Can Royal Holloway's new masters degree raise history from the dead?

Michael Prest
Thursday 15 October 2009 00:00

Question: "What do you say to a history graduate?" Answer: "A Big Mac and fries, please." In their franker moments, history dons will admit there is more than a grain of truth in the joke. The subject has long been more popular among students than employers. But Royal Holloway, University of London thinks it has an antidote: a Masters degree in public history, which has just started its first year.

This relatively modern subset of history deals with how historians engage with a wider public outside universities. It works both ways: the presentation and explanation of complex historical themes such as the Holocaust on the one hand, and understanding how the public views history on the other. Venues include museums, country houses, exhibitions and the media – as well as the lecture theatre and archives.

Public history has become mainstream in the US and Australia, although in Britain it has been confined to a few more adventurous outliers. "In England, we're very coy about all this stuff. We don't want to talk about it as a professional activity," says Justin Champion, professor of the history of early modern ideas at Royal Holloway, and the prime mover behind the new degree. He believes that public history is on the verge of respectability in Britain – and he speaks from first-hand experience. His harrowing television depiction of the Great Plague of London on Channel 4 remains vivid in the minds of many viewers. Moreover, in introducing the Masters degree he can summon heavyweight support. Royal Holloway's history department, which he heads, includes another well-known media don, Amanda Vickery, whose Radio 4 series A History of Private Life is being aired at the moment and whose History of Love television series captured audiences' hearts a few years ago.

"We have a group that believes in communicating outside the academy," says Champion. "We ask: 'How can a graduate engage with audiences? Why should the taxpayer fund an historical inquiry?'"

Public history draws on all the usual skills of a historian: original research among dusty papers, piecing together the story, placing it in the context of the past, interpreting it for the present. But public history also makes a special effort to bring history alive for an audience, which may well combine interest with sketchy historical knowledge and barely conscious historical preconceptions or even prejudices. "Many historians don't think about these groups," says Champion.

Another reason for this practical orientation is graduates' need to find a job. When Champion first mooted the idea he met with some scepticism. So he surveyed potential employers, such as museums, local authorities and charities, and found they wanted historians who were more streetwise. "They don't necessarily want people who are experts," he says. The findings confirmed advice from US colleagues, who told him to keep the degree practical.

What about demand from students? Champion emailed a handful of contacts about the idea of a Masters and the results astounded him. "By the following Monday, I'd had about 70 inquiries," he says. "The email had rippled around Europe. This was something people were looking for." Despite fees of £3,390 for EU students, 30 have signed up.

Interest in the course has come from the National Trust, the London Metropolitan Museum, the BBC, the Surrey History Group and the Historical Association. Many of these organisations – along with others such as the Imperial War Museum and the Council for British Archaeology – are participating in the teaching.

The degree covers research methods, public communication and oral history, as well as a dissertation or project, which might be a film or an exhibition, and themes include empires and slavery. Students are expected to delve into films, exhibitions, popular history books, literature and contemporary debates in addition to more common research sources. Correspondingly, they have to learn techniques from YouTube to oral interviews in order to communicate their findings more effectively than historians often manage, without compromising evidence or reasoned argument.

Champion believes the approach of the Royal Holloway degree is unique in the UK. Similar material is covered in a Masters degree at Ruskin College, Oxford. Nottingham Trent University offers an essentially vocational Masters degree in public history and heritage management, while the University of Bristol's Masters degree in history includes a unit on the subject, as does a Masters degree at the University of York.

It is a feature of modern academic competition, however, that others will follow Royal Holloway and establish their own courses. "I'd lay odds on it," says Champion. He must be hoping that graduates don't substitute selling museum brochures for selling burgers.

‘I really like the variety and the practical orientation’

Catherine Clapham, 22, is a history graduate from the University of Hull who has signed up for the Masters in public history at Royal Holloway. She is paying for the degree from savings, borrowing from her parents and working while studying.

“I have a real passion for history and want to share it. After reading history at Hull, I couldn’t find a job in the history industry, so I took a year out. The MA is everything I wanted to do, and I really like the degree’s variety and practical orientation. I can go to employers and say: ‘I know how to do interviews’. I really enjoy being in London. For the first time in my life, I’ve got all the history on my doorstep. You don’t get that in Bradford. When I finish, I would like to work in drama. I love the theatre. I would love to work there and help people to understand history

Marc Morrison, 24, from Staines in Surrey, graduated with a degree in history from Royal Holloway in 2008 and is using savings to fund himself on the Masters degree in public history at his alma mater.

“I looked at different careers, but stuck withmy real enthusiasm – history. For me, the Masters degree in public history is an example of the direction history is taking and is an almost vocational training. It will help me develop the skills I need to communicate ideas such as how to create radio programmes and put on museum exhibitions. I would like to be a museum curator and the course allows me to pursue that. I’ve always been a keen artist. The MA gives me the opportunity to be creative. I like the department’s links with outside bodies and the chance to do work placements. You’re also encouraged to go out and make the links for yourself.”

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