Now that I'm firmly settled into Oxford, I've launched myself back into the British archives. It's easy to forget, an ocean away, just how rich and detailed the public records offices are in the UK. I'm routinely surprised by the depth of the collections found at even the smallest offices--and how welcoming they are of both family genealogist and research historian alike. And it's this blend of professional historical interest with public history that has so impressed me over the past few weeks.
Figures in a Tavern or Coffee House, probably debating the primetime television schedule
You can't get through a check-out line at a bookstore without seeing BBC History Magazine or History Today. Tonight, in primetime, Channel 4 is showing a documentary show about restoring Britain's landmarks; this afternoon, you could watch a documentary about Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, feminist and suffragette, on BBC 2. Last year, nearly a million people went to one of the British Library's public exhibits. And don't get me started on Time Team, which managed to combine archaeology, archives, bad puns, worse sweaters, and eager volunteers showing up to help uncover what history has been lying secretly beneath their feet into one of the longest-running programs in British television history.
I've heard all this called naff or out of touch or even bad for the historical profession, to which I say: bunk. Research history would suffocate without public interest, and public history would grow stale and repetitive without some of the exciting research and innovative approaches I see modeled every day amongst historians whom I admire. The reason those records offices are so well-appointed and well-staffed and well-organized is not, alas, because they heard that I was going to visit--it's because they're spaces used by the public. And it's not just about practicalities. There is a palpable sense of history here, one that informs parliamentary debates and panel quiz shows alike. Both the triumphs and the foibles of the British past are routinely brought up and examined. I'm glad to hear new voices amongst the old: Agincourt alongside aliens (as they called them well into the twentieth century), the Somme alongside suffragettes. And I've found that history--and the historical profession--has a place of importance in the public discourse.
Why does this matter? Well, for me, it comes down to the fact that I'm an evangelist for history: history matters, and I think it ought to be discussed and debated and celebrated and bemoaned and consulted and mulled over and pondered on and wrangled with and contested and proclaimed. In other words, history should be part of our daily lives, not as constraint or road map, but as the very real context in which we live. Engaging the public in this conversation should be a priority for every professional historian, be it through books or teaching or lectures or appearing as talking heads in television documentaries. I believe that what we as historians do every day is exciting and compelling and vital for understanding the world in which we live and the choices that we make. And living in Britain right now, I feel that's an argument being well made.