Mark Nixon: Working in Public History

Careers and work identities are often arrived at by accident rather than design, but even by those standards, I sometimes wonder how I ended up as a historian, and a Scottish historian at that.

I didn’t even intend to do a history degree, but that’s what I fell into. On completing my PhD at Stirling back in 2004, I briefly flirted with academia, before the attraction of public history took over and I surprised myself by landing a research post with the West of Scotland Museums and Heritage Partnership, based at the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre in Nitshill. It was a wonderful job, working with museums, archives and local history libraries across Dunbartonshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire. It also introduced me to the joys of working with stored artefacts, and the vital role that public institutions play in studying and communicating history – often with very scant resources and while relying on volunteers to function. My love affair with museums and community history was born.

During my years working in museums, I continued with my own research and published a book based on my PhD research. It was a highfalutin’ theory-heavy history of historiography project, but I found my historical interests (and my mind generally) were gravitating towards Scottish local history, largely because of the context in which I was working at my day job. I began looking into what objects relating to my field – 19th-century politics – had survived in museum collections, and before I knew it I was researching 1880s radical politics in Scotland. By then I was in my second museum job, as manager at Clydebank Museum. One day, I was chatting about what I was studying with one of our volunteers, who it turned out was chair of the local history society. “Why don’t you come and talk to our Society about what you’ve been working on?” he said. So I did.

That long introduction brings me to what I do in Scottish history. More than anything, I give talks to local history societies and other community groups throughout the country. Since that first tentative step in Clydebank, I’ve spoken to more than sixty groups, usually on 19th-century political movements in their area, alongside some cultural history. Other historians who have spoken at local history societies will know what I mean when I say that it is richly rewarding. When you can help local people learn more about the history of their communities, and when you see your talk leading to a discussion around how we remember our past, the long bus rides out to small village halls on wintry evenings seem more than worthwhile. It’s not one-way, by any means. You mention a place no longer on modern maps, and your audience tells you where it was; you give a name of an individual who passes through your project, and they come back with their full biography; you talk of a banner mentioned in a newspaper report, presumed by you to be, like so many others, lost, and they say, “oh, we’ve got that in the Society’s collection; would you like to see it?” If you haven’t yet experienced giving talks to local history societies, I heartily recommend it!

Commemorative medallion of the Dundee Franchise Demonstration , 20 September 1884, by Baird of Lenzie.

And from those talks, my work in Scottish history has grown. Chatting to the organiser of a local history festival and a museum officer who had been in one of my audiences, we came up with the idea of running a workshop for the community on how to study and communicate the past with objects, which I have since delivered at various organisations ranging from a school history club to the volunteers and staff of a development charity. After giving a talk to one history society on the George Square statues, I was asked to run a guided tour for the Doors Open Day festival, which is now an annual fixture.

I no longer have a job working for a museum, but I’ve kept my toe in. A former colleague and I curate touring exhibitions on 20th-century popular culture – we’ve put almost thirty exhibitions into fifteen different museums in Scotland. Our audiences are diverse and often not those I would be able to communicate with through the historian’s traditional channels of print publication. In recent years, I have also returned a little to academia – again, keeping my toe in, not knowing where the next byway may lead – and I am now course co-ordinator for the Scottish local history course on Edinburgh University’s online postgraduate degree. Teaching Scottish local history to students around the world, many of whom have never been to Scotland, is an interesting challenge! In return, I ask them to give presentations to the group on how local history is studied in their area, how it is possible to read their local landscapes, and how museums and archives in their country catalogue and make available their resources. As with speaking to local history groups, I again find myself learning just as much as I am teaching. Recently, I have had the privilege of working with the Political Poetry and Song in Scotland research group, collecting poems from local newspapers and beginning to study their publication and distribution histories. And from that I find myself circling back to where I began, as a new topic for talks to local history societies presents itself…

OWaulking Mill model with political mottoes, carried at the Hawick Franchise Demonstration, 20 September 1884.

We are very lucky to be Scottish historians. We have a vibrant research community, fantastic resources, and superb outlets which allow us to communicate with our communities. More than anything, though, it is our audiences – not just our students and fellow historians, but also our museum visitors and both local and national history buffs – who make what I do in Scottish history so enjoyable.



Mark Nixon is a freelance historian and curator based in Perthshire, with particular interests in material culture, community history and 19th-century popular political culture. You can find him on Twitter and through his website. If you would like to be part of our new blog series and let people across the field know what you’re up to, get in touch!

Cover Image details: Two-page spread by ‘Twym’ [AS Boyd], in Quiz (12 September 1884) depicting scenes from the Glasgow Franchise Demonstration, 6 September 1884.



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