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December 2011: Felicity Barnes

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

The answers, in order, would be 1) in New Zealand, 2) quite recently, and 3) inevitably. My research has focused around aspects of New Zealand’s culture in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. New Zealand’s history as a setter colony makes engagement with British history both inevitable and unavoidable. I would suggest that the reverse, to a lesser degree, is also the case. But both colony and metropole have been able to look past each for quite a long time, as J.G.A. Pocock noted some forty years ago.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

As becomes obvious below, my academic development has followed a slightly twisting path. But at each twist on the way, I’ve had the good fortune to be taught by some remarkable people. In my final year as an undergraduate, I was taught by Sir Keith Sinclair, whose work was critical in defining New Zealand history, hitherto the very poor relation of proper ‘British’ history, as a field of study in its own right. He encouraged me to continue studying history, and though I was slow to follow his advice, I did take it eventually. As a postgraduate, I worked with James Belich, and I benefited greatly from his wise criticism and generous spirit. It is interesting to reflect on this combination, with one historian interested in repatriating New Zealand’s history, and another interested in bringing it to the world, using it to illuminate broader patterns in global history.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

Actually, being a historian is my second career, so this question is more than a hypothetical. I had previously worked in marketing and general management, for the recruitment, advertising and the not-for-profit sectors. However I had always been interested in returning to university, even venturing back to the business school for a while. When I took a break from work to raise my children, I went back again, a serial student intending to study history part time, before going back to business in some form or another. One PhD later, I’m still here.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

That’s an easy question for such a new academic!  The answer is the work for my doctoral thesis, which has subsequently become a book project. That on its own is a satisfying outcome. But more important, the topic – New Zealand’s cultural relationship with London – had terrific scope. It was a theme that really required tackling a wide range of discrete archives, then working across them to identify their unifying themes. These weren’t always immediately evident: the colonial writing world, for example, with its exiles and expatriates, is not often integrated with the fantasy worlds of colonial exhibitions, with their monumental wheat trophies and butter sculptures. And it is more common for studies of colonial travel writing to focus on the experience of settlers transplanted into new lands rather than on their experiences of returning to the old ‘Home.’ But these and other cultural forms played remarkably compatible roles in giving real substance to the colonial/metropolitan relationship, which is usually relegated to the airy and unexamined kith and kin rhetoric so beloved by imperialists (and so loathed by nationalist historians).

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

Well, it’s a big field, but one direction it seems to be headed in is offshore! For a long time, imperial history has been unfashionable in the former colonies, but it is now the subject of renewed interest and innovation. For example, the British world cluster of studies draws our attention to the invention, not just inheritance, of Britishness, particularly in the old dominions. As metropolitan historians grapple with the idea of a British identity and the role of empire in forming it, the experience of colonies that aimed to be ‘more British than the British’ seems both acutely relevant and oddly absent.

At the same time, a new field of studies is emerging under the rubric of settler colonialism. This is not limited to the British Empire, although much of the work in this quite new field is connected with it. However, its purpose is to draw attention to this type of colony as a distinct historical experience, and I think this is its key value. Though the imperial turn has led British historians to think more about the impact of empire on metropolitan life, the empire under scrutiny has often been partial. Work that specifically identifies the dynamics of settler cultures will add refinement and complexity to studies that otherwise lump them in with other types of colonies, or leave them out altogether.

Something of the impact of rethinking empire from the colonial edge is already evident, whether in Tony Ballantyne’s work on the webs of empire, or in James Belich’s reassessment of its dynamics.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

Over and above the sensible advice that real interest is the key to sustaining any project, my only another advice would be to keep an open mind about what ‘interesting’ might turn out to be. I did find that some of the least promising avenues for research at the outset proved to be the most compelling at the end.

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