An increased interest in historical knowledge has grown significantly over the last few years. Public history such as museums and places with heritage interest are high on the list of recreational activities and for many people watching television drama and documentaries or reading a historical novel is the only way that they will gain any knowledge of the cultures and events of past times. Watching television is a popular pastime and it allows for the presentation of historical knowledge to the masses without the need for a deep academic understanding.
History presented through the television can be produced with a specific audience in mind; war stories for men, easy and fun history for school children; presented in a way that grabs the attention of its intended target. Visiting museums and seeing the artefacts can form our ideas of what the people of the past were like and how they lived their lives and although the items are not usually situated in the context from which they came we are still able to get some idea of the sense of the past. The fact that we are able to visually appreciate the past makes history considerable more accessible to the general public.
Through the dramatisation and reconstruction of history in various forms it allows for a more personal experience and as such more enjoyment is gained and historical knowledge is passed on. However, not everyone agrees that history can and should be learnt and enjoyed in this way. Many academic historians criticise the use of history outside of the academic facilities and believe that by presenting history in this way is glamorising it and it is not accurate enough to be regarded as true history.
Although there are many possibilities for the public to access understandable and enjoyable history, for the purposes of this essay it is intended to focus on history told through the media; such as television documentaries and re creations and museums. History presented through the media has gained popularity as a curiosity of our own individual past has increased, but according to many academic historians television history fails because it presents history with inaccuracies as it isn’t researched deep enough and the opportunity to be discussed by those viewing is omitted.
Television history says Stuart Jeffries is ‘one man’s narrative [which] goes uncontested’. 1 suggesting that it is not a true representation of history because it is the views of the shows presenters who cannot be challenged and questioned at the same time as it is being publicised, however, he suggests that because of the way that the programmes focus it ‘translates readily to television’2 and as such becomes an acceptable method to present history to the masses in an uncomplicated and enjoyable way.
It can link and connect the viewing public with their past and therefore it cannot be said that to use history as recreation is to misuse it. The reconstruction of events and past times can present historical information in different ways so that the viewers feel they have a connection to the history being told. Programmes such as ‘The 1900 House’3, which was viewed on television in 1999, featured a modern day family who over three months lived in the style of the Victorians.
The house, which from the outside would have been familiar to many viewers, had been restored back to its original state and for anyone interested in the Victorian era the programme appeared to give insight into the way a typical middle class family lived at the time. However, on reflection this re-creation may have portrayed the family as Victorians but it could not express what real Victorians thought about their circumstances.
The recreated family were after all only simulating Victorian life and would have been aware of the luxuries and technology of the outside world however this family had a ‘genuine passion for history [and] they were uninhibited in front of the cameras and able to express their views and emotions clearly’4 clearly indicating that history recreated in this way can benefit those viewers who can see beyond the technology that has produced it and realise that even if we cannot get into the minds of long gone people we can, to some extent, share their experiences, through re-creations and enactments.
It is clear from the number of historical programmes produced that this presentation of history is here to stay and it is certainly not an exploitation of history facts. It brings enjoyment and knowledge to people who are unable to access the many academic sources of history. Many academic historians criticise the teaching of history through television and film because they believe that the visual image ‘impose[s] too much of the maker’s cleverness … nd [they] do not leave enough opportunity … to analyse the visual material … presented’5. They believe that we need to see and interpret for ourselves and not just to have to listen to someone else’s interpretation. However, visual images give a ‘greater immediacy and emotional potency’6 as the intention is to attract the viewing public by creating a bond with the past, rather than give detailed and chronological information for the academics.
According to John Willis ‘the direct, personal style and sheer narrative strength of Starkey and Schama pull the viewer in so that he or she starts to live the history’7 and with the ability to get the viewer involved in the programme and feel and think beyond the visual images they are promoting history in a positive way and to be able to ‘live the history’ makes it much more believable.
Simon Schama believes that history on television is beneficial as it gives ‘gifts of freedom, empathy and the possibility of reconstituting community’8 and by that he means that television history creates a greater understanding of how people lived and by recognising that they were just like the viewers themselves and experiencing similar social and family situations gives the viewers a sense of owning or belonging to history and wanting to preserve it.
Schama’s presentation skills are challenged by Will Hutton who claims that ‘Schama’s method of telling history does not allow us to establish how events are grounded in economic and social movements’9 and to him is a fundamental flaw in the presentation of history through television. Hutton believes that Schama delivers history with too much of a personal view and that ‘instances are connected not by some underpinning theory or logic, but by Schama’s magic; they are made coherent only by his narrative’10 but this is exactly how the viewers need it to be; clear and narrated in a style that makes it understandable and enjoyable.
Schama’s history documentaries are highly popular and the viewers are able to relate to the historical details and enjoy the knowledge unlike an academic textbook which is written purely for academics to read and understand; they keep the history of the common person away from them by the language used. The presentation of history on television with real but knowledgeable presenters, speaking in an understandable language, supported by visual images ensures that every person has access to and enjoys learning about the past.
Even though many historians feel that history is mistreated by the media it is evident that this is not a universal opinion. Visits to museums are a popular leisure activity and Ludmilla Jordanova suggests that ‘museums are an increasingly important subject for those who want to understand attitudes of the past’11 and as such need to be accepted as a valuable use of historical information. However, she argues that ‘displays… re concerned with the past without necessarily declaring themselves to be offering instruction in history’12 and this appears to suggest that although museums are a vital part of the heritage industry and may contribute towards historical knowledge this is not their sole intended reason for functioning. Museums do not necessarily have to be educational in the formal sense as people will glean whatever information they want.
Many museums concentrate on themes or topics; Museum of Childhood, V & A Museum, Imperial War Museum and because the artefacts are displayed out of context to their place of origin and social setting, the historical value according to academic historians is lost or misleading and it just becomes a collection of irrelevant items. The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green13 may appear to be just a collection of children’s artefacts but it offers more historical information than at first appears.
The collection gives insight into the way children lived in the past. Much of the research carried out by academic historians is through the analysis of written evidence from an adult perspective. Although the material evidence displayed in museums may not be as appreciated as reliable as written data, it cannot be dismissed as worthless because it shows vital evidence of adult attitudes towards children and how children themselves experienced life.
Because of the toys and books they have played with and the clothes they wore we are able to gain a significant amount of knowledge about children from the past and through comparison are able to recognise social and economic changes in society. The knowledge gained from visual objects can be regarded as useful as textual evidence and therefore it could be argued that it is not wrong to use history as recreation.
Although academic historians may argue that presenting history as a source of entertainment is not the way that history should learnt, it is clear that a great deal of satisfaction and knowledge is gained from visiting museums, particularly when it is something that is of personal interest; such as children, the wars, local history museums. To go back to Jordanova’s suggestion that museums do not offer ‘instruction in history’14 is an understatement as museums are a great source of historical knowledge.
It may not be in the same form as in academic institutions but it cannot be said that it is a misuse of history as the information is displayed is such a way that the average person will usually enjoy, absorb and remember it. Museums aim to make history accessible and to provide learning, inspiration and pleasure for everyone. Although television history simplifies and sometimes glamorises events from our past it is clearly a popular way for many people to access historical knowledge without studying it from a theoretical perspective.
Whilst academic historians may object to the way television history is presented because they believe it to contain inaccuracies they cannot deny that public interest has perhaps kept history alive. However the portrayal of history on television according to academic historians ‘is undermining university study by encouraging students to believe that the subject is an exercise in storytelling rather than a rigorous intellectual discipline’15 says Will Woodward and this suggests that many new history students are distracted by the fascination of history without realising the depth of theory and level of analysis needed to study history.
Historians are themselves divided on whether or not history as a recreational pursuit is a misuse and as reported by Woodward some believe that history on television is better than the education received through schools. Academics such as ‘Daniel Power, lecturer in medieval history at Sheffield, said: “TV history gives them a better sense of … history than A-levels. “’16 suggesting that television history is beneficial because it is more accessible and that history taught in schools is too traditional to be njoyable. It is evident that if something is enjoyable it will be remembered and may be why public history is so successful. To use history as recreation it to misuse it suggests that history should only be accessible through the academic facilities but it is clear from the popularity of television programmes, museums and other areas of public history that the public disagree.
History as recreation is a useful and effective medium for informing the public on events and cultures of the past which might otherwise be inaccessible to them. The academics may disagree that recreational history is useful and believe that it has trivialised and glamorised it and it may sometimes appear that way but this is what the viewing public desire. Misuse or not history is still being experienced and shared in an enjoyable and accessible way.