Kate Smith, ‘Frequently asked questions’

Kate Smith

Kate Smith

The History Manifesto is a welcome intervention within debates on the roles that history and historians should and can play in contemporary life and politics. Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s assertion that historians need to be ‘writing and talking about the past and the future in public, in such a way that ideas can be easily shared’, is hopefully met by most in the profession with open arms. Yet as earlier commentators have noted here, the vision offered of the impact of such ‘writing and talking’ is too limited and exclusive. A much bolder and more ambitious rendering of what history is and what it might have to offer needs to emerge if historians are to be heard above the cacophony of voices vying for attention in the Internet age.

One of the ways in which Guldi and Armitage suggest that ideas might be ‘easily shared’ is through the greater use of digital tools and the possibilities they offer for producing ‘one-screen’ visualisations of research. While discrete visualisations might seem to offer a compelling route by which to demonstrate historical phenomena, if used correctly they could also do much more. At present visualisations of networks and other historical phenomena offer researchers new ways to comprehend the totality of their research findings and a method by which to identify previously unseen connections. Visualisations work best when they prompt new questions and avenues of investigation. They constitute one tool within the many that make up historical practice and like other tools their power lies in their ability to spark critical engagement and suggest at further complexity. Similarly while research findings are important, there is much more that historians could share and communicate. Historical practice, with its emphasis on critical engagement and complexity, has a significant role to play in the ‘public future of the past’. As more people become involved in historical research (often through digital tools) there exists a growing number of communities in which productive dialogues about historical practice could take place. Historians cannot work alone as arbiters of data but rather need to share skills which could allow many different constituencies to do the same. How then can historians share not only their findings but also their methods? What role might historical practice play in shaping public discussions about the past and future? How can historians prompt questions? When should they listen?

 

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