History and the past has been in the news a fair bit recently – notably controversies over culture wars, statues and how the past is understood, interpreted and presented. Clearly there aren’t static or universal understandings of the past. So how does our approach to the past and the sources we use shape the questions we ask, what we get out of the sources and our understandings? Can different ‘types’ of historian understand each other and work together?
This is something that has been at the heart of the ‘Historians Collaborate’ work that has been going on over the last few years, and in which the project has played a part. To stress at the outset, the answer to the question about whether or not we can understand each other and work together is an emphatic ‘yes’ – but we do need to think about how we can do it, so that we don’t end up talking past or misunderstanding each other.
One idea that some of us have talked about was taking a single source and asking different historians how they might approach it and what they might get out of it. It came up again at the brilliant ‘Telling small stories, telling big stories’ workshops recently hosted by Julia Laite (recordings available here; see also this Twitter discussion which helped prompt this week’s blog posts).
So that’s what we’re doing this week!
Rather than a single blog post, we have this introduction, and then 8 further posts, each contributing to this discussion about the past. You’re free to read them in any order you choose, as they’re standalone pieces – but by putting them together, the value will increase, as you’ll be able to compare approaches.
Each of the authors had access to the same details, of an accident to goods guard E Beaumont, at Cudworth in Yorkshire, in 1911. In the main, they were asked to reflect on how they would approach the source, the questions they might ask and how they might then present the accident.
The hope is we can start to clarify what local history does differently to, say, academic history; and again, what academic history does differently to family history, and so on. Clarifying the differences will, we hope, help us understand each other, so we can support each other’s research – and also show what we might get from each other’s approaches.
In doing so, we want to help break down a tendency for historians to remain in their particular silos. We’re all interested in the past and we think we can all benefit from understanding each other and helping with our respective research topics. Indeed, that’s at the heart of the ‘Historians Collaborate’ movement, including this seminar series (and we’re hoping to do a source-based session in the future, kind of like a live-action version of this blog post!).
There’s another aspect to what we offer in this week’s set of posts. It’s not just ‘straightforward’ historians (whatever their flavour!) who are interested in the past. There are other reasons for looking back, and other responses. Two of these we’re fortunate to be able to include here – one, from Greg Morse, comes from a safety specialist within the current rail industry, and thinks about the potential learning points of past accidents.
The other, from Stephen Foster, is a creative response to the accident, a fiction based on the accident, along with an account of how he came to write it. Stephen produced his story entirely unbeknownst to us until he got in touch to say that he’d done it. This was the starting point and the reason we’ve asked everyone else to focus on E Beaumont’s accident. On the face of it, his was a very unexceptional case – but all the more valuable for that deceptive mundanity. The past was full of these unexceptional happenings far more than the ‘big events’ that are perhaps more easily visible, after all.
On to the posts – and of course, a huge ‘thank you’ to the authors, most of whom produced their responses to E Beaumont’s case at relatively short notice. Being able to include your pieces is really important, and you provide us all with perspectives we wouldn’t necessarily otherwise get.
We won’t introduce the posts beyond the description below, which we’ve listed them in no particular order. Please feel free to read as many as you like, in any order you like:
The accident in fiction – Stephen Foster
Writing the accident in fiction – Stephen Foster
A local history approach – Kathrina Perry
A family history approach – Natalie Pithers
An approach from within the current rail industry – Greg Morse
A ‘traditional’ project blog – Mike Esbester
The project’s approach – Mike Esbester
An academic approach – Mike Esbester
Do have a think about the questions they raise about how and why we research the past. Your thoughts and comments are, as ever, very welcome – including blog posts in response!
Thank you – and enjoy.