Spotted: this advert for the Horrible Histories Christmas special, now showing at the Old Rep Theatre, on a number 50 bus heading home from Birmingham city centre at the weekend. This ‘action-packed historical adventure’ features historical figures like Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Oliver Cromwell and, of course, Santa Claus. Brilliant. The Horrible Histories brand has always offered a great way to get kids enthusiastic about history and learning about the past: an endeavour that can only be applauded. But what sort of past is being represented here and on stage? There are three ‘great’ men (four, if you want to count Santa) and one woman; a king and a celebrated author; all of them are white. These histories might be action-packed, but they are also horribly lacking in diversity. Can this version of the past really speak to the people of Birmingham, or Britain more generally?
The Horrible Histories poster stood out, because I was coming back from a day of learning about the diverse and connected histories that come together to make up Birmingham’s vibrant past and present. On Saturday Chris Moores, Matt Houlbrook, Sarah Pett and I ventured into the new shiny building that is the Library of Building to hear a series of presentations about other forms of history being researched and written here in Britain’s second largest city. ‘Connected Histories: Voices Past and Present’ had been organized Izzy Mohammed who works as the Audience Engagement Coordinator at the Library while working on a PhD in the University of Birmingham . On Saturday 15 November, Izzy brought together a range of people to share their experiences of running different historical projects across Birmingham.
Horrible Histories might not necessarily speak to the people of Birmingham, but at Connected Histories we heard the voices of many of the city’s citizens retelling its diverse pasts – both those who have been recorded describing their own lives, and the volunteers and community representatives who are working so hard to elicit their personal testimonies. We heard from Kate Gordon who is working with members of the Chinese community to complete a series of oral histories that seek to mark and record processes of migration to and home building within Birmingham’s neighbourhoods. Similarly, we learnt about From Mirpur to Birmingham, an ambitious project that focuses on the experiences of individuals who have journeyed from Mirpur in Azad Kashmir to Birmingham. Like Kate Gordon’s Chinese Lives in Birmingham, the Mirpur project has recorded oral histories to capture the experiences and meanings of migration, in the hope that younger generations will gain a better understanding of the lives lived by older residents in the city. The desire to pass histories from one generation to the next was also evident in a project being organized by Maureen Smojkis and Ania Gibson of the Midland Polish Association. Oral histories, photographs, objects and documents have been uncovered to construct a richer history of Birmingham’s Polish residents. During the day we also heard about the work of Christina Darragh who is working to document the experiences of residents of the Three Estates in Kings Norton. Built in the 1950s, little evidence currently exists to show what these estates were like to live on in the second half of the twentieth century. This project, like the others we heard from, places value on the different lived experiences of Birmingham’s residents and tries to unpick the complicated histories located in its sites and spaces.
Here, in the Library of Birmingham, on a blustery Saturday afternoon, people had come together not to consume history as a spectacle, but to share in the process of making history – to listen and learn from the efforts and achievements of others embarked on practising history at different locations across the city. During the day I was sat next to a member of the Hall Green History Society who was interested in embarking on an oral history project of his own and wanted to learn from others. I also spoke to a woman who wanted to find some way of recording the history of her father and his professional contacts who had trained as doctors in the subcontinent before moving to Britain and practising medicine here. The ‘Connected Histories’ event encouraged people to share expertise, knowledge, skills and experience in order that others might also go out and capture the histories of those around them. The different presentations we heard demonstrated that individuals and groups are working together to capture a past that is much more diverse than those we meet in traditional media. They also, in their methods and practices, showed how broad the project of writing history has become. Individuals and groups outside of the academy are working to ensure that a more inclusive vision of Britain’s past is being created – and, just as importantly, connected. Chris, Matt, Sarah and I left the Library keen to learn from those endeavours.