Monthly Archives: January 2015

I need a hero?

To paraphrase the popular saying, hindsight is a prick. I should have learned by now to stop making promises about future posts, especially in 2015, a year which is particularly well served in terms of significant anniversaries and commemorations, and as such a never ending stream of controversies and talking points. This week’s post was meant to be a continuation of a topic started in my last post, namely how historians can stimulate the public’s interest in history, but it isn’t. Instead, that post has the honour of joining the ever expanding list of posts I like to think of as my rainy day fund, and this week I’m going to talk about a not at all controversial topic, namely how the debate surrounding the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death debate which has arisen regarding Churchill’s legacy illustrates the wider issue hero worship poses to the study of history.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or on the fifth moon of Jupiter, you’ll be aware that there’s been a fair bit of controversy surrounding the commemoration of Winston Churchill’s death fifty years ago. Depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall on, Churchill was either the greatest Prime Minister who ever lived; or a misogynistic, racist charlatan who’s legacy has been overstated to a ludicrous degree. To be honest, this post isn’t really going to talk much about Churchill’s legacy, partly due to the fact that I don’t feel I’ve studied his life in enough detail to make what I would consider a well-rounded and balanced assessment, but mainly because I’m using it as an example to skewer the received wisdom that argues Britain doesn’t have the same cult of hero worship that is found in other countries.

Yes, as a nation we have plenty of sacred cows, the only difference is that that unlike the countries we usually associate with hero worship (the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, you get the idea) ours tend to graze in fields on both sides of the political … farm. Whilst commentators on the left love to mock the almost saint-like reverence papers such as The Daily Mail have for figures such as Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, they’re quick to fly off the handle when anyone dares to suggest that Tony Benn might not have been the saint they believe him to be.

Anyway, I can’t help but feel that I’m losing sight of my original question: why is hero worship so detrimental to the study of history? The first and most obvious point is that designating certain historical figures as beyond criticism, reproach or mockery, ignores the fact that history as a discipline it is an ongoing, and probably never ending, debate.

The great thing about history is that there is no objectively “correct” interpretation of history. Yes, there are certain sources of data and information which are more objective than others, but beyond this there is no “right” answer to the question “was Churchill a great Prime Minister?”, as the answer varies according to what you consider the definition of “great” to be. Debate is the lifeblood of history, and for anyone on the left or the right to try and quash this by creating hero cults around the people and movements they personally find inspiring or important is inexcusable.

Secondly, as I’ve argued in a previous post trying to present any historical figure as an infallible hero in order to try and protect their legacy can actually be counter-productive. At the heart of all good history is a sense of empathy. If our audience identifies with, or at the very least has an understanding of, the people we’re trying to talk to them about, they’re more likely to want to learn more about them, because they see them as people rather than abstract historical concepts; and the best way to generate empathy is to present your subject warts and all. Our flaws are what makes us human, and for somebody to reach greatness after overcoming their shortcomings, or even to be great in spite of them, is a far more resonant and insightful story than one about somebody who starts off perfect and carries on being perfectly perfect forever more.

A good example of this is The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. As a comprehensive list of his achievements the book is unparalleled, but as a candid insight and critical, personal reflection on his life it’s severely lacking. Whilst reading the book, it became apparent pretty early on that I’d learn nothing from it that I couldn’t have done from Wikipedia or a five minute Google search, and as such I found my interest in the book dwindled to the point where I almost entirely lost interest.

Compare this to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and you immediately see the difference between an autobiography which is a glorified list, and an autobiography which is an honest reflection on the author’s life. To put it simply, Malcolm X admits that he wasn’t perfect. He talks openly about his time with the Nation of Islam, and he discusses how his belief in black supremacy and black supremacy led him to do things that, with hindsight, he regretted.

However, he doesn’t do this as a means of excusing his past mistakes, but rather he uses these discussions to illustrate how his past mistakes influenced him in his later life, and also as a means to dissuade others from following the same path he did. Because he was willing to talk openly about his past mistakes, rather than glossing over them or omitting them, I found it easier to empathise with Malcolm X as a person, and as such began to understand why he acted as he did and believed what he did, even if I felt his explanation didn’t justify his actions or beliefs.

However, my main issue with hero worship is that it misses what I feel to be the heart of history: the experience of everyday people. The other day I was reading Studs Terkel’s Working (which you should all read by the way) and found a quote which illustrated this point perfectly. So, on that note I’ll conclude, and hand you over to Bill Talcott:

“The problem with history is that it’s written about college professors about a lot of great men. That’s not what history is. History’s a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life for their kids”.


In Bruges, and historians’ expectations

I can’t remember exactly when it was, but about two months ago I came to the sudden realisation that there were loads of films I needed to see. It was a jolting experience, kind of like when Neo pops the red pill in his mouth in The Matrix and wakes up in that tank of weird goo with the tube in his back, except slightly more profound. To stretch an already tortured metaphor even further, like Neo I decided to act on my new found awareness, i.e. watch some of them, and last week I decided to watch In Bruges.

If you haven’t seen In Bruges yet, go and watch it. Now. It’s hard to sum up exactly what sort of film In Bruges is without doing it a massive disservice, but it’s essentially a dark-comedy/action film about two assassins (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) who are sent by their boss (Ralph Fiennes) to (you guessed it) Bruges, after a hit goes terribly wrong. Aside from its dark sense of humour and three amazing performances by Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes, what I loved about In Bruges as a historian are the scenes in the early stages of the film where an enthusiastic Gleeson drags an increasingly bored Farrell around church after church, and museum after museum.

After all, it’s an experience we can all relate to. If we aren’t the person being forced to visit the Hat Museum or the Lawnmower Museum, we’re the ones doing the forcing. Usually, at some point in the argument, we’ll resort to the tried and tested argument: “aren’t you interested in learning more about your/another country’s culture and history?” The wording might be different, but the core message is the same: not being interested in history is a bad thing, and you should hang your head in shame.

As a historian, I encounter this attitude a lot, and to be honest I’ve probably been guilty of it myself at times. But when you stop and think about it, is it necessarily right to expect everyone to be interested in history? One of the guest speakers during my MA course made a pretty good point when he argued that we don’t expect people to be interested in or have a detailed knowledge physics, biology or maths, even though all of those things are (in the long run) probably more important than history.

So why do we focus on history? I think it’s partly due to two factors, the first of which is the point I made in my post about The Simpsons that people see history as a means of achieving a sense of national unity; and the second is the old truism that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That said, I have no definite answer. What I have come to believe, however, is that whilst historians should always try and engage people with history, at the same time we should stop expecting people to be interested in history; as whilst I understand some of the motivations behind it, by expecting people to be interested in history, you run the risk of trying to force them to be interested, and that is never a healthy thing.

It seems obvious point, but it’s incredibly easy to overlook just how much of difference wanting to go to a museum, gallery or heritage site makes to a visitor’s experience. People who go to a museum because they want to go there will usually have a far more engaging and intellectually stimulating experience than someone who has gone under duress. The fact that they are already invested in the history of the site means they are far more open to learning from it on a personal and factual level; or, to put it more simply, the fact they want to learn means they will learn.

Of course, this isn’t to say that people who go to a museum because they have to will necessarily get nothing out of the experience. Speaking purely from my own experience, I can think of a few places I’ve visited to having not really wanted to, but which have turned out to be informative, and sometimes even interesting, experiences. Nonetheless, someone who is forced to go to a museum or heritage site will not have the same experience as someone who goes there out to their own interest, as they are not in the same emotional state. Even if they do enjoy their visit, at best their reaction will be more along the lines of “that was surprisingly good” than “that changed me as a person”. It’s only a positive experience in the sense that it wasn’t a negative one, and whilst this is obviously better than if they vowed never to step foot in a museum again, the idea that somebody would enjoy a museum only because it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be isn’t exactly a heartening one.

However, that isn’t the real problem. The real issue is that forcing people to be interested in history risks turning people who aren’t interested in studying history into people who actively dislike it. I don’t feel it’s a point that needs much further elaboration, but think about how many people you know were put off reading books by English class, and it’s the same with history. The fact is that forcing people to study and engage with history will not make their appreciation for it grow. At best, they will accept they have to and get on with it, and at worst they’ll hate it, and start to question its uses and worth as a discipline.

History is important, of course it is, and as historians it’s our job to convince as many people as possible that studying history and visiting heritage sites are worthwhile and interesting experiences.  But at the same time we should not necessarily expect people to be interested in it, and we should definitely not force people to be. Instead, we should focus on presenting history in a way that makes people want to study it further, an issue which I’ll discuss in the next post.

Keeping the ‘story’ in ‘history’

As we march boldly onward into 2015 and the second year of the centenary of World War One, I thought it only fitting to start reading some more books about the topic, starting with Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, an unflinching polemic about the injustices of military tribunals during the aforementioned conflict. Truth be told, my decision to read Paths of Glory was motivated less by historical considerations and more by the fact that I wanted to see whether the film (which I watched about a month ago) was an accurate adaptation, and call me a heretic but I think the film might have been a bit better. Whilst the film may have strayed slightly from the book plot wise, it stayed true to its grim and downbeat tone; it fleshed out the characters to make them more like actual people and less like plot devices; and any added or altered scenes actually managed to enhance its overall message i.e. military justice is often anything but.

Anyway, whilst as I’m sure you’d all love to hear my opinions on movie adaptations of famous books I’ve gone slightly off-track. Whilst reading Paths of Glory, I began to think about the importance of narrative in the study of history, a topic which seems pretty uncontroversial to a member of the general public, but which can cause huge debate amongst academic historians, some of whom see narrative history as a black mark against their discipline.

That last claim may sound hyperbolic, but it’s true nonetheless. There are historians who would argue narrative history is bad history. Their argument is based on two assumptions: firstly, that historians should be objective, and secondly that all narratives are unreliable, as they are simply one person’s interpretation of what happened. Therefore, for a historian to incorporate narrative into their analysis is to produce a subjective interpretation rather than an objective account of what actually happened, and that as such all historical accounts should solely be an analysis of quantifiable data such as GDP figures or census records.

That is something of a simplification, but you get the drift. Whilst I can see why some historians would argue against narrative history, at the same time I entirely disagree with them. Ignoring the fact that it’s impossible to arrive at anything close to resembling an “objective account of history”, to argue against narrative history is to essentially argue against human nature. After all, narrative is how we make sense of our daily lives. When someone asks us how we’ve been, we don’t just tell them about things which can be considered “objectively true”. Hell, most of the time we don’t even tell it in chronological order. We tell our story it in a way which makes thematic sense.

To use a hypothetical example, imagine you’re talking to someone who’s just got a new job which they’re really excited about. Chances are that they’ll frame the job offer as a logical end point, rather than as a random occurrence: for example, they’ll talk at length about how the job is a reward for their effort at university or in a previous job, but not particularly dwell on the dozens of similar jobs they applied for but which they failed to get. That isn’t a criticism of anyone who’s done that by the way. It’s merely an example of how we all narrativise our lives on a daily basis, in order to demonstrate both the ridiculousness of expecting a historian to stop narrativising the past; and the fact that reading an un-narrativised account of the past would be an experience which would be at the very least dry, if not noticeably jarring.

More than this, however, historians who would see the study of history reduced simply to an analysis of statistics and data ignore the fact that statistics are meaningless without context. On their own, statistics are numbers, and nothing more. They can’t tell us what the past was like in anything but the most basic sense, and as such can never hope to teach us anything meaningful about it. By framing them within a narrative context, however, these numbers are given meaning, both in the sense that they can be used to reinforce whatever point the narrative is trying to make and in the fact that the narrative makes the numbers seem more tangible, as they become part of a story about a real past experienced by real people.

Indeed, the real importance of narrative history is the fact that some of the most important issues in history cannot be measured. How can a statistical study convey the nature of social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution? Or the dehumanising barbarity of slavery? How can data ever communicate the fear and paranoia of living in a totalitarian regime? Or the joy when that regime finally falls? The simply answer is that they can’t. These are the elements of history which are impossible to quantify but which are vital to our understanding of the past. Not only do they give statistics context, they create a connection between the audience and the people and events they are reading about, which in turn gives the narrative a level of meaning no amount of data could ever create.

Admittedly, it can be argued that, as we can never truly understand what it was like to live in the past, all historical narratives will be somewhat anachronistic, and that is a fair point. However, as historians we cannot afford to reduce history to statistical analysis. To do so would not only make the study of history incredibly dull, but it would strip our discipline of its ability to educate people in a way which is also emotionally resonant.

Why you should visit … The Clink.

Looking back over the past year, it’s fair to say that 2014 was a pretty good year for anyone interested in history. As well as a slew of quality historical dramas (with Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick standing out as particularly brilliant), there were documentaries to satisfy pretty much all tastes, ranging from the history of science fiction to the history of dancing. Even more hearteningly, the programming and events produced as part of the World War One centenary commemorations were nuanced and thoughtful pieces which considered both the immediate and the wider effects of the conflict, and which managed to respect the lives that were lost without tipping over into kow-towing reverence, even if there were some more controversial moments.

If this were a more organised blog, I’d have put together a top five/ten/million things of the past year, and a corresponding bottom five/ten/you get the point list to go with it. But I haven’t. Instead, this post is going to be a review of a museum that I think all you culture vultures and history… hyenas would enjoy, and as you’ve probably guessed from the title that place is The Clink prison museum in Southwark.

Before I begin, a little background is probably necessary. The Clink prison was established in 1144, and is generally considered to be one of the first prisons in England. It was originally owned and controlled by the Bishop of Winchester who, from 1127, held jurisdiction over the “Liberty of the Bishop of Westminster”, otherwise known simply as the “Liberty of the Clink”. As such, the Clink housed a variety of inmates, from prostitutes to debtors, from thieves and murderers to heretics and dissidents, and remained an active prison until c.1780.

Already, you may have surmised one of the things I loved about The Clink is that it showed how its history relates to a variety of other important historical themes and developments, such as religious and political reform, the changing perceptions of public and personal morality and the role of women in society. Indeed, if it weren’t for the décor at times it’s easy to forget that The Clink is a prison museum, and I mean that in a good way.

It would have been very easy for The Clink to have gone for the “gross out factor”, and simply created an eerie atmosphere in order to try and convey to visitors how unpleasant and gruesome life was in a medieval/early modern prison. However, whilst the museum is incredibly effective in creating a genuinely unnerving atmosphere, the fact that The Clink’s exhibits explore how its prisoners were representative of wider themes and issues, rather than focusing just on the conditions of their incarceration, means that The Clink is less a prison museum and more a microcosm of six hundred years of English cultural, social and political history.

Indeed, another aspect of The Clink that I found particularly interesting was the fact that there was a heavy emphasis on the personal stories of the men and women who were imprisoned there. Throughout the museum you can read about the lives of a variety of inmates, including a woman who was wrongfully imprisoned for prostitution; a dissenting priest; and a nobleman called Henry Broncker, also known as ‘The Ratman’. In and of themselves, these stories serve as a case study of a particular issue or theme. However, when considered as a whole they provide an interesting study of how both the systems and concepts of justice have developed over time in England and Britain, and as such The Clink is a shining example of how ‘bottom up’ history can often be far more illuminating than the ‘top down’, grand narratives of days past.

Last, but by no means least, I like the fact that The Clink has interactive exhibits. This is a purely personal preference, and I can understand why people feel that interactive exhibits are a gimmick. I, however, feel that being able to pick up a set of iron shackles, chains or a sword, adds something to a museum’s atmosphere and makes it a more interesting experience if nothing else, and for that reason alone I feel it’s something that The Clink should be praised for.

That said, The Clink does have some flaws. Whilst overall the museum does a very good job in framing the history of The Clink in a wider context, for me the ‘Torture Room’ left something to be desired. On the one hand, it does attempt to address the moral and ethical issues associated with torture. On one of the walls there is a panel which presents the visitor with five scenarios, and asks them in which situations they feel the use of torture would be justified.

However, the problem for me is that all of the five examples came from, at the very latest, the early modern period. To a certain extent I can understand why. Since the prison was closed in 1780, to include more modern examples could be considered anachronistic. However, I believe the fact that the examples are chosen from historical periods so remote from our own means that the visitor sees the scenarios as purely hypothetical and as such see torture as an abstract concept rather than a historical, and indeed present, reality.

This problem is made worse by the way in which the various torture devices are displayed. Whilst the information panels do attempt to frame them in a wider context, for the most part they serve only to make the visitor wince and go “ouch”, rather than reflect on the cultural and social meaning of these devices, and on the issues surrounding corporal punishment, which further undermines the themes it is trying to make the visitor consider, and the message it is trying to convey.

I also would have liked there to have been a greater focus on how the history of The Clink links into current debates regarding the penal system. Whilst the museum does have a few panels about nineteenth century prison reform, and particularly how the horrors of The Clink convinced many people that prison reform was long overdue, it would have been nice to have seen The Clink do like The Workhouse, Southwell did, and use the history of The Clink to challenge our current perceptions of concepts such as justice, and attitudes towards questions such as how criminals should be punished, and indeed what constitutes a crime.

In summary, The Clink is definitely worth a visit. If the last few paragraphs seem overly negative, it’s simply because they didn’t match the standards set by the rest of the museum, and overall The Clink stands as an example of how the history one building can be used as a means to present a panorama of historical topics.