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Shrapnel, bat guano and public history

2013 February 1
shrapnel

Shrapnel found in Hackney back garden

Now that Paul Martin and I have just finished revising (for the fourth time) the proofs of our forthcoming Public History Reader I have had some time to at least think about pressing domestic matters such as tidying up the garden. I had known for a while that the unusual L shaped garden effectively appropriating the top part of next door’s space was due to the impact of a Second World War bomb destroying the nineteenth century walls. My father’s own stories of serving in the local Home Guard and fire watching from the roof of the LEB , now the Strand building, nearby were one type of war narrative, as I described in London Stories. However the material culture evident in our own house and garden: the re-pointing at the back of the house and now the finding of shrapnel from some 70 years ago revisited in sharp ways the way the past lives with us in the present.

Part of the Public History Reader explores the possibilities for material for the writing of history that is not confined to ‘book learning’. One example we discuss is that of Dwight Pitcaithley who has described the way in which he became a public historian in the United States National Parks Service. One of his first assignments was analysing the remains of machines for processing bat guano in a cave with a 180-foot vertical drop into which he was obliged to drop. This unusual location for historical materials forced him to ‘recognise that historians could find research material almost anywhere’.

Of course material can be found in archival records – if they have not been chucked away – but the everyday landscape can also provide another sort of starting point for engaging with the past in the present.

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