One of the great things about being a historian in the 21st century is the many different ways in which you can both learn about, and disseminate, the history you’re interested in. Big data and digital history are two terms you may already be familiar with, with some historians – who I have to say I am in complete awe of – managing to crunch numbers and play with technology in a way I fear I will never be able to.
Other historians may team up with creative agencies and other non-historian individuals to find new ways to present aspects of our history – such as with the agency responsible for the Grim London interactive map and website (read an article about it here) – whereas others learn the skills themselves to push the field of Digital Humanities further.
Just a couple of the historians whose work is worth looking at are Adam Crymble, Melodee Beals and Tim Hitchcock; it’s also worth looking at Tim’s recent work on ‘recreating’ the experience of being at the Old Bailey in the past, based on written records, currently on display at London Metropolitan Archives.
But sometimes, there can be simpler, but still absorbing, ways of presenting history. Creative Histories (see the blog at Storying The Past), led by Will Pooley and Helen Rogers, has been a great way of learning about how historians, writers and artists have been seeking to find new ways of presenting history to us – from Ruth Singer’s Criminal Quilts project to Anthony Rhys’s artworks of ‘Upset Victorians’.
Last year, I experienced history through the genre of the musical: firstly, with Lizzie – a punk rock retelling of the Lizzie Borden case in 19th century America (see my review of it here)- and then, this Christmas, getting to watch the much hyped Hamilton, where an incredibly enthusiastic London audience probably learned more about 18th century American history than they had at school. By subverting the traditional dry retelling of history by using different musical styles, from rock to hip-hop, history is made both interesting and universal.
The musicals share with recent books a desire both to write about history but also to understand it. Books such as Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done attempt to get inside the heads of those involved in crime cases, and in doing so, they get the reader involved in a way in which some traditional history books fail to do.
Purists argue that they play fast and loose with the facts, but the overall picture they give is still valuable. In Hamilton, the problem of Eliza Hamilton having destroyed her letters from Alexander, her husband, and her views being absent from the archival record, are actually foregrounded, both to show how we can never know her exact views, but have to guess at them, but also to highlight that women’s lives tend to be less recorded than men’s in history.
So what am I saying? I think that, as someone who was resolutely disinterested in history at school, due to a surfeit of royals and war – whereas I have always been more interested in the experiences of ordinary people in ordinary life – I would have welcomed these different approaches to history, and they would have both gained my interest and maintained it.
If we can get children interested in history, they’ll be interested in adulthood – and perhaps even create new presentations of history to get the next generation interested, too. And that’s got to be a good thing, in a time when our government seems resolutely disinterested in the value of the arts at both school and university level.