The strange death of Welsh history

Huw Bowen says Welsh history is undergoing a terminal demise.

Huw Bowen is Professor of Public History at Swansea University, and Managing Director of Premier History Services Ltd. Until recently he was Convenor of History Research Wales. He is writing here in a personal capacity, and the views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @HVBowen. This is an abridged version of an article first published by the Western Mail.

On the face of it, these are exciting times for Welsh history and Welsh historians.

There is a real buzz about the place as community groups research local aspects of the First World War experience, and much effort is being directed into celebrating the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas.

This should come as no surprise because in Wales there has always been a very strong public appetite for history.  We see it in the enthusiastic public responses to the ‘Welsh History Month’ series entitled ‘A history of Wales in 100 pictures’, which ran earlier this year, which is organised by the Western Mail in partnership with History Research Wales and Cadw.

Television history remains popular, especially when shows are fronted by well-known newsreaders and former rugby players.  The Welsh history sections of bookshops are crowded with titles written by a small army of local historians.

On the face of it, too, all is well in the world of academic Welsh history.  Events such as Welsh History Month and our annual public debates at the Hay Literary Festival allow us to engage very effectively with public audiences.

History Research Wales has also recently achieved some striking successes in terms of winning major grants from UK funding bodies.  Backed by financial support from HEFCW, colleagues have incubated and developed exciting major collaborative research projects.

In many ways, then, there is a real energy about current research on Welsh history.  Colleagues are opening up news lines of inquiry as they explore the Welsh dimensions of gender, the Empire, the middle-classes, science, the global economy, cartoons, country houses, entrepreneurialism, war, and many other topics that have often been conspicuous by their absence from Welsh history books.

Change is also evident in the people undertaking research in Welsh history.   Until fairly recently, the world of Welsh history was an exclusive boys’ club, and only a few women such as Angela John and Deirdre Beddoe were able to fight their way in.  But now a phalanx of female Welsh historians is busy at work teaching, researching, and writing.

There also recently been an infusion of talent through posts part-funded by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, which means that the ranks of early career researchers are well stocked with creative and energetic scholars. But the situation is less rosy elsewhere in the profession.

Especially troubling is the loss of talent at the top of the profession as leading academic historians take up administrative posts or pursue non-research careers.  What this means is that few historian of Wales are writing the ‘big books’ on Welsh history that we need to give the subject a high profile and real presence on the world stage.

This is not to point a finger of blame at anyone, because after all there are only twenty-four hours in a day and writing important history books takes at least a decade if it is done properly.  On the contrary, it suggests that academic Welsh history has become a victim of its own success, with the cream of the crop now being far too busy as they respond to opportunities to lead and serve the wider public as well as the academic community.

This problem is exacerbated, however, by the fact that some of our universities no longer regard Welsh history as a key strategic area for investment and development.  It is sad to report that the long-established Chairs of Welsh History at Aberystwyth and Cardiff remain unoccupied, and there is no Chair of Welsh History at either Swansea or the new University of South Wales.

There are probably very good reasons for this sorry state of affairs, but it means that there is currently only one Professor of Welsh History in the world, and that is Huw Pryce at Bangor. No pressure then, Huw!

Of course, in general, there are far too many professors about the place, and we don’t want unnecessarily to create and fill positions.  But I worry about what message the non-occupied Chairs sends out to my colleagues who are currently in mid-career.  Where do they go next, and what do they aspire to become if there is only one Professorship in Welsh History?  In other words, we are witnessing a situation in which a ‘brain-drain’ is about to occur, and in the long-run this will be immensely damaging to the broad world of Welsh scholarship.

So, while outwardly Welsh history appears to be in rude good health, it is actually suffering from a terminal illness that threatens its existence as a subject for serious academic study.

But let’s not be too gloomy, as is so often our wont in Wales.  My colleagues and I believe that understanding our history is absolutely essential for the development of a modern, cohesive, confident, forward-looking Wales that is secure about its identity and place on the world stage.  To adapt a well-worn phrase, a nation without its history is like a man (or woman) without a memory.  But, as professional historians, we would say that wouldn’t we?

The real point is that the complicated process of understanding and using the past properly should not be haphazard and left to chance.  And, indeed, it should probably not be left to universities.  We need to be clever, agile, and, above all, strategic in the ways in which we organise pan-Wales activity that enables us to escape from the straitjackets that have often been imposed by local, sectional, and institutional interests.

There are many things that we could do, but here are two suggestions.

First, there should be an annual festival of Welsh history.  We seem to have festivals of virtually everything in Wales, but for some reason not Welsh history.  This is a major omission from the cultural calendar, and it is one that History Research Wales is well placed to rectify.

Second, there should be a properly funded Welsh Institute of Historical Research to serve the needs of communities, local councils, national institutions, and government.  It should be the ‘go-to’ place for advice on the history that informs the development of every single form of activity that takes place.  Such an institute would not only represent a ‘world first’ but also demonstrate that Wales is fully in touch with its past and properly understands its place in the broader scheme of things.

These developments won’t happen, though, and not just because time are hard.  They won’t happen because people lose sight of why studying history is fundamental to the functioning of a modern civic society.  All-too often their view of the past is that there is no future in it.  I beg to differ.

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