By examining the longer history of engagement between academics and those outside the academy and reflecting on recent experiences of collaboration, this paper provides a critical perspective on understandings of engagement and the 'impact' of historical research today. Considering in particular the UK higher education landscape and the recent Research Excellence Framework measurement exercise, we argue that the current approach of universities, and understandings of the relationship between them and those outside higher education, promotes a model of one-way dissemination, entails a potentially paternalistic approach to an apparently passive public, and favours easily measurable change. We suggest that by revisiting the intellectual origins of the public-history movement we can better understand where the value in the relationship between academics and the public lies. Our conclusion is that refocusing on the process of engagement - rather than specific and easily evaluated outcomes - better reflects and values the most successful, productive and democratic collaborations between researchers and non-academic partners.
In autumn 1726, Mary Toft began to deliver rabbits in Godalming, Surrey. The case became a sensation and was reported widely in newspapers, popular pamphlets, poems and caricatures. Toft was attended by at least six different doctors, some members of the Royal College of Physicians or attached to the Royal Court, but no doctor declared the affair a hoax until Toft herself confessed on 7 December 1726. This article focuses on Toft's three surviving confessions in order to explore not the doctors or even wider representations of the affair but instead the person of Mary Toft herself. These rare sources give rare insight into one woman's experiences of reproduction in the early eighteenth century. The essay engages with recent work on recovering women's voices in the past, reconstructing Mary Toft's words and her embodied and affective experience of the affair. These documents suggest a revision to our understanding of the hoax of 1726, one that situates the affair not in the context of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment or the assumption of men's control over midwifery, but instead in the context of power dynamics amongst women in the practices of early-modern reproduction and birth.