Public history: can we capture where the magic happens?
Universities are increasingly held accountable for the research they undertake, justifying the use of public funds. However, it is just as important for individual scholars, such as those in History, to consider the impact of our work. Can we be more creative in reflecting on our own contributions? And can we ever truly gauge the impact we are having? Though we need to be held accountable for our work, we need to look beyond a quantitative impact and realise our personal impact.
Meeting with an ex-work colleague, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of articles he had read on History to the Public. From discussing one article (the New Year’s 2016 Sherlock article), we began talking more broadly about public history and its role. We debated the responsibilities which producers have when presenting history – and whether other viewers interpreted the episode in the same way. We had a healthy discussion, showing the benefits of sharing historical analysis of productions in the public realm. Such conversations about history more generally cannot necessarily be translated into hard stats, but they reveal a deeper and thoughtful engagement outside of academia.
Public history can be a key way for scholars to share their research with a much broader audience. Indeed, this is the thinking behind History To The Public. Our aim is to make our historical research accessible – and inspiring to our readers. Some of my other blog posts are based on my weekly essays. As a student, it is satisfying to know that they will gain a larger audience than just my supervisor, whilst acting as a spark for further debate. So how do we measure our impact? In a similar way to other blogs, we look at our statistics, which tell us our most popular articles, the number of hits, and the average time spent on each page. This captures the quantitative impact of the articles. But how about the qualitative impact on our audience?
From a personal perspective, watching dramas such as The Land Girls played a part in my long-standing interest in the Women’s Land Army (WLA), despite its historical inaccuracies. For some, it also clearly inspires further research – I see a noticeable increase in queries after the broadcasting of a programme on the WLA. Relatives want to find out about their family members in the WLA, which further encourages family history research. Individuals, who may not have enjoyed history at school, create their own history workshop as they delve further into research. These outcomes are valuable, but harder to measure – it comes down to personal impact, which can be just as powerful as viewer numbers.
Perhaps we should be rethinking our impact. How many people have you discussed your research with, whether at conferences, over coffee, over dinner? Where did you spark for research arise? How can your research process be applied to other fields? How you can you be this inspiration for others? Maybe the magic happens where we don’t even realise it.