Doing History in Public Year in Review: 2021

By Alex White (@alex_j_white)

Historians often struggle to recognise the significance of their own times. Finding trends, transformations and turning points in the archive is one thing, but recognising monumental change in the present can be quite another. Looking back at 2021, however, it already seems clear that the world has had an eventful year. From the unprecedented scale of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and the chaos following the attempted occupation of the U.S. Capitol, to the shock of devastating flooding in Europe and the Taliban’s rapid conquest of Afghanistan, it is difficult to avoid the feeling of not just writing but living through history.

The year began with global coronavirus rates at a record high, plunging the U.K. into its longest lockdown to date. In our first post of the year, Weiao Xing reflected on the psychological and physical effects of the pandemic, suggesting that a deep understanding of the mentalities of the past may help to make sense of our condition in the present. Cherish Watton also created Historian Highlight – a series of interviews with postgraduate historians in Cambridge which aimed to reduce isolation and create ties across the various parts of a now-virtual History Faculty. Beginning with an interview on schoolgirls’ politican activism at the turn of the 20th century, the series has since expanded to cover new research on topics ranging from mobility and contraint in Russian Turkestan and HIV/AIDS activism and organisation in England to anti-piracy in the South China Sea.

January also saw Joseph Biden inaugurated as 46th President of the United States. The legacy and meaning of the 2020 election was already being contested – as Tionne Paris points out in her post on the ways in which black women have been burdened with an expectation to ‘save’ progressive politics. It only became more so after a crowd of Trump supporters broke into the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. in an attempt to overturn the election by force. As president, Biden quickly established himself as a dynamic force in foreign policy, prompting Niles Webb to write about the long history of Anglo-American relations. The new President struggled, however, to contain conservative sentiments at home. As multiple states began an attempt to recriminalise abortion, Sophie Turbutt recounted a pioneering anarchist text which contributed in part to the legalisation of contraception and abortion in 1930s Spain.

In fact, persuasion and the media were common themes on Doing History in Public in 2021. Basil Bowdler reflected on the use of books and illustrations for political persuasion in early modern Europe while Fiona Knight examined the ways in which medieval kings sought to present their war wounds and disfigurements in literature. Kate McGregor described a Scottish play which satirised absolute rule in favour of the rule of ‘commonwealth’ while Rory Bannerman analysed a religious pamphlet to argue that Protestantism inspired an early form of anti-capitalism in the Dutch Golden Age. Not every post, however, focused on the arts as tools for winning hearts and minds. In his history of the Beach Boys, Grant Wong argued that it would be better to see music production as a form of labour which is impossible to divorce from the producers themselves.

As lockdown continued through early 2021, many contibutors responded to the closure of historical archives by turning to new and unconventional sources. In February, Rebecca Goldsmith considered the advantages and disadvantages of re-using the field notes of 20th century researchers to tell new kinds of history. Kerry Love examined popular novels starring inanimate objects as unusual sources for material history while Lewis Younie pointed out that oral histories offer agency and active participation to those being researched. In June, Xinyi Wen described an innovative use of historical archives as cultural production – a piece of video art based on an early modern ‘cyclopaedia’ which both reflects and subverts its parent work.

As lockdown restrictions eased in May, however, many of our writers found themselves grateful for the return to normal historical practice. As European archives re-opened, Davide Martino discussed the growing use of mobile phones as archival tools and Kirsty Wright described the surprise and excitement of finding a sheet of real gold in an early modern text on the Royal Mint. Elvira Tamus also wrote positively about the prospects for public history emerging from a meeting of Hungarian church historians in August 2021. It is difficult to tell how historians will approach digital and in-person sources outside of strict lockdowns. However, as Kate Falardeau argues, it is possible that historians of the future will benefit from consulting both at once and building on the advantages of each.

Climate change was also a recurring theme in 2021 – a year which saw a damning IPCC report declare a ‘code red’ for rapid environmental deterioration. As COP26 opened in Glasgow in October, Isobel Akerman wrote about the origins of climate knowledge and the history of human understanding of the climate crisis. Lavinia Gambini, similarly, used depictions of the ‘demonic’ island of Santorini to examine how Europeans thought about environmental destruction and natural disasters long before the birth of climate science. Other posts analysed the human factor behind various ecological regimes. Ben Shread-Hewitt examined the environmental and political cost of the ‘Mandala system’ of sovereignty in Thailand while Nicole Sithole’s review of Charles van Onselen’s The Night Trains emphasised the humanity of those forced into ‘mobile encarceration’ to staff gold mines in colonial southern Africa.

A final theme of the year’s posts was the writing of history itself – and in particular the way in which history has been rewritten in the public eye. Following Tucker Carlson’s visit to Budapest in August, Alex Sessa wrote about the memory of the Holocaust in Hungary and the ways in which autocrats like Victor Orbán have attempted to leverage memory of the Second World War to their own ends. Helena Trenkić also traced the memory of the war in Eastern Europe, describing how the liberation of Belgrade in 1944 has been depicted to suit different political ends. Similarly, following the completion of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in the Republic of Ireland, Aoife O’Leary McNeice traced the complicated history of workhouses for unmarried mothers and the institutional silences still surrounding them. History cannot remain static, however – as Evangeline Leggatt’s post on the omission of female scientists from the history of the Manhattan Project makes clear. Instead, as the historian Charlotte Lydia Riley has argued elsewhere, a nuanced, compassionate rewriting of conventional narratives may be necessary to correct silences and falsehoods.

As in previous years, Doing History in Public ended the year with an Advent Calendar highlighting ‘gifts from the archive’ – a wide selection that ranged from Singaporean cookbooks and Guatamalan radio broadcasts to a lump of coal and the first corned beef sandwich in space. The blog was also proud to uphold the Digital Picket Line in early December in solidarity with striking academic staff.

As we reach the end of 2021, it’s difficult to know what comes next. 2022 brings the prospect of French and Italian presidental elections, U.S. midterms, a Qatari World Cup and a potential platinum jubilee. However, as usual, it will likely be the unexpected events, the contingencies, the surprise victories and defeats, which have the greatest effect on our lives. All we can do for now is hope for a happier and safer future. May we all live in less significant times.

Image credit: An image generated by the WOMBO Dream A.I. from the prompt ‘Cambridge Doing History in Public Year in Review: 2021’.

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