Let’s change History! Community histories and the co-production of historical knowledge, by Paul Ward
I was lucky enough to be invited as a keynote speaker to the 2015 New Zealand Historical Association conference (#NZHA2015), which was called ‘History – Making a Difference’, and was held at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch in December 2015. It was a fitting location for about two hundred historians – from universities, galleries, libraries, archives, museums and community groups – to discuss the public utility and impact of History as a discipline. In 2011 an earthquake in Christchurch caused severe damage to the city and killed 185 people. The physical and emotional legacies are still clear and many delegates at the conference were affected in personal and professional capacities. Such events raised the question that underpinned the theme of the conference: What role is there for History as a discipline for engaging with issues that affect communities in the here and now?
My lecture was called ‘Let’s change History! Community histories and the co-production of historical knowledge’ and opened the conference. In it, I argued that understanding people’s lives, emotions and intellectual reasoning is crucial to exploring the history of communities and identities. I argued that university historians need to ‘share authority’ to enable participants in historical events to contribute to the creation of primary sources and their interpretation in a sustained and collaborative effort to develop new ways of knowing about the past by drawing on perspectives outside of universities. In my lecture I explored a range of research on Britishness and other British national identities in a global context, including the Sound System Culture and Bhangra Renaissance projects about local, national and global histories of reggae sound systems and bhangra dance as ways of understanding the influence of migration on British culture in the late twentieth century. While I delivered the lecture alone, its ideas emerged from my participation in community-based and collaborative research undertaken as part of the Imagine: Connecting Communities Through Research project, funded by the ESRC as part of the Connected Communities programme, which have made me think about co-production as an approach to History.
History isn’t something that is only studied separately in universities but is part of people’s lives allowing them to make use of it to assert identities and to develop communities. Other speakers at the conference revealed the extent of community-based history in New Zealand/Aotearoa. Museums were well represented, with Chloe Searle, for example, speaking on museums and the meaning of life – explaining that 20 per cent of local people had visited the North Otago Museum, at which she is curator, in the previous year. Similarly Nadia Gush, director of the Charlotte Museum explained how her museum was seeking new ways of representing lesbian identities rather than just fitting with national myths in its exhibition called Vulvapoppies, which marked the centenary of the First World War. University-based historians showed that historical research cannot be confined solely to archives, with Jane McCabe discussing her engagement with the descendants of the approximately 130 young Anglo-Indian settlers who arrived in New Zealand from Kalimpong in India between 1908 and 1938. Similarly, Bronwyn Labrum spoke about her prize-winning book Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s (2015), which lavishly displays material objects from domestic settings, confirming that much current discussion of History is about people’s everyday lives. The range of papers was wide, but many addressed aspects of a very public history.
This doesn’t mean that such history lacks critical edge, simply providing a nostalgic view of the past. Anne Salmond, anthropologist and environmentalist and New Zealander of the Year in 2013, and Ani Mikaere, barrister and solicitor who teaches Māori law and philosophy at Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, explored aspects of Māori culture and society in their keynotes, holding historians accountable for framing indigenous people as primitive and without voice, arguing instead for a historical tradition that does justice to indigenous histories.
I was introduced further to the divisions in New Zealand history by Jo Hart and Brian Wood, members of the steering committee seeking to restore Runanga Miners Hall on the west coast of south island. The hall, resplendent with socialist slogans, was built first in 1908 and rebuilt, after being burnt down in the 1930s, by the miners’ union, which saw the need to defend coal miners in the region from dangerous working conditions (as recently as 2010, twenty-nine miners were killed at nearby Pike River) and low pay.
Jo and Brian introduced me to a series of historical sites around Greymouth that have emerged from community history projects, such as a museum of working-class history at Blackball, centre of radicalism and workers’ militancy and birthplace of the New Zealand Labour Party, which followed the three-month long, illegal, 1908 miners’ strike. It reminded me of Rupert Brooke, known best for his patriotic poems from the First World War, who wrote of his visit to New Zealand in 1913 that, ‘There are the same troubles between unions and employers, and between rich and poor. I suppose there’ll be no peace anywhere till the rich are curbed altogether.’
In her lecture at NZHA2015, Ani Mikaere quoted Linda Tuhiwai Smith, professor of indigenous education at the University of Waikato: ‘History … is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others.’ Community-based histories, through their focus on everyday lives of ordinary people, have tremendous strength to undermine existing power structures that have ‘excluded, marginalised and Othered’. But understanding the emotional importance of everyday histories cannot be left to university academics alone, whose perspectives are often too focused on institutional imperatives. The organisers of #NZHA2015 provided a fantastic opportunity for making connections between universities and other historians, to develop a History that matters. I would suggest that ‘the co-production of historical knowledge’ provides an approach that allows for a deeper comprehension of people’s self and community identities by encouraging and enabling a diverse range of people to participate in the research process to uncover the complexities and nuances of historical experience – and to change History.
Paul Ward is professor of modern British history at Huddersfield. I am a lead co-investigator on Imagine: Connecting Communities Through Research. It runs from 2013 to 2017 and brings together a range of different research projects working across universities and their, mostly local, communities. Using the new knowledge gathered, together we imagine how communities might be different. We are experimenting with different forms of community building that ignite imagination about the future and help to build resilience and a momentum for change. The people in Imagine project, inside and outside universities, have changed my practice as a historian. At the University of Huddersfield, this has involved working collectively with community partners, research students, undergraduates and academic colleagues on a series of co-produced projects, some involving Heritage Quay. My keynote was based on this series of activities and I want to acknowledge again the collective authorship of my lecture, with particular thanks to Milton Brown, Liz Pente, Mandeep Samra, Hardeep Sahota, Jodie Matthews and others. At the conference, the 30 or so participants in my workshop ‘Making History make a difference: Collaborating with community groups to create new knowledge’ have further contributed to my thoughts on co-production. I also want to thank Canterbury History Foundation for sponsoring my attendance at the conference and Prof Katie Pickles at the University of Canterbury. This blog gives only a flavour of the conference as I experienced it – for other aspects including the strand on Magna Carta see the Twitter hashtag #NZHA2015
History at Huddersfield uses research-led teaching and a commitment to public engagement to ensure that what we do is both useful to society and beneficial to the employability of our students. We see our students as researchers – partners in the development of knowledge with academic staff, often through co-production of knowledge with community partners. For more information seehttp://www.hud.ac.uk/courses/full-time/undergraduate/history-ba-hons/ andhttp://www.hud.ac.uk/research/history/
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