Monthly Archives: May 2015

The politics of memory

Unless you’ve been living in a hermetically sealed room for the past few weeks, you’ll know that last Friday marked the 70th Anniversary of VE Day. Truth be told, I didn’t get to see much of the coverage of the commemoration parade itself, but from what I did manage to see of it, it seemed pretty well done, although I do empathise with those who argued it sometimes crossed the line into outright jingoism.

Anyway, whilst I was reflecting on the VE Day commemorations that I began to think about a related issue, but one which is rarely discussed outside academic circles: why do we choose to remember and commemorate certain events, but entirely neglect to commemorate others? To me, the question of what we choose to, if not forget, gloss over and ignore is just as important an issue of what and how we do choose to remember and commemorate, as more often than not, the former can reveal far more about a nation’s psyche and culture than the latter.

Sticking with the general World War Two theme, the Depression of the 1930s is a particularly pertinent example of this issue, as it’s a topic which is rarely discussed in its own right when it really deserves to be. Yes, we hear a lot about the Depression in the context of World War Two, and the Depression is frequently used by the media as a stick with which to measure our own economic situation. But beyond this? Nothing, and as I said mere sentences ago there really should be.

After all, the Depression was arguably one of the most devastating events of the twentieth century, not just in the sense that it acted as a precursor to World War Two, but devastating in the sense of the social and economic gulf it created between those areas whose economy relied on heavy industries. including the North of England, Scotland and Wales; and regions such as the south east, whose economy was geared towards light industries, the last of which were better equipped to react to the economic downturn. Furthermore, the Depression was arguably the death knell for classic liberal economics, and as such the event which triggered the formation of the post-war welfare state, and the fact it is not more widely discussed in popular history circles is rather bemusing.

Quite why this is, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because any programme about the Depression would have to address the uncomfortable fact that the economic disparities the Depression caused between the south-east and other regions of the United Kingdom were never really tackled, and as such could lead to calls for action to be taken in the present; or it could simply be that the Depression is generally classified as ‘economic history’, and the Beeb and other television networks believe the general public consider economic history too dull and dry to watch any programmes about it. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there is much, much more to be said about, and that we can learn from, the history of the Depression, and the longer we continue to ignore it the worse off we will be as a nation.

However, for me the most fascinating example of this issue is the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. On the face of it, the abolition of the slave trade should be one of the events which define any popular narrative of British history. Not only is it one of the few times in history where Britain served as a definitive force for good in the world, it is possibly the only time where it enacted positive change despite the fact it was acting against its own interests.

By this measure, the abolition of slavery is an event which should be commemorated annually. So why isn’t it? It may have something to do with the fact that to do so would draw attention to the fact that more people are currently enslaved than at any other point in human history, and serve to highlight the fact that, for all its good intentions, in reality Britain never managed to put an end to the slave trade.

However, I think the answer lies in the fact that any commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade would also have to discuss the fact that, whilst Britain did eventually try and put an end to the slave trade, in the two hundred years before its abolition British merchants made a pretty handsome profit from trading in the misery and exploitation of others. Whilst Britain may have been the first nation to outlaw the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it was also the one which was responsible for developing and expanding it in the first place.

Furthermore, whilst the slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery itself remained legal in British colonies until 1833; and even when slavery was later abolished the slaves themselves received no compensation or reparations whatsoever. As such, when looked at in its proper historical context, the abolition of the slave trade becomes more morally ambiguous, and it is this ambiguity which explains why it doesn’t occupy a more prominent role in our national consciousness.

These are just two examples, and certainly Britain is not unique in glossing over certain historical events. As Adam Hoschschild argues in his superlative King Leopold’s Ghost, there is rarely any public discussion in Belgium about the slave state established in the Congo by King Leopold II; and in France, the issue of Nazi collaboration is still a highly sensitive, if not taboo, topic.

However, it is still an issue we need to address, as whilst I would argue Britain is, overall, pretty good at having open and honest discussions about our past, in some areas we are still unwilling to do so. Why this is the case, I’m not sure, but I think it is largely due to the two issues I raised in the cases of both the Depression and the abolition of the slave trade, namely that certain topics can act as an uncomfortable mirror to contemporary society, or that by commemorating these events, we are often forced to deal with the more morally ambiguous elements of our past.

Whatever the reasons, to me what this issue highlights most is the importance of community focused history. Any commemorative events aimed at a national audience and planned at a national level will, by their very nature, be selective, both in the events it chooses to focus on, and the perspectives it chooses to incorporate, as they have to convey a narrative which will appeal to a broad audience, leading to one which prioritises simplicity over historical nuance.

Community focused history, however, doesn’t have to worry about these issues, and as such is free to produce historical accounts which focus on niche topics, and incorporate voices and perspectives which are ignored by national historical narratives. Yes, local history can be rather myopic, but at the same time it keeps alive events and issues that would have otherwise been forgotten, and if used correctly, these local accounts can be woven together to form a narrative which presents an issue in its full historical context.

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The virtue of industry

As a former student, I’ve watched my fair share of crap day time television. Whether it’s Doctors, A Home in the Country, or any of the myriad customer advocacy shows featuring Dom Littlewood, you name it, at some point during my university years I’ve probably watched it. Mainly I watched these shows as a means of procrastination, pure and simple: trust me when I say that when you have to read a forty page article about farming in the fourteenth century, literally anything else is a more appealing prospect. At the same time, however, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find some of them, if not good, at the very least interesting, and one show which sticks out in that regard is Flog It!

Overall, the show isn’t exactly amazing: once you’ve watched three or four episodes, you’ve essentially watched them all. What was interesting about the show, however, were the segments where presenter Paul Martin visited a site of local interest. Often these would be a stately home or castle, or another equally extravagant location, but fairly often Martin would visit a museum which focused on the history of a local craft, trade or industry. I mention this because a few weeks ago an episode of Flog It! came on, and whilst watching it I began to ponder the question of what makes a good local industry museum.

Generally speaking, local trade museum’s don’t have it easy. Over the years, they have had to fend off criticism not just from academic circles, but also from people who would argue that (for the sake of argument) converting an old cotton mill into a cotton mill museum is a waste of resources, as it takes up land and space which could be used to house businesses which would help the local economy grow.

I’ll return to the first point in a minute, but my response to the second is pretty straight forward: local trade museums do help expand the economy. Not only do they bring in tourists, but they create jobs both directly and indirectly: directly in the sense that you need staff to run the building on a day to day basis; and indirectly in the sense that, at the very least, you’ll need tradesmen to carry out any maintenance or repair work, to say nothing of issues such as catering or stocking the museum shop.

Back to my main point, however: what makes a good local trade museum? The first thing to say is that a good craft museum should emphasise live demonstrations and living history. On a purely aesthetic level, these displays can provide an interesting, and in some cases therapeutic, experience, and whilst that might just be my own personal opinion, I’d argue the popularity of open restaurants show a lot of people enjoy watching craftsman in action.

More than this, however, live demonstrations are one of the best explanatory tools available to museums, especially if the craft in question uses machinery. Not only do live demonstrations show visitors how a product was made in an easy to understand fashion, they also give them an insight into the lives of the people who worked in that industry. No information panel or diagram can ever truly impress on a visitor how it must have felt to use a nineteenth century power loom: live demonstrations can. A live demonstration of a power loom allows visitors to get an idea of the sheer size of the thing, the thunderous noise they generated, and the dangers they posed to inexperienced operatives, and whilst it may be an obvious point to make, it’s one which is easily overlooked.

Secondly, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph a good local trade museum focuses on the lives of workers, and not just the mechanics of their craft. To use my example from above, obviously a cotton mill museum would need to talk about how cotton was produced e.g. what type of machinery the workers used, how it worked, and how it changed over time; and craft museums should address wider economic issues relating to the trade, in this case issues such as where the cotton went, and what it was used for.

However, this information should form the context, and not the focus, of the experience. Having set the scene, a local trade museum should go on to explore what it was like to work in that industry on a day to day basis e.g. what the working conditions were like, how long a working day was, what the workers ate; and how their job affected their wider lives. For example, how did their working environment affect their health? Did working in a cotton mill affect their social status, and if so was it a positive or negative effect? How did working in a cotton mill affect the family structure? Not only are these important questions, more to the point they are issues which visitors can directly relate to; and as such are more likely to increase a visitor’s engagement with, and enjoyment of, the museum.

Most importantly, however, the museum should frame the history of that local trade in its wider political, social and cultural context. To return to my hypothetical cotton mill museum one last time, the history of the Lancashire cotton trade ties into several important historical topics, not least the rise radical left wing movements such as Luddism and Chartism, and the agitation for Parliamentary reform; but the Cotton Famine of 1861-65 was partly the result of the U.S. Civil War. These are just a few examples, but you get my point. Even the most unassuming trades and industries tie into far larger issues, and craft museums should not be afraid to show their role in the wider historical picture; as by showing visitors to see how the history of their local area has affected, and was affected by, events of national, or even international significance, local trade museums can engage them with a range of topics and themes in a way that is relatable and accessible.

So there we go, those are my ideas on what makes for a good local trade museum: emphasise living history; focus on the lives of the workers; and frame the history of the trade in its wider historical context. Local trade museums are valuable institutions, and that’s why it’s vital they provide an engaging, informative and accessible experience: not only can they inspire people’s interest in areas of history they may not have considered before, and provide them with a truly unique historical experience, but they are perhaps the best way to demonstrate the principle that is at the heart of history: everything is connected.