The history craze


PURPLE PATCH: The history craze —Margaret MacMillan

History, and not necessarily the sort that professional historians are doing, is widely popular these days, even in North America, where we have tended to look toward the future rather than the past. It can be partly explained by market forces. People are better educated and, particularly in the mature economies, have more leisure time and are retiring from work earlier. Not everyone wants to retire to a compound in the sun and ride adult tricycles for amusement. History can be helpful in making sense of the world we live in. It can also be fascinating, even fun. How can even the best novelist or playwright invent someone like Augustus Caesar or Catherine the Great, Galileo or Florence Nightingale? How can screenwriters create better action stories or human dramas than exist, thousand upon thousand, throughout the many centuries of recorded history? There is a thirst out there both for knowledge and to be entertained, and the market has responded with enthusiasm.

Museums and art galleries mount huge shows around historical characters like Peter the Great or on specific periods in history. Around the world, new museums open every year to commemorate moments, often grim ones, from the past. China has museums devoted to Japanese atrocities committed during World War II. Washington, Jerusalem and Montreal have Holocaust museums. Television has channels devoted entirely to history (often, it must be said, showing a past that seems to be made up largely of battles and the biographies of generals), historic sites are wilting under the tramp of tourists, history movies — think of all the recent ones on Queen Elizabeth I alone — are making money and the proliferation of popular histories shows that publishers have a good idea of where profits are to be made. Ken Burns’ documentaries, from the classic Civil War series to his one on World War II, are aired repeatedly. In Canada, Mark Starowicz’s ‘People’s History’ drew millions of viewers. The ‘Historica Minutes’ produced by the private foundation Historica, devoted to promoting Canadian history, are so popular among Canadian teenagers that they often do school projects where they make their own minutes. In the UK, David Starkey’s series on British monarchs have made him rich and as famous as the kings and queens themselves.

Many governments now have special departments devoted to commemorating the past — or, as it is often grandly designated, ‘heritage’. In Canada, the Department of Canadian Heritage exhorts Canadians to learn about Canada’s history, culture and land: “Heritage is our collective treasure, given to us and ours to bequeath to our children.” The term can encompass virtually anything: language, folk dances, recipes, antiques, paintings, customs, buildings. There are societies to celebrate antique cars or guns, baseball cards or matchboxes. In England, a young architect has founded the Chimneypot Preservation and Protection Society to save, as its mission decrees, ‘the Sentinels of Time’.

France, which has had a particularly active Ministry of Culture for decades, declared 1980 the Année du Patrimoine. Locals dressed up to re-enact the great moments of their history. In the following years, the number of heritage sites and monuments on the official list doubled. Scores of new museums — devoted to the wooden shoe, for example, or the chestnut forest — appeared. At the end of the decade, the government set up a special commission to oversee the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989.

In France there has been an explosion of re-enactments of the past, festivals, and special months, weeks and days. The possibilities, of course, are endless: the starts and ends of wars, the births and deaths of famous people, the first publication of a book or the first performance of an opera, a strike, a demonstration, a trial, a revolution, even natural disasters. And the activity is not all government inspired; much comes from local and volunteer initiatives. Châlons-sur-Marne recognised the centenary of the invention of canning. It is not just in France that communities want to revisit their past: Perth, Ontario, had a week of festivities in 1993 to celebrate the giant cheese that it sent to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. As enterprising local governments and businesses have realised, the past is also good for tourism.

The passion for the past is clearly about more than market forces or government policies. History responds to a variety of needs, from greater understanding of ourselves and our world to answers about what to do. For many human beings, an interest in the past starts with themselves. That is in part a result of biology. Like other creatures, humans have a beginning and an ending, and in between lies their story. It probably also has to do with the realisation that today the great majority of people live in a rapidly changing world where long-standing relationships that were once taken for granted — whether with places or with people such as family or friends — no longer exist for many. Part of the current fascination with preserving heritage comes from the fear that we are losing priceless and irreplaceable pieces of the past, whether they are dying languages or decaying buildings. Sometimes, the preservationists seem to want time itself to stand still. In New York, to take a current debate, should the tenements of the Lower East Side be replaced by modern, more salubrious buildings? Or should they be kept, as a spokeswoman for the Tenement Museum said, “to remind us of the experience lived and worked inside them?”

(This extract is taken from Dangerous Games by Margaret MacMillan)

Margaret MacMillan is an historian and professor at the University of Oxford. She is a leading expert on history and international relations

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