French Historians under the spotlight: Dr Tom Stammers

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

The first interview of 2016 is with Dr Tom Stammers, Lecturer in Modern European History at Durham. Tom is giving the keynote at the SSFH/ASMCF French postgraduate Study Day on 5 March at Queen Mary, on the theme of ‘patrimoine’.

Tom Stammers: ‘The most rewarding part of the career has to be the exceptional freedom to teach and read pretty much what I like’

In one sentence, what is your research about?

The culture of collecting by states and private individuals from the French Revolution down to the Great War, tracing how the pursuit of artworks and artefacts shaped historical memory, political ideologies, institutional legitimacy and canons of taste and value.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

Early and transformative research trips to Paris as an undergraduate; an awareness that the historiography of France was the most methodologically exciting and conceptually rich of the twentieth century; and a personal fascination for a country that took culture and ideas very seriously.

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

My favourite decade in French history has to be the 1870s. Municipal commune, military dictatorship, constitutional monarchy or radical republic, many different political outcomes were up for grabs- and this is before you factor in the thrilling artistic and scientific experiments too. If I had a time machine, I would simply like to set the dial for May 1870, with the plebiscite results for the Second Empire, and then aim to get off the ride at Bastille Day in July 1880. In between I’d mooch around France, enjoying the spectacle of a society and a culture undergoing a mutation that few on the ground could predict or control.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

Sadly a lot of my historian heroes – such as Georges Lefebvre – by all accounts might not make for very sparkling or congenial dinner guests. On these grounds I’d go instead for Denis Diderot, François-Réné de Chateaubriand, Hector Berlioz, Jean Genet, Edith Piaf and Edmond de Goncourt (to immortalize it afterwards- probably with venom). If I had to opt for an historian, it would be either Daniel Halévy or Marc Bloch – it would be fascinating to have them in the same room.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

The most rewarding part of the career has to be the exceptional freedom to teach and read pretty much what I like. The community of French historians is diverse, friendly, vibrant and forever helping me rethink my own research questions. The frustration comes from the fact that so many excellent undergraduates have not had done enough French at school and college to get much taste of independent research during their degree, and so only come to the pleasures of archival digging in France quite late on.

What is on your desk at the moment?

I can barely see my desk under the mountains of second-hand books- but near the top of those at the moment are the writings of art historian Francis Haskell who specialized in the history of taste in the nineteenth century. I am also working my way through some of Jacques Rancière’s early essays on nineteenth-century proletarian culture. The desk also contains a steely-eyed bust of Napoleon (souvenir? kitsch? fantasy? inspiration?), a corkboard full of postcards bought in museum gift-shops, an ailing plant and a ringbinder stuffed with photocopies (I still don’t like reading on screen).

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

I used to say psychoanalyst- probably itself a revealing admission- but increasingly think I’d now go into museums. I do a little art reviewing and criticism on the side and I’d like to get better at thinking about how to animate the past through artefacts. I really admire small and focussed exhibitions which can shed new light on a subject.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

Apart from the obligatory thick skin, the main advice would be to present your work to lots of different audiences, including to non-historians. The sometimes outlying and eccentric questions are helpful in learning how to speak about the wider significance of your project; moreover, it provides useful insight into how to present the same piece of research under lots of different headings (‘transnational exchanges’, ‘cultural encounters’, ‘history of emotions’, ‘gender history’ etc). As jobs become quite scarce in European history it is important for candidates to be as flexible as possible.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Archives départementales. Although they can be lonelier, some of my happiest research trips have been outside of Paris – Rouen, Rodez, and not least Privas in the Ardèche, the only préfecture in France which does not have a train station.

Monograph or journal article?

Journal article as an exercise in good writing within constraints. A really good article can be maximally suggestive and persuasive in a minimum of words.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

I always have excellent experiences at the SSFH annual conference. But for the chance to access local collections too, I have very warm memories of going to the BARD graduate centre in New York for a conference entitled ‘Salvaging the Past’, exploring the career of Georges Hoentschel, French furniture dealer and decorator to American millionaires in the Gilded Age.

Writing in silence or to music?

I need a permanent wall of sound to do anything- silence is very rare chez moi.

Pick a century?

Easy – the ‘long’ nineteenth century. The heroic age of European culture – and the origin of many of its pathologies. The seventeenth century runs it a close second, though, for the intellectual fireworks and astonishing paintings.

Éclair or saucisson?

Éclair. I am a vegetarian with an incurable sweet tooth.


Many thanks to Tom for taking part. If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.


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