When I told a friend from university I was setting up a history podcast, her response, in her typically blunt but well-meaning fashion, was ‘having your own podcast seems to be today’s equivalent to having your own band’. And it’s true, with accessible tech and the age of the side hustle being upon us – there’s thousands, if not millions of podcast options for any listener to choose from.
I’m not one to let a numbers game put me off though (too much, I suffer self-doubt and wretchedness about not being good enough a lot more than I let on). There are two mantras in life I try my best to follow – ‘if you don’t ask you definitely don’t get’ and ‘don’t sit around waiting for opportunities to come to you, make your own’.
When I graduated from Cambridge University in 2010 armed with a classics degree (oh so useful!) and vague optimism, my dream was to work in media – magazine journalism or creating history or wildlife documentaries was the aim. Being incredibly tough industries to break into, that didn’t quite work out the way I planned – I ended up editing a business magazine rather than the women’s glossy I dreamed of, with occasional freelancing for publications like The Guardian, Horse & Hound, The New Statesman, CityMetric.com and The Art Newspaper.
Then I made the cross over to the dark side and worked in PR and communications, which caused a minor existential crisis about whether I was giving up on dreams and settling, and it was at this time, my history podcast Past Matters was born. I figured, no one may be hiring me to create history documentaries /work in the cultural sector any time soon, but I could just go and interview interesting people and historic sites off my own back in my spare time instead.
Past Matters podcast has a simple format – in each episode I ask a museum, historic house or gallery to tell me what the most underrated item in their collection is and why it is deserving of more attention. The idea came about because I am always struck by the plethora of objects different heritage organisations often have and how so many, with their interesting stories, just get passed by in favour of a bigger or flashier items, often not helped because the labelling can be sparse.
The interviewees range from the CEOs, to volunteers, via curators and education and outreach officers; I love hearing the different perspectives. For instance in season 1, the Holburne Museum’s education and outreach officer Louise Campion picked a Regency paper fan depicting an ‘Allegorical map of the track of youth to the land of knowledge’ because she had used it to inspire people suffering from mental health issues to create their own versions and confront their past in the art classes the museum runs as part of its Pathways to Wellbeing programme.
I’ve just completed season 2 of my podcast and I absolutely love getting to interview experts and learn more about historic objects, especially as the conversation often opens up discussion on more abstract topics or comparisons to modern times. For season 1 as well it was great fun to handle objects or go behind the scenes and wander around lovely buildings and collections (season 2 was recorded entirely over the phone because of the coronavirus outbreak).
Picking a favourite episode is hard, I’ve genuinely enjoyed recording all of the episodes I’ve done. But if I had to pick a favourite it probably would have to be season 1 episode 9, in which I chat with Alison Palmer, conservation and education assistant at Hever Castle, about three tapestries at this former home of Anne Boleyn.
There are many reasons it is my favourite. Firstly, I have always loved tapestries, and it was amazing to learn more facts about them: such as the English were not famed for making good tapestries, so they often came from abroad or from foreign weavers who set up shop in England; or that really skilled weavers would work from a pattern reflected in a mirror in front of them.
Secondly, I enjoyed discussing the allegories behind the second of the three tapestries – the marriage tapestry – with Alison. Ostensibly showing the marriage of Henry VIII’s sister Mary to the French king Louis XII, it is also meant to mirror a biblical scene – the marriage of Esther to the Persian king Xerxes, with the theme of political alliances linking the two. Despite the biblical link, the people depicted are all in contemporary Tudor dress, and being a rare instance of a tapestry where the people are life size, it was also amazing to enjoy a close view of their outfits (I love admiring fashion from all eras), as well as laugh at some of their expressions.
Thirdly – I love castles and it was just such a beautiful setting to record in, and if you listen carefully, you will hear creaking floorboards and cooing pigeons in this podcast episode. Recording there felt quite idyllic!
As I said though, it is hard to pick a favourite and there’s so many other interesting facts and people I’ve discovered along this podcasting journey. I hope to continue coming across many more, with plans to keep releasing a season every year, with some Christmas specials thrown in annually too. In my wildest dreams I would love this to one day be a professional source of income with vast audience numbers, but I’m also content if I know the few thousand listeners I do have are finding this side hustle of mine an interesting dose of culture in their day.
P.S. If you’ve enjoyed this post as part of our celebration of International Podcast Month, then why not check out other posts in the feature – like this one by Things In Jars podcast or this one by For The Love of History Podcast?