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Histories in Public: Understandings of the Past in Today's Society - HIS00100I

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Elizabeth Spencer
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21

Module summary

Whether it was a love of Horrible Histories, family trips to museums, or the inspiration offered by a teacher at school, most people come to university to study history not because they have read an academic textbook but because they have engaged with ideas about history in some other format. Indeed, we can find historical narratives in a wide range of places from newspapers to videogames as well in memorials and museums, in novels or films, in the heritage sector or on the Internet. The vast majority of people who enjoy history, read about history, visit historical sites, argue about history, evoke it and even write about it or present it in other ways, are not necessarily those working within universities but are part of a wider ‘public’. They supply an audience for history, but they may also be actively involved in producing historical knowledge.

This course will focus on public understandings of the past and will explore the complex and varied ways in which historical narratives and representations are created, consumed and put to use in non-academic settings. Who are the main audiences for these formats? What kinds of historical stories do they tell, and what meanings are attached to them? How are these stories researched and generated, and what happens as they pass from one cultural medium to another (‘re-mediation’)? How is history used and abused in certain public contexts? Why are some periods of history so attractive to wider audiences but others rarely discussed? Why are the stories of some ‘great’ historical figures or social groups continually retold and represented whilst others remain neglected? What kinds of relationship exist between these public forms of history and the histories produced in academia? In exploring these questions, this course will interrogate how narratives of the past function in our society. We will focus both on theories of public history and on examples of current practices and methods. Students will be required to undertake a number of visits to local historical sites and also attend film screenings as part of the course.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2020-21

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to important specific historical themes and topics with a clear chronological or geographical focus;
  • To enable them to work on those topics by combining access to the specialised expertise of staff through lectures with their own close study and discussion of issues and reading;
  • To deepen students’ understanding and appreciation of a range of historical subjects and issues; and
  • To support students’ progression from the broad chronological and conceptual work undertaken at Stage 1 of their programme to more detailed and rigorous study of particular topics.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Have a broad overview of specific historical themes and topics with a clear chronological and geographical focus;
  • Be able to evaluate different interpretations of the subject matter and approaches to it;
  • Gain a critical awareness of the primary material and secondary works used in these interpretations and approaches; and
  • Be able to synthesise information from lectures, discussion groups and reading to make evidence-based arguments both orally and in writing

Module content

Teaching Programme

This 20-credit module consists of sixteen twice weekly lectures delivered in weeks 2-9 plus one round-up session in week 10, and eight 90 minute discussion groups.

1.            What is public history?

2.            History & politics

3.            History & locality

4.            Public histories in York [site visit]

5.            History & education [history curriculum]

6.            History for children [horrible histories, children’s TV, books, museum packs etc].

7.            Commemoration & public history: an introduction

8.            Commemoration: a case study of practice

9.            The history of museums and history in museums

10.         Current museum practices and challenges

11.         History and visual media (tv, film, documentary, including Blackadder etc)

12.         Case study – either a screening or case study lectur

13.         Internet & digital interfaces (including gaming, resources, access)

14.         Family history & identity (linking to internet resources)

15.         Re-mediation


Discussion groups will likely deal with the following :-

•             History in the news [1st class will look at how history is discussed/used/abused in the week’s press]

•             “Historic” York [will look at the ‘branding’ of York as a heritage destination]

•             History for children

•             Commemorating the first world war: a case study approach

•             Museums, pasts and publics [group presentation following a site visit/at a site]

•             History and imagination – facts and fictions

•             Approaching familial pasts

•             Re-making histories


Task Length % of module mark
2000 Word Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will be required to write a 2,000-word procedural essay for formative assessment, due in either week 5 or week 7 of the autumn term. They will then complete a 2,000-word essay for summative assessment, due in week 1 of the spring term.


Task Length % of module mark
2000 Word Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline unless submitted in week 5 of the summer term, in which case these are available within 25 working days. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

De Groot, Jerome. Consuming History: historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture. Abingdon: Routledge, 2008.

Kean, Hilda and Paul Ashton (eds). People and their Pasts: Public History Today  Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,  2009.

Samuel, Raphael. Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. Verso, 1996.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.