Why don’t we hear more from historians?

On Wednesday 21 June the IHR heard from three of the best-known historians working in the UK today as part of the History Today Lecture Series on understanding the past in the 21st century. Helen Castor, Anna Whitlock and David Olusoga provided an entertaining insight into the world of broadcast history and asked why historians aren’t called upon to engage in debates on the big political issues of our times. Historians’ empirical instincts should be a welcome contrast to fake news and conspiracy theory. Trained to analyse the causes and consequences of events from a wide range of angles, historians have much to contribute to the public debate and in other countries their expertise is often called upon. Why does this not happen here? When respected historians such as Dame Mary Beard do take part in public debate, why do they attract such vitriol?

The discussion ranged over a whole gamut of topical issues. We learnt that George Osbourne held a symposium of historians to No 11 to discuss Brexit at which the problems of the Irish border were discussed in detail – had that discussion been broadcast perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today. David Olusoga highlighted the dearth of minority ethnic historians in the academy and, using the Bristol merchant and slave trader Edward Colston as an example, gave a passionate explanation of the need to consider the context of public statuary. With programmes like Civilisations and Black Britons, the media is beginning to make history more inclusive, but should we rethink the way we present history and heritage on the curriculum?

Anna Whitlock’s entertaining account of her early career demonstrated the public demand for thought provoking historical books and broadcasting. Historians need to recognise the commercial value of new academic research and publishers and broadcasters should not underestimate their audience. If we can challenge the present domination of popular history by the same old tales of Tudors, Nazis and Victorians perhaps history will feel more relevant to modern life and pave the way for greater interest in what historians can contribute to modern political debate.

By Christine Keiffer, student at IHR

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