In this blog Dan Squire, who graduated with a History degree from Portsmouth in July (well done, Dan!), 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. Dan and his fellow students interviewed our Dr Mel Bassett, who researches the history of dockyard workers, to find out how she has tried to engage the wider public in the history she studies.
As part of our work for the module ‘Working with the Past’, I and a few of my fellow students interviewed Dr Melanie Bassett about how and why historians interact with the public. Mel gave us many insights into her personal experiences of interacting with the public, addressing the concerns many historians have when showcasing their work to the public. Mel spoke about tackling issues such as keeping the public engaged in historical discussions and the different methods that can be utilised to achieve this goal. Mel also went on to stress the importance of accessibility and how technology can play a significant role in facilitating a shift to a more connected historical dialogue between the public and historians.
Mel has employed various methods to capture the public’s interest by making History accessible and enjoyable for everyone involved. One outreach project that Mel was involved in, called Sickly Slums and Sailortowns, is an excellent representation of how historians can expand their audience. The project introduced children to their local history as they discovered what life was like for the port towns’ inhabitants. The workshop culminated in a tour around Portsea, finishing in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, giving participants a first-hand experience of their local history as they even got to sit in a hammock on board HMS Warrior! This outreach project offered a fantastic taster day into History with the primary aim of capturing the interest of the participants. Exposing History to children at an early age can only be a good thing. Not only will it give them more of an appreciation for the subject, it will also help them develop an understanding of the world they live in.
Mel encapsulated her attitude towards working with the wider public when she told us “It is a really exciting time to be a historian; being able to work in the public eye and showcase what it is we do.” Mel feels that historians have the ability to help people gain a sense of topical issues by giving context to events. This was particularly evident when Mel highlighted the importance of other aspects of her research, particularly relating to the British Empire and its implications on today’s society. Mel has examined how the Empire affected ideas of race and belonging within Britain, demonstrating how historians can help by using their research to answer the bigger questions that the public ask.
Making History accessibility is, Mel said, a major issue for historians who are looking to engage a wider audience. Mel spoke about the role that she had played in digitising part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy‘s collection, which involved creating online exhibitions to go on their website. Online exhibitions enable the public to view resources hidden away in the museum’s archives, which are often not on display in the museum due to a lack of physical space. This means that the public can have full access to all the possible exhibits that the museum has to offer.
Mel also discussed another side of accessibility: the need to understand that people do not always want to be lectured to; it is important, Mel said, to allow people to see the collections themselves and do things in their own time. Modern technology has also allowed more traditional written History to become more accessible. As well as writing longer academic-focused pieces, many historians now engage with the public by writing shorter, more reader-friendly posts. Therefore, the public can digest the information in a condensed way.
Mel also offered her thoughts on improving accessibility in the future, pinpointing the fact that we need to empower the wider public by giving them the tools they need to further their own research if they wanted to. This raises an interesting argument about online archives. Although theoretically they are now more accessible than ever due to them negating geographical restrictions, members of the public are often met with new restrictions in the form of paywalls on many sites, meaning online archives are only available to people who can afford to pursue their interest in history.
Finally, Mel spoke to us about her experience of working on the TV programme Britain’s Most Historic Towns. While being positive about the involvement of documentaries and TV shows in History, Mel also mentioned the dangers a historian can face working with the media. Mel was acutely aware of the fact that any time you offer your expertise or opinion, there is always the potential for someone to disagree. This highlighted the difficulty of expressing a view in a 10-minute segment on TV that has been built up through years of research and critical thinking. Mel went on to say that if historians were given longer to contribute, they could add more information to help contextualise their views and lower the chance of their point being misunderstood.
Overall, Mel was extremely positive about working with the wider community and says that making History more available to the public can on be a good thing. It is clear then, that Mel’s aim as a historian is to encourage the wider public to explore and engage with history more freely. Her research is a very important part of her job, she says, but so is helping to create a new generation of historians.