History that is active and engaged with the world

Mike Berlin is a Lecturer at Birkbeck. He is a specialist in the social history of early modern London and has published extensively on the history of London’s guilds. Mike reflects on the incredible commitment of Birkbeck students, explains the important role history plays today and discusses the exciting new London Summer School.

For Mike, teaching at Birkbeck is a hugely rewarding experience; ‘It is a supreme pleasure and privilege to teach history at Birkbeck. Our students, their life histories, the efforts that they make to study are inspirational. There is something very moving about getting up in front of a diverse group of Londoners. Seeing their eagerness and commitment, despite coming from a day at work or looking after their families, they arrive with a hunger and passion to study.”

Mike is particularly passionate about ‘public history’, but what does this mean, and why does it matter? “Public history is at the cutting edge of what history is meant to be about. We seek to challenge assumptions about the past in what is called ‘the public sphere’. The huge public debate and mass protests that have taken place over the past year, since the murder of George Floyd, around statutes are excellent examples of what public history is all about. This whole burgeoning of discussion is bound up with debates about the past, colonialism, enslavement and commemoration and memorialisation. Here is history that is active and engaged with the world.”

This summer, Mike is one of the Birkbeck academics leading the London Summer School, an exciting combination of talks, workshops, and walks that will immerse participants in the Capitals long and complex history. Having taught at Birkbeck and the V&A, curated several exhibitions, devised and presented several BBC radio series, Mike is taking on the challenge of bringing 20 centuries of London history, migration, settlement, social and cultural exchange to life!

“The London Summer School brings all the Birkbeck Londonists together for an exciting week of talks, workshops and walks covering London from the Roman period to the present day. I specialise in London’s history and it is a great honour to help Londoners learn about their city. The walks will take place each day in different parts of the city to learn about its spatial development, architecture, and built environment. The talks will be delivered online to comply with current regulations. It will be a wonderful opportunity to get back an element of face to face teaching and to become reacquainted with the city that we all love.”

Sharing knowledge about the past to inform the future is at the heart of what Mike and his History colleagues do. “We sometimes refer to the ‘Hobsbawm challenge’, after the great Birkbeck historian Eric Hobsbawm. The idea of sharing critical knowledge about the forces that have shaped our world. To do this at the end of the working day with people who have just come off a shift or picked up a child from school is truly inspiring. Birkbeck students come from all over London and, indeed, all over the world; they make tremendous sacrifices and labours to learn about the past. All my excellent colleagues share this sense of privilege teaching at Birkbeck”