Public History in the Making: Community Tapestry in the British Isles

  • Anna Henderson

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis moves beyond scholarly critiques that interpret public history - the history consumed and produced outside the academy - according to academic method, to examine the utility and relevance of history in society. It is a detailed excavation of a particular public history practice - largescale historical community tapestry making - through the visual evidence of the tapestries themselves, and in-depth oral histories. Community tapestry projects have received little attention except as a footnote in reception of the Bayeux Tapestry. Predominantly though not exclusively undertaken by women, these projects take inspiration from the Bayeux Tapestry's form, but use it to bring to public notice a variety of different, lesser known histories. The thesis investigates how ideas informing 'history from below,' especially perspectives associated with women's history and minority history, inform this lay history practice. It argues that the medium of embroidery facilitates a re-appropriation of these ideas in new and distinctive ways, as a function of embroidery's strong identity as a female craft. Using particular tapestry exemplars to drive discussion, analysis moves from situating community tapestry in relation to debates concerned with public history's inclusive potential, to proposing new models for understanding its material and associative specificities. It demonstrates the strength of popular forms as a means of engaging a lay public where academic history fails. In particular, it elucidates community tapestry's capacity for promoting reflection as well as emotion in viewers. It traces the variety of forms in which female agency is expressed through the tapestries at the level of image and narrative, and in the multiple inter-related ways in which women's status as producers of history are enacted. Building on this, it draws on everyday life theory to decipher presentational strategies that destabilise heroic narratives and refocus attention on ordinary experiences of men and women, and the material detail of daily life. Establishing community tapestry's place as an important lay history-making practice thus offers to reinvigorate both the practice of public history and our understanding of its workings, by providing a feminised corrective to other histories in circulation.
Date of Award1 Aug 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJulie-Marie Strange (Supervisor) & David Matthews (Supervisor)


  • visual studies
  • embroidery
  • herstory
  • feminist
  • women's history
  • oral history
  • everyday studies
  • identity history
  • affective
  • minority history
  • Bayeux Tapestry
  • community tapestry
  • public history

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