Accessibility statement

Using & Abusing the Past in Britain, 1835 - 2018 - HIS00119I

« Back to module search

  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Madeleine Pelling
  • Credit value: 30 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22
    • See module specification for other years: 2020-21

Module summary

What role has history played in shaping Britain’s political, cultural and social landscape over the last 200 years? How has the past been presented in public and how has that changed? What are the implications for historians? In this module we will explore changing public interpretations of the past since the early nineteenth century, considering how museums, archives, fiction, the media and politicians have used and abused history for different purposes.

We often speak of ‘learning from history’, either through avoiding the mistakes of the past or repeating the successes of those who came before us. Politicians, cultural institutions and the media frequently use history in this way, to communicate their values. By aligning with or rejecting certain ways of seeing the past they justify their actions in the present. Activist and civil rights movements do the same, often by challenging mainstream narratives. Our understanding of history is constantly remade in the present, and these ‘uses’ of history have a history of their own.

Each week we will explore an episode of public history, from the rebuilding of the houses of parliament in the 1840s, to the LGBTQ+ liberation movement of the 1970s, to the Brexit referendum. Discussions will touch on how governments, historians, heritage institutions, and public audiences understood these events in light of the past. We will focus particularly on how history has been used to variously support and undermine civil rights, and to both oppress and liberate marginalised peoples.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2021-22 to Summer Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To provide students with the opportunity to study particular historical topics in depth;
  • To develop students’ ability to examine a topic from a range of perspectives and to strengthen their ability to work critically and reflectively with secondary and primary material; and
  • To combine seminar preparation and discussion of the topic being studied with extended independent work on a project devised by the student.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Have acquired a deep knowledge of the specific topic studied
  • Have developed their ability to use and synthesise a range of primary and secondary sources
  • Be able to evaluate the arguments that historians have made about the topic studied
  • Have developed their ability to study independently through seminar-based teaching
  • Gain experience of working collaboratively through an assessed group project

Module content

Teaching Programme:
This 30-credit module is taught through a weekly two-hour seminar run from weeks 2-10 in the spring term and a four week period of project work undertaken in weeks 1-4 of the summer term. Students will complete their group project work within that period and tutors should arrange to be available for consultation with students twice during that time. There will be no formal seminar teaching during this period.

Seminars will likely cover the following areas:

1. Public histories in the past
2. Imperial Knights – Medievalism and the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, 1835-1870
3. Colonial Objects – Museums, archives and Empire in the late 19th century
4. This Green and Pleasant Land – The National Trust and history tourism, 1895-1945
5. War Stories – Militarianism and histories of conflict during WWII
6. The Second Sex – Feminism and ‘herstories’, 1950-1980
7. Modern Love – LGBTQ+ histories and identities, 1965-1998
8. Slavery Nation - Rhetoric, reparation and racism in the early 21st century, 1999-2016
9. This Island Life – Immigration, Brexit and Britishness, 2015-2021

A wide variety of primary sources will be used, including popular media, fiction and film, as well as archives, cultural objects and heritage sites.

Project work will consist of a critical analysis and discussion of an episode or programme of public history-making, which groups will select from the list provided by the course leader. Students are encouraged to take advantage of the heritage landscape of the city of York and the surrounding area for their group project. Groups may also propose subjects if they wish. Topics may include:

  • 1914: When the world changed forever – WWI Centenary exhibition, York Museums Trust (2014-2018)
  • Gentleman Jack – BBC/HBO dramatization of the life of Anne Lister (2019) – and the York blue plaque (2018)
  • York Viking Festival
  • York Chocolate Story
  • The removal of the status of Edward Colston in Bristol (2020)
  • The discovery and reburial of Richard III (2012)
  • The commemoration of Magna Carta 800 (2012)
  • The Manchester Together Archive – public responses to the Manchester Arena attack (2017)
  • inVISIBLEwomen and Statues for Equality: Public monument campaigns (2017-)

You will be encouraged to use a range of primary source materials in your group work, including oral history (where it is appropriate).


Task Length % of module mark
Group project 3,000 words
N/A 33
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
24-Hour Open Exam
N/A 67

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative assessment will be a group presentation between weeks 5 and 7 of the spring term.

For summative assessment students take a 24-hour open exam in the summer term assessment period, usually released at 11:00 on day 1 and submitted at 11:00 on day 2. For those taking two Explorations modules the 24-hour open exams are held on consecutive days, with both papers released at 11:00 on day 1 and both due for submission on 11:00 of day 3.

Students also submit a piece of written work for their group project of no more than 3,000 words in week 5 of the summer term.

The exam carries 67% of assessment and the project element 33% for this module.

Students who need to be reassessed in the project component of this module (for example due to Exceptional Circumstance) will be required to submit in the summer reassessment period a shorter individual project (2,000 words) which should include a short reflection (500 words max) on group work, considering how this project could be expanded if a team of three to four people were working on it. Students should consider how they would divide up the research tasks, and reflect briefly on problems which might arise and how they would manage them. Module tutors will advise on the content and design of this project.



Task Length % of module mark
Group project 3,000 words
N/A 33
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
24-Hour Open Exam
N/A 67

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will typically 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:

Donnelly, Mark. “Public History in Britain: Repossessing the Past.” In What Is Public History Globally? Working with the Past in the Present, edited by Paul Ashton and Alex Trapeznik, 23-36. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

de Groot, Jerome. Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, 2016.

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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.