Modern British Studies Conference 2015, Birmingham

The Modern British Studies Conference took place in Birmingham earlier this month. Its mission was to bring together scholars working on humanities projects around modern Britain. And, perhaps most importantly, to sketch out what exactly “Modern British Studies” is. What sort of time periods? What disciplines? Who will be part of this, where is it going, and how can we achieve it?

These were pretty lofty goals – and I’m not sure any definitive answers were reached. But it did spark a conversation. Fascinating papers were supported by an enthusiastic audience, bolstered by the large number of post-graduate students and early-career researchers. I have never been to a conference before that was so active on Twitter; not just from the delegates, but from those outside disappointed that they could not attend.

The Centre for History in Public Health was represented by Alex Mold and Gareth Millward (me!), who presented their work on the Placing the Public in Public Health project. Alex talked about the history of alcohol public health messages, while I focused on the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccination controversy of the 1970s.

Indeed, the history of medicine was well-represented at the conference, including papers on the fluoridation of water, nineteenth-century cholera epidemics, the representation of sex education in 1980s’ teen magazines and more. What was also refreshing was the broader range of topics on modern Britain, which served to remind us that medicine cannot be separated by wider political and cultural context. As historians we can often get trapped in our own little bubble surrounding the niche of our subject. It was great to be somewhere where intriguing work was well-presented and gave an insight into areas that were so relevant, yet often overlooked.

The debate was robust, yet friendly. Which means I don’t feel too guilty about pointing out some of the shortcomings of the conference. Because despite its many strengths, some pitfalls seemed depressingly unavoidable. It was great that (as far as the author can recall) there was only one all-male panel; however, the presenters were overwhelmingly white. As was much of the subject matter, further emphasising how uncomfortable British scholars have been in confronting the relationship between Britain and Empire, even after the Second World War. To be sure, there were some important exceptions to this, including Catherine Hall’s bombastic plenary on Jamaican slave ownership. Yet it stood out – as it does at so many history conferences.

There is always the other issue about “reaching out” beyond the academy. For while the conference generated a lot of traffic on social media, we were for the most part “preaching to the converted”. Indeed, it was also notable that most of the delegates appeared to be from the “usual suspects” in terms of institutional affiliation. Depressing tales of how some of the post-92 institutions currently treat research went some way to explaining that problem. In any case, the age-old conundrum of getting research out to the – massive scare quotes alert – “public” was still not fully addressed.

I’m nit-picking though. This was one of the most energetic conferences I’ve ever been to. You get the feeling, sometimes, that big conferences are where you go to present because it’s the “done thing”. Here, however, even if people did not have a presentation to give they contributed massively to the over-arching debate through the questions in panel sessions and the long conversations over pork pies and sausages on cocktail sticks. I sincerely hope there is another one soon; and that I’m able to take part.

Gareth Milward, Centre for History in Public Health