Dr Erin Bell – Progress to date

I’d like to give a brief presentation of the work I’ve been involved with so far in the project: I’ve met some of you in the course of my research and it’s a great pleasure to meet you again here today.


So to begin: in September 2004 I joined the university, and started in my post as a research fellow on the Televising History project, led by Ann Gray. From the beginning the project was interdisciplinary – I’m an historian and Ann works in the fields of cultural and media studies. As Ann has already described, the project aimed from the outset to consider the flourishing of history on TV since the 1990s, and to ask how we get the kinds of television histories we do, and why.  Starting with the relationship between the academy and media professionals, we explore the often competing professional discourses about how to ‘do’ history.


The first conference I attended was the October 2004 IAMHIST (International Association for Media and History) conference held at the Imperial War Museum in London, and which was largely attended by historians (some stridently opposed to TV history, it seems, which underlined the idea of competing discourses) and media professionals. However, my research had already suggested that not all university historians see the state of TV history programming in the UK as universally poor, not least because they feel that they had contributed to a form a public history which is central to the representation of the past in this country and which arguably has the potential to reach more individuals than any other. Hopefully we’ll discuss this in greater detail later today.


In particular, the aspect of my research most suggestive of this was the interview material which I have continued to gather, drawn from interviews with historians involved in TV history. This might be as a presenter, a ‘talking head’, or as a source of information ‘behind the scenes’. I am particularly keen to identify how historians view their work on TV – whether as a form of public history, an extension of their role as an educator, or as something else, and how this relates to the degree of input they have had into the programme. To date I have interviewed 14 historians based (either currently or at one time) at universities across England (this focus is not deliberate and I aim to include more scholars from other nations in the UK, which would dovetail nicely with Barbara’s research on history programming in the different TV regions).


In March 2005, we hit the ground running, giving a joint conference paper at the University of Wales based on our research to date, including the interviews. We met extremely interesting people at both conferences, many of whom were neither historians nor media professionals. We started to identify a nascent network of young scholars, and we became extremely keen to bring postgraduate students together. As many of those researching the past on TV for a doctoral degree are often the only person researching this in their department, whether it be history, media studies, cultural studies or literary studies, this can be a very isolating experience for young scholars. So, after only a couple of months’ planning, we held the ‘Televising History: the past(s) on the small screen’ symposium here in Lincoln, in July 2005.


Contributors represented a range of European nations and discussed history on TV across Europe both during the sessions and on the first evening, when Ann kindly gave up her own home for the conference dinner. Continuing on from the international, interdisciplinary and sociable nature of the symposium (the term was picked because it can also mean ‘drinking party’), we suggested to the contributors that we would like them to consider submitting their papers to the European Journal of Cultural Studies, an international journal co-edited by Ann. It was particularly appropriate because contributors represented a range of disciplines and are based in a variety of institutions worldwide. We also contacted people who had been unable to attend the conference, and received proposals from them.


‘Televising History’, the special issue of the journal, is now available, and contributions come from scholars in the UK, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, and consider both fictional and factual programming about the past. Although we considered articles representing a diverse range of history programming, unsurprisingly, given that 2005 was the 60th anniversary of the end of WW2, the war is discussed from Dutch, German and British perspectives. There are also contributions considering the classic 1960s series The Great War, Flemish historical drama, and the developing role of the presenter-historian. Overall, the themes of memory, commemoration and the role of narrative are key. A copy of our article is available today to give a flavour of this.


We are also seeking to publish the articles in an edited collection. It should include rather more contributions, and an even-wider geographic and disciplinary range of scholars: this also provides useful comparative material to consider TV history across Europe, including the way in which programmes are re-versioned for a range of European audiences.


Comparative research will continue throughout the project, including the interviews. To this end, next week I will be travelling to the Netherlands to interview 2 historians. Chris Vos at the University of Rotterdam lectures in media and culture at the Faculty of History and Art, in addition to making history documentaries. Wolter Braamhorst is Head of Art and Culture at AVRO, the oldest broadcasting organisation in the Netherlands. I hope to gain some interesting and comparative insights into TV history in the Netherlands, both into the making (including funding and commissioning) of documentaries, the choice of historical periods and topics, and the audience at whom the programmes are aimed.


Although there has been a fair amount of material written in Dutch about TV history in both the Netherlands and the UK, very little of this has been published in English (hence, in part, the significance of the special issue, as Ann has mentioned) and even less has been written in any language about history on TV, from a comparative international perspective. Given the shared fate of European nations in the twentieth century, and of course earlier, this seems rather surprising, so it seems vital to meet and talk with those based in other countries, considering the extent to which TV history, and the role it has claimed for itself as a mediator of memory and commemoration, is viewed as a form of public history. I will also meet with 2 Dutch scholars of history documentary: Huub Wijfjes at the University of Groningen, and Sonja de Leeuw, whose article on holocaust documentary in the Netherlands appears in the journal. Hopefully this will enable us to make further ties with scholars in Europe working in similar fields, which will be particularly helpful when organising future events.


Additional research includes work currently being done on 5 months worth of TV history programming, recorded from March to July 2006. I am analysing it at present for information about production companies and key players, funding, scheduling and reversioning, as well as more obvious elements such as the nature of the events depicted and the periods shown. We hope that this will dovetail into Ann’s interviews with media professionals, for example.


It is fitting that, having effectively doubled the size of our team with the introduction of Sarah and Barbara, the next conference that we will hold, some time in the coming 12 months, will again be aimed at postgraduate researchers, as well as other scholars. As Ann has already mentioned, we have also timetabled a conference for media professionals and scholars from across Europe, including, we hope, some of the people who have been involved in putting together the journal and the book. This will be held in 2009. In all cases, we hope to see some of you there.


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