In this blog Reiss Sims, who has just gained a first-class degree in History at Portsmouth (well done, Reiss!), discusses a project he worked on last year with some of his fellow History students for the module ‘Working with the Past’, coordinated by Dr Mike Esbester. As part of their project, the students looked into how academic historians take their work ‘out of the academy’ and into the public realm. Reiss and his fellow students interviewed our Dr Karl Bell, who researches all things supernatural, to find out how he has tried to engage the wider public in the history he studies.
Last year, as part of our assessment for the second-year module ‘Working with the Past’, I and some of my fellow students interviewed tutors in the History team to find out how important they thought it was for academic historians to engage with the wider public. In this blog we reflect on our discussion with Dr Karl Bell – Reader in History at the University of Portsmouth. Karl was happy to take a step back from his busy schedule of all things supernatural, to give us an insight into what history he studies, why and how public engagement is valuable, and why the walls between academic and public history should be broken down.
The role of the historian has often been a topic of high debate. Traditionally, it was an occupation designed for the academic elite, serving to tell the stories of the extraordinary and powerful. Then, due to a rise in cultural and social scholarship during the mid-twentieth century, the historian’s role shifted towards becoming a more public-facing figure; bridging the gap between the academic and non-academic worlds by exploring the ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’. As a result, concern as to whether historians should, or should not, engage with wider society still penetrates historical discussion – should history be read by the many, or by the few? Are all academics public intellectuals, or private? What is the use of history for non-historians? These are just some of the questions that intellectuals, such as Edward Said, have tried to answer, suggesting “there is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world”. Nevertheless, our interview with Karl highlighted some of the ways in which he understands the relationship between history, the historian, and the public.
The public-facing historian is a philosophy that is echoed by Karl, whose research primarily focuses on supernatural beliefs, magical practices, folklore, and urban legends of the late eighteenth and early twentieth century. When asked what attracted him to his specific field of history, Karl suggested that he is “attracted to areas of our historical cultures and experiences that have tended to be overlooked or underappreciated”, and that by studying such areas, society can develop an enhanced understanding of how people lived in the past. In addition, Karl believed that the academic and public spheres share differing perceptions of what history is, with much of the public perception focusing on “momentous historical events – political and military history.” All of this counts towards the suggestion that interaction with the public can be achieved by varying the histories we choose to tell. For example, by studying the supernatural, Karl aims to provide the public with a “personal way of connecting back to similar such beliefs of the past” and thus making it more relatable, whilst also broadening their understanding of the possibilities of historical study.
Whilst public lectures, seminars, and events are quite frequently used by historians to engage with the public in an intimate environment, television and radio can be quite the step up, allowing the historian to reach a national, and sometimes global, audience. In 2020, Karl made an appearance on Channel 4’s British history show Britain’s Most Historic Towns, discussing the role of Portsmouth and the Royal Dockyard during the Napoleonic Wars. Karl’s task was to take the complex subject of nineteenth-century Europe, without a script or time to go into immense detail, in order to make the show’s topic easily accessible to a wider audience. It is plausible to assume that the audience of the show could very well be made up of people with, and without, historical interest, making Karl’s job even more significant.
In his work, British historian Donald Watt has reaffirmed some of the points made by Karl, regarding the relationship between the historian and television. In an article titled, History on the Public Screen, Watt indicated that whilst the reception of history by the public may largely be the same, the historian’s style of working must adapt. Unlike in seminars, lectures, or webinars, television is ultimately concerned with entertainment, not total accuracy, and so the historian must attempt to make themselves, and their topic, clear and digestible. In doing so, they are able to prevent distortion or misrepresentation of a particular topic. If kept in mind, Karl and many other historians have the ability to tackle the ‘classroom’ perception of “history”, by bringing it to life, and in doing so, has the power to encourage nationwide appeal.
The work of a historian, no matter the medium in which it is recorded, can have a substantial impact on society for decades. Be it a new school of thought, a unique interpretation of an historical topic, or work in Hollywood, the historical legacy left behind can be extremely powerful. When asked about what legacy he would like to leave with the public, Karl indicated that he wanted to continue spreading the message that history is not “owned” by historians, and that it is not a topic that is constrained to the limitations of the school curriculum. It is clear then, that Karl’s objective as a historian is not just successful research, but to encourage the wider public to explore and engage with history more freely. Hopefully, in doing so, a new generation of historians will emerge.
 Maurice St. Pierre, “Eric Williams: The historian as public intellectual,” Journal of Labor and Society 23, no. 1 (March 2020): 71.
 Karl Bell, “Working with the Past Interview,” interview by Reiss Sims, Daniel Squire, Sophie Sinclair, and Joshua Wintle, March 21, 2021, 1
 Bell, interview.
 Bell, interview.
 Donald Watt, “History on the public screen I,” In The Historian and Film, ed. Paul Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 169.