Summary of the Academic Perspective Discussion


Television as Public History


·            It was felt that there should be a working definition for the term ‘public history’, as ‘popular history’ could be seen as more amateur and non-academic. Public history relates to places where the majority of people can consume the past that is not in an academic setting.   Archaeology, for instance, covers both the academic and public arenas, with projects defined as ‘community projects’. 


·            Television history could be regarded as commercially produced public history, but there was concern that history is a broad church to televise.  The dynamics of public history should not be confused with the dynamics of popular history.  Popular history was felt to have a purchase on the past, the idea of seeing the past as a jigsaw, giving audiences a sense of closure.  Simon Sharma’s series ‘The History of Britain’ was considered to be the sort of history that people felt they should have been taught in school.  There was some concern about the use of the term ‘public history’, and some were more comfortable with ‘popular history’, although some saw it as a ‘loaded’ term.


·            The group was reminded of the tradition established by the History Workshop Movement, particularly associated with Ruskin College, Oxford as ‘history from below’.  Arguably some history programming has been strongly influenced by this movement.


·            We could think about the uses of history as broadly to disturb, to change and to comfort, and think about how different kinds of programmes function within these headings.  It was suggested that the heritage sites and UK history television are comfortable places to go. This in turn raised interesting aspects of the forthcoming output on the abolition of slavery, because it has at its centre violence of white people against black people. In this sense, it is not comfortable history. It was suggested also that this output may be a form of public closure or even apology.


·            A public history project aspires to democratic enhancement – the enhancement of civic values.


·            History programming is multiple and diverse and will contain mixtures and combinations of public, popular, entertaining elements in greater or lesser proportions.




·         In spite of commissioners’ anxieties around the need for television history programmes to ‘entertain’, the programme focusing on the Mitchell and Kenyon film archive was a surprise hit for producers and academics.  This is perhaps indicative of a more sophisticated audience than that imagined by television executives.  There was discussion about how to present history in a new way, for example the series ‘The Middle Classes’ was not presenter led, had a multi-strand narrative and was organised around various people storytelling.  It was reported that film maker Steve Humphries, Testimony Films, had found difficulty in getting his All Quiet on the Home Front series made.  There were obviously issues around the non-appeal to an international audience of themes with a purely national or regional identity. 


·            It was, however, noted that use of modern techniques, such as CGI, enables audiences to look at ancient history in a new way, not purely relying on archive footage and talking heads.




·            It was noted that very little is known about how people use and/or understand television programming about the past.  It was interesting therefore to hear of a survey carried out about 10 years ago by two prominent American historians on around 1500 people which revealed that the most important connection with history is thought to be personal via a family or friend.  There is a listing of 'trustworthiness' of the source of public historical information - the oral report from someone who fought in a war or went on a demonstration etc. being top of the list, followed by museums etc., with TV at the bottom of the list.  There is also an issue of 'historical capital' - the less historical background you have, the more you need the report of someone 'who was there'.


·            This could be compared to the attraction within museums of the authentic object.  There is a need to look at the way an audience grasps the authenticity of the material they are shown.  This raises important issues about the uses of public history which could be regarded as a device to enhance civic values, by attracting audiences and enriching their sense of belonging.  




·            The importance of the use of history programming in schools is acknowledged by the Project.  It was noted that there is a new type of History GCSE whereby teachers get to choose the topics.  Most teachers choose topic areas they think will be appealing to pupils, eg. ‘Whose history is it?’.  There is a focus on de-constructing the historical evidence. 


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