Really pleased to see that my new article has gone ‘live’: History as expertise and the influence of political culture on advice for policy since Fulton
Here’s the abstract:
The 1968 Fulton report made the case for reforming the civil service to meet the demands of modern government. This article considers Fulton, and subsequent ‘failures’ to implement it, in the context of a changing political culture in Westminster that privileged political advice in policymaking and became ambivalent towards external expertise. It explores whether the Fulton recommendation for the creation of policy planning units in government departments, staffed by a mix of outside experts and talented officials could be reimagined for present purposes, to include historians: history embedded in policymaking is proposed as an alternative to history presented to policymakers.
Keywords: government, policy advice, historians, public history, policymaking
Thanks must go to Prof. Ludmilla Jordanova, Prof. Owen Davies and Dr. Sarah Lloyd for their advice and support, and to the the anonymous reviewers for their careful and constructive comments.
‘It’s the mix that matters’ is borrowed from R. A. W. Rhodes, “The Governance Narrative: Key Findings and Lessons from the ESRC’s Whitehall Programme,” Public Administration 78, no. 2 (2000)
Last year, Arnita Jones and I met at possibly the finest scone cafe in the world (or at least Canada) to discuss the first public history roundtable to be held at an International Congress of the Historical Sciences. The organisers’ preferred title was, unsurprisingly, ‘What is public history?’. By changing a couple of letters, we arrived at a question we hope will be productive, and perhaps a little provocative: ‘why is public history?‘ (it has since been ‘corrected’ on the programme, but the plan remains the same).
We want to be able to consider the role of context: what are the influences that have shaped public history fields in different places? We also want to put comparison in the foreground. There will, inevitably, be many different perspectives that emerge, but we imagine we will identify far more things in common – and we hope, these affinities can help start new, international conversations about public history.
We want to hear from historians/public historians all over the world as we prepare our discussion paper, so the comments we make represent the perspectives of those working in different contexts, rather than just reflecting our views looking in. Please help if you can!
In what forms has ‘public history’ emerged in your country, and what’s the story?
Why do you think it has taken those forms?
What are the major issues for public history where you are, now and in the coming years?
Please add your comments to this post. A few bullets, a paragraph, or even just a couple of links or references would be great (and we’ll acknowledge all contributors). It would be great to have these comments publicly available, but please contact either of us directly if you prefer not to.
NB We’re understanding public history in the broadest possible terms. Former World History Association president, Alfred J. Andrea’s definition is our starting point: the application of ‘historical skills and perspectives in the services of a largely non-academic clientele,’ and of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’. His range of examples of public history take in public policy analysis, the understanding of cultural heritage, and helping a corporation ‘plan its future through an understanding of its past’.
Andrea, ‘On public history’, Historian 53 (1991) p. 381.
Our new colleague at Hertfordshire, Adam Crymble, has recently written an ‘essay on the backlash against the digital humanities movement’ – a reflection on ‘living in the age of digital hubris’ over the past decade. Crymble calls for a dose of ‘digital humility’ from his fellow ‘DHers’; digital history has been well-funded at a time when research budgets are being slashed elsewhere – so perhaps the recent backlash is the result of ‘an establishment that’s decided those DH people get enough already.’
Public history hasn’t been on the receiving end of million-pound projects (although streams such as Connected Communities are starting to shape work in the field) but Crymble’s comments about the tensions between new fields and the academic establishment resonate. Public historians, particularly those who have come ‘alternative’ routes into academe, might well emphathise with his experience:
DH is inherently interdisciplinary. My “core” discipline is history… But if I had to convince a group of anonymous historians that my work was worthy, I seemed destined for the “no” pile.
Times are tough. I can accept that there are other great candidates out there who may have been better for the job, or more worthy of the scholarship. But it’s not just me. Most of my colleagues in Britain were self-funded during their Ph.D.s, or supported their studies as part-time developers and project managers. I know of none with the golden-ticket scholarships that have long been a measure of the top students in the humanities.
There’s definitely some common cause to be made between public and digital historians in building bridges with other domains of academic history. But a bit of humility on all sides is probably needed, as part of seeking greater integration of the discipline, something Justin Champion and I wrote about in unashamedly advocatory terms. As Crymble says, we’re all on the same team…
Last week, the post of Historian with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advertised (with the strapline ‘If you’re passionate about the past and excited about the future, consider a role as a Historian in Whitehall’). Historians in government are a very rare breed in Britain, at least in historical roles (historians have been taken on as generalists since the civil service professionalised – and came under pointed criticism as ‘amateurs’ for it from the late 1950s). By contrast, historians working as historians are part of state and federal/provincial government structures in the USA and Canada; the US Society for History in the Federal Government has been around for over 30 years.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the grass is greener for colleagues across the pond. Being a historian in government doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bringing historical thinking into the corridors of power (even walking said corridors doesn’t equal admission to the offices where the major policy decisions are taken). The North American experience suggests recognition as a specialist can be a distinctly mixed blessing. An expert’s influence can easily be limited to those questions relating directly to the area of expertise…
The role of the historian in government is often concerned with research and the management of records: cataloguing papers; editing documents and producing official histories for publication; responding to queries; writing briefing papers on historical topics. In countries such as Canada and New Zealand, historians are also expert contributors to processes that address grievances and claims relating to the treatment of indigenous peoples.
The currently advertised job certainly fits with this editorial and curatorial profile. But the FCO is a particularly interesting case, because a previous historian at the department made the transition from editor of official documents to historical adviser to the Minister.
Rohan Butler (1917-1996) worked at the Foreign Office from 1944, while also a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford. He became Senior Editor of the Documents on British Foreign Policy in 1955, and, in 1959, he was commissioned to produce a history of the Abadan Crisis as part of a Whitehall initiative (‘funding experience’) to learn lessons from the past.
Peter Beck’s careful scholarship has revealed the work of historians at the Treasury and Foreign Office during this experiment. Butler, however, managed to gain a position of influence as a historian (the Abadan history was finished in 1962 and Butler went on to become historical adviser to successive Foreign Secretaries until 1982) – something his Treasury colleagues never did.
Beck states that the Abadan history ‘fed into, guided, and influenced on-going discussions and reviews within Whitehall by juxtaposing the lessons of history, contemporary realities, and possible new directions for both foreign policy and methods.’ Beck somewhat underplay’s Butler’s success, stating that it’s difficult to ascribe a ‘clear-cut outcome’ to the history. But Butler’s work was informing the highest levels of decisionmaking. He was, effectively, a policy adviser as well as a historian.
The job description for today’s FCO historian mentions ‘responding to requests for historical information and advice from Ministers, officials and the public’, but the prospect for a role such as Butler’s seems remote. The salary of £26,363 – £32,834 is well below the range for special advisers and points, perhaps, to a role seen as ‘back-office’ rather than ‘core business’.
We may today lament that history has little influence on policymaking – it might be worth looking back at Butler for inspiration: a historian on the inside.
 Beck, ‘The Lessons of Abadan and Suez for British Foreign Policymakers in the 1960s’, p. 545.
See also: Beck, Using history, making British policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
NB: Butler’s authoritative memorandum on the Katyn Massacre (produced in 1972 and printed for internal circulation in 1973) is now in the public domain with original footnotes and annexes.
Two years ago I published the post below about the new Radio Four series, The Public Philosopher (tagline: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel examines the thinking behind a current controversy’). In a way, I was pointing to a gap: a history gap. As the crisis continues in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine – and claims, counter-claims and denunciations based on the past abound – the need for a forum for ‘questioning the [historical] thinking’ seems even more pressing. Radio 4 has a good, and varied, offering in terms of history programming. But there isn’t really a forum in which a wide audience can debate the ways in which the past is put to use in the present, and on issues that would certainly qualify as ‘current controversies’: welfare, immigration, education, health, foreign policy, the economy.
This week, The Public Philosopher tackled ‘national guilt’:
Imagine a country guilty of past crimes. What obligations do its current citizens have to make amends? In this edition of The Public Philosopher, Michael Sandel poses that question to an audience in Japan. The discussion involves students from Japan and from China and South Korea – countries which were victims of Japanese aggression during the Second World War
It makes for interesting listening, and I’ll definitely add it to the teaching resources for next year, when my International Perspectives in Public History students will look at topics such as school textbooks, citizenship and identity, apologies and restitution, and commemoration, all in comparative context. But at the same time, it made me aware of that yawning ‘history gap’ (or should it be ‘public history gap’?). It’s great that a political philosopher is taking on the important and ever-relevant theme of guilt and apology – but shouldn’t historians be involved in, or initiating, such debates? Which comes back to the question we always ask our public history students: what are the responsibilities of the ‘historian in public?’
The Public Philosopher starts on Radio 4 tomorrow, the tagline being: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel questions the thinking underlying a current controversy’. Change ‘thinking’ for ‘history’ – or even just add ‘historical’ – and you have the pitch for The Public Historian. But would it ever happen?
Radio 4 listeners clearly like their history and historical perspectives, explicit and implicit, are to be found everywhere (for example, the amazing interview with Konstanty Gebert in One to One on the underground press in Poland, in which he discussed comparisons with journalists in Arab spring countries, or Chris Stringer’s highly engaging recollections on The Life Scientific). So audience interest probably wouldn’t be an issue. But what about the academic side of things? Would historians be keen to take on the mantle of The Public Historian, even if the intention was no more radical than to ‘look for the past behind the present’ (the tagline of The Long View)? Or is the term ‘public history’ too contested, too misunderstood, too elusive or even too restrictive in this country?
I’ve just been at an event on external engagement in the arts and humanities at the University of York, one of a series supported by the British Academy. As is usual for events that bring academics together to discuss ‘public engagement’, discomfort was expressed with the term itself. Both ‘public’ and ‘engagement’ are problematic (as, indeed, is ‘external’, which harks back to ‘extramural’ and thus divides the world into the insiders and the outsiders).
But what was interesting was that none of the early-career academics and PhD students (who provided the most thought-provoking speakers) raised the issue. Working with and for all kinds of people was just what they did as researchers. They needed to be creative in making connections between their initial research interests and those of partner organisations. They had to be flexible as collaborations developed in unexpected ways. They learned a lot about the nature of their own expertise and the contribution of others’. And they did so by doing it – getting ‘out there’ (presumably without worrying too much about whether ‘out there’ was an inherently and prohibitively problematic formulation).
We do need to inspect the language we use. Words reveal, but also conceal. An essential aspect of academic enquiry is being critical and self-conscious (I quite like Thomas Cooper’s ‘duty of discontent’). But we shouldn’t let that process of examination be an end in itself – I’ve made the same argument about the endless problem of defining public history. We need to do. We need to try things out, to make connections and follow leads (some of which are bound to be blind alleys and diversions). We need to meet people, find mutual interests and build networks, even though we may have no idea how these will turn into anything. Engagement is a pretty good word to capture all of this energising, entrepreneurial, messy, frustrating, rewarding and so completely human activity of making meaning of life.
NB the image is the first one that comes up when you type “external engagement” into google images. It’s quite fitting in a way as one of the approaches the speakers were critiquing was one like this i.e. the university justs ‘hands over’ or transfers its knowledge to the external partner, rather than getting involved in a genuine collaboration.
John Lewis’ 150th anniversary is in full swing. Products with designs inspired by and recovered from the amazing archives now held at the Heritage Centre in Odney are everywhere. I was lucky enough to take a look at some of the original patterns and their contemporary versions a few months back so it was actually pretty exciting to see the products themselves on the shop floor in Welwyn yesterday. Whatever the hesitancies we have as historians about the term ‘heritage’ and how it can be appropriated, manufactured and consumed, we should be also be able to recognise when it’s a source of energy and creativity. OK, so I bought the daisy-chain duvet cover…
Anniversaries are often the prompt for reflection and public history depends on them. But how often do businesses and organisations make use of their own history? John Lewis is probably unusual in the extent of the company’s investment in the preservation and active use of its archives. Not only the design of products but the architecture of stores has drawn on archived material (including the Heritage Centre itself).
‘Heritage for business’ was the theme of an event the University of Hertfordshire’s Heritage Hub held last year, at which John Lewis’ Heritage Services Manager, Judy Faraday (a Hub Fellow and a woman much in demand at the moment) explained how and why history mattered to the Partnership. At that event was Agostino Luggeri, the MD of Mulmar, a Hertfordshire Anglo-Italian coffee machine company coming up for its 25th anniversary.
The following film is the product of the resulting collaboration between the Heritage Hub, Mulmar and the production company Magic Beans Media. It ‘premiered’ at the London Coffee Festival, a major event in the industry’s calendar, which attracted 22,000 visitors:
What I hope the video shows is the contribution that a university can make. It is a promotional video, but it’s different from standard marketing products. The relationship with Mulmar had started with a research project, The Cappuccino Conquests, which traced the global history of Italian-style coffee. Professor Jonathan Morris interviewed the business’ founders, which showed how the history of Mulmar was interwoven with as well as emblematic of the story of the UK coffee revolution.
Putting together the video also involved a history MA student and Hub research assistant, Helen Tyler, working through the Mulmar archive and scanning and cataloguing relevant images. A 2nd-year Graphic Design student, Olawale Osunla, won a competition set up to create a new company logo celebrating the anniversary (it appears at the end of the video).
Projects like this can bring the sought-after ‘win-win’ for the company, academics and students and we’re aiming to trace its impact over the following months. John Lewis is leading the way in showing businesses the power of the anniversary, but maybe Mulmar will prove that the local company can do it too.
thanks to jon morris
An interesting discussion starting on Public History Weekly on the (unmet?) promises of the web as the end of hierarchies of knowledge and the power of the digital dissemination – and impact – of research.
It’s relatively easy to point to the digital world as a democratising environment – but, in the case of academic research, do new media really disrupt how knowledge is made and interpreted? Or do they just offer new platforms for broadcasting the products of research, where the process is still held tightly within the confines of the universities and research institutes? Here are the comments I added:
What are the implications of working in an environment in which the new media play a powerful role (however we conceive of how they relate to, coexist with or complement ‘analogue’ scholarship) for the process of scholarship itself? Crowd-sourcing of data and pattern-identification isn’t that new in the sciences, and in the humanities, projects such as Trove in Australia are drawing in thousands of users to correct texts, tag items, upload content and contribute to the interpretation of material.
Nonetheless, old hierarchies, as Valentin Groebner notes – the book, the journal article – persist. Crowd-sourcing doesn’t change where the ‘real business’ of scholarship happens; it out-sources some of the graft involved to volunteer research assistants in cyberspace. Crowd-sourcing is valuable; it undoubtedly has an impact on research and on the circulation of knowledge. But does it fundamentally transform the process of knowledge creation? Mills Kelly is undertaking some impressive, and impressively radical, work with his students that is enabling them to move into the space of making and re-making history. Can we extend this from the classroom and into our core work, and identity, as historians – without that implying a compromise in intellectual rigour?
Public history talks the language of co-production of knowledge (and co-curation in museums is an emerging concept) and, in certain forms, the involvement of people as the subjects and audiences of historican enquiry is taken seriously. I think we can be more ambitious, however. There are some excellent public history platforms out there; the Old Bailey Online is a pioneering example, and even relatively simple platforms such as WordPress and HistoryPin are allowing students, community groups, heritage organisations and many others to contribute to historical knowledge. But what is the next stage? How can the scholarly conversation be opened up – as opposed to just scholarly knowledge? How can both ‘new’ and ‘old’ media, and the blurring of the boundaries between them, help create a much broader community of enquiry, not just a wider audience?
But we also need to think about how this might happen. ‘Follow the money’ is one of the tips we give to our public history students. The trend in recent UK funding policy is to restrict access to research money to fewer and fewer universities – the principle of ‘excellence wherever it’s found’ doesn’t always translate into practice – and those universities are often the least attuned to external engagement, at least outside the big corporates (let alone small community groups). Some funding is now flowing for forms of public engagement in the humanities, but could that end up creating a divide between ‘real research’ and the ‘soft stuff’ of collaboration with community groups and other users and audiences? Any such divide would allow for a ready ‘reprioritisation’ of funding in the event of further reductions in the overall research budget.
So while there might be as yet unrealised potential for using social media to break down some of the divides in terms of ‘making’ knowledge, whether that happens depends in part on whether we value – and fund – the academic work that takes collaboration seriously.
A moving travelog from Johnny Diamond on BBC Radio 4 – Broadcasting House, 29/12/2013 explored the dwindling but active Jewish communities of the Mississippi Delta. Once numbering in the hundreds, their numbers declined as children, having served in the war, stayed away. New lives were built in the cities, the younger generation often joined by their parents.
Only 9 Jews are now left in Greenwood, the remaining members afraid ‘not to gather’: the community ceasing to exist feels a real and immediate possibility. In Vicksburg, Stan Klein talks of his concern about the on-going care of the cemetery: ‘we’re planning for the future of our congregation, when we can no longer physically be here to do it ourselves. We’re nearing the end and we know it’.
The roving rabbi serving these communities sees his role as ‘to help them navigate what will be very difficult realities in a way that honours that history and ensures their continued legacy’. In essence, he’s helping them manage their decline. But might there also in such efforts be a role for the public historian, capturing oral histories, gathering and cataloguing important items such as photographs and diaries, documenting the history of spaces such as the cemetery and synagogue to inform future preservation and respond to future interest?
If so, how do historians find and build the kind of connections to make this happen? Not that such endeavours are unproblematic. They raise many issues, such as authority over and ownership of the past, the tension between the interests and agendas of community members and historians, what is done with the ‘products’ of the collaboration. These are, however, all issues with which public history is fundamentally concerned and public history projects are tackling them on a routine basis. We also need to think about how we train our students, not just with the skills required but perhaps also with a certain activist mindset to want to take on the challenges involved?
Anyway, I commend the programme to you (it starts at 23′) and would be interested to hear people’s views on it, and on the issues it raises for public history.