Professor Claire Langhamer, Director of the IHR

History today is challenging, complex, and creative; it is collaborative, energetic and purposeful. In a world that stumbles from crisis to crisis, historical analysis is more critical than ever before. Only by understanding the past can we make sense of the present or have any hope of shaping a better future.

History matters. As the submissions to REF2021 vividly demonstrate, historians across the country, and in diverse institutions, are mobilising their research to change understandings, improve policy and enhance well-being. Historians work collaboratively with galleries, libraries, archives and museums to shape interpretations and increase engagement; with governmental and non-governmental organisations to inform policy and produce policy-related knowledge; with schools on curriculum development, new resources and professional training; and with diverse bodies concerned with social welfare, health, and civil and human rights.

As the 248 Impact Case Studies submitted to the REF 2021 History sub-panel attest, there are very many examples of the transformative power of historical research. Much of this work is interdisciplinary and founded on the principles of co-design and co-production, encouraging lasting partnerships and deep engagement. As the REF 2021 History Sub-panel report explained: ‘…historical research is often inspirational, serving as a catalyst for changes that bring real differences to people’s lives.’ (page 107).

History is a social good. It has also never been more popular. From high-profile works of historical fiction and the transformative work of community historians, to the boom in genealogical research and economic importance of the heritage sector, people continue to find meaning – and pleasure – in understanding the lives of people in the past. The global pandemic encouraged even more people to think historically, and to record their own experiences ‘for the benefit of future researchers’. Individuals are interested in their own family histories and the history of their own communities. They are also interested in people, places and times that have no immediate personal resonance. This is partly because these things are intrinsically interesting, but it is also because understanding lives that are strikingly different and strangely familiar helps us place ourselves and others in context. The past can provoke strong feelings; it can spark political action; and it can encourage new solutions. Thinking historically encourages us to think critically about the present and to plan for the future.

Understanding the past helps us move forward. When the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) celebrated the end of its centenary year, we wanted to acknowledge past history-making, showcase present activity, and look ahead to what comes next. Our Centenary finale was a panel discussion on the Future of History. We invited eight speakers from across the history community, including those writing historical fiction and for television, to think about where we might be going. There was much to discuss because there is much at stake. Some of the most pressing questions raised were about identity, access and practice: who will get to do historical research in the future, how will it be done, and where will it happen? How might technology continue to transform our working practices; how can we make better connections with, and build a coalition of, the historically-curious; and how should we advance the case for history – and the humanities more broadly – in a sometimes hostile political environment? In this issue of Talking Humanities we want to continue the conversation by thinking about why history matters, and where it might be going. We focus on three areas – place, policy and practice – to show how thinking and working collaboratively can effect change and enhance understanding. Professor Catherine Clarke, Director of the IHR’s Centre for the History of People, Place and Community, addresses urgent priorities around place, identity and sustainable renewal; Professor Philip Murphy, Director of History & Policy – which has its home in the Institute – explains why history is intrinsic to politics and policy-making; and our inaugural practitioner in residence, the BAFTA-winning Executive Producer Sue Horth, provides a personal reflection on the value of collaborative working between the creative industries and historians.