Scottish universities have a tradition of being responsive to the needs of industry and civil society: this means that engagement ‘beyond the cloisters’ with commercial, artistic and welfare communities is simply part of our day to day work. Often this means that serendipitous connections built up over time lead to unanticipated consequences.
So it was with my involvement with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s agenda-setting The NationLive initiative. Working as the historical consultant with the team behind this exhibition was a highlight of my year (2013-2014). It was a chance to test the relevance of narrative approaches to the history of Scotland in environments beyond text and to assess the ways in which history touches place, space and identity, particularly at times of heightened social and political awareness. The whole initiative challenged me to think again about the role of visual arts in history, and allowed me to probe the role of history in the ways we make sense of the visual arts over time and in a national context. These were thoughts that were expressed in my essay ‘History and the Heritage Aesthetic’ that appeared in the exhibition catalogue, and in a sell-out lunchtime lecture at the SNPG entitled ‘‘The ‘Scotch accent of mind’: historicising the referendum’ (soon to be published as part of an edited collection from scholars at the University of Mainz).
Since the NationLive exhibition ended in May 2014, I have subsequently worked with the National Galleries of Scotland’s Senior Outreach Officer, Robin Baillie, on two events funded by the Chancellor’s Fund of the University of Glasgow on political poetry and song (questioning politics, this time, through poetry), and in the summer of 2014 I participated in an Edinburgh Book Festival panel with the artist Roddy Buchanan where questions of Scottish identity, political radicalism and the evocation of history in art again claimed centre stage.
These experiences have been stimulating, encouraging me to shift the emphasis of some of my Masters teaching and my approach to historiography and public history. Together, they have also encouraged me to engage directly in the preservation and communication of Scotland’s material culture, as I embark on my first year as a trustee of the National Museums of Scotland.
Text by Dr Catriona Macdonld, Reader in Late Modern Scottish history.