A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to win an ‘Impact Award’ for ‘delivering research which has a demonstrable impact on society, culture and people’. The award was for my Public History work, and specifically for several museum and heritage projects I’ve been involved with.
The award, alongside Andrew Adonis’ ill-informed comments implying that academics luxuriate in a three month summer holiday (if only!) set me thinking about why I got involved with Public History. The ever-present REF is certainly one reason. For academics in the UK the REF has ensured that we all think a lot about impact and engagement. In addition to teaching, researching, grading, administering and writing, we are now supposed to be actively involved in public engagement and have a meaningful and (most importantly) measurable impact on society. It’s a tall order (and doesn’t leave much time for swanning around during the summer ‘break’!)
Public History is a very vague term, and one that has been subject to much debate. Robert Weible has concluded that ‘the discipline’s practitioners are educators who neither deny their expertise nor keep it to themselves’ . That, combined with Lucy Worsley’s take on it which is ‘if history is “finding what happened in the past”, then, public history is “telling lots of people about it”’ seems a pretty good definition to me.
Like so many things I don’t recall making a conscious decision to go down the rabbit hole that is Public History. A combination of my inability to say no, curiosity and the opportunity to get behind the scenes at some fascinating historic sites has meant that over the past three years I’ve been working (sometimes simultaneously) on three separate projects – Kilmainham Gaol and Courthouse, Fortress Spike Island and Nano Nagle Place. I have also become increasingly aware that much excellent academic work lies largely unread on library shelves (or worse yet in inaccessible library stacks). Eventually the research does filter down through generations of academics and ultimately forms a part in changing, altering, clarifying or confirming our view of the past and helps to inform our present and our future. But it’s a slow process and there’s very little interaction between author and reader – very often it’s a couple of reviews that appear several years after the book has been published.
In universities there is an increasing emphasis on retention, not just making sure that students stay to finish their degree, but also encouraging graduates to become postgraduates. Most of those leaving university with a degree or degrees don’t pursue an academic career. Some may go into related fields – law, journalism, heritage, museums, teaching – but many don’t. We teach our students all sorts of transferable skills relating to research and writing, and these are valuable tools in any workplace. But sometimes it’s nice to learn things in a non-traditional ways that can change our perception of the world and for me Public History can help do that. Incorporating elements of Public History into undergraduate and postgraduate teaching is key to this.
I remember visiting Kilmainham Gaol as a small child and being completely enthralled by the story of Anne Devlin’s incarceration there in 1803 (I remember being horrified when I learnt that she had been kept in a basement cell with only a sliver of light seeping in through the tiny window a few inches above the ground. Imagine my disappointment when I learnt years later that we don’t actually know what cell she was held in). I was also fascinated by the story of Grace Gifford’s marriage to Joseph Plunkett hours before his execution in 1916. Those stories combined with the chill of the narrow corridors and the being able to stand inside the tiny cells before being brought outside to see the stonebreakers’ yard where the executions took place left an indelible mark on me and certainly fueled my interest in becoming a historian. It also left me with an abiding interest in visiting site-specific museums (and an enduring fascination with ‘Dark Tourism’). As a teenager I went on a walking tour of Dublin and the guide pointed out the beauty of the city’s buildings if you look beyond the ground floor. And it’s true. Dublin (and O’Connell Street in particular) is plagued with horrible shop signage, but above the plastic there are wonderful buildings to be seen. A decade ago, on my first visit to Chicago, I went on an architectural tour on the Chicago River which changed my perception and understanding of modern architecture (and at least partly inspired the writing of Blood Runs Green). Those three tours were wonderful when I took them, but they’ve had a much longer impact and on an almost daily basis I look beyond shop signs, pause to read a plaque on a wall, or consider the history behind a street name. Admittedly these are not things that fascinate everyone, but those three tours have greatly enriched my life.
All of which is a rather rambling way to say I think Public History is important and potentially has a greater impact than the academic articles sitting in the library or on JStor (though they are also a key part of the historian’s job as expertise is necessary when trying to distill complex histories into 150 words of panel text for an exhibition). When I was approached to be involved with the redevelopment of Kilmainham Gaol and Courthouse I jumped at the chance, and then when another project involving a prison (and a fort) appeared it seemed to make sense to do that too (and given that that one was on an island in the middle of Cork Harbour I really couldn’t resist the opportunity). The final project was rather different – the redevelopment of an eighteenth-century convent in Cork City. Part of the development included a new heritage centre that would tell the story not only of Nano Nagle, the founder of the Presentation Sisters, but also the story of the nuns as they spread across the globe.
My job on all the projects was historical consultant. On site-specific projects (as opposed to purpose-built museums) it’s important to have a good imagination, for the site that you visit at the start of the project will bear little resemblance to the one that visitors will see on opening day.
These are before and after photos of (from the top) Nano Nagle Place, Fortress Spike Island and Kilmainham Courthouse. The process of getting from the ‘before’ to the ‘after’ photo will be the subject of another blogpost.