Meet Dr Imogen Peck, a historian of memory and communities

We met with Dr Imogen Peck, Assistant Professor in British History, to talk about her teaching, her research and her academic background.

Old Joe

Old Joe

Please tell us a little bit about your background, and about how you got into history, and early modern history in particular.

I studied joint honours as an undergraduate, History and Politics, and if I was being honest, I was really more interested in political philosophy and political theory and things. But we were required to do a thesis in history as part of that course, and it was through doing the process of research that I started to really “get” history and became much more interested in it. I was working on a project that was initially about crime in the early modern period and popular politics. I had a really brilliant tutor, he's at the Oxford Continuing Education department now, Jonathan Healey, and he suggested some sources to me that were held in the National Archives. I didn't realize when I got there, in that way that you don't know what you don't know, that they were mostly in Latin! So kind of out of expediency, I ended up reading through the ones from the 1650s, because that's obviously after the change of court records into English [from Latin], so I could read those more easily.

I wrote that thesis on popular politics during the English republics, thinking about the way that the policies of the Republic on a national level played out in local politics and people's relationship with local officials. Reading through them, I kept finding references to the civil wars depositions that had nothing to do with the Civil War at all. They were about somebody having a fight with their neighbour, and then they bring out the fact that they've been a royalist supporter. I filed it away in my brain and didn't really think that much more about it.

Then I think, I was working in London, because I didn't stay on to do a PhD straight away, I watched a film, called The Act of Killing, the Joshua Oppenheimer film. It's an astonishing film, but also a very hard watch, about people who were involved in the Indonesian genocide [in the 1960s], and the way that they remember their actions in the genocide, and I don't know why, but my brain connected it with the stuff I'd seen in the court records. I started thinking about war memory and thinking about those records as war memory. In that way you get as a historian, once you've got an idea in your head, I couldn't let go of it, and I found I was spending my weekends in London, going to the British Library or the record offices to read more about it, at which point I thought maybe I should not be doing a job, and I should be going back to do a PhD. So that's how I came back into academia. It was just through, I guess, interest in those ideas around memory and war and memory of Civil War that went on to be what my PhD thesis was about. It was weird when I was doing the final edits of it for the book I realized that some of the material that had made its way into it was stuff that I'd seen, ten years ago, when I'd come on my own to the National Archives. So it is pleasing to see them, I guess, finally make their entry into the book. That's how I came into it, and having come back, I've never wanted to leave you.

That's quite an amazing story, to think that you had such a passion for your subject after starting work that you gave up your job?

I think it's how you know when you've got a good research question, or it keeps nagging in your brain, isn't it? I didn't think at the time that I'd ever end up doing any more with it than the dissertation, and it was probably only through watching films on other subjects that I started to see how it was connected to bigger issues that were interesting. It was about that time that memory studies were becoming a field, I suppose, within history, so suddenly I realized I had all these other studies to connect to, and my PhD thesis was one of a couple of studies looking at memories of the Civil War in around the same two or three-year period. I guess there was something in the water, with several of taking all the work people had done in World War One and Two as our jumping off point. Memory studies were just starting to filter into early modern studies then. You realize your own ideas are part of a bigger cultural movement, without necessarily realizing at the outset.

Yes, this all fits with how really significant social or political conflicts, say, like the 1980s Miners’ Strike in the UK helps define people’s relationships?

Yes, I remember thinking a lot of the early literature I'd read around the Civil Wars, there being a sense that the mental afterlife of them on a personal level was quite short-lived, and I think increasingly, now, that idea has been sort of reversed in the sense that actually they don’t only affect the lives of the people involved but also intergenerationally. They're significant for later generations as well. I suppose that's how I got into working on the kind of projects I'm doing now on intergenerational memory and family memory; springing off that realization which came out of my PhD. There are loads of amazing work going on. I saw some people give a fantastic paper on memories of mine disasters in South Wales, for example.

So is memory actually the same thing as history?

Yes, I’ve had interesting conversations with people like Noah [Dr Noah Millstone] about that. It’s really important to grapple with it. The definition of memory I ended up using was really, really broad. I was really inspired by a lot of research that’s been done on the memory of Watergate, actually, by Michael Schudson. But some other people who work in similar areas are more influenced by people like Foucault and [Jonathan] Scott. So there's a much more political sort of thinking about memory, that memory is a tool of resistance. As a result, you realize you are all coming at it from slightly different places. This is one of those questions which, as a PhD student I wish someone hadn't asked, but in the long run it was good that they did. It's really tricky, and I think that when you teach memory that diversity and fuzziness can initially be a hard thing for students to wrap their heads around.


There's a much more political sort of thinking about memory, that memory is a tool of resistance. As a result, you realize you are all coming at it from slightly different places.

Dr Imogen Peck

What do you teach?

In 2022-23 I'll be mainly doing stuff on the MA in West Midlands History and a second-year module around family history, and there's also a plan to put together a new module, looking at family history as a third-year Special Subject, which will be exciting. I've taught all sorts of things in the past. When I was at Warwick I taught a course on Hegel for two weeks. That was an interesting diversion. But the stuff I like teaching better is the stuff that involves getting students to do history, go beyond just reading and work with primary sources or working with history outside the classroom or university. We did a great trip when I was at Warwick. We went to the British Museum and the Sir John Soanes Museum, and got them to look at objects and think about how Enlightenment objects were being presented in the museum, and that was really interesting, and a different angle on a course where they'd been reading a lot of Enlightenment philosophy and theory for several weeks to look at it from the other end of the spectrum.

Those are probably my favourite things to teach, getting the students actively involved with history in different ways, and all the different ways that history exists now, which is so much broader than just writing history. It involves getting them closer to everyday people in the early modern period. I've taught quite a lot of stuff based on my PhD work, which was looking at petitions from the early modern period, and I think they are fantastic teaching resources because they're in some ways the only written record you get of some things. How would any poor war widows from Lancashire get their place in a historical record in any other way, apart from in those tiny statements you get in the court records. So I thought they were fantastic for broadening the kind of material that early modern students get to read into. I'm quite happy to teach most things really. I like teaching! I'm not too fussy, and I learned a lot from doing it when I was at Warwick and I taught a lot of eighteenth-century stuff. I learned huge amounts from working through that with the students. I probably wouldn't have felt comfortable moving my own research into the eighteenth century if I hadn't spent that time doing that because I suddenly found that I had this whole new benchmark of knowledge to jump off that I didn't have before so you never know where it might take you.

Monument to Francis Glanville (died 1645), Broad Hinton Church, Wiltshire. Dr Peck discusses this monument in her book. The monument was commissioned soon after Glanville's death and deliberately emphasises Glanville's military role as a Royalist supporter in the English Civil War.

Monument to Francis Glanville (died 1645), Broad Hinton Church, Wiltshire. Dr Peck discusses this monument in her book. The monument was commissioned soon after Glanville's death and deliberately emphasises Glanville's military role as a Royalist supporter in the English Civil War.

Could you tell us a bit more about the second-year module you’re teaching in spring 2023?

It speaks to where  my current research project is at, and where it's going, and that is about getting students to think about family history writing, and how you can write history through the family, and also how people go about writing their own family histories, and how those two things might be connected to each other or not. The project I'm doing now is about early modern family archives. What do people keep in those collections, and why do they keep it? And how does it get reshaped and re-fashioned as it goes through different generations, which is partly how my temporal scope got so expanded because if you follow an archive collection over three generations, you automatically go from the seventeenth century through to the early nineteen century and beyond. I didn't realize that was important at the start but I do now. That's partly a methodological exploration as well, because most of those collections now are in local or national record offices. It's actually really difficult to reconstruct those processes from the way that they're arranged institutionally, so trying to find ways that you can think about why what's there, is there. And what did it mean to the people who had it originally? And I suppose imagining that they're not just random collections of papers, but actually have some kind of selection, process, or meaning behind them, so that speaks to my broader interest in family history and family history writing, which I think also probably connects to what I would like to do on the MA. I think there's potential to have more family history, as part of local history, because it's such an integral part. Now, a lot of people research their own family history, and they're really interested in that. But I don't think we think about how it's connected to their bigger local and national story. So I think that will be really interesting.

So as well as this being part of your second-year teaching you're going to be writing a book on family memory?

Yes. The current working title is Family Archives and their Afterlives. I'm going to take some of the key family collections that I've been looking at, and it'll be a very broad, case study-based, book thinking about how different types of family, socially or geographically or religiously, use their family archives for slightly different purposes and in different ways, and how they're reused across time. I've just had the first article from it accepted [for publication in the journal Cultural and Social History], that will be like the small version, but I'm then going to try and blow it up into the book version. But they're mostly non-elite families which, again, has added an extra level of challenge, because they're mostly more ‘middling sort’ than elite gentry. So I suppose that's the other dimension, that when you think of family archives, you think of big country estates, with muniments rooms and loads of deeds, and these are much more small-scale, little boxes, which I guess reflect more the kind of archive people might have now in some ways, in their own house.

The article is based on three different family collections of kind of three different middling sort families, and one of the things that came out from that is a lot of the collections that are curated by women, which I haven't necessarily gone out explicitly looking for, but has just all come out of the research naturally. Even though it's also a male practice, there seems to be an interesting sense that female collections travel down female lines and male collections travel down male lines. Therefore the pathways they take, and how they look is a little bit different, which I hadn’t especially been looking for, but it's been another interesting thing that’s come out of it, and how much anxiety there is in family archiving. Almost the process of doing it makes you realize the limits of your own ability to control memory, because, as you reshape somebody else's, you realize that the next person along it's just going to reshape yours as well, so like how much the people engaged in that practice are surprisingly self-reflexive and anxious about the limits of their ability to take control of the narrative which, again, I hadn't really expected.

Tell us about the MA in West Midlands History!

It's the only programme in the country that focuses specifically on the history of the West Midlands region, which encompasses the city of Birmingham, and all of the broader areas around the Black Country and up into Staffordshire. So it's a really broad and varied region and for a lot of people it’s mainly associated with its industrial history. But I think one of the things that comes out from that is that two of the modules are pre-Industrial Revolution. So it gives people an insight into what the region was like, before Birmingham was even a place. Say, with the church in Edgbaston, which in my own work on the Civil War I come across, because it's involved in engagement there, it's described as a village in Warwickshire! Whereas I guess now it's part of the city, there's a kind of window into that material, and also for people who are interested in the later history it's such a diverse and dynamic city, now, that it's got a lot of content on the later bit of the course on migration and the impact that that's had, and the kind of the non-white history of the region through minority communities there.

So I think it's really varied, and therefore really challenging, because it covers such a broad temporal span and such a wide range of themes but also exciting, because through that spread you get to look at the whole country and nation but by doing it through the lens of the region it's manageable, while also still being varied and exciting. I hope that's what our students find, and because it's part-time, there's a very diverse student body. There are people who come straight out of their BA, and also people who are returning to university, or indeed, I think in some case going to University first time. It's accessible to all of those different learners, and it involves trips out to areas of local historical importance and archives and properties that connect to the course. That's something else you get an opportunity to do by being local is really go and actually see the stuff that you're studying, which again is really exciting. Really, I don't think there's anything quite like it. Other local history courses tend to be local history generally rather than the specific global history of the area they're in. So I do think it's quite unusual in that respect.

I think it's interesting as well to think about how, actually, the people who are on the course probably have the capacity to write new things about the city and the region that people haven't written about before just by kind of thinking about their own lives and families and histories. And I think that's quite exciting too.

It's accessible to all of those different learners, and it involves trips out to areas of local historical importance and archives and properties that connect to the course. That's something else you get an opportunity to do by being local is really go and actually see the stuff that you're studying, which again is really exciting.

Dr Imogen Peck

Outside of work, we’ve heard you’re an excellent runner. Tell us about that…

Well, before I had my daughter I was both a better and more frequent runner, but she's nearly two now, so I just don't get anything like as much time. But I run with Bournville Harriers so I go to club sessions quite a lot, and for me, it’s mainly social. I really enjoy the social aspect of running, and it's been lovely for me because I didn't know Birmingham before I moved here, or anybody here. It’s a way to feel part of the local community. I never pretty much go any distance out of my house now, and don't see someone I know, and that's thanks to running! I don't race that much, but I do cross-country in the winter, and I enjoy that, and I did run the Birmingham half marathon in spring. But with the Commonwealth games here, I think that probably inspired a lot of people to do that because you do a little bit of the marathon route.