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Using and Abusing the Past in Britain, 1835-2018 - HIS00141I

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Victoria Hoyle
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

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 2016 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 period
A Semester 1 2023-24

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

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

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1. Students will then attend a 1-hour plenary/lecture and a 2-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11 of semester 1. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW) during which there are no seminars. Students prepare for and participate in eight 1-hour plenaries/lectures and eight 2-hour seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Public Histories in the Past
  2. Imperial Knights: Medievalism and the Nineteenth Century Imagination
  3. Colonial Objects: Empire and the Birth of the Museum
  4. This Green and Pleasant Land: The National Trust and Historic Landscapes
  5. War Stories: The political uses of histories of conflict
  6. ‘Herstories’ and Queer Histories: Social movements using the past
  7. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: Rhetoric, reparation and race, 1999-2018
  8. Our Island Story: Migration, Brexit and Britishness, 2010-2018


Task Length % of module mark
Assessed Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment, students will complete a referenced 1200 to 1500-word essay relating to the themes and issues of the module. This will be submitted in either the Week 5 or Week 9 RAW week (on the day of the weekly seminar).

For summative assessment, students will complete an Assessed Essay (2000 words, footnoted). This will comprise 100% of the overall module mark.

Summative assessments will be due in the assessment period.



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 formative 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 25 working days of the submission deadline. 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:

  • Lowenthal, David, “Benefits and Burdens of the Past,” Chapter 3 in The Past is a Foreign Country: Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Bonacchi, Chiara, “Nationalism, Populism and the Past,” Chapter 3 in Heritage and Nationalism. London: UCL Press, 2022.
  • Trimm, Ryan, Heritage and the Legacy of the Past in Contemporary Britain. London: Routledge, 2017.

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.