Doing History in Public Year in Review: 2022

By Zara Kesterton (@ZaraKesterton)

Last year’s editor-in-chief, Alex White, ended his 2021 Year in Review with the hopeful plea that we may ‘all live in less significant times’. 2022 has failed utterly to comply. The world is still reeling from the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is causing fresh problems for China as the country abandons its zero-Covid policy. Europe has been shaken by the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Here in Britain, it has been a tumultuous year in politics with a dizzying turnover of politicians and prime ministers, and the death of a Queen whom many saw as a beacon of stability. The climate crisis has been felt all over the world, with extreme weather events from heatwaves to bitter cold. Although the year may have been turbulent, our contributors to Doing History in Public have responded to events with clarity and insight.

In 2022, historians began to analyse the lessons we can learn from Covid-19. Sam Phoenix Clarke reflected on the ways in which science has been represented in public discourse since the beginning of the pandemic in his article on the stakes and ends of historicising science. Later in the year, Sam wrote about his specific research specialism in science writing in 1930s Britain – a period which defined the way that science is discussed in the public sphere today. Meanwhile, how many of us have continued the habit of daily walks that helped us connect with nature during lockdown? Charlotte Alt discussed the Wandervogel movement in early-twentieth century Germany, which promoted walking in nature as a vital improvement for modern city living. 

The ongoing war in Ukraine has caused several Doing History in Public contributors to reflect on their own historical research. Niles Webb wrote an insightful piece assessing how British foreign policy’s response to the ongoing war has been shaped by the historical balance of power between Britain, its European neighbours, and the US. Izabela Paszko found parallels between her work on private rumours in the public sphere in Nazi Poland, and the threat of ‘fake news’ in the war in Ukraine and beyond. If there is a glimmer of hope in the tragedy of war, it is that historians and the public are refocusing their attention on Eastern European history. Vanesa Djibrilova’s post offers useful tips and resources for studying Central and Eastern European history, drawn from her own experience.

Another issue that has dominated the news – in Britain at least – has been illegal parties at the highest levels of government. Jerome Gasson found surprising parallels between events at Westminster in 2022 and medieval courts, where rulers such as Edward III often ignored their own restrictions on extravagant feasting. Samuel Rowe also discussed modern politics in relation to the medieval period, in his article on the myth of a shared ‘Gaulois’ heritage that is still referenced by French politicians today.

Many twenty-first century political leaders have styled themselves as hyper-masculine, from Vladimir Putin to Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump. Megan Chance’s book review of The Rule of Manhood, by Jamie Gianoutsos, discussed the impact of masculine ideals on the origins of republicanism. Megan also wrote about gender in relation to rule: examining how Elizabeth I styled herself as a ‘female king’ at a time when the leadership of women was still thought unnatural by political commentators. The contradictory demands placed on women was a theme in Marlo Avidon’s post about seventeenth-century critiques of ‘face painting’, and the rise of ‘cosmetics’ with supposed health benefits.

While we may hope that the gender discrimination discussed by Megan and Marlo remains firmly in the past, several contributors wrote about twentieth-century efforts to overturn outdated and discriminatory concepts. Livia Eva Karoui suggested that today’s grassroots activists could learn from the 1960 Ugandan women’s movement about how to bring together a diverse group to create meaningful social change. Thomas Cryer also reflected on the impact of 1960s activism movements on today’s politics, examining how Critical Race Theory – emerging from the Civil Rights Movement – has been weaponised in twenty-first century political discourse.

Many of Doing History in Public’s posts this year reflected on the long reach of colonialism in historical research and current affairs. Akhilesh Issur wrote a thought-provoking article about whether it is possible to use colonial archives to write non-elite history. Some of our writers tested Akhilesh’s ideas against specific case-studies. Evan Binkley discussed the complex ethics of tourism drives in Ghana to revisit former sites of enslavement, which promote awareness of Ghanaian history but at the same time put buildings at risk. In contrast, Aileen Alexis wrote about historical monuments that many think deserve to be removed or replaced, such as monuments to Christopher Columbus in Trinidad. While the monument debate has made headlines in Britain and around the world over the past few years, some elements of colonial legacies are less visible and consequently have been overlooked. Clémentine Ducasse discussed big game hunting in the former French colonies of Indochina, which constituted ‘colonial ecological control’ well into the twentieth century.

Part of our blog’s aim is to reflect on how we ‘do history’ in public. Several contributors reflected on their own experience of writing and practising history this year. While Ivi Fung discussed the limits of a university dissertation, which can feel stifling to creativity, others wrote about the benefits of incorporating creative practice into their research. I attended a workshop to recreate artificial flowers and reflected on its impact for my own research into eighteenth-century fashion. Samuel Rowe discussed the growing trend for using digital performances on YouTube to reinvigorate historic texts, from music to theatre. 

Incorporating creative methods into historical research often means confronting failure, as well as success. Ivana Dizdar tackled the subject of failure in relation to Edwin Landseer’s 1864 painting Man Proposes, God Disposes – which students at Royal Holloway believed would cause them to fail if they looked at it during an exam.

Some of the most joyful posts explored unexpected finds in the archive. Charmaine Au-Yeung stumbled across the fascinating papers of Susie Wong, a writer and producer whose work explored her own British-Chinese identity with intriguing implications for wider narratives about immigration. Indeed, the complexity of British–Chinese cultural interaction can be traced back centuries, as we learn from Eszter Csillag’s post about her discovery that a seventeenth-century British mapmaker copied illustrations directly from a Chinese source, the Gushi Huapu (顧氏畫譜).

This year, we continued our popular ‘Historian Highlight’ series in which we interview history students about their research. Cherish Watton and Alex White had wonderful conversations with Emilie Cunning, Charmaine Au-Yeung, Hannah Blythe, Rebecca Turkington, and Sam RoweCherish was herself the subject of a Historian Highlight by Alex.

We closed the year with our annual ‘Advent Calendar’ – a treasure trove of posts for each day of December leading up to Christmas. Some highlights included articles about the festive period in years gone by. Readers heard about French Christmas songs from the early 1700s, learned Slovak wintery sayings, spent time at a Jesuit Christmas Eve in Québec in 1647, and read a religious retort from a Sri Lankan student at Cambridge published on Boxing Day 1874.

In 2022, we will continue the Historian Highlight series with some exciting upcoming interviews. We are also delighted to announce the launch of our Instagram page @doing_history_in_public. We will share regular updates on Instagram posts, stories, and reels, alongside our Twitter and Facebook accounts, to help us engage with wider audiences in 2023.

We wish all our contributors, editors, and readers a happy and healthy New Year. We look forward to doing more history in public in the coming year.

Cover image: a foggy scene of buildings and trees, illuminated by lamps. Generated by using the phrase ‘Cambridge Doing History in Public: Year in Review 2022’.

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