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Response to Review of Presenting History: Past and Present

I am grateful to Dr. Matt Phillpott for his wide-ranging overview and critical commentary on Presenting History: Past and Present. As the author of a book adopting a somewhat innovatory path, it is encouraging to find a reviewer sympathetic to its focus upon alternative ways of not only presenting the past but also accessing and engaging diverse audiences. Hopefully, other historians will also find my book ‘lucid’ and ‘thought provoking’, and hence encouraged to think seriously about our voice in today’s multimedia world, and particularly about our contribution to history’s role in educating, informing and – yes – entertaining people about the past. Of course, it is always easier to identify issues and to raise questions than to provide readymade solutions, but such thinking proves an essential stage in the process of moving history forward into the future. Academic inertia will not do history as a discipline any favours. Unsurprisingly, this aspect of the book figures prominently throughout the review, which tends therefore to gloss over the fact that Presenting History is intended basically as a student textbook for use alongside existing texts in suitably modified nature of history/historical skills/historiography type courses.

There are already several excellent nature of history/historical skills/historiography publications, but generally speaking the actual process of presentation responsible for reaching and communicating the past to audiences is taken for granted, and hence frequently glossed over, marginalised, even ignored. Revealingly, most of their indexes – supposedly these are intended to direct readers to what authors deem a book’s most significant points – are distinguished by the absence of descriptors like ‘presentation’ and ‘audience’, including variants thereof such as listeners, readers or viewers. Against this background, Dr Phillpott’s review has taken on board many of my arguments, including the case for historians to adopt the mantra ‘Presentation, Presentation, Presentation’ as a basis for action. However, his review could be more explicit about my stress upon the need for historians to think more seriously about who actually reads academic histories, target audiences, the changing nature of audiences over time, and audience responses/impacts, including the lack thereof.

At present, the overtly academic focus of history research and teaching in higher education – this feature is accentuated by the academic criteria adjudged crucial for staff appointment, career development and promotion as well as for submission in research assessment exercises – means that the historical profession prioritises talking to fel­low academics and students through specialist monographs and journal articles judged in terms of historical originality, significance, and rigour. Nor is this necessarily seen as a problem, given history’s character as an academic discipline and the accumulative nature of historical knowledge and understanding. The problem arises from the popular lust for history, a demand fuelled by a quest for roots, identity, perspective, information and entertainment, and the fact that the popularisation of history has largely bypassed academia. Today, popular knowledge of the past, resting upon the increasingly uncertain historical foundation provided by schools, is provided increasingly outside of academia by what the general public treats as more user-friendly aural, literary and visual modes. Such presentations might be eminently listenable, watchable and readable, but not necessarily ‘history’ as academic historians know it. If we think that history matters, and particularly that the general public should possess a sound, informed and accurate understanding of the past – there are too many examples highlighting the dangers of distorted ‘histories’ – and be encouraged to think historically, some of us at least must be prepared to reach out from the ivory tower.

In this vein, Phillpott acknowledges Presenting History’s public history dimension. Indeed, the book draws heavily upon my longstanding interest in public history, as evidenced by an article called ‘History Goes Public’ published in The Times Higher Education Supplement nearly 30 years ago as well as my previous book entitled Using History, Making British Policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950–76.(1) Already a small but growing number of historians have begun to knock down the walls separating academia from the general public and shown that history can be presented successfully to both academic and lay audiences, whether as listeners, readers or viewers. Nor should popular histories be dismissed automatically as mere ‘coffee-table books’. When written with scholarly integrity, popular histories are simply books written and presented in a more user friendly way for a broad public audience. After all, the best way to counter allegedly unhistorical popular histories is to write good popular histories.

Against this background, Presenting History is intended to complement or to replace existing student textbooks by enabling nature of history/historical skills/historiography modules to range beyond their current preoccupation with doing history. In fact, much of the book, especially chapters 12 and 13, also casts light upon doing history, including the use and abuse of sources, the translation and mistranslation of historical documents, historical revisionism, referencing, and historical standards. But Presenting History’s prime aim is to equip history students to reflect in an informed and critical manner upon the manifold ways in which the past is represented within and outside academia. They are encouraged also to move on from treating popular histories automatically as targets to critique, even to trash, but more as learning resources helping them to appreciate the practices, methodologies and impacts of historical novels, television histories and Hollywood films, and particularly the factors influencing their success in accessing and engaging public audiences about the past.

As stated in the preface (p. vii), the book emerged in part out of a teaching module. Over time this allowed experimentation with alternative teaching strategies. Generally speaking, a case study approach, though handicapped by a paucity of accessible materials on individual presenters, proved most effective in engaging students and meeting the module’s objectives. This lesson, gained from actual teaching experience, represents a central element in my response to Phillpott’s critique of Presenting History’s reliance upon case studies. Admittedly, this strategy limits comprehensive coverage, thereby resulting in the sketchy coverage, even omission, of certain topics. Nevertheless, Phillpott is a trifle harsh in claiming that the chapter on television historians jumps suddenly from A. J. P. Taylor to Simon Schama with nothing about ‘what happened in between’. There is in fact a substantial 1,000 words-plus section (pp. 93–6, pp.102–3) on the ‘talking heads’ approach employed by Ken Burns. Likewise, this chapter, though including comments by David Starkey about Schama, does in fact treat him more substantively, most notably as a reference point when discussing alternative television presentational styles (p. 114). Inevitably, Starkey was included in my initial list of potential candidates for case studies. Although he does not figure as the subject of a chapter-length case study, the index can be employed by readers to draw together a mini-case study centred upon Starkey as a presenter working across several presentational formats.

Apart from enabling in-depth discussion of a selected range of presentational formats, case studies offer history students the opportunity to learn more about individual presenters, including their attitudes, methods, and relationship with audiences, even to appreciate that seemingly boring historians are often quite interesting people. For example, A. J. P. Taylor’s somewhat bizarre, expensive and fascinating home life plays a vital part in understanding Taylor the historian. Also the case studies give readers the opportunity to draw links across chapters – as mentioned above, public history proves an enduring theme – as well as to compare and contrast developments. For example, the chapters on Robert A. Rosenstone and Joan Wallach Scott provide useful insights into their respective postmodernist conversions, just as those on Scott and Philippa Gregory illuminate alternative feminist approaches to presenting the past. The case studies on Taylor and Hobsbawm highlight the manner in which historical revisionism changes historians’ reputations over time.

As Phillpott records, my book has several ‘missing elements’. Although some of those listed are covered briefly in passing, this is fair criticism. However, my failure to offer fuller coverage of an ever expanding historical culture proved largely a function of both the case study methodology and the book’s contracted word limit.  In any case, the wide ranging nature of such books as Ludmilla Jordanova’s History in Practice, Jerome de Groot’s Consuming History and Roy Rosenzweig’s Clio Wired (2) led me to decide that by contrast Presenting History would use individual presenters to provide detailed coverage of a more limited range of presentational formats.  Presenting official history, one chapter topic dropped from my book at the planning stage, was developed subsequently into a journal article using Llewellyn Woodward’s official British diplomatic history of the Second World War as a case study. Revealing extensive exchanges about official secrecy, presentation and target audiences between Woodward, the academic historian, Sir Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary, and Orme Sargent, the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under Secretary of State, this article is scheduled for publication in the English Historical Review in late 2012–early 2013.

Selecting individual presenters for the case studies was no easy task.  For most case studies, it was possible to identify several presenters possessing strong academic and/or public profiles within Britain and the USA. Unsurprisingly the Wolf Hall phenomenon prompts Phillpott to imply that Hilary Mantel might have proved a better choice for the case study about historical novels. In part, the answer is that when my book was being planned Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning book lay in the future. Having considered various historical novelists, most notably Pat Barker, eventually I selected Philippa Gregory, whose track record since the late 1980s establishes the massive popular appeal of historical novels on both sides of the Atlantic. As I write this response, the paperback version of Gregory’s Lady of the Rivers (3) is placed in the top five of Britain’s best selling books and selling over 13,200 copies per week, a statistic worth viewing against the sales of academic histories. Certainly, Gregory has reached far more readers worldwide than Mantel while accessing diverse audiences through film, radio, television, twitter and so on. Moreover, the period since Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize has witnessed a sort of Mantel overload, even in academia. She seems to have been speaking or to have been interviewed here, there and everywhere. By contrast, Gregory, whose overtly erotic novels are adjudged unlikely to win a Booker nomination, has attracted relatively little academic attention. For example, she rarely figured in the 2011 Novel Approaches: From Academic History to Historical Fiction conference. In this vein, readers interested in historical novels as history might be interested in two sources which became available after my book went to press. Firstly, Gregory has written a useful 40-page introductory essay in The Women of the Cousins’ War, a book co-published with David Baldwin and Michael Jones.(4) Phillpott mentioned in passing his role in running the virtual part of the IHR’s Novel Approaches conference.  He did an excellent job. As a result, readers will find the conference website – http://ihrconference.wordpress.com/ – a rewarding read, especially Mark R. Horowitz’s study comparing Geoffrey Elton and Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell (http://ihrconference.wordpress.com/tag/hilary-mantel/).

Highlighting the vital role played by presenters in communicating the story of the past to diverse audiences within and outside academia, hopefully Presenting History will provide food for thought for historians, prove an engaging textbook for history students, and offer an interesting read for anyone involved in listening to, reading or watching the past's presenters. Perhaps publishers, whose often overlooked role in influencing the presentation of the past is acknowledged in my book (p. 26), might also be encouraged to commission books pursuing this theme regarding such topics as Presenting British History, Presenting American History, Presenting German History and so on.

Notes

  1. Peter Beck, ‘History goes public’, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 21 January 1983, 13; Using History, Making British Policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950–76 (Basingstoke, 2006).Back to (1)
  2. Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (2nd ed., London, 2006), Jerome de Groot, Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture (Abingdon, 2009) and Roy Rosenzweig, Clio Wired: the Future of the Past in the Digital Age (New York, NY, 2011).Back to (2)
  3. Philippa Gregory, Lady of the Rivers (London, 2012).Back to (3)
  4. Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones, The Women of the Cousins' War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King's Mother (London, 2011).Back to (4)