Public History at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas

Cambridge PhD students Bethan Johnson and George Severs (@GeorgeSevers10) talk to Doing History in Public about their recent Festival of Ideas panel Forms of Extreme Protest in the Post-War West.

Can you tell us a bit about your research?

George: My PhD researches the history of HIV/AIDS activism in England from 1982, the year of the first AIDS-related death in the UK, to 1997, the year after the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy which transformed a diagnosis with the virus from a terminal to a chronic one. 1997 also saw the end of 18 years of Conservative government with the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government.

Bethan: My research analyses a particular form of nationalism in North America and Europe between 1965 and 1975. I call this type of nationalism ‘militant separatism’ as it is characterised by a commitment to separation from the governing state through extremely violent methods. I study the role of ‘organic intellectuals’ – influential but not formally trained thinkers – in the activism of ten separatist groups, across five countries.

Does presenting to a non-specialist audience make you think differently about your research?

Bethan: I like to keep my presentations to non-specialists and specialists fairly similar, but there are some differences. For example, I try to avoid using too many technical words or theories which would take too long to explain appropriately. This, I find, forces me to confront the crux of my argument more often and more quickly. There have been times as I have prepared for a presentation when I have spotted connections that I had not seen before, or even that entire arguments I had planned to make in my thesis are not sufficiently supported by my evidence. I am particularly conscious of the need to tell public audiences why they should care about what I have just told them. I want anyone who hears me to leave the room more knowledgeable about my specific topic, but also more willing to contemplate broader concepts about nationalism, patriotism, and violence.

George: Just as I would with any audience, I was keen to make sure that I was presenting something that was understandable and interesting. The only main difference was that I didn’t spend any time talking about historiography, I figured that in this case it was unlikely to be of interest (though this is certainly not the case in all public histories). It’s worth keeping in mind that, whilst we were presenting to non-specialists, we were still talking to a highly educated and engaged audience who had a lot of personal, professional and intellectual experience to bring to the discussion.


What does public history mean to you?

George: To me this means communicating history, perhaps specifically one’s own historical research, to an audience not directly engaged in that practice.

Bethan: Personally, I love public history and it really anchors my research. I push myself (and hope one day to push other academics) to consider why historians really want to make distinctions between public history and academic, institutional history. I understand that not everyone wants to engage with historiography and theory, but I also wonder if academic historians are selling their audiences short by assuming that they do not. The more that I study the history of violent nationalism, the more critical it feels to see public and popular history evolve. As such, I try to find a way of talking about my research in a way that neither bores nor babies my audience. It was what I wanted when I was outside of academia, and it is what I think my family and friends want and deserve now.

You both research quite political and sensitive subjects – does this create particular challenges for doing public history?

George: This can be a challenge. The history of the political responses to HIV/AIDS is a contested one, and there is the potential for this to come to the fore in public history discussions. I see this as more of an opportunity, though. These debates tell us something very interesting about the public engagement with the research one is conducting and give a flavour of the spectrum of response which is possible. It also ensures that we’re aware of the diverse voices and experiences of those who buy into these histories and forces us to think critically about how that should impact on our work.

Bethan: While I am always aware of the charged nature of my work, public presentations bring this to the fore. I make claims about how certain conditions caused nationalist violence to crop up in Western nations; in the current political climate, that can be controversial. Given that my time period is recent and that I am predominantly presenting in countries where these militant groups were active, I am also aware of how sensitive the topic might be for audience members. Since I study the ideas of these groups and try to explain them, I am careful to state that my work is not about me agreeing or disagreeing, condemning or condoning my subjects. Instead, I stress that it is just about me analysing them. I try to explain why absenting my opinion, as a historian, is important for my research, so that no one draws conclusions about my stance on the issue based on my silence.

What advice would you give to other historians or postgraduate researchers looking to share their research with a public audience? 

Bethan: I would strongly encourage postgraduate and early career researchers to present to public audiences. For most of us, the public are potential consumers of books we may want to write, so seeing how our research plays to them might be useful when planning publications. Particularly for historians of modern topics, it is great to present to public audiences because they may know something helpful about your topic or offer up a question that forces you to consider your research question from an entirely different vantage point. However, researchers should present when they feel that they have something substantial that they want to test; public audiences are, in my opinion, not really the ideal test subject for a half-baked theory. Not only would this run the risk of not providing helpful feedback, it might also lead some in the audience to accept the findings as definitive rather than tentative, which in cases such as mine might have broader, negative consequences.

George: Mainly to do it: it is a valuable experience to share your research and gain feedback from a wider audience. It is worth thinking carefully about the language you use and the style with which you convey your history. But if you are passionate about your research and passionate about it reaching a wider audience then you should certainly share it in public history formats.


Images: photographs by Helen Sunderland


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