Why I Study History

Archival MaterialThe following are my notes (with a few extras added, to add a little cohesiveness), presented at the debate on Wednesday 7th October, as part of the University of Winchester’s Modern History Seminar. The original speaker was declared sick with Swine Flu, and therefore I stepped in a couple of days beforehand, but with only an hour or 2 spare to prepare! The panel, of Tom Lawson, Ryan Lavelle and myself, were brought together to put forward a case that history is not dead (as Keith Jenkins had said at the previous seminar) – see what you think, and feel free to join the debate, especially in the light of calls from the government to justify every expenditure!

  • Love experimentation, so felt up to the challenge of taking on this presentation at short notice!
  • Good middle-class stock, was taken to many museums as a child. Lived in a 16th Century farmhouse – used to imagine the others who lived in it, and my brother, who studied heritage building undertook a project on the development of the house – identifying the ‘original’ and when each section was added.
  • Had a very enthusiastic and engaging secondary school history teacher, who gave me an enthusiasm for the subject, and a very left-wing A-Level tutor who was very droll (we spent a lot of time talking about art, and I’ve always been fascinated by that question “what is art?”), but treated us as adults/demonstrated the relevance to everyday life, and thus fired the interest even more!
  • Love the idea that ‘History’ can be translated as the idea of “His Story”, and very much see history as a story of the people involved in that – there may be some great overarching themes, but the interest for me really comes from discovering what those stories are, and, as I study popular culture, can probably just about get away with saying that I love historical novels, especially those that are well researched and give a real sense of period! Notably I’m thinking of Georgette Heyer, “The Queen of Regency Romance”, who when she died, was discovered to have kept extensive notebooks detailing clothing, habits, customs, etc. of the period.
  • Visited Imperial War Museum, aged 15/16. Find many of the exhibits too ‘technical’, but was really drawn to the posters in the Home Front section, and being nosy, love gaining an idea of ‘how others live’ (quite an informal anthropological interest I think – as a tour leader in Venice, was told I clearly couldn’t be a historian as I was more interested in my guests than in San Marco). Fascinated by what people ‘consume’ from museums – I took home a postcard of ‘Women of Britain’, come into the Factories… and out of that interest, have completed:
    • A-Level project , came from seeing that colour postcard in front of me on the wall – loved it. It has been suggested that I should make an avatar of myself as that poster to use in my digital domains.
    • Always knew it would be my degree level FYP – was awaiting the chance to do it all through my degree.
    • Once I did it as an FYP, I knew there was so much more to research and was fortunate to turn it into a PhD!
    • As may be clear from my PhD, I am particularly fascinated by the use of visual culture within history, especially ephemeral material (With the face of history changing over the past few decades, particularly with an increase in interest in social and family history, there are now a perplexing number of avenues for the historian to go down, and consequently a wide-ranging and bewildering array of sources. It is our job, as historians, to assess the sources available and consider their relative importance and the methodologies required in order to use them, with the value of a source defined by the topic under consideration. Subjects such as psychology and sociology have influenced historical study for some time, and have changed the way we view the importance of some sources. Take Marwick’s example of a chocolate wrapper: he considers that, to the general historian, this is largely an insignificant source compared with other sources available, yet to the historian of the chocolate industry, or of design, it may be an essential source), which was never created for posterity, but for a particular use at the time. We could argue that this offers a more ‘genuine’ insight into how life ‘was’, but such information needs to be contextualised (and really, it’s never possible to ‘recapture’ a moment.
    • With my posters, for instance, even the briefest look gives us an idea of what people wore, the type of roles they took on, the issues that were important to SOMEONE (the nation… through the government), but a deeper look gives us insight into social relations, and, where I see an anthropological influence – a past culture – what was important to people, and how they made meaning in their lives… and how we now draw upon that! The posters of the Second World War evidently drew heavily on longer term discourses emanating from new and established institutions, although there was often a clear distinction between those that drew on the past and tradition, and those that pushed forward to the future. Such is the significance of the discourses identifiable in wartime posters, that the posters continue to resonate with a modern day audience. Vintage wartime posters sell well, and the IWM has a wide-range of reproduction items that appear popular. Through rigorous academic study, these posters can be recontextualised.
    • That interest in consumption is tied into an interest in nostalgia, and the last year has given a lot of material for me to work with on that. With the recession, the poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has taken on a new resonance (also Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases with Swine Flu). Once I became aware of the renewed interest in this campaign (which a number of govt ministers inc. GB have on their desk) I saw that I could have an important impact as a historian, in providing the historical background to the poster (many Americans in particular were raving on about how this poster had kept the British together throughout the Second World War, when in fact it had never made it onto the walls, and tells us far more about 2009, than it does about 1939, but as a historian, we can bring a flavour of 1939 to the modern day masses, and as a ‘professional historian’, can have an impact through being interviewed for e.g. the New York Times! So important to people, needs that professional input… Keen to encourage good quality ‘popular content’ that’s well researched, and triggers interest in history, especially cultural history.
    • Real interest in nostalgia, myth and memory
      • The myth of the ‘people’s war’ is still ‘sold’ today and boosts the heritage industry, a multi-million pound industry for the UK.[1] The posters, along with the general wartime experience, have gained mythical accretions, and most people have a knowledge of many of the wartime posters, as a product of the shared experience.
      • E.g. in the Second World War, propaganda drew upon the common ‘myth’ of England’s Green and Pleasant land, although much of the nation was industrialised, but this was something that resonated with the British so it ‘worked’… as does the KCCO, although most did not live through the war – so find it fascinating to pick that link apart.
      • We now often refer to the Second World War through ‘rose tinted glasses’, as a time when we all pulled together, ‘a cup of tea solved everything’ – so it’s interesting to see when such ideas are challenged by historians, and we dig past the stereotypes… along with the KCCO, we see 50s inspired shops such as Cath Kidston taking off…  in the recession, and it makes for interesting study… as Ryan said – why do people still visit sites/museums, etc.
      • Interdisciplinarity
        • The links with sociologists have cleared the way to study the ‘underlying framework’ of society, including more of a concern with structural patterns of such issues as the family and social class, rather than simple causal links to specific events
        • Although history tends to take an empirical approach, working more within a cultural studies framework meant that taking a more theoretical approach was appropriate, and becoming aware of a range of theories – (plumping for Foucauldian discourse analysis (identifying the underlying worldviews evident in posters, and with current students – advertising/other media))
        • This led me into teaching within Media Studies, it’s very much about analysing how the media has changed our perception of both the present and the past… and I particularly enjoy bringing the historical element to media studies students, who tend to be quite offended if it’s not from this year’s media!, and giving them that enthusiasm for understanding how present day media is informed by past events, and that advertising agents need to understand their audience and it’s history in order to be able to resonate, and project a successful message!
        • This year will also be teaching Film History for Film Studies, so it will be interesting to see how that differs from teaching visual culture within a historical context. Love to challenge the students into realising that films do not project a “real” view of history, but can be viewed through a triple lens… (Alasdair Sparks)
          • The time within which the film is set
          • The time at which the film was made
          • The time at which the film is viewed
  • All change how the film is engaged with, and again, historians can contextualise that.
  • Transferable skills (not that I want career/business to be the driver for all studies, interest is also key). [William Morris: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.]
    • In applying for jobs, I particularly noted the following transferable skills that I’d gained from history:
      • Research Skills (online and offline, especially archival)
      • Working through large amounts of data to produce a well-structured piece of work.
      • Critical thinking, not taking the surface meaning.
      • The ability to cohesively structure an argument, drawing in other evidence to support the case.
      • Awareness and appreciation for other cultures.
      • See the history benchmarks:
  • History provides a distinctive education by providing a sense of the past, an awareness of the development of differing values, systems and societies and the inculcation of critical yet tolerant personal attitudes
  • In my travels around the world, naturally gravitated towards a number of historical artefacts, in particular war memorials/museums, and am particularly interested in how those museums are laid out (far more than the exhibits themselves) and what methods they have used to make the material interesting – and the choices that have been made as to what have been included – and when promoting interdisciplinary research at Uni of Manchester, put forward the suggestion that a great exhibition would include a number of exhibits captioned by staff from a number of different disciplines…
  • Now love the chance to pass that interest and engagement on… DO  find that harder with politics, but especially these days with so much material available online – no excuse for not including a mix of audio, video, and visual images! Get people interested at a public level, and then pull them into analysing what they take for granted…, and gain a number of valuable skills whilst they are at it…
  • As a digital native, think the online world offers great potential for accessing historical material which would not otherwise be available.  Shame that the IWM only produced their digital archive of posters in 2006, 2 years after I’d finished my PhD: It’s why I love teaching Creating and Consuming history…

By Second World War Posters

Mass Communications Academic, @MMUBS. British Home Front Propaganda posters as researched for a PhD completed 2004. In 1997, unwittingly wrote the first history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which she now follows with interest.

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