Michael Wood: My Manchester story

From exploring the work of Marx and Engels with undergraduates, to being a patron on the Manchester Histories Festival and inspiring the next generation of students through school visits, broadcaster Michael Wood reflects on his time since becoming Professor of Public History at the University.

I am a filmmaker by profession, and my generation of TV-watchers grew up on public service broadcasting: from John Berger's Ways of Seeing, to Bronowski's Ascent of Man and Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home.

So it goes without saying that cultural engagement, social responsibility and internationalism are part of our idea of what broadcasting should offer. It is my belief that we 'popularisers' are intermediaries between the academic world and the general public, and I suppose I have tried to bring some of those ideas to what I do at the University.

Professor Michael Wood

Professor Michael Wood

Michael was appointed Professor of Public History at The University of Manchester in 2013. Originally from Manchester, he is one of the country's best loved historians, presenting history documentaries on everything from China to Shakespeare over the last few decades. He has also published a number of books about history.

I became Professor of Public History in late 2013, just as I was starting a series of films for the BBC on The Story of China. There are memorable moments from that time, like excursions to Chetham's Library with groups of first year students, gathering around the table where Marx and Engels sat, handling the books they used - the statistical surveys and documents that shaped the Communist Manifesto. For me, there is nothing like engaging with the sources, hearing the voices come alive.

So too with the MA students who have done the History and Film unit, with some really exciting results. This year's course has been in co-operation with Manchester Museum, and the theme was migration - a vital subject right now of course, and a particularly big theme in the city's history.

We looked at an Italian barber in Levenshulme, whose father was a POW; Bosnian sisters who fled the siege of Sarajevo; a 93-year-old Jewish lady who came here on the kindertransports in 1938; a Bangladeshi restaurateur who lived through Partition and made a new life in Trafford; four films on intensely human tales of history and memory, the very texture of identity. All of us sat rapt in the Manchester Museum as the stories unfolded.

The Manchester Histories Festival has been another highlight, especially for a Mancunian. I got involved some years ago when John Pickford, who we all miss so much, was running it. Now it is a massive event every two years when the Town Hall is taken over by scores of local groups.

Professor Michael Wood lecturing at The University of Manchester

Professor Michael Wood lecturing at The University of Manchester

Another great pleasure has been giving public history talks, often about Manchester identity; whether at the People's History Museum, or John Rylands Library; to alumni events, or the Fulbright Scholars.

Just now, of course, there is a lot of discussion about Manchester history and identity, especially after the city's inspiring reaction to the attack on the Ariana Grande concert. What is at the heart of that identity, we ask ourselves?

Manchester, after all, was a small place in the 1750s - less than 20,000 people, but with immigration it increased over 20 times in 90 years, and became a centre of social reform and liberal politics, intellectual freedoms and scientific advances. This city of the Chartists and the Suffragettes is a common history that we all share, whatever our origin.

That is a story I have often told at schools and sixth form and further education colleges: in Rochdale, Bury, Bolton and Ashton-Under-Lyne, in Stockport and Sale, in Moss Side (where I was born and spent my first years) and in Wythenshawe (our family home for over 30 years).

Schools have asked me to go and talk about the excitement and importance of history to young people who might never have thought university could be an option for them, and the response has been terrific. Pupils ask incredibly thoughtful questions on a whole range of subjects, and the feedback from their teachers has been gratitude to the University for 'bothering' to come out and talk to the pupils, and for giving them an insight into the kind of educational opportunities that are there for them too.

That in turn connects with another great local project - the Museum's plan to build a South Asian gallery in partnership with the British Museum. Scheduled to open in 2020, the gallery will be for permanent exhibitions, but with space for the first time for important travelling shows.

“We 'popularisers' are intermediaries between the academic world and the general public, and I suppose I have tried to bring some of those ideas to what I do at the University.”

I have filmed in the Indian subcontinent many times - we did a big series the Story of India in 2007, and I have written books on India and on Tamil culture - so I am very excited about this. We had the London launch in June and it is hoped the project will connect to the South Asian diaspora all over Greater Manchester and beyond.

The University already has very strong links with China - we have the biggest Chinese student body in the UK - but India with its huge population, growing economy, and fabulously rich and diverse culture, is another area where the University's outreach will grow in the next few years. The South Asian Gallery, the first in the north, will be a powerful and very visible symbol.

And future aspirations? Well I am still a full-time filmmaker; so my ambitions always have to be realistic. More outreach I hope, with school events next year and plans to link up with Oldham Coliseum and its forthcoming cultural projects. But, most importantly, to carry on talking to schoolchildren - they are the future and seeing that they will get access to a creative education is our hope for a fairer society.

And, lastly, the University itself - a great institution, regionally and nationally - is coming up to its 200th anniversary in 2024. That is not far off now! Its role in the community over that time, from the days of the Mechanics' Institute and Owens College, goes far beyond what is actually taught in the lecture room. It has been, and is, one of the pillars of a humane society. I am looking forward to the celebrations.

Find out about courses and research in history at The University of Manchester.