Doing History in Public Year in Review: 2018

Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland) looks back at the events of 2018 and how DHP covered them.

2018 was another turbulent year in global politics. In March, Vladimir Putin was, unsurprisingly, re-elected as Russia’s President. Mobeen Hussain reflected in this blog post on how Putin’s popular appeal stemmed in part from rebranding the long-held idea of Russian exceptionalism. Tensions between Russia and the West have continued to increase. Just two weeks before Putin’s re-election, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury. As Fred Smith noted in this DHP post, spying is often associated with modern times, but double agents also operated in sixteenth-century England.

Events in the US offered more historical comparisons. Reflecting on the nationwide high school student campaign which followed February’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I wrote about the history of young people’s protests from the late-nineteenth century. Early in the year, debates over funding Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico contributed to two US government shutdowns. In this DHP post, Tom Smith wrote about an early-twentieth-century account of an American missionary in the Philippines, for whom a wall seemed distinctly un-American. Disagreements over Trump’s wall have continued into 2019, prompting another budget impasse.

Much of the UK news this year has inevitably focused on Europe. In November, Emily Redican-Bradford interviewed Dr Hanno Balz about his research on the protests of 1968 and parallels with European political activism today. However, perhaps the biggest gap in DHP’s posts on current affairs last year was Brexit. Carys Brown drew on Boris Johnson’s claim in February that Brexit would be ‘good for carrots’ to uncover a long history of using the vegetable for political purposes. But, of course, a lot has happened since then. The Chequers deal, countless ministerial resignations, three Brexit Secretaries, a vote of no confidence and yet more parliamentary drama. Political commentators are calling Brexit one of the biggest constitutional crises in modern British history. Though for me, at least, finding the critical distance from which to view the subject historically is still proving difficult.

This year’s news wasn’t all doom and gloom. During the summer heatwave, I looked back on another unusually hot summer centuries earlier, in 1757. Last summer also saw an uncharacteristically successful World Cup for England’s men, who reached the semi-finals for the first time in 28 years. In this post for DHP on the World Cup and history, Tom Smith reflected on what major sporting tournaments can tell historians about power, class, gender and nationalism. Who could have guessed that 2018 would be the year England finally avoided “the disappointment of a predictable penalty shoot-out defeat”?

As ever, last year had its share of anniversaries and commemorations. 2018 was an important year for women’s history, marking one hundred years since some women gained the UK parliamentary vote. I wrote about how the suffrage centenary was celebrated in Cambridge and further afield and in March, Mobeen Hussain explored the Russian history of International Women’s Day. Last year also saw the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Tom Smith reflected on King’s complex legacy and the dangers of selectively memorialising the civil rights leader. To mark World AIDS Day, George Severs kicked off 2018’s Advent Calendar of historical ‘gifts from the past’ with a post on the Catholic AIDS Link Memorial Quilt and the use of material culture to commemorate those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

In November, DHP celebrated World Digital Preservation Day by hosting a Twitter chat about what digital preservation means for historians. Former DHP member Marta Musso’s blog post on Archives Portal Europe prompted some interesting conversations. You can catch up on our chat here. This was the culmination of DHP’s work over the last few months retracing its digital history roots, including running two training sessions with Cambridge Digital Humanities on Blogging for Researchers.

In 2018, campaigns to decolonise the curriculum continued in earnest. Several DHP contributors looked at how this shapes their own work. Elissa O’Connell from the Feminist Archive South wrote about the Translating Latin American Feminisms project, suggesting how digital methods and translation can help decolonise the archive. In an interview with Mobeen Hussain, Alice Procter talked about her work running Uncomfortable Art Tours and gave advice on how historians can deconstruct and complicate official histories of colonialism in museums, galleries and other educational institutions.

For the DHP team, 2018 was, of course, another year of research. In between reacting to the latest news, we’ve been grappling with what it means to be postgraduate historians. Whether we’re just starting out – have a look at my advice for new PhD researchers – or are nearing the finish line. 2018’s taken us to archives around the world. For those itching to get away as the January blues bite, let our travels last year inspire you. Explore the University of Yale’s Spinelli archives with Eleanor Russell, follow Zoe Farrell tracing sixteenth-century artisans in Italian, Austrian and German archives and read Mobeen Hussain’s reflections on the challenges and opportunities of researching in Lahori libraries and archives.

Our work continues in the New Year, but what lies ahead in this year’s headlines seems harder to predict. With much still up in the air as we enter 2019, the coming year is likely to play an important part in the history books of the future.

Image: Houses of Parliament, London (photograph by Berit, licensed under Creative Commons)



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