Unofficial Histories 2013 – What I’ve Learnt


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Since stepping on to the 16:36 train from Manchester to London last Sunday I have been trying to put together some thoughts on the Unofficial Histories Conference, held over the weekend of the 15th and 16th July 2013 at Manchester Metropolitan University and the People’s History Museum. This is a quick summary of my own views of the conference but please feel free to share yours or let me know you interpreted papers etc., differently.

On that train from Manchester I realised that what I really enjoyed about the weekend, was that more than an average academic conference Unofficial Histories felt like a celebration of history as, to quote Raphael Samuel, a ‘social form of knowledge’, reinforcing the importance and power of history in this form. The relevance of history to today’s world was consistently emphasised over the weekend, whether it can inform our views of current political situations or develop our historical practice, and I was truly inspired by the amount and value of the work being done out there by all those who love history.

The opening papers went some way in setting the tone for the rest of the weekend. Adam Gutteridge discussed the value of public history in giving people the tools to question preconceived ideas, and that it was the process more than the product that was important. As historians and archaeologists we have particular skills and by sharing them with the public, and, importantly, giving them intellectual freedom to pursue projects, we could be empowering others. Greta Williams Schultz and Jess Bradley discussed disability history in the context of recent changes in the law regarding benefits for disabled people. It looked at stigmatisation and the creation of two contrasting images of disabled people. That of the ‘worthy’ disabled person, seen as early as Ancient Greece where myths celebrated the disabled people who survived being abandoned at birth, seen again in the the World War One war-hero and Paralympic ‘superhumans’; contrasted to the disabled person seen to be reliant on charity from the community or government, the modern day ‘scrounger’. Through these images the person is removed, and it is important to create a greater awareness of disability issues with the disabled person as a central focus, and history is part of that. David Rosenberg told us about a collection of radical tour guides from across Europe who had recently met up to share experience and histories – through this they were finding parallels in radical histories, this included a match girl strike, months a part in London and Oslo, in 1888/9, as well as drawing similarities to modern day struggles. This group of radical tour guides also tried to put together a manifesto of who they are and what they are trying to achieve. David really made me think about audience and who we are talking to as historians and public historians. He discussed the types of people who we went on his tours mentioning that a lot of the time participants already had an interest in radical history. He also mentioned a weariness of potential elitism of social media and digital technologies. Social media is very useful for increasing or targeting an audience (I am writing this on a blog afterall), but it is not necessarily as universal as we’d perhaps like to think. This international collection of radical tour guides is growing and they hope to eventually produce radical travel guides, something I for one would love to see.

I could easily go through each paper I saw and give a brief description with some points about the main ideas I took from it, they were all brilliant and gave me lots of food for thought, but instead I’ll just mention some broad themes that covered a few papers and try to discuss what I learnt from them.

  1. History can be an important element in the process of healing people or countries after conflict.
    The practise of good historical research can be used in conjunction with other mediums, such as theatre or museum displays, to explore ways to bring fractured communities together. However the manipulation and the writing out of history of particular groups can lead to further tensions and the opening of old wounds. This was exemplified in Laura De Becker‘s paper on how the genocide in Rwanda was being remembered in official and unofficial memorials, between them leaving no space to commemorate the murder of moderate Hutus alongside Tutsis.
  2. Heritage policy should involve people.
    Modern museum practise has developed great ways to ensure that people of different backgrounds are represented in their displays moving away from the dominant White Male history. Though there is always more work to be done, these shouldn’t feel like add-ons but be fully integrated, possibly changing a visitor’s preconceptions, as discussed by David Callaghan when looking at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. In a wider sense local councils could possibly learn a lot from museums, and that audience research is essential, something pointed out by Anna Scott in her paper that looked at a local heritage policy developing around a link to the Pilgrim Father’s, however this heritage appeared to be almost unknown in the local population and little if no research into the number of American visitors to the area.
  3. Emotion can play an important part in historical research.
    We all do research for the love of the topic, but sometimes we can work with something we find particularly emotive, especially when looking to defeat a perceived injustice. This can appear in many ways, through working closely with a community or through nostalgia and can be a useful motivator but it was also acknowledged that it was also necessary to find that space to do research as objectively as possibly – the only way to do your area of research justice is to use your skills as a researcher to the best of your abilities. Two particularly emotive papers were from Holly Gale Millette looking at the boaters community in the midst of attempts from outside to reform and regulate their way of life; and Ian Waites who framed happy childhood memories of living on a council estate within a revaluation of the historiography of the English council estate.
  4. Finally, collaboration is almost essential in reaching out to the public and accessing those unofficial histories.
    Collaboration ran through the whole conference, from a paper looking at using oral history with archaeology from Kerry Massheder; to the collective of radical tour guides; to the film that finished off the weekend looking at a community theatre project in Salford that used Frederich Engles’ The Condition of the Working Classes as a starting point. To me this was a vital factor if we want to encourage the public to see any benefit in historical research and to see it as relevant to them.

As you can probably tell I had a brilliant time at the Unofficial Histories conference and I feel like I took a lot from it. The whole ethos of the event was to spread the historical word, so to speak. Not necessarily pushing one period of history or one method; but to explore how we communicate our art and reminding us of why it is important to do so.

I’ll finish with an image of the Collective of International Radical Tour Guides’ proposed manifesto, as it has many points I think we could all agree on.


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Some related links:

Unofficial Histories website – http://unofficialhistories.wordpress.com/uh13/

The Condition of the Working Class film website – http://www.conditionoftheworkingclass.info/

David Rosenberg’s guided tours website – http://www.eastendwalks.com/

Manchester Peace and Social Justice Tour – http://www.manchesterpeacetrail.org.uk/

People’s History Museum – http://www.phm.org.uk/

London Boaters Community: London Boaters – http://www.londonboaters.org/

Ian Waites’ blog: Instances of Social Change – http://instancesofachangedsociety.blogspot.co.uk/

Anna Scott’s blog: Heritage Research project – https://heritage.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/

Kerry Massheder’s blog: Community Archaeology, Industrial Archaeology & Oral History – http://kerrymassheder.wordpress.com/

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