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Bridging The Memory Gap

Updated Friday, 13th May 2005
Inspired by The Things We Forgot To Remember, Chris Williams and Esther McCallum-Stewart explore the gap between what non-specialists think are historical facts, and what academic historians think they know about their subject.

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The past is complicated; at least as complicated as the present, and there's a lot more of it. Nobody can ever know any more than a tiny fraction about 'what happened', so we tend to condense complex events into shorthand phrases and images. Sometimes these match the way that historians who have studied the events would put it: other times, there's a gap. With The Things We Forgot To Remember, we have tried to point out some gaps.

One event may have made the headlines, then or later, and remained in the public eye, as a well-known part of our 'shared history'. But subsequent events, and the emergence of new evidence, often demonstrate that the real story, with greater impact, was elsewhere.

Most people (including professional historians straying outside their areas of expertise!) boil down a series of events into an easily-packaged fact or story. The process of boiling down is neither simple nor automatic, and depends on a lot of other factors.

Official commemorations, for obvious reasons, focus on events that unite rather than divide, and present officialdom in a good light. This does not mean that these are the most important events.

Sometimes government sources – the raw material from which much political history is written – are kept secret, and the resulting picture of what happened is distorted, until the time that we get access to all the relevant material.

We get a lot of our view of history by soaking up the background of novels, films, television series, and other works of fiction. The primary intention of authors, however, is to entertain. Often, they include history that is changed to help us enjoy it, removing uncomfortable social attitudes from the past, or downplaying unpalatable facts.

Many politicians would like history to be merely a series of triumphal events that justify our devotion to the country (or to a class, political movement or race). Many people would like the stories their grandparents told them to be both entirely true and highly significant.

Many historians would like the public to get their information about history only from the products of academic research. But life is more complex than that.

Our experts have produced a series of articles offering you a more in-depth exploration of the ways that history can be 'mis-remembered', and exploring some of the reasons for that process. They cover the activity of professional academic historians, but also the way that they interact with the wider society, including intellectual, and social, developments.

Why do historians disagree?: Historical research is not straightforward, and always involves a number of complex choices – about what to study, where to look for evidence, and how that evidence ought to be interpreted.

Popular history: Knowledge of history does not just come from textbooks and other 'non-fiction' material, but from novels, plays, and films about the past, as well as museums and other public manifestations of heritage.

Heroes and narratives: People are easy to fit into big narratives, but they often have to be ‘important’. A good history has to present a coherent picture, and the narrative structure of telling the story of a single life has always exerted an influence on the way that history has been written.

Family and identity: Popular memory and family history are also an important influence on the way that we arrive at our picture of what the past was like. Sometimes they coincide with the generalisations that the historians have reached about what was going on – other times, they contradict it completely.

Further Reading

1066 And All That: a memorable history of England
WC Sellars and RJ Yeatman, Methuen
– the satirical take on the old-fashioned 'Kings and Princes' history that used to be taught in UK schools.

Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought
David Hackett Fischer, Harper
– how historians can get it wrong.


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