History in the Trenches: Why I became a Consulting Historian

The past has always held a powerful fascination for me

I think it’s because it offers us a glimpse into where we came from. Looking back, we can spot features that contributed to who we are as individuals, families, communities, nations, and a species. History, quite literally, has made us.

My love for the past goes back as far as I can remember. But it was as a teenager that I really caught ‘the bug’. I spent years working as an actor and swordsman at Renaissance festivals throughout New England. I spent my summers portraying Elizabethan courtiers, knights errant, and even some of literature’s most famous swashbuckling heroes. While this was a great source of fun throughout my teenage and university years, it also awakened in me a rather unexpected realisation. Although I was dressed in a suit of armour or a sumptuous doublet, and although I was portraying certain cultural features that nowadays we would consider quite archaic or alien, the actual people themselves, their personalities and motivations, were fundamentally no different from you or I. This understanding has inspired the way in which I teach others about History to this day.

Having completed a BA and an MA, both with a particular focus on History, I found my way into the museum and heritage sector. One of my interests being early arms and armour, I worked for five years at the Royal Armouries Museum, Britain’s national museum of arms and armour. This career took me from its museum in Leeds finally to a curatorship at H.M. Tower of London. To spend my days working at a site that has witnessed almost 1000 years of history, be it good or ill, was an experience that will stay with me forever. Yet throughout all of this, the same realisation shone brightly through: the people who lived and worked on this site, and who used and made the objects I cared for, revealed themselves to still be so very familiar.

All of this is largely back story, for it is when I came to London that the part of my journey with which we are concerned with here truly began. Over the past two years, I made the acquaintance of several individuals who in their own ways are working with governments and other organisations to try to make the world a better place. Two such individuals of particular note are Vinay Gupta (of the Hexayurt Project and The Future We Deserve) and Dougald Hine (of The Institute for Collapsonomics and The Dark Mountain Project). These two do a lot of work on the present and possible future decline of our societies and ways of life. They look not only at what is happening, but also at what needs to change if we are to avoid or at least cushion the blow of the worst possible future scenarios. Looking around you, it is easy to see that such work is fast becoming relevant.

Although I was fascinated with the work they were doing, I felt that, as an academic and historian, there was little I could personally lend to their efforts. I was disabused of this notion over an extended period of time by a series of unexpected events. I would frequently join them at meetings and discussions, less as a formal participant and more as a hanger-on who was going to the pub with them after things had wrapped up. With my intentions always being to sit back and listen, given that the subject matter was usually something with which I had little to no experience myself, I nonetheless found myself leaning forward at least once or twice and remarking on some idea or comment with something like ‘If you’re looking for useful precedents for that idea, perhaps you should look into this or that group from the 12th century who were doing the same thing.’ or ‘The last time that strategy was attempted was in the 1890s, and it didn’t work then either. So since little of the important factors have changed since then, it’s likely to fail again today for much the same reasons.’ Insights or understandings of the way in which past events were connected to present circumstances or have an impact on future ones that seemed obvious to me were often regarded as previously unknown yet useful data for others around the table. After this happened enough times, I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to take these ideas and do something with them.

And thus, one year ago, Applied History was born.

It seems such a simple concept, using knowledge of the past to understand present circumstances and to guide future decisions. But all through my life I have been frustrated and amazed by the ways in which allegedly educated people, occupying decision-making positions in government, business, and similar organisations, seem to be making the same mistakes as did our ancestors. It is guided by that famous saying, ‘Those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat it.’ While this statement is practically a cliché nowadays, it nonetheless holds true.

Historians have been the caretakers of 10,000 years of data on various answers to human problems. Some of this is no longer relevant to us, but much of it still is. My goal is to take this knowledge from the ‘Ivory Tower’, where it has been preserved for centuries, and bring it down ‘into the trenches’ where it can be put to equally good use.


I am dazzled by the feeling that you have, a connection with people who lived in the past. Just as, through social media, we all start to feel the invisible bonds that connect us to each other, because of the real Internet connections. But you also feel connections to the past.

Of course, past mistakes should not be repeated. We do not have to reinvent the button with four holes either. But knowledge is lost so quickly. People hardly remember the names of their great-grandparents.

In your story, I like the fact that you found yourself in a context, before you actually understood what was to be your role. Something, a force led you here, and now you can be the highest vision of who you are. It’s fascinating

Great intuition, big caveat

James, I love your intuition and I do see how this sort of thing might be useful to tackling a great many problems. I should add that - while by no means an historian - I have studied more than my share of history, and I have sometimes does economic research work that needed to delve into local history. My main interest is economic history: in fact I got the calling for economics at the age of 16, during a class about the 17th century great inflation caused by the inflow of silver from the New World, which ended up giving a substantial push towards bringing down the Spanish colonial empire. I can see myself hiring you, or somebody like you.

Having said that, is it not kind of a stretch, even for a brilliant out-of-the-box thinker, to be “the guy who owns history” in a problem solving team? History is a big place, and bringing precious metals home heated the Spanish economy during the Siglo de Oro, but it seemed to go well enough for the Roman Empire’s for a very long time. Could this result in an early modern historian not recommending exploiting silver mines, just as his ancient historian semi-colleague does recommend it? Do historians exist that know so much about so much of global human history that they could indeed be employed as human repositories of general-purpose historical knowledge?


Very true. A


Very true. A person who has that broad an historical view is rare indeed. I myself do not claim an encyclopedic knowledge of the past 10,000 years of human history. My formal academic training is as a Medievalist, so the period between the fall of Rome and, say, the reign of Elizabeth I is the period of time that I can comfortably talk shop about off the top of my head at a moment’s notice. For any other period in time, I’ll usually need to do a bit of digging first.

Nonetheless, any formal training in History gives one the general tools that can be applied to any period (how to look for sources/information, where to look, and what to look for). If I need to go really deep into a particular era, then this process can take time. But if I’m just searching for something quite surface level, then a couple of days worth of hard digging can often familiarise myself enough with a period or culture that I can comfortably discuss the generals around a meeting table. That kind of time usually only results in generalisations, however generalisations are frequently important as well, even if only to highlight places that merit further investigation.

Here’s a recent example. Earlier this week I attended a meeting to look at the Kony situation, assessing the most effective possible courses of action to either neutralise him, protect the people from his actions, or both. I got the invitation for the meeting just the week before, so I had less than a week to familiarise myself with the material so I could follow along and contribute something useful.

I am by no means a specialist in African History. What I did have, however, were a series of themes that I knew would be relevant: warlords, displaced populations, political instability in Africa, and finally Uganda. Having tracked down as many articles, etc. about Kony and the LRA that I could find, I then started digging around the abovementioned themes to see if there were any potential correlations. If there were, those were the areas that I dug further into. Come the meeting, I was sufficiently comfortable to at least raise some of the points I had come to during my research, and was at least able to contribute here and there to the general discussion.

A lot of times my participation in these meetings looks a lot like this:

Me: There appears to be some common points between what you’re discussing and X from (mumble mumble) years ago. Have you thought of looking into that further to see if there’s anything that can be learned?

Expert: True, but Y or Z are factors that don’t make those commonalities relevant in this case.


Expert: Huh, that’s an interesting point. Look into that further for us, will you?

While I would love to one day posess an encyclopedic knowlege of all history, I’m not quite there yet. So far, I pick things up as I go along and as and when it becomes necessary. Small steps, I guess. But I maintain that having at least a good nose for general trends that, with further research, can yield deeper insights, is still useful at this level of play, even if only to offer a slightly different way of looking at a problem.

This is by no means me jumping down your throat. I’m glad for the opportunity to articulate stuff like this. It’s just as useful to me to really think about how I do this stuff.

Keep reading, and show me no quarter. :slight_smile:

Back to the future

Convincing. Interestingly enough, what you are suggesting between the lines with your “good nose for general trends” point is that historians make good futurists, which seems counterintuitive but isn’t really.

Hey, don’t apologize. You are being super-courteous - and anyway I am a big boy and enjoy some hard-edged debating :slight_smile:

Sorry I posted that reply twice. I thought I was replying but it turns out I wasn’t. I have yet to figure out if there’s a way to remove comments, so this apology is put in place of my former error.

Oy, I’ll get there eventually.