Quick History: Talking about the past with busy people

By Dr Emily Baughan

History takes time. As historians, we can spend years on a piece of research: reading the work of other scholars, visiting archives and libraries, and writing our findings into books and journal articles. Once that’s done, more time passes. It can often take a few more years for a book or article to make it into print. It sometimes all feels like a terribly slow process.

My research is on people who work quickly: humanitarians. I explore the efforts made by NGO Save the Children to aid children in the conflict-riven early-twentieth century. Seeking to halt the spread of disease, feed starving populations and shelter millions of refugees during and after two world wars, humanitarians could not work fast enough. Delays cost lives.

I want the research that I’ve done into past humanitarian principles and practices to help contemporary NGOs to reflect upon what they do in the present day. Yet, moving constantly from crisis to crisis, now, as in the past, humanitarian organisations have little time for refection.

Lengthy journal articles and detailed monographs aren’t appropriate ways to communicate with busy humanitarians. If we want to work with NGOs, historians need to find different ways to speak about the past.  To do this, I recently gave a short talk about my research to the Global Programmes Leadership Team at Save the Children.  (After I’d spoken, the discussion was moving on to Ebola prevention strategies and the Syrian refugee crisis. I certainly didn’t want to take up too of the meeting!) Although time was short, the audience were interested. History is a key feature of Save the Children’s organisational identity. Its staff has a proud sense of the heritage of the organisation, which was founded in 1919 as one of Britain’s first ‘international’ charities.

Russian Famine Victims at Save the Children Kitchens, 1921.

Russian Famine Victims at Save the Children Kitchens, 1921.

Like many humanitarian organisations, Save the Children has turned its history into a compelling ‘origins story’ through a focus on a single ‘great individual’, Eglantyne Jebb. The story goes that the saintly Jebb created Save the Children after the First World War as an expression of her unique vision of compassion and concern for ‘all the world’s children’.  This ‘origins story’ is not just an oversimplification. It’s actually wrong. Save the Children was formed not by Jebb, but by her younger sister, feminist socialist Dorothy Buxton.  Its early work expressed not only ‘compassion’, but also Buxton’s radical vision of international solidarity.

By remembering Eglantyne Jebb as its founder, rather than her radical sister Dorothy Buxton, Save the Children has promoted a myth about the nature of humanitarian work: that it should be uncontroversial and apolitical. In fact, for Save the Children’s founder Dorothy Buxton, concern for others could not be separated from broader critiques of the structures and systems which have caused their suffering.

As a historian, it certainly isn’t my job to advise on present day humanitarian policy or practice. But, by demythologising the past, perhaps what I can do is free NGOs up to think in new ways. If we accept that the humanitarian mission was, at its inception, deeply political, this may enable present day organisations to understand their work as radical and themselves as challenging not only the effects of poverty, but also its causes.  By focusing my talk to the Global Programmes Team at Save the Children on the life and legacy of Dorothy Buxton, I could open up a conversation about the nature of humanitarianism in the present day.

In their recent History Manifesto,Jo Guldi and David Armitage argue that in order for history to have impact beyond the academy, historians should focus on big picture, longue durée histories. Communicating with Save the Children I did the opposite. I used a short life-story, told quickly, to ask important questions to busy people.

From Event to Exhibit

by Dr. Andrew Flack

Taking ‘Animals and Empire’ from the seminar room to the computer screen was a process that taught me a great deal about the nature of public impact and, in the absence of my having previously led a diverse team of scholars, the importance of effective communication and collaborative cohesion within and beyond the academy.

 ‘The Empire Needs Men!’, World War One Recruitment Poster (c. 1915).

‘The Empire Needs Men!’, World War One Recruitment Poster (c. 1915).

Arising from a conference hosted by the University of Bristol in June 2013, it quickly became clear that the array of cutting edge research papers delivered had significant potential to both set the evolving agenda for research into human-animal interactions in the modern world, as well as having the ability to engage the public in an innovative arena of academic endeavour with substantial implications for the contemporary world. In the months before the conference, the Animal History Museum, based in Los Angeles, contacted me to propose a new form of exhibit for their webspace; that which brought an academic perspective on human-animal interactions to the public in an engaging and accessible way.

One of the major challenges in taking a body of research into the public arena was ensuring cohesion across the exhibition so that there was a clear narrative. Each author arrived with their own particular research area and style of communicating the fruits of their research. Ensuring consistency across contributions, without stifling the individuality of the pieces, was a process that was ongoing throughout the almost year-long curation process. Furthermore, writing for public dissemination is quite different from writing for a journal or scholarly monograph, and a central part of my role was ensuring that research findings were clearly and engagingly communicated, while retaining the clear sense of scholarly integrity that was to characterise the exhibit as one with roots in serious and rigorous academic research.

‘Animals and Empire’  is the first exhibit of its kind to be commissioned by the Animal History Museum.Both the Museum and the exhibition team were learning as they went along, assessing what was working and what was not, and this required a great deal of patience and persistence (for which I am eternally grateful…!). The Museum hopes that this exhibit will provide a rigorously tested model for future exhibits of this nature.