University of Portsmouth's History Blog

What use is the past?

In this blog Dr Mike Esbester, senior lecturer in history, tackles a question that has long been discussed by historians and reveals how, if used carefully, the past can sometimes provide illumination for the present. Mike’s research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain, particularly on the cultural history of safety, risk and accident prevention, and on the history of mobility.

It’s not an original question, and historians have been wrestling with it for years. Is it possible to learn from the past, given circumstances and context change and no two situations are ever precisely the same? Do we risk hollowing historical study out by trying to ‘apply’ it to the present? Must the past be ‘useful’?

These are all issues which have become increasingly pressing in recent years, as attempts have been made to apply metrics to the arts, humanities and social sciences which are, it might be argued, constructed around and better applied to the hard sciences. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that debate, it’s clear that in some form ideas about measuring the impact of our work is here to stay. The idea of impact itself doesn’t simply equate to ‘monetising the past’, of course, and it is taking the discipline into some interesting areas – though this isn’t new, as historians have been engaging with diverse audiences for many years, changing views and enhancing society in a huge range of ways. It does mean that we’re now being rather more careful about recording these impacts.

One place where all of these aspects are tied together is in some of my research into the history of health and safety. I’ve recently been co-principal investigator on a project called ‘The Changing Legitimacy of Health and Safety at Work, 1960-2015’, funded by a practice-based organisation, the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH). One of the key things they were interested in was understanding how we’ve ended up today ridiculing ‘elf n safety gone mad’ when, fundamentally, no one truly objects to the idea that we should try to ensure people (at work and beyond) remain free from injury or ill-health. It was also important to IOSH that the project, which was jointly run with Professor Paul Almond at the University of Reading, should produce recommendations to try to influence future policy and practice.

To be clear – no-one’s talking about somehow ‘predicting’ the future. But it is worth exploring how the past is useful in understanding the present and how this might help to shape the future.

It was a fascinating project – you can find our final report here – and I’ll be writing more about it in the future. But for now I wanted to say a little about what we’ve done to reach professional and policy audiences – and to address any concerns they might have about why the past should be relevant to them.

In addition to the report, which was made freely available by IOSH and promoted amongst its nearly 40,000 members, we’ve given presentations at health and safety events and written for various publications speaking to the health and safety profession. One of the recent spin-offs was a ‘webinar’, aimed at IOSH members, giving an overview of some of the key aspects and recommendations of the project – as well as continuing our dialogue with current practitioners.

As you can imagine, this was a rather different kettle of fish to your standard academic written text or presentation. We had to boil down two years’ work to around 45 minutes, making sure it was accessible (though not dumbed-down) – and we tried to provide some positive steps that the participants could take back into their diverse workplaces and apply.

We had around 100 participants with us for the webinar, and the Q and A following was lively – sufficiently so that we continued for 15 minutes beyond our allotted hour, and produced a written document responding to the questions we still didn’t have time to answer. The webinar is now available on IOSH’s YouTube channel.

How was it received? According to the post-event feedback, 98% of people felt the content was either good or excellent, which I think is pretty successful – and allays any concerns I might have had about making my ‘pitch’ that the past was indeed relevant to current practitioners. Now we want them to go and give our recommendations a try!

And what about those questions we started with, about learning from the past and applying it? Provided we retain the scope to explore the past for its own sake, I don’t see any harm in looking to see where it might provide illumination for the present – delicately done, of course. The past doesn’t have to be ‘useful’, but if there are aspects we can see that are relevant to current debates, surely it makes sense that we try to have that conversation and see where it might lead?

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