Public and Popular History

Seminar or event series

What happens when history narratives are produced not for library bookshelves but for a mass audience? Does popularization of history automatically mean dumbing down? Who are the people who make history for the public sphere, and what are their motivations and priorities? The Public & Popular History seminar series brings them together, film makers, journalists, professional historians and museum curators. Through talks, multi-media presentations, panel discussions, and debates the seminar explores the practices and characteristics of public and popular history in the contemporary world.

Convenors: Helen McCarthy (hm234), Bernhard Fulda (bdf20) and David Reynolds (djr17) 

The Seminar is grateful for the generous support of the Trevelyan Fund.


Michaelmas Term Seminars



Wednesday 10th November

How does the past we study relate to the present in which we live? Is ‘history’ a given that we mustn’t alter, or a constantly changing interaction of the people of today with the debris of earlier times? No mere ‘academic’ issue, this is a hot topic of debate in British public life today. 

What is History? is, indeed, a perennial question. Sixty years ago, in 1961, it was the title of Edward Hallett Carr’s Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge. Short, punchy and controversial, the book became a staple of reading lists on historiography – variously stimulating, puzzling and irritating generations of students preparing for university admission interviews. Carr’s answer to his question was unequivocal: ‘History is interpretation.’

In September 2021, E.H. Carr’s great-granddaughter Helen Carr – biographer of John of Gaunt – and the historian and podcaster Suzannah Lipscomb – who has written widely on Henry VIII and the Tudors – published What is History, Now? Their answer takes the form of a co-edited set of essays by a diverse mix of historians – ranging from best-sellers to emergent names – who explore the state of our discipline today, often showing how the agenda of current research has been shaped by topical questions. There are chapters, for instance, on global history, environmental history and queer history, on the history of racism and anti-racism, and hearing women's voices. 

For the Public and Popular History seminar’s first meeting of the new year, join Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb, in conversation with David Reynolds, as they reflect on the challenges and pitfalls of doing history in public in the 2020s.




Wednesday 24th November

Why was the UK so unprepared for the pandemic, suffering one of the highest death rates and worst economic contractions of the major world economies in 2020? What answers can be found by looking to the past? And what can policymakers and the public at large learn from the work of historians? In this new book published by Cambridge University Press, Hilary Cooper and Simon Szreter reveal the deep roots of our vulnerability and set out a powerful manifesto for change post-Covid-19.

The Public and Popular History Seminar is delighted to welcome the authors of After the Virus to discuss the key arguments in their book and reflect on what role historians have to play in debating public policy for the present and the future.

About the authors:
Hilary Cooper is a former government economist and senior policy maker with expertise in labour markets, children's services and local development. Her current freelance work examines the challenges of ageing. She was the joint winner of the 2019 IPPR Economics prize for the essay ‘Incentivising an Ethical Economics’, with Simon Szreter and Ben Szreter.

Simon Szreter is Professor of History and Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, researching economic, social and public health history. His publications include Health and Wealth, which won the American Public Health Association's Viseltear Prize, and Sex before the Sexual Revolution, longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize. He is co-founder and editor of History & Policy.

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Banner image: Meridian Historic Walking Tour, Idaho. From Wiki Commons