- Sedimented Histories:Connections, Collaborations and Co-production in Regional History
In the early 1990s Raphael Samuel, taking stock of history, emphasized the toil of people he called the ‘under-labourers’, those responsible for a vast repository of ‘unofficial’ histories circulating quite separately from the products of late twentieth-century academic disciplines.1 His was a sociological and historical account in which a ‘thousand different hands’ in every generation shaped their own engagements with the past and harnessed its power to their own concerns. And while Samuel charted a predominantly British scene, sharpened by postwar social change, Thatcherism, and a distinctive class-inflected cultural politics, he saw historical consciousness as the stuff of being human, with deep roots in language, popular memory, childhood, landscape, identity and imagination. To adapt Samuel’s own characterization of heritage, history is pluralist, capacious and nomadic, putting ‘down roots … in seemingly quite unpromising terrain’ as well as in familiar spots.2
Twenty-five years on, historical culture has absorbed new digital technologies and fresh preoccupations, including the current enthusiasm for public anniversaries. But Samuel was also interested in the structures that created under-labourers and invisible hands in the fields of history, in the social forms of knowledge and not just its content. Thus the History Workshop model that he had pioneered since the 1960s was itself an important intervention in the hierarchical conventions and processes he observed.3 Political commitments to history from below, which galvanized many participatory research projects and studies of historical awareness, were products of their own times. Since its first issue in 1976, History Workshop Journal has regularly shown academically-trained historians giving serious attention to grassroots projects, writing from their own communities and experience, and bringing a historical perspective to contemporary debates.4
In the early twenty-first century fresh streams have converged to reconfigure relationships between unofficial and academic histories in Britain. Parallel developments in other disciplines – around memory work, the politics of space and methods of action research, for example – have theoretical [End Page 234] and practical consequences for many historians’ discussions of place, identity and belonging.5 Potentially closing the distance between popular stories and formal knowledge, professional attention can also introduce new distinctions, language and hierarchies. Powerful new incentives have entered a field previously characterized by personal enthusiasm and political commitment. Government policies and agents emphasize ‘community’ and give history a role in repairing and fostering social relationships;6 on the European continent, activism around the ‘civil society organization’ invokes a rather different political framework, but demonstrates similar priorities.7 The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), on the scene since 1994 to distribute money from the UK government’s national lottery franchise, has replaced local and national government as a major source of financial support for a vast range of organizations concerned with ‘heritage’, broadly defined.8 Much UK archaeological work is determined by the planning system (in turn creating a substantial infrastructure of ‘under-labourers’ on commercial contracts).9 In British Higher Education ‘research impact’ and talk initially of ‘knowledge transfer’ and then less patronizingly of ‘knowledge exchange’ have cut across older discussions about putting history to use. The major academic funding bodies in the UK, the Research Councils, now promote multi-disciplinary research on the changing nature of communities and collaborate with HLF to encourage university participation in local projects.10
Discussion of co-production, or ‘research with, by and for communities’, currently emphasizes accountability, relevance and ethical management of unequal power relations: it is the latest formulation of an impulse found across twentieth-century Britain in university extension courses and voluntary organizations.11 Academic engagement with local and regional histories is far from new, of course, with roots in the Victoria County History (founded in 1899 and itself strongly influenced by eighteenth and nineteenth-century antiquarian themes) and, from the 1930s, in W. G. Hoskins’s pioneering work at Leicester which brought new social and economic questions to historical studies of landscape and place.12 Archaeology had long been a participatory and local venture before it too developed a specific sub-genre dedicated to community engagement and empowerment.13 In this article we examine recent developments in...