Lecture on Public History

On Tuesday 20th February, the History Department held a guest lecture by Dr David Musgrove, the Content Director of BBC History Magazine and its website HistoryExtra.com. The magazine and website are both run by a company called Immediate Media for the BBC. The lecture was an introduction to the ways that public history can be conveyed to its audience, such as print magazines, online articles, and podcasts, as well as the challenges faced by each of these media.  

In the lecture, Dr Musgrove talked about how the print industry has been suffering recently, due to the move to online content and especially because of the pandemic. HistoryExtra.com was created to allow the writers of the magazine to create online content, however it cannot use the same branding as the magazine, because it is not affiliated with the BBC in the same way.

The website also uses podcasts and social media accounts, and Dr Musgrove talked about the ways that these can be used and the advantages and disadvantages of each in building an audience for public history. For example, a podcast needs equipment to allow a consistent sound quality, and a structured format, so that listeners know what to expect. On the other hand, regular social media text posts allow for less detailed content however are much cheaper and simpler to produce.  

The different forms of online media can also be re-used to create further interest, such as short clips of podcast episodes being uploaded onto social media. This allows the creator to satisfy the different preferences of audiences, some of whom may prefer short-form content. The challenges of using social media for public history were also brought up. Dr Musgrove spoke about how if you intend to use podcast clips on social media. This has an unavoidable impact on the interview approach, as you need to invite answers that make sense without the wider context of the whole interview.

In addition to this, unlike a podcast, a website or a print magazine, when posting on social media platforms, the platform itself has a lot of control over what you can create, and this can impact what you do. An example of this is the character limit on Twitter, and how it can be a challenge to put the necessary context in so concise a format.  

He also brought up an interesting question about public history – does the audience like history as a whole, or just specific parts of it? As public history is very dependent on its audience, needing money from magazine sales and website subscriptions to stay active. It is important to provide what the audience wants, at least to some degree. In the BBC History Magazine’s case, this means that cover stories will often focus on areas of history such as the Second World War, Medieval history, and Tudor history, as these areas are most popular with a general audience.

The fact that public history is incentivised by finance in this way creates further issues – does the need to make money compromise the integrity of the publication? David Musgrove argued that due to its print magazine format, the BBC History Magazine is able to print less commercially viable articles inside the magazine while using a popular cover story to cover its costs.  

We are very grateful to Dr David Musgrove for giving this informative and interesting guest lecture, and to Dr Bob Nicholson for organising it.  

By Athena