Doing History in Public Year in Review: 2019

Editor of DHP Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown) looks back at 2019.

As it is New Year’s Eve, let’s take one final look at 2019, before the resolutions of 2020 begin. In fact, it was a resolution that kicked off 2019 for DHP. Veganuary saw Greggs launch their vegan sausage roll and they quickly struggled to keep up with demand. Piers Morgan called the bakery ‘PC-ravaged clowns’, however, Zoe Farrell uncovered the long history behind veganism.

Another thing that sent Piers Morgan into a spin this year was the suggestion that interns should be paid for their labour. In response, historian of apprenticeship in medieval England, Rhiannon Sandy revealed in her DHP post that the idea that training should be its own reward is a pretty recent concept. She highlighted the benefits of paying interns a proper wage. This issue dominated the end of the year in Cambridge and many other UK universities with an eight day UCU strike over pensions, falling pay, and rising workloads. Many academics opened up about the precarity of the profession sharing their casualisation stories. DHP showed solidarity by observing the #digitalpicketline. During the strike, we cancelled our weekly blogs and advent calendar posts.

DHP are proud to be part of an active community in Cambridge and 2019 was no exception. In February, we ran an archive workshop for the Cambridge University Students’ Union’s Our Streets project. Throughout the year our editors have supported the History for Schools programme and interviewed postgraduates on their experience of sharing history with children.

At the Festival of Ideas, we sought to uncover echoes of today’s headlines in unexpected places and explore the historical roots of current issues. We discussed knife crime, ‘the will of the people’, the migrant crisis, colourism, and the youthquake.

Although ‘youthquake’ was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries back in 2017, youth politics has become a huge phenomenon in 2019. The year saw numerous climate strikes and earlier this month 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg was named Time 2019 Person of the Year. Helen Sunderland blogged about the historical resonances of today’s youth strike movement. She suggested that the media response to the 2019 school strikers mirrored two enduring models of childhood – innocence versus a natural tendency for disobedience.

The best thing about being Editor of DHP is getting to read about so many different areas of history and to share such brilliant research. One of the most enjoyable aspects of DHP is putting together the advent calendar, 2019 saw some fascinating objects. Throughout the year, we have covered too many great topics to name, but here are a few: Demobilisation schemes in India after the Second World War; Dress History in Museums; Skull Collecting; Sleep Across History; Gallipoli and national memory; historical protests; Revisiting the Visitor’s BookPots & Politics in Early America; and The Congo’s and Belgium’s shared past.

As usual, DHP delved into the archives. Max Long explored film archives, while Laura Flannigan gave us a beginner’s guide to English legal records. Marina Iní exposed how several decades of cuts, from both right and left-wing governments, have been detrimental to libraries and archives in Italy. This now poses a risk not only to the work of historians, but to the community as a whole. Finally, Tamara Fernando probed further into the politics of the archive arguing that it is not confined to the documents we read. It exists in the unconscious biases about how a historian looks.

Even at the beginning of 2019, we knew it would be another big year in politics (outside the archive). In September, we saw parliament suspended – or prorogued. Georgia Oman highlighted that due to this suspension an important piece of legislation fell into legal limbo. The lost bill was set to establish ‘no-fault divorce’, whereas the current Act of 1973 demands evidence of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or years of separation – thus, divorce remains a blame game.

Without doubt the biggest story in politics in 2019 was the snap general election – the first December election since 1923. Helen Sunderland explored the electoral reforms of the 1880s demonstrating that 2019 is not the first time that we have seen a shift in election culture, nor is it the first time ‘ordinary people’ have a stake in election campaigns. The changing climate in both periods provided great opportunities to reinvigorate politics, but also leave them vulnerable to corruption.

So we reach the end of the year with a new government, with more female MPs than ever before, but with an opposition on the brink of a leadership contest. There is an “oven-ready” Brexit; could this usher in a new public moment for constitutional history? We cannot be sure what the new year, or the new decade, will bring, but we will be here to add an historical perspective to the big events, and to share more excellent research.

Happy New Year!

Image: Firework photomontage. Available for use under Creative Commons.

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