Celebrating Excellence in Research and Impact Awards 2020

Professor Lucy Noakes

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Portrait of Professor Lucy Noakes, Department of History at University of Essex

Please explain your research in two sentences.

My research focuses on the experience and memory of the two world wars of the 20th century. I'm especially interested in civilians and in 'forgotten' experiences - and why these become forgotten or marginalised.

Why is your research important and what difference will it make?

Given the current political misuse of the phrase 'blitz spirit' and all that conveys during both the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit, I think it's incredibly important that we understand both the complexity of past wars and the ways that we remember these as a society.  It's really notable that we 'remember' both world wars very differently. Our sense is that the Fist World War was a tragedy, where young men were sacrificed on the altar of old men's political ambitions - and this, while being far from the whole story, makes it very difficult for politicians to harness to rhetoric today. The Second World War however is remembered as 'the good war' when Britain stoically 'stood alone' against Nazi Germany. Of course it did no such thing, but the dominance of this memory makes it incredibly useful for politicians wanting to claim a British, or English, exceptionalism. I hope my work will help people to understand the difference between these kinds of uses of past conflicts today, and the complex events that they were. I also wish that all politicians had to learnt that you cannot just bend history to your will - you cannot rewrite it so that it fits the narrative that you want today.

Please provide a summary of your research achievements

I have spent the past few years working on two separate AHRC funded projects on the centenary of the First World War. From 2014-19 I was CoI on the Gateways to the First World War Public Engagement Centre, which worked with numerous community history and heritage projects on the war, ranging from projects examining wartime loss in the Outer Hebrides to the rediscovery and performance of 'lost' wartime plays at the Theatre Royal, Southsea. I am also Principal Investigator on the AHRC Reflections on the Centenary project, which is examining the centenary as a whole, focusing on both the opportunities for collaborative research and the co-production of knowledge between community and academic partners, and on the cultural memory of the war at its centenary in Britain.

Between 2013-15 I was funded by the American Council of Learned Societies to work with a colleague in the States on 'How to Survive a War', examining the relationship between citizenship and civil defence in Britain. I hope to now return to this project, which seems even more urgent today.

Finally I am really interested in 'emotional history' and published two books earlier this year: the monograph Dying for the Nation: Death Grief and Bereavement in Second World War Britain  (MUP: 2020) and the edited collection (with Claire Langhamer and Claudia Siebrecht) Total War: An Emotional History (OUP: 2020).

What can Essex researchers do to support each other and improve the impact of their research?

Talking to one another across different disciplines is really important. I worked in an interdisciplinary department at my last institution, so am really aware of the possibilities (and the potential problems) of this kind of work.   I would love to eventually set up a Centre for the study of the legacies of war and conflict at the University, as this seems like a really strong area across several disciplines.

What would be your top three tips for winning funding?

  1. Keep trying! Look on rejected bids as a learning experience - no one, especially in the arts and humanities, gets every bid they apply for.
  2. Find good partners to work with here at Essex and elsewhere. And make sure that you get along as you will be relying on one another both during the bid writing and to deliver the promised outcomes.
  3. Make use of the range of training, information and support that the University provides.