Catherine Fletcher is Professor of History, and an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker 2015. Her book The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance was published in March 2020. Catherine is also author of Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador, Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome, and The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici.
Seren Griffiths is Senior Lecturer in Public Heritage and Archaeological Science, and an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker 2020. She is an Early Career Researcher, and Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded ‘Project TIME’. She will be talking about her research on the BBC ‘Free Thinking’ programme on the 23rd June.
Here Seren, at the start of her New Generation Thinkers Scheme, interviews Catherine about why she was interested in taking part, and why working with the media is an important form of public history and heritage work.
SG: Catherine, what first attracted you to the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers Scheme?
CF: I applied three times, in fact. The first was back in 2010, the year the scheme was launched. I was working on Our Man in Rome, which a book for a general audience based on my PhD research, about the diplomats behind Henry VIII’s first divorce. This was just after the crash of 2008 and the academic job market wasn’t looking great so any opportunity to develop the Plan B career seemed attractive! I didn’t get selected that time, but I did manage to stick around in fixed-term contract jobs. I gave NGT another shot in my final year of eligibility, with a project related to The Black Prince of Florence, and got selected.
SG: What for you is the importance of public history and heritage?
CF: The idea that scholars wouldn’t want to talk to–and hear from–a broad range of people about our research always seems slightly odd to me. Obviously there are some elements of research that aren’t easy to communicate to non-experts, but whenever I do public talks and events I get questions that make me think in different ways about my work, and that’s hugely valuable. On a larger scale, I think it makes a difference to political life if voters come to their decisions informed about the past. All the big current questions–the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, Brexit–have historical contexts. History and heritage matter to citizenship.
SG: Has being involved with the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers Scheme changed or developed your practice as a public historian?
CF: Yes, definitely. Some of the programmes I’ve done have involved me reading and visiting exhibitions on topics that are well outside my usual expertise and giving my perspective on them–everything from seventeenth-century court music to contemporary art to ancient literature. It’s often quite easy in academia to end up siloed in your own discipline and not engage with other ideas out there. It’s also encouraged me to explore writing and performing in different genres – I’ve been experimenting more with fiction and I’ve done a few stand-up comedy/history gigs.
SG: What was the most surprising element of the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers Scheme?
CF: I think probably the range of research that’s out there and can work for a wide audience. In the broadcasts and events that I’ve been involved in I’ve heard contributors talk about topics from queer digital lives in South Asia to seventeenth-century cookery to the history of menstruation. You can always count on running into something unexpected.
SG: Obviously my experience of the scheme in a Corona virus 19 context, will be very different from your experience of the scheme. What do you see as the biggest challenges of doing public history or heritage in lockdown?
CF: Personally I’m really missing the audience. I’ve done one live comedy show online, which was fun, but it’s not the same as speaking face-to-face to a crowd of people and getting that immediate response and energy. I’m spending a lot of time in lockdown trying to sketch out material for the future, but I’m very conscious that live cultural events won’t be the same for quite some time and there’s a real risk of some arts and heritage organisations closing entirely if support isn’t forthcoming from government.