender in the social sciences. The results, published in 2014, found that history was “the discipline most changed by feminist scholarship.” When it came to “improving the participation of women” and “mainstreaming feminist approaches and gender scholarship,” history departments were judged “impressively successful.”

The Australian Historical Association leadership is symptomatic of this broader trend. The current president, vice president and the two immediate past presidents are all female. This is not a recent phenomenon: women have sat at the helm of the Association for 14 of the past 20 years.


Women also fare well when it comes to funding from the Australian Research Council. Of the nine Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards granted to history in 2016, five were secured by women. And of the 23 history Discovery projects funded in the latest round, 16 have female Chief Investigators.

These statistics are reflected in who gets published. Over the five-year window from 2012-16, 62.5% of research articles published in the journal Australian Historical Studies had a female author. The same is true of History Australia, where 56.5% of authors were women.

History also has a relatively high number of female Fellows of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences. At present, 38.5% of history fellows are women. This is in contrast to philosophy (23%), political science (26%), education (20%) and economics (10%). Of the major social science disciplines, only sociology (42.5% female) can boast a more impressive gender ratio.

And Australian history may even be outperforming its international counterparts. Former AHA president Angela Woollacott believes that “history in Australia has a higher profile of women than in the UK or US.”

Exciting new histories

Fellow former AHA president Marilyn Lake also maintains that women are writing the “most exciting new histories.” As she noted at a recent book launch, women have spearheaded the “new wave of Australian history,” which places the national story in its global and regional contexts.

Not all these women historians focus on gender in their research, but there are abundant signs that feminist scholarship is also going strong. In 2012 the long-running feminist history journal Lilith was revived after a short hiatus, while earlier this year the Australian Women’s History Network launched a blog that publishes new perspectives on gender history several times per week.


And the mainstreaming of gender within Australian history is not limited to women. The ANU’s Frank Bongiorno, for instance, a stalwart of labour and political history, has written about sexuality and gender in The Sex Lives of Australians (2012) – the book selected by expert judges to win the Australian history category in the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

How do we explain this state of affairs? Woollacott stresses the “methodological synergies” between gender history and the cultural and postcolonial “turns” that have reshaped the discipline as a whole. Others have pointed to the prominent role of historians within women’s liberation and university gender studies programs.

Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath, Marian Quartly, Creating A Nation (1994).
McPhee Gribble Publishers

Woollacott agrees that the generation of feminist historians who came of age during the 1970s played a pivotal role. Reacting against the masculinist mythologies espoused by radical nationalist historians during the 1950s and 60s, these scholars rewrote Australian history from a feminist perspective — a project that culminated in the co-authored Creating a Nation (1994). And importantly, these trailblazing women also provided role models for those who followed.

Of course, the picture is not all rosy. Less than 40% of female Academy Fellows is hardly gender parity. Nor is history immune from structural forms of gender inequity at work in society at large. Across all professions, women continue to bear the brunt of childcare and domestic labour, with almost inevitable consequences for career progression.

And as Lake laments, male historians loom large in the public sphere. For every female public intellectual such as La Trobe historian Clare Wright, we can point to a host of men such as Stuart Macintyre and Geoffrey Blainey who “write as authorities on ‘the nation’” and “dominate the public perception” of historical scholarship.

Even so, in an age of persistent gender inequality, the feminisation of Australian history represents a rare cause for celebration. But it also provides cause for reflection.

As we continue the conversation about the “craft of history in Australia,” it worth asking what this female and feminist presence means for the tales we tell about our past. And if, as Griffiths writes, history has a “daily revolutionary influence,” how can we best use this feminised scholarship to reimagine a nation in which (white) men and their stories still predominate?

The Conversation

Anne Rees, Kathleen Fitzpatrick Junior Research Fellow, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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