Ed Owens – Blog 1: Trying to Bridge the Academic and Popular History Divide

Ed Owens – Blog 1: Trying to Bridge the Academic and Popular History Divide

Since beginning my PhD in Modern British History in 2011, it has become increasingly clear that if I am to enhance my eventual employment opportunities then my current project must engage a broad audience that extends beyond the academy. The keyword here is impact. Often banded about by policy-makers, higher education institutions and funding bodies without what appears to be any clear idea of its precise meaning, the ever-elusive ‘impact’ plays a crucial part in the government’s strategic investment in the Arts and Humanities http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/kei/impacts/Pages/meanbyimpact.aspx. Generally speaking, ‘impact’ requires that academic research is made relevant, tangible even, so that it might have a meaningful influence on life outside of the academy. In this way, generating ‘impact’ can range from increasing knowledge of a particular subject through public exhibitions to effecting government policy in health, housing or education. These are just a couple of examples, the broad umbrella term ‘impact’ encompassing such an extensive range of activities that at times it can appear overly vague and remote.

Cue The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project – ‘Research to Public’ strand, which has presented researchers like me with a unique opportunity to explore the ways in which we can generate ‘impact’ with our work. Run by a team well-acquainted with the growing importance of public engagement, the scheme has allowed me to join with an external cultural partner to organise an event that will broaden public awareness and understanding on a number of key themes related to my research. The Afterlife Team ran two intensive and highly structured day-workshops that helped us formulate ideas both for possible events and potential collaborations. In the first workshop we were made to think in greater detail about how we can make our work more accessible and relevant in terms of public engagement. In part, this was about user-friendliness and the need to eschew academic jargon when communicating with groups of people less familiar with some of the complex terms involved in our research. It was also about trying to capture the essence of our research in a way that will ensure it appeals to those less familiar with the topic.

At the second workshop we met a number of cultural partners located by the Afterlife Team who were looking to meet researchers with whom they might collaborate. This proved very encouraging both in terms of the cultural partners’ approachability and their real enthusiasm for the kinds of ideas that we hoped to convert into public-orientated events. In the activities organised as part of this workshop we also learnt about the kind of influences cultural partners could exercise to benefit our collaborations, such as advertising for the event, and the building of other networking opportunities. At this point, we researchers had been shortlisted for the ‘Research to Public’ strand, though we were yet to submit our final proposals for the all-important funding that would allow us to run our projects. In respect of this, the second workshop instructed us how to prepare our proposals with special emphasis on imagination and innovation, and we also discussed the need to establish strong communications with our cultural partners so that we would fully benefit from the kind of assistance they could offer us.

By this point, I had in fact already located a cultural partner in the Institute of Historical Research http://www.history.ac.uk/. The contacts I made at the IHR via email were very enthusiastic about collaborating with a postgraduate historian and were particularly open-minded in terms of the idea for the event that I proposed to run with their help. One of the major focuses of my PhD is the way new kinds of visual media changed how ordinary people experienced and understood the role of monarchy in the middle decades of twentieth-century Britain. The very contemporary nature of this study and the enduring public interest in the royal family means that discussion about my PhD usually leads to more informal gossiping on Prince William and Kate Middleton, royal babies, the likely succession of Prince Charles and the future of monarchy. In this way, monarchy’s unceasing presence in society has meant that my PhD topic often lends itself to stimulating the thoughts of people outside of academia, because almost everybody has an opinion on the royal family, be it positive or negative.

Accordingly, I’ve planned a one-day event that I feel will appeal to a broader public’s sensibilities. Focusing on royal weddings from the interwar years in Britain and their representation in the new visual media of the newsreels of this period, I have set out to demonstrate how a popular image of monarchy was very carefully constructed to draw special attention to the romance, the babies and the gossip, which have remained so integral to the royals’ image through to the present today. My aims are threefold: to introduce the monarchy as a topic worthy of serious scholarship, stressing that the popular image of the royal family requires investigation if we are to fully appreciate the enduring social and cultural power of the Crown as a focal point of British national identity and community. Secondly, I’m particularly interested in advancing how we think about visual images in history and the way they have been used by the national media to present narratives to audiences. My area of expertise is newsreel and, accompanied by a number of other researchers working in this field, I want to use this one-day event to publicise the importance of the newsreel as a historical source and the new kinds of methodologies with which they are being approached. Finally, I intend to use this workshop to highlight how the process of digitisation is providing researchers with increased access to sources like newsreels, and how this affects the way historians ‘do’ history.

The format for this one-day workshop hosted by the IHR at Senate House in London is varied, involving several speakers on the aforementioned subjects as well as a number of interactive group-based activities and discussions. Aimed at researchers working both in and outside of history, and notably, professionals working in the media industry (interested either in the royal family or who have utilised newsreels in their work), this event will bring together a diverse group of people to learn more about the monarchy’s long-lasting and vital relationship with visual media, and how newly available visual sources are changing how we think about history, and how it is subsequently produced.