Back in 2010, about 10 months after starting my PhD, I posited the question of how we define ourselves as professional historians. At the time, I suggested that the best definition for me was as a British Military Historian. This was based on my research interests and where I saw myself going career wise. I suggested that how we define ourselves was often based on career decisions and the need to compete for jobs.
Now that I have a job, where do I stand with this? Firstly, my job in part defines me. My job title, Aviation Historian, specifies the area that I work in as I am employed, in part, to ‘Conduct and publish research in the fields of Aviation and Air Power History’. However, even this is sketchy because the term ‘Aviation’ conjures up visions of aircraft and a technological bent to my research. This could not be further from the truth. As an historian, I am more conceptual in bent. My interests lie in organisational and conceptual aspects of the RAF’s history rather than its technology. Indeed as I noted here, I have slowly moved towards the fields of social and cultural history concerning the RAF. In this respect, the term Aviation is a bit of a misnomer. Indeed, this is why ‘Air Power History’ appears in my job specification when I made suggested amendments to it not long after I started my job.
However, my job has also redefined me in another way. While I am still ostensibly, an academic I do not work in a traditional academic setting i.e. a university. So where does this leave me? Well, there is only one answer; I am now a Public Historian. Public history is invariably applied to those activities that take place outside of an academic setting such as museums, archives, film and TV etc. Of course, this now means me as I am working in the museum context. This is an interesting challenge and one that I relish as I very much have a forward facing role that is designed to help inform and shape public knowledge in a number of ways. I continue to undertake academic study and engage with academia as part of the public sphere. However, I also act as the face of the museum where it is applicable. For example, I am often called on to conduct interviews with the media, which is an interesting experience. I am also often called on to give lectures at the museum (watch this space for more news on this front) and at outside venues. It is an interesting challenge trying to maintain the balance between academic and the public side of my role.
Another label that has changed more recently that of being a PhD student. This is on the way out as in May I passed my PhD pending the completion of some corrections. This all means that I am in a transition phase as I move on into new areas as well as finding a new research topic.
All I would say is that as much as we try to define ourselves, we should never forget that sometimes circumstance steps in and does that for us. This is no bad thing.