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The Media in History and History in the Media Conference, 20th-21st March 2014 (Part 1)

by Alex Campsie

Alex Campsie is a PhD student in modern British political and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

Last month saw Cambridge host an inaugural ‘European Graduate Conference’ on the broad theme of ‘History and the Media’. Like its sister event (entitled ‘History and the Law’), the project was generously funded by the History Faculty with the very worthy aim of bringing together young researchers from across Europe to discuss their work. Our natty palindromic title hoped to attract both discussions of the role the media has played within history, and meditations on how new medias may be impacting our contemporary practice of the discipline.

Despite a somewhat foolishly chosen deadline which fell dangerously close to the festive period (not everyone spent their New Year’s Eve investigating the British Left’s attitudes to popular culture!?) meaning submissions trickled in slowly, we ended up with almost 50 abstracts from a far afield as Nigeria, Turkey, Russia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Finland, and an extremely sophisticated batch of potential papers to sift through.

Indeed, by time the afternoon of Thursday 20th March rolled around, seeing Cambridge bathed in pleasantly unseasonable sunshine, we had collated a highly impressive roster of speakers, and an even larger crowd of spectators positively thronged at the doors of Sidney Sussex College’s Knox Shaw Room in anticipation of Professor David Reynolds’s keynote speech, on the topic of ‘History and Television: The Last Fifty Years’. As somewhat of a celebrated television historian himself, Professor Reynolds was able to mix incisive analysis with insider know-how as he gave an entertaining run through some of the major changes in how history has been presented through the medium of television.[1] We have experienced, he concluded, a shift away from the rather dusty, didactic mode of address symbolised by Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ towards a more open-ended exploration of the subjective fragments of experience which make up ‘the past’.

The speech concluded with a discussion of the democratic possibilities opened up by such an approach to history, centering on the ways in which BBC 2’s recent ‘Pity of War’ live televised debate had seen members of the public and academic historians alike picking over the causes of the First World War in a refreshingly participatory format (and which, to the amusement of all, saw Niall Ferguson virulently and convincingly denounced by a particularly irate audience member). Noting how discussion had continued to rage on via social media long after the cameras had stopped rolling, and in particular that Twitter conversations had granted classes of school children unprecedented opportunity to enter into dialogue with professional historians, we went off to our conference dinner mulling over the radical opportunities opened up by these new media.

So involving and engrossing were these implications that they could not help but be teased out long into the night, a state of affairs which had this organiser at least questioning the wisdom of setting the next day’s starting time at an ambitious 9am. Nonetheless, proceedings were soon off to a fascinating start, with the first panel of Marco Tomaszewski (Freiburg), Nigel Ritchie (Queen Mary), Catherine Porter (Cambridge), and Peter Hession (Cambridge), providing case studies which examined the interplay between the media, culture, society and politics throughout history, especially at epochs of fraught social and political change (the growing cities of early modern Germany, the French revolution, Katangan secession and the Dublin lockout respectively).

Particularly striking was the sheer depth of quantitative research into the mechanisms which help diffuse ‘media’ artifacts (in this case, all print press: books, pamphlets, and newspapers). This was particularly exciting in light of some of the work undertaken by the ‘Visualizing Historical Networks’ project, launched by the Centre for History and Economics at Cambridge and Harvard, which aims to use mathematical modelling systems to ‘map’ the flow and transmission of people, ideas and objects.[2] If, as Geoff Mulgan has argued, we live in an age marked by an unprecedentedly complex ‘economics of communication’ spurred on by the rise of ‘network society’, these new approaches will help us excavate the messy infrastructural and institutional structures which condition our access to information and ‘culture’.[3] But just as equally, Nigel Ritchie’s rich paper on the career of Jean Marat employed the biographical turn to highlight the continued importance of personal interaction and ideas in the ‘making’ of our media landscape; more broadly reminding us that the human and the contingent will always be at the heart of any historian’s project.

These talks were an ideal introductory exploration of some of the conference’s key themes. They got us thinking about the roles which ‘the media’ plays within society, and reflecting on approaches we might employ to track these relationships. After a restorative lunch very kindly provided by Sidney Sussex College’s award-winning catering team, the latter half of the conference saw us plough on with some more conceptual ruminations on the nature of communication in modern society– to be continued, in appropriately dramatic fashion, in Part 2

[1] See this entertaining profile for more on his televisual escapades:http://www.theguardian.com/education/2007/oct/02/academicexperts.highereducationprofile.

[2] See:http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~histecon/visualizing/.

[3] Geoff Mulgan, Communication and Control: Networks and the New Economics of Communication (Cambridge: Polity, 1991).

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