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History from Below

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By Dan J. Broadley

Humanities in Public is back again with it’s final series of the academic year, ‘Future Histories’. Monday evening saw The International History From Below Network present ‘History is the New Punk’ at Manchester Metropolitan University with Peter Box and Roger Ball, convened by MMU Research Associate and Social Historian, Dr Fiona Cosson.

The International History from Below Network (HFB) is a diverse grassroots organisation founded in 2012, working to reflect a growing worldwide movement of historical activism and public interest in radical history. The talk conveyed to the audience that their aim is to create an alternative, non-academic and interactive way of discovering history. There are over thirty groups and projects across fifteen countries involved with HFB.

It began by covering the radical history movements of the 1960s-1980s, which included History Workshop UK – described by Raphael Samuel as ‘a collaborative experience’ – Dig Where You Stand in Sweden, which involved nearly 10,000 different groups and Geschichtswerkstatten in Germany. So why did they all decline during the mid-1980s? Roger pointed out that professionalization, neo-liberalism and new identity politics could all be partly blamed.

However, Roger went on to talk about how since 1990, up to thirty five radical history projects have emerged, originating with HFB. Paris, Bristol, Berlin, San Francisco, Barcelona and Melbourne are just some of the cities where these latest projects have emerged and that include street art, history walks and engaging the public.  For example, Trip Advisor rated a history walk in Barcelona on the Spanish Civil War as the number one activity in Barcelona!


Roger Ball, left, Peter Box, centre and Dr Fiona Cosson, right.

Roger then took us through some of the interactive activities that included historical markers, plaques and stickers to tableaux, reenactments and counter reenactments, such as recreations of the Finnish Civil War and Victorian era police forces in New York (which ended up having the real police involved), and finally cartography of, for example, the slave revolt in Jamaica and the St Peter’s Field ‘Peterloo’ massacre.

Roger moved on to talk about ‘rebellions within rebellions’ and the ‘onion skin’ nature of history to represent the many layers within radical history. For example, he talked about how Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus during the Civil Rights movement was in fact organised by an official Civil Rights group rather than a spontaneous event. African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama had been refusing to accept segregated public transport and protested in this manner long before Rosa Parks.

It is things like this, Roger pointed out, that show how history comes from below. In other words, diaries, memoirs and oral information from ordinary people rather than what is officially stored in archives is where real history comes from. HFB then overcomes the sometimes intimidating academic and professional boundaries of history and shares skills, resources and information so anyone anywhere can be involved.

The talk then ended with a question and answer session. Humanities in Public once again delivered an inspiring talk, whose ‘Future Histories’ series is to continue on the 18th of May with ‘Creating Our Future Histories Celebration Event’ and the People’s History Museum from 5:30pm. Click here for more information.

For more information on the International History From Below Network, visit

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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