On Tuesday 19 November 2019, Cumberland Lodge launched its Difficult Histories and Positive Identities report at Broadway House, Westminster, with a panel discussion.
The concept of ‘difficult histories’ addresses changing attitudes towards the perception that history is a subject that should be studied in isolation. Rather, ‘difficult histories’ forms an interlinked strand of historical discipline that can be used to help address hitherto silenced or forgotten histories.
Panellists at the launch event reflected on the content of the report and its significance for contemporary society. Following an introduction by Ed Newell, Chief Executive of Cumberland Lodge, Dr James Wallis, the author of the report, reflected on his involvement with the Difficult Histories project over the past 12 months.
James was commissioned as a freelance Research Associate, to prepare an interdisciplinary briefing for participants ahead of the Difficult Histories & Positive Identities conference in February 2019, and to write the final report, bringing key findings and recommendations from the conference, and the subsequent expert consultation in June 2019, to a public audience. In particular, James commented upon the need to approach ‘difficult histories’ from an interdisciplinary perspective, both within academia and in wider society too.
This narrative of renewed collaborative dialogue remained consistent throughout the ensuing panel reflections and discussion. The panellists for the evening were:
- Martin Daunton, Emeritus Professor of Economic History at the University of Cambridge
- Dr Ellen McAdam, Director of the Birmingham Museum Trust
- Nick Dennis, Director of Studies at St Francis’ College Letchworth.
All three spoke about how ’difficult histories’ as a concept is being discussed within their field, and what can still be done to improve the way we address these controversial aspects of our collective past, in light of the report’s recommendations.
Both Martin and Nick drew upon the way we present history to the public, and some of the narratives that have developed in society as a result of people not challenging the ‘difficult histores’ that lie beneath popular consensus. Reflecting on his conference presentation in February 2019, Martin highlighted a current example of ‘difficult history’ in Bristol, concerning the Cecil Rhodes memorial: should this be taken down and memory erased, or should it be explained?
As Martin concluded, all prominent historical figures are reflective of their period, however the difficulties that their legacies can present today still need to be addressed and understood.
Nick also highlighted the importance of schools as environments for fostering individual thinking and as places where ‘difficult histories’ can be challenged and discussed.
Commenting on the narratives of British involvement within colonial history, as well as on the Holocaust, Nick noted that clashes between contemporary teaching and outdated narratives continue to occur, due to limitations of materials and technology, and outdated exam-board syllabuses. If these issues (amongst others) could be successfully addressed, then schools might begin to introduce more diverse and well-informed narratives of history.
Dr Ellen McAdam highlighted three ground-breaking projects undertaken by Birmingham Museums, which have slowly but successfully begun to shift the idea of a museum as a place of authority, wherepeople are told what they ought to know, to a safer space for addressing difficult issues.
These projects were:
- ‘Nights of Raj’ (addressing the Bangladeshi community within Birmingham), ‘Collecting Birmingham’ (reflecting on the working class and postwar community)
- ‘Past is Now’ (an exhibition focusing on the legacy of the British Empire from the perspective of those who were colonised).
'More inclusive understandings'
The panel discussion demonstrated the potential depth of debate around narratives of ‘difficult histories’ and positive identities. It demonstrated that the responsibility for building more inclusive understandings of history falls beyond just historians.
To summarise with the words of the report’s author, ‘Adopting a moral stance on an issue cannot count for much, when others are willing to actively challenge the mainstream’. With the ‘difficult histories’ approach becoming ever more relevant in the contemporary political climate, I think everyone should take heed from such an observation.