Creative Histories Revisited

I was so busy on Thursday, and so tired on Friday, that I didn’t cover the Creative Histories conference very well. Therefore I’m going to look back over days 2 and 3 so I can highlight some of the great presentations we had. (I looked at Wednesday in more detail here.)

Thursday opened with Ronald Hutton who is the UK’s leading authority on the history modern paganism. I was particularly struck by what he had to say about how even being suspected of having pagan sympathies was sufficient to damage his academic career, and make it difficult for him to taken seriously as an expert witness on the subject. This is very reminiscent of how trans academics are treated when we try to say anything about trans-related issues. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in a post I’m writing for Will Pooley’s blog.

The other morning session on Thursday was all about creative writing. Nick Barratt, who is one of the historians who works on the hugely successful TV ancestry series, Who Do You Think You Are?, talked about the tension between entertaining the public and doing good history. We also had presentations on story structure and performative story telling. This is a very long way from the traditional structure of academic writing, but of course an essential skill if you do want to tell a story rather than present an argument.

After lunch I headed out to the Other Lecture Theatre, which involved a trek through the zoo. We had a couple of papers on maritime history, and got to see an amazing quilt made from very small squares so as to reproduce a pixelated image of a portrait of Nelson.

The final session was mine, but I was preceded by two excellent papers. Sonja Boon talked about the difficulties of writing about the history of slavery when some of your ancestors were slaves. Obviously that connects with my comments above about doing pagan and trans history. Joe Krawec is researching 20th Century British industrial history, but as a comics fan she is keen to use sequential art in presenting her research. Her paper was about telling history through comics, and the process of learning to produce them. The title of her paper, “Punching Hitler: comic books and their uses for the historian”, will take a lot of beating.

Friday opened with a session on criminal history, though it might not have sounded like it from my tweets. The first paper was about the Digital Panopticon, a project to make a huge number of 18th and 19th century criminal records available online. The second paper was all about how the techniques of journalism can be used to tell stories from history. And paper three told a fascinating story about how a man convicted of murder in Shanghai later became a minor celebrity in London.

After lunch we had a guest presentation from biographer, Julia Blackburn. She talked about how she writes her books, but also in some detail about her latest subject, artist John Craske. He certainly makes for a fascinating story. Here’s Blackburn talking about her subject in The Guardian.

After lunch we had a session on digital projects, which included the OutStories Bristol LGBT History map. The other papers were about the Many Headed Monster blog, which looks great but is not my period, and about Experiencing Arcadia. The latter is a lovely project about an 18th Century garden that has been let down by some poor IT choices. Historians, of course, are generally not well informed about IT issues, and can easily go down the wrong path.

I need to spend more time writing apps, but I have no time.

There were, of course, many other sessions. The conference had either 2 or 3 streams most of the time. Some of the other sessions looked very interesting. I’m still working on bi-location.

The final session of the conference was a round table looking back on the themes of the conference. There seemed to be general agreement that it was a good thing that historians should be more creative when presenting their work, though admittedly the group was very much self-selected. I’m rather surprised that the idea of a PhD By Published Work doesn’t exist in history. Nicola Griffith has just done a really interesting blog series about her journey towards getting one of those.

The big problem from the historians’ point of view is that being creative is all very well when you have an established reputation, but for anyone starting their career it is a major risk because you will get called out for not being “objective”. For us non-professional academics, being creative is a lot easier, but we run the risk of not being taken seriously by historians who are in academia. Ultimately it is all about hierarchies and gatekeeping. People make rules about who is allowed to do what history, and how they are allowed to do it, to try to limit the types of stories that get told. Conferences like this kick back against such strictures, and I’m delighted to see Bristol University taking the lead in doing that.