Doing History in Public Year in Review: 2020

By Zoë Jackson (@ZoeMJackson1) & Evelyn Strope (@emstrope)

This New Year’s Eve, we look back at 2020, a year many have described as ‘unprecedented’. The coronavirus spread around the world from the start of the year, and the ensuing pandemic and resulting lockdowns have completely altered life as we knew it.

Historians in various publications spent the year putting different aspects of the pandemic and its social, cultural, political, and economic implications into historical perspective, and Doing History in Public was no different. Early in the pandemic, Marina Inì connected her research on early modern quarantines and lazzaretti to present-day isolation, hygiene, and social distancing measures to contain the spread of the virus. Sam Harrison reflected on social optimism and the inability of societies today to respond to very real threats of social collapse, as reflected in coronavirus and climate change. Aoife O’Leary McNeice traced the reciprocal generosity between Ireland and the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Navajo Nations, highlighting the aid offered by the indigenous nations to the Irish for famine relief in the 1840s, and donations by the Irish to a COVID-19 relief fund for the Navajo Nation. Max Ashby Holme criticized the use of the term ‘levelling’ in relation to the coronavirus pandemic, showing how the pandemic’s exacerbation of social inequalities is at odds with the origin of the Levellers, seventeenth-century protestors who aimed to physically destroy hedges and reduce social inequalities. Zara Kesterton reflected on how artistic innovations during the pandemic, such as recreations of famous paintings and museum promotions of digital versions of their exhibitions, might actually lead to a greater appreciation of the material world.

2020 was also a year of elections and political protest. Zoë Jackson shared her thoughts on legitimate political power in the wake of the U.S. Presidential election, Brexit, and the Black Lives Matter Movement, and Aoife O’Leary McNeice compared the ideological origins of the now three political parties attempting to govern in Ireland. More than one hundred years after the United States and the United Kingdom granted women the right to vote, Georgia Oman looked back on the struggle for suffrage and its backlash in higher education at the turn of the twentieth century. Kevin Bendesky also reflected on the continued debate over Victim Personal Statements in the British legal system after the 1960s Victims’ Rights Movement.

Writers for the blog also reflected on history as presented in the arts and other cultural institutions. Alex White reported on a performance-based protest at the British Museum against BP sponsorship of a new exhibition on Troy, concluding that ‘the past may be used to critique the present, but it also encourages participants to imagine a brighter future.’ Charlotte Coyne examined the historical methodology the writers used in the musical Come From Away, including interviews with thousands of people to prepare an oral history of the events depicted and to encourage a greater understanding of the historical context outside the theatre itself. Liya Wizevich described Moscow’s Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, which featured the regional diversity of the Soviet Union, and which Wizevich argues reflects the changing politics of the Soviet state, and Clemency Hinton highlighted the complex nature of guided tours in the fast-changing landscape of heritage tourism. Other blog posts around cultural and material history included an examination of the ‘living tradition’ of Egyptian Hajj murals, an exploration of the implications of the continued circulation of Nazi Allach porcelain in light of modern slavery legislation, and a reflection on the value of historical reproduction (in this case, knitting) for engaging with the past.

Imperial history was also a frequent topic on the blog over the course of the year. Jana Hunter underlined the ‘civilising’ gaze in nineteenth-century English travel literature centered on Prague, Lauren Brown wrote on the horrible conditions of the Mau Mau detention camps in British colonial Kenya, and the limited ability of former prisoners to seek justice in the British legal system, and Jordan Buchanan explored the defensive role Argentina took against U.S. imperialism in Latin America at the first decades of the twentieth century. Looking to the present, Daniel Adamson used the BBC Proms debate as a starting point for discussing British reluctance for historical self-reflection, especially concerning the Holocaust. Liam Grieve also argued for the historian’s role in advocating for a more nuanced public understanding of ‘empire’ as producing both globalization and the modern hostility to the phenomenon.

As is part of our remit, the blog featured stories on the methods of doing and communicating history this year. Stephanie Brown, Laura Flannigan, and Robert Saunders spoke on a panel about historians using social media in the fight against ‘fake history’, and their talking points were reported on the blog. Mobeen Hussein reviewed the Wiley Digital Archives, while Evelyn Strope highlighted some digital tools she has found particularly useful in her research. Zoë Jackson touched on the power of the archive to reflect past, present, and future in her coverage of the fight to save the Thomas Cook archive. Book reviews also featured on the site – Jordan Buchanan praised Augustine Sedgwick’s Coffeeland, and Sam Young highlighted the power of psychological exploration to elevate historical fiction in Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions. Public history is not without it challenges, however; Alex White reflected on the challenges of teaching primary school students about the Holocaust, and Davide Martino wrote on the difficulties of communicating historical research to broader audiences through the lens of Wikipedia.

We closed out the year at Doing History in Public with our 2020 Advent Calendar, ‘A Gift from the Past,’ which offered daily snippets of material history throughout December – from the boardgame Womanopoly and an Old Sheffield Plate toaster to a Chimpanzee painting and an Icelandic executioner’s axe, and much, much more.

As we enter 2021 with hopes for a wider coronavirus vaccine roll-out amidst surging cases in the UK and elsewhere, a last-minute Brexit trade deal, and a looming presidential inauguration across the pond, we certainly do not know where the next year will lead, but we can hope that a safer, happier, and healthier future is on the horizon.

Happy New Year!

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

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