New Directions in Active History: A Retrospective

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By Beth A. Robertson, Ph.D 

Created by Shawn Graham, Carleton University, through Voyant using #ActiveHist2015 twitter feed

Created by Shawn Graham, Carleton University, through Voyant using #ActiveHist2015 twitter feed

New Directions in Active History was not your ordinary academic conference. This weekend scholars, students, private and public sector workers, local community members, archivists and more conceived of new ways to communicate the complex issues of the past to larger audiences. Discussions weaved between public policy and public history programs, to the meaning of community-engaged research and the role of technology. We watched the pilot of Ronald Rudin’s Lost Stories that sought to uncover the forgotten legacy of Thomas Widd and how artist Lalie Douglas made his story come alive. Poster sessions featured the work of the Graphic History Collective and the web-based documentary project on the London Dominion Public Building. Moving performances by indigenous activist and radio-show host Mary Lou Smoke[1], as well as Staging Our Histories made the past few days at Huron University College truly unforgettable. The New Directions conference was a regenerative moment for not only the website, but for all those invested in active history as a practice. Indeed, the conference was a rich opportunity to gather, share, and make connections in order to re-envision the place of history within Canada and our broader world.

On Sunday morning, the final day of the conference, the closing roundtable included Megan Davies, Hector MacKenzie and Alan Corbiere. Each in their own way proposed a conception of active history that turned typical academic approaches on their head. Rather than a model premised on the extraction of knowledge, histories would be built, sustained and constantly re-thought within the communities from which they emerged—a “reverse ethnography” to use the words of Corbiere. With graduate students from Western’s public history program facilitating small groups, we then spent the last few hours together discussing five central questions:

  1. What is an active historian? What is active history to you?
  2. How could be a better support for others doing active history in different regions and/or communities? How can we make better use of the website and other open technologies?
  3. How do academic history programs across Canada encourage their students to engage in active history in their communities
  4. What is the place of the active historian in shaping national narratives and historical memory?
  5. How do you envision yourself becoming/staying a part of the Active History project?

Answers to the questions were as diverse as the people in the room and this was hardly a bad thing. Rather, our discussion pointed to the multiplicity of voices that continue to re-imagine what active history is and how it can be done—voices that extend far beyond the website

A few central themes did emerge that spoke to much broader issues related to the practice of active history and its possibilities. These themes included a deeper consideration of our audiences, the importance of collaboration and the necessity of rethinking the bounds of history itself. Rather than conceiving of audiences as primarily spectators, distant and abstract, we discussed carefully conceiving who our intended audience is and the potential of making those individuals apart of the creation and public expression of historical knowledge. Such an ambition could only be accomplished through establishing reciprocal, respectful relationships, while actively seeking out opportunities for collaboration.

Collaboration could occur between different groups and projects and we spoke at length of how could join and help facilitate those relationships through providing support and resources. Collaboration is especially vital for assisting individuals hoping to re-think what historical representation looks like, as well as who gets included within the narratives we create. As Kayla Carter urged us, we need to expand what gets counted as history and provide a creative space to tell alternate stories that are too often left out of the official record.

Thought-provoking conversations, innovative technological methods and inventive approaches animated the conference New Directions in Active History. The editors of truly hope this excitement continues. The ideas and methodologies explored at the conference will play a significant role in how continues to evolve. And even though the conference has come to a close, this does not mean that your chance to contribute has passed. Much like we asked all in attendance, let us challenge those who could not join us with the final question of the conference – how do you envision yourself becoming (or staying) apart of Active History? What can we do to ensure that vision becomes a reality?


[1] Mary Lou Smoke and her husband, Dan Smoke, have been hosting the radio program Smoke Signals for the past 25 years. After welcoming us to the conference, Mary Lou Smoke taught us this song, encouraging us to bring it back to our communities and teach our youth in order to help raise awareness of the lack of accessible, clean water in First Nations communities across Canada.


Beth A. Robertson, Ph.D., one of the co-editors for, is an historian of gender, sexuality and the body who teaches with the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her forthcoming book, currently entitled Possessed by Science: Gender, Embodiment and Psychical Research, 1918-1939, examines a transnational network of interwar psychical researchers from the perspective of feminist technoscience and queer theory.

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