Blog Series: ‘Creative Histories’, Bristol 2017

Clio Twitter 1

StoryingthePast are pleased to present a series of blog posts based on the ‘Creative Histories’ conference held in Bristol in July, and supported by the British Academy, Bristol Institute for the Humanities and Arts, and the Department of History, University of Bristol.

The first post from Catherine Fletcher is live today, and the subsequent posts will appear over the next eight weeks.

We asked contributors to the series to discuss the projects they brought to the conference or saw there, and we have organized the final results into six broad themes. The only thing to say in way of an introduction is that the one topic of agreement between different participants is that a range of researchers, practitioners, and audiences are already engaging ‘creatively’ with history – hard as that idea is to define. The questions and arguments in the blog series build on vibrant traditions from the performing and visual arts, creative writing, film, heritage and activism.

‘Circle of Spears’ perform ‘WITCH’ on the last day of the conference.


The posts in ‘Key Ideas’ approach the broad concepts of creativity in historical practice. What do we mean when we say creativity? What are the key terms for understanding creativity and history? How does creativity fit with the constraints of institutions such as the UK Research Excellent Framework? What roles do the self and the archive play in writing creative history?

A series of posts on ‘Stories’ explore the importance of storytelling to historical practice, from the use of vignettes to introduce academic arguments, to the role of fiction as a way of talking about the past. It is clear that for many historians, ‘creativity’ evokes ideas about writing well, and telling compelling stories.

The posts grouped under ‘Performance’ bring together reflections on turning history into drama, and notably feature discussions of giving ‘voice’ to the ‘silenced’, and ‘invisible’ actors in history. ‘Bringing the past to life’ involves skills and techniques that historians produce collaboratively with theatre professionals.

A series of posts on ‘History in Public’ include interventions from public historians, and one from an audience member who is not a historian. Many of the contributors remarked on the possibilities that creativity offers to the practice of public history.

Notorious Exhibition1
Anthony Rhys’s exhibition ‘Notorious’ at Oriel Myrddin Carmarthen, in 2016.

The posts grouped under ‘Material and Visual Histories’ are a testament to the wonderful range of artistic practice on display at the conference. The visual and material arts draw attention to the literal making of history in a way that is full of suggestions for all kinds of historical practice.

Finally, the posts collected under the title ‘Critical Creativities’ explore some of the knottier problems of the turn to creativity. Are ‘creative histories’ simply a contradiction in terms? What are the politics of getting creative with the past?

We welcome responses to the posts. If you’d like to write a short response piece, please drop us an email.

Full List of Posts

  1. Key Ideas

2nd October: Catherine Fletcher ‘But is it REFable? A Challenge for Creative History’

In this post, Catherine Fletcher asks how the UK Research Excellence Framework panel for history should deal with creative outputs.


4th October: Laura Sangha ‘Creative history is…?’

Laura Sangha suggests some ways of conceiving what ‘creativity’ means to historical practitioners.


6th October: Sonja Boon ‘Creative Histories: Vulnerability, Emotions, and the Undoing of the Self’

In this post, Sonja Boon writes about the place of the self in research, and her realization that ‘emotions are also knowledge’.


9th October: Ann Chow ‘Possibilities of Archives’

Ann Chow’s post about the ‘In Our Minds’ project and other examples argues that ‘using archives [is] an important part of the creative process’. She suggests that creativity is available to anyone, and is a form of ‘possibility puzzle’.


11th October: Will Pooley Ten Resolutions to Work More Creatively

Will Pooley suggests that creativity is ‘not a solution, but a set of problems’ and proposes ten ways to do historical work more creatively.


  1. Stories

16th October: Mark Hailwood ‘“As I Went Forth One Summer’s Day”: Putting the Story in Early Modern History

Mark Hailwood explores some genres of story that historians use in their writing, arguing that creative storytelling can work to highlight ‘aspects of the everyday that we do not yet know much about’. Creativity, he points out, is not just about ‘impact’, but also about new analytical tools.


18th October: Julia LaiteChoose Your Own Adventure History

Julia Laite explains how she finds herself thinking back to ‘choose your own adventure’ stories when writing microhistories of elusive traffickers and prostitutes, and argues that the kind of imaginative work historians can do with these lives is quite different to counterfactual history.


20th October: Helen RogersThe Visitable Past

Helen Rogers thinks with the novelist Henry James, who evoked a visitable past, so close to us that we can almost touch it. What, Helen asks, can historians do about more distant pasts, such as the world of Sarah Martin, the nineteenth-century prison visitor she has been researching?


23rd October: Leanne BibbyCritical/Creative Histories? Finding English Catholic Pasts in Perceval Landon’s “Thurnley Abbey”’

Discussing an early-twentieth-century ghost story, Leanne Bibby found she had ‘questions that had to be answered’ by exploring the storie’s ‘silences, small suggestions of ‘other’ (hi)stories’ that demanded an ‘imaginative response’.


25th October: Lydia SysonCatching Them Young: A Digital Experiment in Historical Fiction Revisited

Lydia Syson talks about her novel A World Between Us and ‘the possibility of using fiction rooted in historical sources to introduce the Spanish Civil War to a generation who – for the most part – had never even heard of it’. What possibilities did an interactive version of the book open up, and were those possibilities realized?


  1. Performance

30th October: Tracey NormanThe Invisible Witch

In this post, Tracey Norman reflects on the process of writing a fictionalized play about a real witchcraft trial, involving the frustratingly ‘invisible’ Deanes Gimmerton in seventeenth-century England.


1st November: Iqbal HusainLoyalty and Dissent: Taking Archive Records from Page to Stage

Iqbal Husain writes that ‘Drama is unique in its power to take the written word, explore underlying emotions, and connect these emotions to people.’ In a project involving the National Archives and Tamasha Theatre, writers explored themes of loyalty and dissent among South Asian troops fighting in the First World War.


  1. Histories in Public

6th November: Sally Rodgers Better Ways in: Using Creative History to Engage New Audiences in Tinsley, South Yorkshire

In this post, Sally Rodgers discusses the roles of creativity in the work she has been doing as a Community Heritage Manager at Heeley City Farm in South Yorkshire. ‘Sharing ideas and letting work be led by participants’, she writes, ‘makes work richer, more interesting, better embedded, and more fun.’


8th November: Ghislaine PeartThe Benefits of Creativity

In this post, Ghislaine Peart makes the case for the importance of creative storytelling, arguing that all historians should seek to communicate with broader audiences.


10th November: Ed RowanA Few Thoughts from a Non-academic

Ed Rowan reflects on some of his thoughts as a non-academic audience member at the conference in July.


  1. Material and Visual Arts

13th November: Lito ApostolakouCreative Menagerie

Self-taught artist Lito Apostolakou discusses the liminal position between ‘authority’ and ‘exclusion’, and belonging to ‘a creative menagerie which thrives in a space of fluid boundaries’.


15th November: Anthony RhysUpset Victorians

Artist Anthony Rhys explains what it means to him to produce work that is ‘half art, half history’.


17th November: Lucie DuttonMaurice Elvey, a Film about Nelson and Quilting my Research

In this post, Lucie Dutton discusses falling for Maurice Elvey’s film about Nelson, and producing a quilt based on historical research.



  1. Critical Creativity

20th November: John ReeksCreativity Needs a Better Name

John Reeks argues that ‘creative history’ is a contradiction in terms, and a sop to the ‘heat-seeking missile’ of postmodern theory… except when it isn’t. A performance of ‘WITCH’, he argues, is ‘intellectually honest’ even though it is fictional. Better names for ‘creative history?’ Answers on a postcard, please.


22nd November: Cheryl MorganThe Objectivity Trap

In this post, Cheryl Morgan asks not ‘Who gets to be creative?’, but ‘Who gets to do history?’ Appealing to recent discussions of cultural appropriation among fiction writers, she reflects on the uneven demands for ‘objectivity’ placed on different groups and individuals who write about their own communities.


24th  November: Erika HannaThe Politics of Creativity

What, Erika Hanna asks, are the politics of creativity? Although the questions are uncomfortable, she points out that as practitioners we need to think about how we navigate the ‘hierarchy of authority in our own work’. Should we make creative histories to feel better?


3 thoughts on “Blog Series: ‘Creative Histories’, Bristol 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s