Presenting History

Rob Skinner considers how academics connect with the public

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Reviewed by: Rob Skinner
Author: Peter J Beck
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Price (RRP): £17.99

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Peter Beck sets out the aims of his study of history-making by asking: “Who reads academic histories?” The standard answer, of course, is almost no one, save for a captive audience of students and a small circle of colleagues.

In this intriguing and thought-provoking book, Beck provides an account that shifts our attention away from the academy and directs it instead toward a wider audience. In exploring how they address the needs and desires of the public, he seeks to re-configure the way in which historians are defined, not as makers, but as presenters of history.

Beck provides an overview of the relationship between academic and public histories through a series of case studies, including pen-portraits of those individuals whose ‘brand’ has come to characterise the television historian: AJP Taylor, Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson. Other chapters explore feminist history and Hollywood film-making, while the works of Philippa Gregory and Terry Deary serve to introduce historical fiction and children’s history.

Finally, Beck turns to public controversies, concluding with a chapter on the Irving-Lipstadt trial and the struggle to determine historical authenticity and objectivity.

However, valorising individual historians as presenters of history runs the risk of obscuring other vital ways in which the public engages with the past. What of the ways in which history is communicated in museums and visitor attractions?

What of the politics of public history, how the state funds, promotes – or inhibits – the presentation of history? And what of the way communities make and present their own history, from Black History Month through to the myriad local history groups whose efforts bring the past to the forefront of social life?

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While these questions must also be addressed, this is nonetheless a valuable book for anyone wishing to study the nature of history today.
 
Dr Rob Skinner, University of Bristol