Historians have much to offer when it comes to helping inform society how to deal with the issues of today and the future. But they need to be open to taking their research and expertise in unexpected directions to address these priorities.
Here, Dr Alix Green highlights the great value historians can offer through collaboration and explains how her engagement with business archivists is helping business leaders understand how looking at their past can help then in the future.
Is history just old news, irrelevant to the issues of the present and future? When researchers get together to talk about problem-solving or meeting the grand challenges of today’s society, historians are rarely considered as serious contributors. But people use history all the time – it’s how we make sense of the world, from the incidental stuff of everyday life to major decisions of international consequence (think war, peace and Brexit).
So, what if we took this human habit of ‘thinking with history’ seriously? Could we help improve the process, make it more informed, rigorous – and useful? The idea that historical training makes for sound political judgement goes back to the foundations of the academic discipline in the late nineteenth century. As J.R. Seeley, the first Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, put it in 1870: “If [history] is an important study to every citizen, it is the one important study to the legislator and ruler.” More recently, historians have used examples such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Suez and Iraq as case studies of political leaders using, abusing or ignoring history.
While historians may lament that policymakers are rarely receptive to their advice, perhaps we also need to question our model of engagement. Given that history is part of how people reason and make decisions, surely we need to work with them to understand that process – rather than telling them what they should or shouldn’t be thinking?
In other words, we have to collaborate. We have to be interested not (just) in a historical topic but in how and why that topic matters for a present-day group or organisation. We have to be open to taking our research in unexpected directions in response to our collaborators’ needs, to shape a project through genuine dialogue, to ask questions of the sources that advance our agenda as scholars but also help our partners address their priorities.
Some historians have been engaged in this kind of close collaboration for decades, usually not with leaders and public figures but with local community groups, charities and museums: public engagement at the level of lived experience. This work doesn’t get much attention, recognition or reward but it’s no less meaningful in terms of knowledge deepened, skills sharpened and experience gained.
I think we can build on this model. We can collaborate not just on producing historical outputs, such as exhibitions, films or tours, but also on improving how history is used in those processes of thinking and decision-making.
So, what does this look like?
Business archives hold a wealth of business intelligence, irreplicable and unique to the organisation. Business archivists can identify how the collections under their care could inform the present-day work of the company and help their colleagues ‘think with history’ more effectively. But, working alone or in small teams and with limited budgets, they usually don’t have the capacity to do so.
This is where collaboration with a historian can help. I recently worked with the John Lewis Partnership Heritage Centre on a project looking at the history of the company’s pay policy, a topic that the Heritage Services Manager, Judy Faraday, and I co-designed through extensive dialogue with the Personnel Leadership Team (PLT). Presenting our findings was not just about sharing historical insights. We had two larger goals. The first was to enlarge the frame of reference for executive thinking. As one PLT member commented, the work helped them to be “braver… having courage in what we’ve managed to achieve previously will really start to influence the context in which we make decisions”.
Our second goal was to demonstrate the value of the archives to the company. “In the past the role of the archive has always been very reactive,” Judy explained. The project proved there was a different way of working, with the business archivist “very much in the driving seat when it comes to linking up the agenda of the business with the academic research that can be undertaken”. This shift in the balance of power allowed the archives to position itself more effectively as a business resource.
Co-designed projects in history could work in all kinds of settings and organisations, but there’s a broader point to be made about academics doing public engagement, too often a tick-box exercise or a token effort. Yes, we do need to share our work with wider audiences in the conventional sense and, for some research, that linear model is entirely appropriate. There are many opportunities, however, to work differently. With “engagement” a truly two-way process of conversation and collaboration – beginning at the very earliest stages of research design – there is surely greater potential for influencing, shaping and transforming how knowledge is produced, interpreted and applied in the world beyond the university.
Historians, along with our colleagues in the humanities, have much to offer a whole range of partners and audiences – our expertise complements that of other professions and academic disciplines. But we also need to step forward more confidently as public scholars and make that case for our engagement.