Registered On: January 3, 2014
As I wrote on another post I’ve a fair bit of previous on the subject having done a post graduate diploma in history at Oxford University.
It amazes me that some folks still look upon history as facts that you read in a book. The quicker you get that idea out of your head the better. Likewise the notion that you can teach history.
History is not just something that happened in the past. What is happening today will be history tomorrow. And unless you have a time machine you can’t alter it. We lost to Solihull Moors yesterday. That is now part of the history of Scunthorpe United Football Club.
You have to start from a primary source. A good example would be a Parish Register containing the names of individuals baptised, married or buried in the church. Primary sources are generally 90 – 100% accurate because they were legal documents. Most errors are because of misspelled names. However a written history of that Parish would be a secondary source because it has been put together by someone who lived at a particular time and who may or may not have had access to documentary evidence.
Take the events of the last week across the pond. A Democrat history of the 2020 POTUS election would be very different to a Republican history, which in turn would be different to Donald J Trump’s autobiography (if he were literate enough to be able to write one!).
All history is written with a bias. This is why primary sources are invaluable and secondary/tertiary sources should be viewed with scepticism and caution. On the whole museum collections and displays try to present primary sources without any bias in its interpretation.
As for the preservation of history, it is probably better to look at this from the opposite viewpoint. That of the destruction of secondary sources. Like many others I’ve stood in the Bebelplatz in Berlin where in 1933 Nazi supporters burned an estimated 25,000 books. This was nothing new of course. The Papacy had been doing it for centuries.
Which brings us neatly on to iconoclasm. The destruction of statuary and imagery. Once again it’s nothing new, it’s been going on since antiquity. So when Colston’s statue was toppled in Bristol earlier this year it was just suffering the same fate as the Colossus of Nero in Rome, Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, Saddam Hussain’s statue in Baghdad and hundreds of Catholic Churches “cleansed” by the Puritans. I recently came across an academic paper on an equestrian statue of James II that stood on the quayside in Newcastle. It was pulled down by a gang of apprentices and thrown into the Tyneside at the time of the Glorious Revolution. Sound familiar?
The argument I would offer is that these actions are not destroying history but making it, and in themselves become primary sources providing us with valuable information on the thoughts of a particular group at a fixed point in history. Had these physical acts of demonstration not happened all we would have is written documentation to inform us of the perpetrators feelings. Secondary sources, written with a biased view (even if this is unintentional) which we know to be flawed.
History teaching nowadays tends to direct students towards primary sources and allow them to do the analysis for themselves. As such it is important that primary sources are made available to all without censorship or pre-selection (genealogy websites please take note).
The censorship of what was and was not displayed in a museum undoubtedly went on throughout the 19th & 20th centuries. “We just want to see the good stuff!”
Thankfully we have moved away from this now. I think the future is fairly bright.