UCL and the Practices of Public History in East London

Dr Georgina Brewis, University College London and Dr Ali Bennett, University of Lincoln

In what it describes as ‘the largest single expansion’ since it was founded in 1826, University College London is currently in the middle of developing a new campus in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Some teaching is already taking place at a rented facility called Here East, but the brand new buildings are due to open in September 2022. Part of the expansion involves the creation of a range of innovative undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, including a new MA in Public History which is being developed by an interdisciplinary group of academics across UCL.

Here East, ‘London’s home for making’ in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, where UCL has started teaching some courses already. Photographer: Mary Hinkley; Copyright: UCL Digital Media

Located in an area of immensely rich local and global history, the new campus brings with it important opportunities and responsibilities for interaction, consultation, and collaboration between the university and local groups and communities. There is a real desire to build a new relationship between UCL and Stratford, one that is enriching but at the same time sensitive to avoiding the problems that occurred in the past around the ill-fated attempts to develop a new campus on the Carpenters Estate. The Public History MA programme will take a key position at the intersection of these developments, and will be anchored in a new space for research and learning: the Urban Room and Memory Workshop, part of the wider Culture Lab strand of developments.

Any successful new programme requires that conversations with prospective partners should start early, and for the last two years we have been trying to build new relationships and strengthen existing ones in East London.  In September 2018 the inter-departmental planning group organised a workshop at Toynbee Hall called ‘What is Public History Now?’ This event sought to engage with public history practitioners across the UK, and particularly with those already working in East London. We hoped to capture the current state of public history in all its wide-ranging forms and approaches, as well as to start to identify what might be required of a new MA programme that was fully responsive to contemporary needs.

The site of the proposed UCL East campus, due to open in 2022. Photographer: Mary Hinkley; Copyright: UCL Digital Media

The presentations explored a range of aspects of what we call ‘public history’. These included the growing linkages between university-based historians and policy makers through the History & Policy network, presented by Chris Williams. Sundeep Lidher offered an overview of the new  AHRC-funded ‘Our Migration Story’ online resource – aimed at schools but also useful for university-level teaching – which went on to win the 2018 RHS Public History Prize.  Elaine Tierney from the V&A explored issues around being a historian in a museum and gallery setting, while Rosamond Murdoch discussed curation of exhibitions for the Nunnery Gallery in Bow. Abira Hussein’s talk about the highs and lows of archiving the experiences of the Somali community in the UK was very well received, and there was also much interest in Toby Butler’s presentation of his East London Memoryscapes walking trails. The discussion included concerns about unequal access to heritage professions, which often seem to require expensive postgraduate training and usually involve extensive unpaid work experience.

On 17 September 2019 we are planning to continue these debates through a second workshop, to be held in Stratford, on the topic of ‘The Practices of Public History’. The programme has been developed in partnership with East London-based heritage and oral history practitioners, and we welcome all possible collaborations. There is more information available on our booking page: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ucl-public-history-present-the-practices-of-doing-public-history.

About the authors: Dr Georgina Brewis is Associate Professor in the History of Education at the UCL Institute of Education and is the Honorary Secretary of the Social History Society. She is a historian of education, voluntary action, youth and students and is the author of A Social History of Student Volunteering: Britain and Beyond 1880-1980 (Palgrave, 2014). Dr Ali Bennett is a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre. She completed her AHRC-funded PhD on the flow of objects from Uganda and Kenya into museum collections in Britain at UCL in 2018.

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