In this post we hear from Lucy Noakes, Rab Butler Professor of Modern History at the University of Essex and—from January 2024—President-Elect of the Royal Historical Society.
A specialist in the history of modern Britain, Lucy researches the experience and memory of those who have lived through conflict. How history is remembered and retold is central to identity and to how—as individuals, communities and nations—we respond to societal change or topics of public debate.
As Lucy argues, the vitality, importance and value of history are clear to see. But so too are the potential for history’s misuse and the challenges facing its practitioners today. Central to understanding how we view the world, history (and historians) need appreciation and support—not least through the work of the Royal Historical Society.
How do we work as historians in a rapidly changing and volatile landscape? History, together with the other humanities disciplines, has been transformed in recent years: from the ‘culture wars’ to departmental closures, from digital publishing to the impact of AI – longstanding aspects of our profession have undergone rapid change and seen multiple challenges in recent years. As historians, working in a range of different environments, these challenges can at times feel daunting as we look to adapt our professional practice to the transformations of the 21st century.
“Public engagement with the past has never been greater, and this appetite for historical research can be traced through a range of different sites and practices.”
But working in such a transformative period also offers opportunities for history and for historians, in multiple fields and areas. The last three decades have seen an unparalleled explosion of interest in history. Public engagement with the past has never been greater, and this appetite for historical research can be traced through a range of different sites and practices: the digitally driven growth in family history and genealogy; the wide-ranging and innovative community history projects that can be seen in multiple different spaces; vast audiences for museum and gallery displays, and an apparently endless appetite for books, radio and television programmes, podcasts and films exploring the past. The ‘memory boom’ identified by historians in the 1990s shows no sign of abating.
The volatility of today’s world also reminds us just how powerfully historical narratives can shape the present. Take Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. For domestic audiences in Russia, this has been justified by a particular interpretation of modern European history; one that vindicates the invasion by rewriting the past and drawing a link between the opportunistic support of some Ukrainian nationalists for the Nazi regime in the Second World War (in Russia the Great Patriotic War), and enthusiasm for a stronger relationship with the European Union among sections of contemporary Ukrainian society. In this version of the past, the 2022 invasion of Ukraine is viewed through a long and distorted lens which presents supporters of an independent ‘Western’-oriented Ukraine as the inheritors of the fascists of the 1940s, and the Russian invaders as liberators and anti-fascist warriors.
While the media has concentrated on the immediacy of the war in Ukraine, historians and archivists have also been central to the war effort. Russian troops have attacked, destroyed and looted Ukrainian archives, literally stealing Ukrainian history and heritage, and taking it across the border into Russia. This theft highlights the vital importance of not just official records, but the traces of nation-building, family histories, histories of violence and of co-operation in today’s world. Stealing these records, making them unavailable to researchers, is an act of erasure that echoes of course the movement of archives and objects from colonised countries which European nations are just beginning to address. The importance that Russia places on the removal of these archives shows the importance of history, of a sense of the past and an understanding of this past, to contemporary politics in the most vivid way possible.
But all countries, all societies, have their own versions of the past that can be drawn on to support or undermine contemporary beliefs and policies. Britain’s own mythology of its Second World War was successfully put to work in the Brexit debates and in the Covid pandemic. Debates about the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and about the presence of statues and memorials to divisive figures in our towns, cities and universities, have highlighted the fractures in our shared understanding of Britain’s past. Both have been used as weapons in the ‘culture wars’, acting to divide people, rather than open up productive discussions and debates about the national past.
“History gives us a way to engage with the wider world, and to contribute to it. If it can be used to divide people, it can also be used to empower them.”
As historians, we understand and appreciate the power of knowledge, the skills of research, and the importance of evidence. We know how to recognise when such evidence is misinterpreted and to disentangle historical fact from opinion. History gives us a way to engage with the wider world, and to contribute to it. If it can be used to divide people, it can also be used to empower them. Today’s healthy audience for history in all its forms belies the repeated insistence, of governments and others, that it is only STEM subjects that have value, and that history’s only worth is in its teaching of ‘transferable skills’ for the workplace. The study of the past opens up a rich world of culture and knowledge to people, and the Royal Historical Society, through the work of its members, is a key institution in this practice.
“The way that individuals, communities and societies remember, and forget, the past, show us how this past is constantly recycled and reinterpreted to help us make sense of the present.”
My work as a historian has long been informed by my fascination with the past-present relationship. One of my very first courses as an undergraduate at the University of Sussex was taught by (now Professor) Alistair Thomson, then researching his PhD on the Australian memory of Gallipoli. I was gripped by the ways that the history of the First World War, which I had until then understood to be shaped by debates about causation and consequence, could be approached as a ‘site of memory’. The way that individuals, communities and societies remember, and forget, the past, show us how this past is constantly recycled and reinterpreted to help us make sense of the present.
Almost all of my work has engaged with this relationship in some way: for example, teaching a module on the memory of the Second World War; working with community historians and archivists across the country during the First World War centenary, and most recently through work with Polish colleagues on community archives and family histories, and their potential as sites of identity formation. The practice of history is of course valuable for its own sake, but it is also an indispensable means of understanding who we are today.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead the Royal Historical Society over the next four years, working with its members and building on the work of its current President Emma Griffin and members of its Council. I look forward very much to continuing and developing the interventions made by the Society: advocating for history and its practitioners, and ensuring that the value of history is both recognised by, and accessible for, its growing audience.
About the author
Lucy Noakes is Rab Butler Professor of Modern History at the University of Essex and President-Elect of the Royal Historical Society. A specialist in the history of modern Britain, Lucy researches the experience and memory of those who have lived through conflict, with a particular focus on the First and Second World Wars.
Her recent monographs include Dying for the Nation. Death, Grief and Bereavement in Second World War Britain (2020) and War and the British: Gender, Memory and National Identity 1939-1991 (revised edition 2023).
Lucy will take up the Presidency of the Royal Historical Society in November 2024 when she succeeds the current President, Professor Emma Griffin, who completes her term in office later this year.