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How Do You Solve a Problem like Public History?

Are historical truths worth sacrificing our historical escapism for? If so, can we actually escape the escapism itself?

The house and ruins at NT Nymans, Handcross. 

What with all the recent controversies surrounding "white supremacists" statues, we, as the public, are beginning to participate in the public vs academic history debate: a debate which affects many sectors of life from GCSE education to politics to media to the heritage sector. The crux of it is: the public does not want to hear about the nastiness of the past.

I’m not blaming the public in any way shape or form. I, myself, am also guilty of it. My parents have National Trust membership (which I would attempt to scrounge off still if I could) and, as a result, I have visited many of what would be considered ‘great houses’ for a rather sanitised view of the past; all pretty gardens, luxurious rooms and a cup of tea at the end after visiting the kitchen gardens or the servant’s quarters with costume mock-ups. The best places we went had croquet sets on the lawn, or miniature costumes for children, and the shops always had the egg cup game you’d race your siblings at. But this history leaves out all the suffering of the people who made these great estates money.

Slavery is an integral part of British history and you cannot escape it. But not once do I remember reading that as a child. I remember volunteering for a project at York’s Mansion House and our lovely contact, Gillian, mentioning that if we could find some slavery connection that would be great. That was two years ago and, as far as I can remember, we didn’t. But then, we were writing a recipe book. The fact is, only now is heritage really starting to acknowledge the deeper, more hidden parts of their houses' history and the fact that the public might want to hear about it. 

Sure, we know about the gruesome parts from Horrible Histories or Charles Dickens novels but, and here we have a wealth of television to blame, this all becomes softened and sanitised when watched alongside ITV’s Victoria or BBC’s Doctor Who. As an early-modern to modern history student, I am slightly ashamed to say that I lapped up Victoria with all the joy of my previous younger self-entranced by Harewood House and the costume design. Indeed, when we visited the house this summer, it was what drew me into watching the show and the only pictures I have of visiting are of me standing prettily next to my favourite dress. The house was exhibiting the costumes of the show and, as you would, were promoting and plugging the show quite heavily to create tourism. Tourism through these houses, I would argue, is a benefit due to conservation costs and therefore they would, naturally, play to the history that the public desire.

The problem remains that public history equals escapism, not only for the general public, but for historians too. And no one can fall easier into this trap than the entrancing Dr. Lucy Worsley—a favourite idol of mine—who, I do declare, never sleeps but continuously churns out documentaries for public consumption. Admittedly Harlots, Housewives and Heroines of the 17th Century was rather good for the inclusion of Aphra Behn, an early modern female writer, and one of the first novelists of Britain who has sadly been neglected by the literary canon. But there was also the joy of dressing up in different costumes and swanning, or swishing, around Hampton Court Palace that everyone who has volunteered in a costumed role at a museum (as I have done) has dreamed of doing. There is a joy in public history that academic history cannot hope to replicate because it is too factual and downright depressing. Unfortunately, the factual history is the one the public ought to know so as to avoid making the same mistakes as our historical predecessors. To see events and people in their proper contexts.

I attended a talk at my university on historical consultancy with Greg Jenner (Horrible Histories) and Hannah Greig (Poldark) entitled "The Dark Art of Historical Consultancy" and that is exactly what it is. This "dark art" bridges the gap between public and academic history as historians try to make things accurate without compromising the theatrical value of the show or the aesthetic or the dialogue. These historians are effectively at the whim of the producers and directors who, in turn, are at the whim of the public. Because the public never want to know what life was actually like, they never want to learn something, all we want is a bit of romantic, historical fluff with dashing protagonists and cliff-gazing that they themselves will try to replicate at every opportunity. Something my mother and I excel at. Within this talk came up the subject of Lucy Worsley and her style of documentary, at which both speakers looked at each other sheepishly and replied to the question along the lines of "when you dress up and appear to eavesdrop on conversations you make what is speculation (because all history is speculation and theory until more evidence appears) become almost fact and skew the truth of history." This is perfectly true. As a society, the period drama and the historical documentary have become so embedded in our media culture that it is hard to escape it. When houses become the location of filming—such as Harewood House is for Victoria —the lines between reality and fiction blur.

All through this article I have been ashamed of my love for public history and the quirks it has alongside its academic cousin and this stems from the fact that, as a history student, I should know better than to pander towards these literary and fictional representations of history that only buy into a public’s preconception of their national history. On the other hand, as a literature student, I enjoy it immensely. I don’t know all the truth to all of history because that’s impossible and scholars bicker about events constantly, that’s just part of academic life. In this instance, the truth of history should be marketable towards the public because literature itself has no real truth to it either; but that would mean causing people to choke on their tea when, instead of finding a genial Downton Abbey, they come face to face with amputations and intense detail of Edwardian medical history. Public history is a comforting blanket with a hidden agenda and a nasty secret that isn’t safe for public consumption. This conflict and gap between academic and public, however, is mediated by the fact that all history is simply a representation of "what truly happened;" everything’s constructed in some literary way and you cannot escape it.

Public history is simply one representation of history that we prefer to remember and it deserves to be so. We can never be sure of what happened in the past. But we should be aware of certain events and contexts and how these affect our history or even how we choose to remember it. By making the public simply more aware, we can start to chip away at ignorance and accept the mistakes of our ancestors and move on from them rather than deny their existence altogether. Statues and houses should have an alternative history available that people could choose to read or listen to if they want. Academic history should be written in an accessible way for the public so they can see behind the elegance and sumptuousness of a house and acknowledge where the great fortunes came from. Why should public history and academic history fight each other when all of history is an interpretation and representation and, instead, they could work alongside each other? And, therefore, if some heritage management team at some great house want to hire me to write this alternative history guidebook, that would be great too.

My guilty photograph. The house is gorgeous, but so's this replica 1830s dress worn by Jenna Coleman.

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