Over the summer, my time has mostly been taken up preparing for a talk I was asked to give at Wolverhampton Art Gallery on my research. (I say most of my time – note to my supervisor, I’ve been at the Archives nearly every day they open, it’s just that the heaps of council minutes I’ve been picking through have been feeding into the talk). Anyway, I’ve been re-learning the art of sifting my research into a presentable, succinct format, and thinking about what might interest the sort of person that comes to a local history talk.
It turned out that I needn’t have worried too much – the subject appeared to be of sufficient interest by itself. I’m a great believer that it’s daft confining history to an academic echo chamber, but that (in the spirit of the excellent recent Voice Of The People series) history should be inspire empathy, for ordinary folk and extraordinary, in times past and the present. For me, that means bringing my analysis, with all the privileges I’ve had to be educated, to bear on a subject that means a lot to a lot of people.
I talked about my research into the Carribee Island area of Wolverhampton, a densely-thronged site of dilapidated housing and poverty that was home, at one time or another, to many thousands of people. These were poor people, leaving few records: that tiny minority that could read had little opportunity to give voice to their thoughts; an even smaller proportion would think to record these in English, because of the large Irish contingent that gave Carribee Island such a distinctive flavour.
The week before the talk turned into one of the oddest in my life for a number of reasons, but it was kickstarted when the Irish Post got in touch for an interview and wrote it up advertising the talk last Wednesday. I don’t know how much that contributed, but when I arrived the room was full and people had to be turned away. If you came, I am so, so grateful for your support and interest – I was blown away. If you weren’t able to come then (or fit in the room), I’m repeating the talks at the City Archives on 9th September, and an extra one at the Art Gallery on 25th September. I’d be so happy to hear from anyone with an interest as well – please do get in touch via the comments, Twitter, or email.
It’s all caused me a lot of reflection over the weekend. I initially began a PhD expecting I might end up in a HE institute of some variety, lecturing and researching. I’m starting to wonder if there’s more to be said for spreading my net a bit, engaging from an academic’s perspective with a huge world of public history that’s out there. You can see from the success of Who Do You Think You Are, genealogy websites, Facebook groups, even the most popular posts on my own blog, that people really do care about the history of ordinary lives, of things that affect them.
There is a huge amount of history out there being done by ‘amateurs’, and it’s often seen as completely separate from the ‘professional’ history being done by those lucky enough to have had 7 years plus education. I balk a little at this, as though we privileged few have a right to dictate the rules and outputs that define history. Why shouldn’t there be a closer blend of public and professional history? Wouldn’t that benefit everyone? I started writing this post to reflect on the thoroughly weird experience of realising that people care about my research. But it would good to turn that puzzlement into positive action, and figure out how I can be the best historian I can be, and just who and what my history is about.