Through his TV work and writing, Professor David Olusoga OBE has sought to make history inclusive, expansive and diverse. In his new role at The University of Manchester, he hopes to continue his mission, shedding a light on how history is viewed through the media.
Professor David Olusoga OBE is a familiar face to many through acclaimed history TV series such as Civilisations, Black and British: A Forgotten History and, most recently, A House through Time.
Now, as a new Professor of Public History in the Faculty of Humanities, he is turning his gaze back on programmes like these to critically explore how history is presented to the public through popular media, which he refers to as “the shop window of history”.
“The public historian’s job is to be the piece of circuitry that links the academic world – as the engine room of history – and public history, which I think is the showroom,” he explains, before laughing. “People like myself are the mannequins trying to make this stuff look good!”
Professor Olusoga’s unusual career trajectory makes him particularly qualified for this role. While he studied history to master’s level, he later rejected a PhD offer, which would have been his gateway into academia.
Instead, he “ran away to the circus”, opting to enter the TV industry, where he eventually worked his way out of production into presenting.
“I really just needed to get out of the academic environment and do something different,” he recalls.
“Then I thought about what it had been that triggered my love of history.”
So many minority kids decide that history is not for them, about them or interesting to them by the time they’re choosing to go to university.
Hooked on history
Growing up with a black Nigerian father and a white British mother on a council estate in northern England in the 1970s and 1980s, Professor Olusoga was exposed to the ugliness of racism at a young age. Dyslexia also led to what he calls a “difficult” education.
However, like many of his peers, he became obsessed with World War II through books, films and TV programmes. It was his mother who, crucially, encouraged his burgeoning interest, pointing out that Nigerians had fought in the conflict.
“I’m not entirely sure if I believed her at first,” Professor Olusoga says. “They certainly weren’t in the books or war films that I saw. It was a revelation.”
He started to read about the history of black people in Britain. Encouraged by an inspiring school teacher, he set himself on the path to studying history at university, focusing on slavery, race and empire.
Broadening history’s audience
Professor Olusoga’s early love of history TV documentaries – like those presented by fellow Manchester professor Michael Wood – triggered his move into broadcasting. Now, in “the worst escape act of all time”, Professor Olusoga has finally returned to the gateway that he turned away from all those years ago.
He believes there is still work to do to increase the appeal of history as a subject to young people from similar backgrounds to his own.
“The statistics aren’t great,” he says. “So many minority kids in Britain decide that history is not for them, about them or interesting to them by the time they’re choosing to go to university.”
The answer, believes Professor Olusoga, who’s also won multiple awards as an author, is for every part of the history ecosystem – including universities, publishers and heritage organisations – to take collective responsibility for the problem.
For public historians, Professor Olusoga adds, the challenge is to get those people intrigued by TV documentaries to continue engaging with history, whether this is by subscribing to a history magazine or visiting historic properties, and perhaps get their children interested too.
Returning to his metaphor, Professor Olusoga concludes: “The shop window has no meaning unless it is the conduit to a deeper part of our history."
Listen to Professor David Olusoga's inaugural lecture.