Richard III and public history

I was interested today in the reactions among some academics and commentators to the University of Leicester’s Richard III-in-a-car-park press conference. Personally, I think it’s fucking wonderful that some 500 year old bones under a car park and a load of nerdy stuff about DNA can capture the public’s attention, and I was very impressed at the way the Leicester researchers handled the story.

But apparently I should actually be worrying about whether the story is really historically important enough to get all this attention. And I should be shocked that the archaeologists held a press conference before they’d got their research all properly peer-reviewed and published in the right places. How very dare they tell the plebs about it before getting full academic approval!

(Perhaps we should feel sorry for Charlotte Higgins at the Graun. It seems the press conference gave her “chills”. Can they not afford heating at the Graun offices any more?)

A nuanced response from Cath Fletcher still contains this odd argument:

Amid the excitement over Richard III we should be conscious of how news values shape the history we see on TV and in the press. Imagine that the Leicester archaeologists had uncovered not a royal grave, but a grave of some peasant farmers, results from which completely changed the picture of what we know about human nutrition in the fifteenth century. Not so glamorous, but just as important in understanding the past – perhaps more so. They wouldn’t have the media pull of ‘England’s lost king’. Traditional ‘kings and queens’ history, so criticised over the decades by historians, still plays very well on TV.

But wait: the British public have spent almost 20 years glued to Time Team and other TV archaeology which is almost never about kings and queens. Yes, they still like a royal story, but that doesn’t exclude interest in peasant farmers too. This is not any old royal story. It isn’t making a big splash just because it’s a king. It’s because it’s also about romance and tragedy, mystery and controversy. (Not to mention violence.) It’s also about the incongruity (cue many, many jokes on Twitter) of finding a king buried under a car park. But most of all, it’s about public interest in history and archaeology and forensic science. Without that, hardly anyone but the most ardent royalists and the members of the Richard Was Slandered Society would care.

You know what, academics? History doesn’t have to be important to academic history to matter. It’s not all about you.