Across 2016 and 2017, we placed five historians in five different institutions:
- Bonnie Evans worked alongside the IPPR to add a historical perspective to their work on childcare.
- Helen Carr used her history of Muslim integration in the UK to inform Bright Blue’s stance on immigration.
- Michael Weatherburn was placed with the Resolution Foundation to aid their understanding of the impact of the internet on the workplace.
- Anna Marerker worked with Royal College of Surgeons redesigning the Hunterian Museum.
- Martin Gorsky is organising a conference on the history and future of the NHS with the IPPR.
The outputs and nature of these placements were very different, but having assessed the feedback that our historians and institutions gave us, it is possible to offer some general reflections on the first year of the HiR scheme.
What was gained
- Working with policymakers forced our scholars to think far more critically about how their work can really inform current debates over policy. Getting history to say something valuable to the outside world was, in other words, harder than it was assumed it to be.
- For some, working on the policy implications of their also forced them to think about the academic value of their historical work in a new light. So, through their experience, our placements thought of new questions and aspects to their own academic work.
For our institutions:
- Institutions gained another type of expertise – that of the historian – that they usually do not seriously engage with, which gave their work a richness that it would not have possessed otherwise.
What was learnt from our first year
There are key differences between the world of academic history and the working patterns of public institutions:
- Our partner institutions often worked at a faster pace than our historians were used too.
- Particularly amongst policy institutions, there was the desire for quick, often quantitative solutions to particular problems.
- Sometimes this was problematic as history often only provides complicated answers.
- Some of our historians noted that it would have been useful to have regular contact with others on the HiR scheme during their placements as this would have helped them discuss their experiences.
- It is useful for our historians to be aware of these different ways of working before starting their placements and think about how they might adjust their behaviour accordingly.
- For instance, historians placed in policymaking institutions would be well to avoid using academic terminology in favour of language more familiar to political debate.
- Moreover, it would also be beneficial for such historians to think carefully about how their research translated into easily digestible policy recommendations.
Our historians learnt that it was not about injecting history into the public sphere, but changing pre-existing historical understandings:
- It is not that there is a deficit of historical understanding within public institutions, rather there is a history built on certain assumptions about the past. The role of professional historians, therefore, is to challenge the preconceived historical understanding that circulates in the public domain.
- Historians, therefore, need to be aware of this issue and think strategically about how they can overcome pre-conceived assumptions about the past.
- There was also often an implicit idea of what history was inside the public institutions we worked with. The assumption was that history was the agreed upon record of what has happened and could not be debated.
- Historians, then, need to explain that the past as contested as the present and self-consciously offer one interpretation of events amongst several.
We also gained an idea of what sort of placement worked well:
- Using history as one means of informing a project amongst others was particularly effective in the HiR pilot scheme. To be more specific, putting historians in advisory roles to inform larger projects, whether that be the redesign of a museum or work on a particular policy area, worked well.
- By no means, however, this is to suggest that this how all HiR placements should work. The flexibility of the scheme remains one of its strengths as, clearly, the needs of different institutions and the skills of various historians will create different collaborations.
What this means moving forward
- In broad terms, the HiR scheme clearly works. What it has shown is that there is an appetite amongst both institutions and historians to collaborate on certain projects and these relationships bring benefits to all involved. It makes historians think more about their own work and brings about a more informed, historically engaged public life.
- We need to expand our number of placements.
- Our historians need to be aware going into their placements about the different ways of working between academic history and the world outside of it. Equally, it would be useful for us to ensure that our institutions are aware of what professional history is and what it can do.
- We might also need to have a humbler appreciation of what history can do for our public institutions. Our most successful placements were ones where historians consulted on larger projects that institutions had already put in place. In these situations, historical knowledge worked in collaboration alongside other types of expertise.