On 27 November 2020, Professor Emma Griffin formally began her term as the new President of the Royal Historical Society. Here, Emma reflects on taking up this position in a period of great uncertainty for the historical profession.
It was just over thirteen months ago that I received the very welcome news that I had been elected to serve as the thirty-fifth President of the Royal Historical Society. I knew the Society well from my earlier experiences as the Society’s Honorary Communications Director and Literary Director, and this led me to believe that I was looking at a predictable future. I was ready for a familiar cycle of annual lectures and publications; professional advocacy on behalf of the historical profession; policy priorities such as open access, the REF, the TEF; support for early career historians struggling to gain a secure foothold in the profession; and the development of connections with historians active outside the university sector.
All of this, of course, reckoned without a pandemic. I remember 10 March 2020, when I hastily bought a rail ticket to Kew for the RHS’s annual Gerald Aylmer Seminar, held in collaboration with the National Archives and the Institute of Historical Research, the following day. But only hours later, the news of the curious strain of coronavirus that had spread to the UK was sufficiently concerning that a three-hour rail journey through central London seemed an unnecessarily risky venture. I sent an embarrassed apology to the organisers and kicked myself for wasting money on a ticket I wasn’t going to use. Yet it all felt no more than a minor blip. I was confident that modern society wouldn’t grind to a halt because of a new disease. I didn’t doubt for a moment that before too long I would be back to hopping on trains to attend Society events. In the event, I have not been on a train since that date in March 2020 and have only left Norwich a handful of times.
The RHS is an organisation that has traditionally conducted so much of its business through lectures and meetings, often held in rooms and halls almost as old as the Society itself. Thus, the cessation of ‘in person’ events – a phrase which, tellingly enough, we never seemed to use very much before – has marked a fundamental break with the Society’s oldest traditions.
To some extent, the change has been one of form, rather than substance. Despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic, and thanks in no small part to the phenomenal achievements of Professor Margot Finn, my predecessor, and the Society’s office staff, the RHS managed to maintain a near full calendar of events throughout 2020. The cycle of committee meetings seamlessly moved online, and the virtual format has proved to offer certain practical advantages for a Society that draws its Council – the Society’s trustees – from all four countries of the UK. Similarly, moving lectures online has permitted us to invite global speakers and attract global audiences. It has opened up our lectures to those for whom a Friday night trip to central London would never be practical.
Less positively, our planned visits to the University of Warwick and Edge Hill did not take place and we’ve still not established a workable format for a ‘virtual visit’. I hope we will be contemplating the possibility of returning to some element of in-person events in 2021, and very much look forward to restoring campus visits.
At the same time, together with the Society’s governing body, we will be rethinking how we deliver our programme of lectures and meetings so as to restore the necessary element of human sociability whilst retaining the best elements of online delivery.
Lectures are but one part of our contribution to the historical profession and the landscape for professional history in the post-COVID world is far more uncertain. Those of us who are teaching in universities are scrambling to moving teaching online, with many juggling childcare or home-schooling as they do so. Meanwhile, libraries, museums and archives are closed once more, halting the research plans of historians and students alike, and disrupting the finances of organisations so fundamental to a vigorous historical culture.
In 2020, the Society rolled out schemes of emergency hardship funding and access to online digital resources in partnership with Adam Matthew to offer support to those early career researchers most adversely affected. This winter we have launched a new Early Career Fellowship Grant scheme. As the longer-term fallout from COVID becomes clear, the Society plans to do all that it can to mitigate the pandemic’s worst effects.
Let me close by reminding readers that the Royal Historical Society is a members’ organisation, and our raison d’etre is to work for you. Please feel free to get in touch at any time.
Emma Griffin is a Professor of Modern British History at University of East Anglia and President of the Royal Historical Society. She specialises in the social and economic history of Britain during the period 1700-1914. She is an editor of the Historical Journal, and her most recent book is Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy (2020).
Currently all the RHS staff are working from home. You can get in touch with Emma at the Society by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.