On Sunday, Kevin Myers, a columnist beloved of Irish editors in search of “controversy”, was fired from the Sunday Times due to anti-Semitic comments. That very same day, Myers spoke at the Cork History Festival. These events and the social media conversation surrounding them got me thinking about the roster of speakers and topics we find at history festivals. The commodified history market seems to think of the standard public history consumer as male, war-obsessed and titillated by tales of a glorious national past. In reality, there exists a larger audience engaged by progressive narratives, such as LGBTQ, feminist, migrant and pacifist histories. Could we create a progressive history festival to galvanise this audience? What would it look and sound like? Here are some thoughts:
A progressive history festival would not be the kind of event at which you salivate over military vehicles or fondle a Luger pistol. It would consist of an audience varied in age, gender and social identity commanded over by a similarly diverse set of speakers. This means prioritising young and exciting researchers over elderly and conservative contrarians. Think of a history version of the popular Irish boutique arts festival Body&Soul and you may be close to the mark. Or, to use a historical analogy, picture Meyerhold’s revolutionary theatre, putting forward a stark vision of society past and present without underestimating the audience’s intelligence. However, accurately reflecting the hodgepodge of modern civilization is only one part of the quest.
The question of representation is also linked to the topics being considered. This was brought into sharp relief by the recent controversy surrounding the Chalke Valley History Festival (which, astonishingly, featured more Wehrmacht soldiers than people of colour). As Laura O’Brien noted, the failure of the Chalke Valley History Festival’s attempt to “resolve” its diversity dilemma by air-dropping in already established women historians and “trying to find” BME speakers was rendered entirely moot by being a) sponsored by a far-right paper and b) representative of a singular vision of history and politics. A progressive history festival would need speakers who represent the entire makeup of society, but it would also require a kaleidoscopic view of history.
What is the aforementioned ‘singular vision of history and politics’ and how might a progressive history festival upset it? Chalke Valley was the epitome of history-as-commodity, seen for decades in full-colour glory on our TV screens, with tanks rolling over trenches, uniformed men storming beaches and Tudors walking through gilded halls. Women are often a generalised victim to be sympathised with rather than an autonomous individual. Part of a minority group? Your history is only explored through your colonisation or repression, if at all. Europe is the almost exclusive backdrop. Recent BBC efforts challenging this hegemony, such as The Ascent of Woman and Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, have been rewarded with acclaim and viewers.
Yet the commodified history industry seems reticent to probe much further despite these successes. Let’s take a recent initiative, popular UK historian Dan Snow’s on-demand history channel. The History Hit podcast (which broadcast directly from the aforementioned Chalke Valley Festival) tilts towards the World Wars, monarchs and other similarly well-trodden topics in its thematic oeuvre. Indeed, in the promotional video for History Hit TV, we learn that the template for the proposed mobile application allows users to browse history by four categories: Ancient, Modern, Military and Medieval. I wish the venture every success. Nevertheless, I hope it will expand its historical horizons. Because, while the £140,000+ raised by History Hit certainly suggests there is an audience for this kind of history, there’s also an unrecognised audience for everything else. Where in this genre of public history are the topics that fuel entire research centres in history faculties: such as women’s history, gender history and queer history? And where could we find the endless assortment of fascinating and nuanced stories that would be swamped under a label as broad as ‘medieval’ or ‘military’ or incapable of being presented faithfully in quasi-cinematic productions?
Commodified history, by merit of the terms it boxes itself into, has become incapable of recognising or reaching an untapped audience which is both socially diverse and ever-expanding. Indeed, the most frustrating aspect of the market perception of public history is the manner in which it underestimates the public desire for nuanced, challenging and diverse historical narratives. Without fail, events I have addressed focusing on LGBT, feminist, anti-colonial or other underrepresented narratives have been widely attended by an engaged audience – many of whom travel long distances to absorb history that contains reflections of their own experience. Moreover, every PhD could instantly write a list of charismatic researchers whose ideas would be suited for a festival like the one I am imagining. With the drone of ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ emitting from the neoliberal university, we are constantly implored to make our research more amenable to the public sphere. But what if the market’s conception of the historically-engaged public sphere is itself false? In that case, academics don’t need to alter our research – we can simply recast the public sphere in our own image.
How do we achieve this, even on a minor scale? One path might be a series of talks, lectures, walking tours and multimedia under one organisational umbrella, perhaps working towards a full-fledged festival (or becoming part of on an established festival with a sympathetic ethos). It is worth pledging at the outset that a progressive-minded festival would be obliged to pay experts for their expertise – a basic right too often ignored. In this vein, it is worth mentioning the example of the Dublin Festival of History, which pays all speakers. Run by Dublin City Council and Dublin Libraries, the festival can avoid politicised sponsorship through public funding and provides all tickets free of charge. Yet there still exists a space for a stridently progressive history festival in both Ireland and the UK. Currently, history is sold to the public in the form of Henry VIII riding a Spitfire toward a conquered Europe shouting ‘And I won’t even charge you for your liberation!’ – something has to change.
I am eager to hear anyone with critiques of the idea, thoughts on feasibility or interest in getting involved, either at my email (maurice.casey [at] jesus.ox.ax.uk) or via twitter.