How does this project contribute to Public History?

This is a small portfolio, a brief project, limited in skill, time and scope, but it attempts to place itself – and contribute to – public history, within the frameworks identified by Kean and Epstein.

It takes a text from the past – Watt’s guidebook – and repacks it into a different form and place.  The guide is in the public domain and this portfolio doesn’t ‘rescue’ it from an obscure and inaccessible archive, but it is rarely seen or cited (it has three citations on google scholar).  The simple acts of creating wider access, representing the text, and the reperformance of the guided walk two hundred years after Watts wrote her work are a dissemination of historical knowledge (overlooked, if not lost) into the public domain.  By interpreting the guide – the provision of a google map, written instructions using the current streetscape, photographic interpretation of the route – the ease of the act of reperformance is made clear; an act of encouragement for anyone. If I can find my way round Leicester with a two-hundred-year-old guidebook, anyone can.

The portfolio is free to use, copy, redevelop; links to the original text are included.  Any part of the content of the portfolio can be re-used, reinterpreted, copied and developed by anyone. The commentary and digressions attempt to be eclectic, informative and stimulating without lapsing into an academic prose style (avoiding, as far as possible, citations and methodologies, and attempting, as far as possible, to use idiomatic and quotidian language).  The purpose is to stimulate engagement through interest and provide a (limited) resource base for any reader to ask their own historical questions, and start to look for their own answers.

Why this particular subject? This portfolio is one of my final tasks in a two-year, part time MA in Historical Research.  I chose the course because I wanted to revisit my undergraduate degree in history, but had decided that I already possessed the mental tools and experience so that I could, if I wished, identify and teach myself about any particular historical period or theme; the eighteenth-century city, for example.  Prior to choosing the course I had read a good deal of C17th puritan ideology and the question struck me: why do we think what we think? And that led me to how do we ‘do’ history.  What intellectual and philosophical tools (not to mention pre-existing prejudices and expectations) do we bring with us to the act of creation of our histories; and that developed into a specific interest in historiography, rather than history.

Although there is a huge appetite for history in the public sphere, well-served by the widest possible range of products from serious scholarship to pure entertainment, academic history seems to be in a poor place.  Professional, academic historians have been battered by the winds of change for years, possibly decades.  Job opportunities seem limited; multiple roles seem necessary, geographically dispersed.  Precariousness, even in employment, seems to be endemic.  The opportunities to put down roots, settle, and think seriously appear disparate and fleeting.

From the tiny sample of historical works that I have been directed towards in the last two years, arising from one modest course in a remote corner of the academy, professional history seems to have shrunk in on itself, and lost confidence.  To what extent this has been driven by external forces – the Research Excellence Framework does seem designed to reward volume not depth – and what by the choices of practitioners I cannot say.  Questions seem small, answers unconvincing; historical actors romanticised.  “I do indeed believe (it’s a hypothesis) that there is a connection … in regard to development, progress, modernity, and the passion brought by young historians to the study of preindustrial societies and their mentality. The rebel and the hero are mythologised and romanticised.” (Aries, P, cited in Ginzburg, C ‘Microhistory: Two or Three things I know about it’ Critical Enquiry Vol 20 Issue 1 (1993)).  No wonder Armitage & Guldi suspect that history has painted itself into a corner of complete irrelevance.

Lyotard said we should be sceptical of meta-narratives; but he did not dismiss them out of hand.  I would argue that our present historiographic age is one of Romanticism.  There seems to be a predisposition, an atmosphere of regret at the present, which lends some histories (and some public histories) a taint of nostalgia; at worst, a desire for the comforts of a prelapsarian past.  Watts was not a Romantic, but a convinced creature of the enlightenment (and, of course, equally of her time, with her prejudices and expectations, as we are of ours).  Her radically different way of seeing the past is the aspect of the historical method, identified by Kelly and Keen, that I am attempting to present as a work of public history.  And that, ultimately, is the key point that I would hope a reader would take away from this portfolio.

For Watts, the past was something to escape from, not retreat into.  Her enlightenment present had defeated the past – the superstitious and thieving monks, the tyrannical and arbitrary lords of the Wars of the Roses, the intemperate, divisive and destructive turmoil and conflict of the Civil Wars – by a new approach; a reformed Church of England, the rule of common law, reasoned and rational debate in the crucible of parliament.

Watts is dismissive – and frankly uninterested – in the foundation myths of the town.  But she makes a great deal of the direct material links back to Rome, increasingly commonplace in the excavation of cellars and foundations of the expanding town, and a supplement to the dramatic, soaring structure of Jewry Wall.  These are lauded not for a sense of nostalgia but a badge of pride in the rediscovery and ongoing presence of the classical world, perceived as a beacon of rationality, science and reason.  Watts has a very radical, and very different take, on her past.