Race and Britain- A Research Agenda or Public History?

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Rebecca Nelson (Hull) who offers her insights on ‘Race and Britain’ panel.

I recently attended the King’s Contemporary British History conference addressing the question of, ‘what is contemporary British history now?’ There was a really exciting program which included a variety of themes, from Thatcherism and secularization, to warfare and gender. Academics working on a range of topics from across the UK and the wider world (I personally met at least two delegates from the United States) came together to discuss some of the issues facing historians working on contemporary British history, as well as share ideas on how to develop the field going forward.

The structure of the conference was unlike any I have been to before. The presentations from the panelists were delivered in five minute slots – just enough time for them to outline the ideas behind their own research, as well as raise points that the audience may want to address further in the rest of the session that remained. Each session was an hour and fifteen minutes, with the presentations taking only twenty to thirty minutes, there was an extended amount of time for discussion. Once the presenters had finished speaking the audience were invited to converse amongst themselves about their responses to what had been said, and then the floor was open to questions. I thought this was really effective in drawing in all audience members to the discussion, enabling networking between attendees who may not have previously known each other to chat, and providing time to formulate thoughtful questions which would move the conversation started by the panelists forward.

As my own research investigates antislavery in UK museums, one of the most pertinent panels for me was the one on race and Britain. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the different racial voices in stories of abolition and antislavery and how museums choose to represent or neglect these. I thought this session might give me some new insights into how other scholars are thinking about similar things. It also interested me that this was the only panel where academics were joined by professionals from the heritage sector; Iqbal Hussain an outreach officer at the National Archives and Munira Mohamad the learning manager of the Black Cultural Archives.

I was not disappointed by the panel; each of the panelists were working on very different projects from Hussain’s work on the anniversary of the partition of India, to Dr Anna Maguire’s study of colonial experiences in the First World War. From all of the presentations it was clear that there is a significance and ‘responsibility’ as Maguire said, attached to uncovering these histories, both for and with the communities who are usually missing from traditional historical narratives. Issues were raised from the audience about the need to integrate these histories within national narratives, particularly via embedding them within history degrees- one suggestion was to make a module on race a compulsory part of the first year of an undergraduate course. This lack of race within education, in schools and at university, was also credited as being one of the barriers which prevents more scholars from ethnic minorities taking up history. The national curriculum was also considered, as perhaps needing a review to redress the current neglect of diverse narratives. It was overwhelmingly clear from these panels that whilst we often discuss ‘black history’, and in one way this separate categorization is a reflection of the importance of recognizing histories of ethnic minorities alongside national narratives, it may be misleading because these histories are ultimately a crucial part of understanding both British and world histories.

As the conference suggested, the panel addressed an issue of practicing history in terms of race. Another theme which came out of the audience discussion was the question of what type of history this is; ‘are we discussing a research agenda, or public history?’ The panel were quick to reply in agreement that actually this is both. The academics were keen to indicate the involvement of community groups in their research and the reception their work has then had from those communities. The heritage professionals also strongly supported this, with Mohamad describing her role as bridging the gap between the academics and the public- that without facilities like public archives and museums, academic research would remain firmly within the academy. This debate about whether history has to be an ‘either or’ surprised me- with the REF now requiring impact from academic work, I think the distinction between public history and ‘proper’ history will become increasingly blurred. While race is an issue central to both historians and communities, I think a follow up event could invite exploration of how historians see their role within the public sphere, encouraging further interaction between the academy and the heritage sector on a range of different themes.

Rebecca Nelson is a PhD student at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation. Her research is funded through the AHRC’s Antislavery Usable Past project and explores the way in which UK museums have, over the past century, engaged with antislavery as both a historic and contemporary issue.

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