Public History and… Lectures?

It must be my historical training popping up, but I love attending community speaker series. Even though they feel less formal than classroom learning, these series still provide attendees the option to learn, and let the lecturer have fun sharing their research. Public history is built through these lectures, and even if the topic isn’t your personal field of study, they show what interests the community.

I’m very glad that I stumbled across the Peterborough Historical Society’s lecture series, and the topic could not have been more intriguing. Dale Standen, a Trent University emeritus professor, shared his recent research on Victorian Peterborough’s handling of communicable disease to a packed room on October 17th, 2017. Touching on the heritage of Peterborough AND a brief history of epidemics in one night? You bet I was there! Now, I say Victorian, but the research built on Peterborough’s public health ideas leading up to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. The Victorian practices were influential to how the city contained the disease before it hit, and led to a low number of casualties during the Flu (versus other areas. See the Legion Magazine’s article on the Flu). Peterborough was an intuitive medical centre; isolation hospitals, containing infected water, and public health education were some of the numerous methods initiated by Mr. H. Amys during this crisis.

Peterborough postcard of the Oriental Hotel
Postcard image of the Peterborough Oriental hotel, the emergency isolation hospital set up during the height of the Spanish Flu. Image source:

This sole event reaffirmed my belief that speaker series like the PHS’s are worthwhile to everyone. Both members public who are interested in history or heritage and heritage professionals gain a little insight to a lesser known past; the public has a good night out, and professionals collaborate over further research, network within the meet-up, and see what the community wants to hear. The room was crammed full on this night, and many people wanted to share their own histories relating to the Flu during the question period. If that isn’t community engagement, then it would be hard to define what is. Another fun fact of the evening: the pandemic’s centennial is approaching next year. I hope that many museums and historical sites have taken note of this anniversary following the success of numerous First World War commemorative exhibits.

The next lecture event held by PHS is on November 21st. Heather Caldwell will present “Canadian Nursing Sisters – The Bluebirds 1914-1918”, and she will bring along a few artifacts to accompany the talk. Follow the PHS’s website for more details closer to the event. I’ll be there, and I hope to see another filled room!

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