Daniel Snowman, senior research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), introduces a further series of public seminars about the ways we use, and abuse, the past.
This series at the IHR takes off from an extraordinary (and potentially dangerous) paradox. On the one hand, ‘history’ seems to be more popular than ever: in schools and universities, on film, TV and the internet, in sales of historical biographies, visitor numbers to heritage sites, the growth of family history, re-enactment societies and the like.
Yet we also live in an aggressively here-and-now culture in which many people seem to lack any real understanding of how the present is linked to all that has preceded it. Thus, major current issues are frequently discussed with little sense of their longer-term historical roots: migration policy, for example, or continued British membership of the EU or Russian involvement in Ukraine. As Jo Guldi and David Armitage argued in their History Manifesto published in 2014, it is vital to understand the past if we are to have any chance of planning sensibly for the future.
This was the thinking that led to a series of six public seminars, entitled ‘History now and then’, held at the IHR over the course of 2015–16. The seminars attracted large audiences who came to hear panels of top historians discussing such issues as the widespread popular appeal of historical ‘heritage’, the relationship between art and history, the ways aspects of the past become mythologised and much else.
As the series progressed, month by month from October to March, it became increasingly obvious that ‘history’ was a topic capable of raising widespread interest within and beyond the walls of academe. But what did ‘history’ mean to those who so avidly consumed it? Nostalgia to some perhaps (especially among older aficionados). And perhaps it also offered elements of consolation, affirmation, vindication. And for some, a sense of identity: think of the popularity of family history, for example, and of histories touching on gender, ethnicity or nationhood.
Any debate about the past could also arouse powerful passions. Did the British empire help educate millions around the world of the benefits of democracy or was it primarily a form of ruthless (and racist) commercial exploitation? How should we regard – and label – the mass murder of Armenian Turks a century ago, or the evacuation of Arabs from Palestine in 1947/8? Did Lincoln fight the Civil War in order to free the slaves or just to prevent his nation from falling apart?
One way or another, the whole subject – the ways we regard (and sometimes disregard) the past – clearly ‘hit the spot’ with a wide and varied audience, and it was decided to run a second series during the following academic year, 2016–17.
Rhodes statue and beyond
The new series is, if anything, even more adventurous in its reach than the first. Panellists include many of our best known historians and the series begins with the issues raised by the controversy over the Rhodes statue at Oriel College, Oxford.
Should memorials to figures of whom we might now disapprove be removed, or is this false to history? What about the creation of prominent new memorials to people from the past whom we have only now come to admire (Mary Seacole, for example, whose recently erected statue stands at St Thomas’ Hospital, directly across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament)? Is it appropriate for people today to apologise for supposed wrongs committed by their ancestors in the distant past? More generally, how far should history be re-written in accordance with current values?
History and change
The second seminar focuses on the nature and causes of historical change. Why does so much history tend to concentrate on great discontinuities in the past, and how far have major changes been brought about by individual leaders? From there, we move on to examine the proper political, geographical and temporal focus of history.
The proper focus of history
Many historians choose to concentrate on the nation state, though some have preferred to focus on the locality – or maybe the wider world. And should ‘history’ have a short, precisely defined temporal focus, or a longer durée?
Lessons from the past
A month later (seminar four), the spotlight falls on the question of how far history can be said to repeat itself and, more generally, what kind of ‘lessons’ (if any) we can learn from the past. What about the ‘ifs’ of history? Could the past have been different if, for example, Wellington had lost the Battle of Waterloo or there had been no Hitler?
History and religion(s)
In the fifth seminar, we examine the historical role of religion. Has religion, with its sometimes charismatic leaders and powerful ideals, provided a fundamental motivating force in history – in the Crusades, for example, or the Thirty Years’ War or British civil war? Or has it primarily reflected deeper socioeconomic trends and priorities?
The future of the past
In the sixth and final seminar, we attempt to look at ‘the future of the past’ as we ask our panellists to travel forwards through time and imagine themselves looking back, half a century hence, on those of us here and now. What will future historians consider we have over-emphasised or under-emphasised as they examine the first decade or two of the new millennium and come to judge the ways you and I currently try to look back at earlier times? What impact will new digital technologies have on how the past is regarded? More generally, what new historiographical ‘turn’ should we be anticipating? Maybe the IHR could re-run this series of seminars a decade or two hence so we can all find out!
Meanwhile, in the words of IHR director Lawrence Goldman: ‘We hope you’ll join us for monthly events that will force us to re-examine the relationship of past and present. Our audience can expect original and provocative responses from some of the finest writers and debaters on the nature of history.’
Daniel Snowman is a social and cultural historian. For many years, he worked at the BBC where he was responsible for a wide variety of radio series on cultural and historical topics, and since 2004 he has held a senior research fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research. Recent books include a study of the cultural impact of the ‘Hitler Emigrés’ and a collection of critical essays on the life and work of many of today’s leading historians. His 2009 book The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera, has been published throughout the English-speaking world and is now available in Italian, Spanish and Chinese and is currently planned to appear in a number of other languages.
More information on History Now and Then
Rhodes statue and beyond (5 October 2016). Martin Daunton, Margot Finn, Jinty Nelson and David Starkey, will consider the pros and cons of ‘apology’. Have some aspects of history become unacceptable even to discuss?
History and change (2 November 2016). Margaret MacMillan, Rana Mitter, Gareth Stedman Jones and Andrew Roberts, will reflect on the role of ‘great men’ and ‘great women’ in driving historical change.
The proper focus of history (7 December 2016). Maxine Berg, Jerry Brotton, Richard Drayton, Chris and Wickham, will address: Should history focus on the nation? A locality? The wider world? Or should it focus on ‘things’ instead? Should it have a short, precisely defined temporal focus or a longer Durée?.
Lessons from the past (11 January 2017). Jeremy Black, Taylor Downing, Ian Mortimer and Lucy Riall, will explore the idea of counterfactual history: could the past have been different?
History and religion(s) (8 February 2017). Felicity Heal, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Miri Rubin and Brian Young, will ask whether it has been a fundamental motivating force or a reflection of deeper socioeconomic trends and priorities.
The future of the past (8 March 2017). Caroline Barron, Anne Curry, Charlotte Roueché and Jane Winters, will discuss the influence of ‘big history’ and ‘big data’ and predict how the writing of history will change in the digital age.
All talks begin at 6:00 pm and last for approximately 90 minutes, followed by a reception.
Location: Wolfson Conference Suite, Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London
Tickets: Advance registration is required. Tickets are £5 per session or £25 for all six sessions and can be purchased online at: email@example.com