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Fluid history: A Things We Forgot To Remember podcast

Updated Thursday, 16th November 2006

The past is things that have happened; how is it that the present can shape how we recall them?

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A Lenin statue purchased and repurposed by Mads Eg Damgaard in Herning, Denmark Creative commons image Icon Peter Rosjberg under CC-BY-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
Yesterday's hero: A repositioned Lenin statue in Herning, Denmark



Chris Williams:
Welcome to The Things We Forgot to Remember podcast. My name’s Chris Williams from the Open University and consultant on the Radio 4 series. Throughout the making of this series we’re supporting, we’ve heard about the way historians see history. To discuss this issue, I’ve got with me from the Open University Dan Weinbren, a social scientist, Jovan Byford, who’s a psychologist, and Clive Emsley, Professor of History.

I’d like to start our discussion with a quote by the historian John Shaw, which is on the Things We Forgot to Remember website, he wrote, “Modern societies need histories that reflect their own complexity. What is demanded of history and historians has changed to reflect the underlying transformation of the industrialised, globalised world, and in response to this, approaches to history have had to be adapted.”
Clive, can I begin by asking you then, why do historians change their view of what’s important?

Clive Emsley:
Well, in a sense, as that quotation pointed out, you have to adapt your approach to history because the way people are understanding their present has adapted. We’re now living in a large complex world. When people lived in much smaller communities, basically all you had to understand was your village and perhaps the town where you took stuff to market. That won’t do now, society’s bigger, more complex, or we’re aware of the society in which we’re living as being big and complicated. It’s also multiethnic, we’re much more aware of this kind of issue now. We’re much more sensitive to gender matters.
Now all of these issues have to be taken up by historians because they’re there in our present. A hundred years ago, if someone was writing about the Empire, the British Empire, they would fit it into a narrative of progress. We, the British, were taking enlightened civilisation to the Empire, to indigenous peoples within the Empire.

Now, you can’t say that now. It wouldn’t make sense. Some people would say it wouldn’t make sense because it was a lie. People at the time didn’t see it as a lie. Now the change happens when the Empire becomes Commonwealth, and people begin to see states which were once part of the Empire as now individual communities in their own right; you can’t talk about them as people to whom we are taking civilisation. We were concerned; we were embarrassed about that kind of thing. Now that we are a multiethnic society, I think we are able to revisit Empire, and we have to revisit Empire to perhaps understand better the society that early 21st Century Britain is.

Chris Williams:
So have we lost that grand sweep of history which was about the rise of the Empire? Dan, you’re a social scientist, how do you think about the way that social science has changed the way we view history?

Dan Weinbren:
Well, on the one hand we may have lost some of those certainties that there was a monocausal explanation for how things are, be it liberalism or Marxism or imperialism, and that may be beneficial to make things more nuanced, more complex, more related to the society in which we live. Perhaps another aspect of that is that we focus more on the small scale so that the history which children under the national curriculum in this country are taught is, has specific gobbets, particular periods, particular areas which they are focused. Museums which tend to follow those trends similarly are focused on particular eras and periods and sets of ideas. So that it’s not so much that we’ve lost the grand narratives, it’s that we may have gained a sense of how our society is more complicated.

Clive Emsley:
If I can chip in, I think what’s happened is that with the sort of notions of GB PLC, education and history now is much more about skills. It’s not about acquiring the knowledge of the sweep of either British history or all history, but what we have to do now is learn the skills of reading and analysing a document. And in a sense that kind of great sweep of either western society or world society has been lost. It’s the kind of thing that I was taught at school, and I think, well okay I’m a professional historian, so I guess I do need to have a sort of a sweep, but I do think that kids have lost that.

I don’t think it’s simply because we focus on skills now, I think it’s also because we don’t focus on what people now call grand narratives, ways of explaining the big sweep of history, which for the bulk of the 19th and much of the 20th Century were really focused on the idea of progress within western society that somehow everything was improving and getting better. And I think two World Wars really hit that notion of history as progress on its head.

And, of course, even Soviet history, Marxist history could be about progress looking forward to the eventual victory of the proletariat. Well, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, there isn’t any way we can maintain that grand narrative now.

Chris Williams:
So that’s about the way history’s taught and the intellectual framework for doing history, but what about what we do? How do professional historians whose job it is to research history go about their work? Has that changed? Do we do different things nowadays? Dan?

Dan Weinbren:
There’s a tremendously large amount of information on the web which wasn’t previously available, and it’s been worked and reworked by a lot of people who are scholarly but not necessarily paid as historians. So that’s a significant resource to which lots of people have access. And I think part of that resource is also there because lots of people outside the universities have gone out and done some history.

They’ve taken their recording equipment, they’ve gone into schools, they’ve gone into old people’s homes and recorded people, they’ve done their family history which is going to local record offices, graveyards and all the other places where people find out information about the past, and they’ve collated it formally through the collation of local studies at the national level and also informally on the web.
So in a sense there has been a shift because we have new angles, new historians and an awful lot of material, a lot of data which we can crunch in ways which weren’t possible in the past. We can do far more with the 1881 census than people in 1881 could.

Clive Emsley:
I think we have to be extremely careful with that though, and that’s why I think in a sense the professional historian still has a role, because what you can finish up with is an enormous amount of very, very local studies, very narrow studies, and someone has got to encourage the people who are doing this work to fit it into a much wider perspective. You know, you can, well a lot of people accuse professional historians of knowing more and more about less and less, but I think actually that’s the danger of democratic history, and that the professional historian I hope is going to if not come up with a grand narrative, at least try and put it into a much broader context.

Chris Williams:
There is a broader context though, isn’t there, if you read newspapers, if you watch television, if you listen to the radio, you’ll see that there’s a set of often unspoken assumptions about what was important in history about historical development, about the history of the nation, and that’s there as well even if on the one hand ordinary people have deserted that for family history, on the other hand professional historians are still claiming that the grand narrative is dead. It seems to me that there is very much an idea of shared national history. Now Jovan as a psychologist. Do we feel a sense of shared national history?

Jovan Byford:
Well I think one way in which the change in national history can be demonstrated very clearly in the way in which historical understanding of the past and generally collecting memory of the past kind of follows different social transformations in society, can be clearly demonstrated on examples where we have a radical transformation in social order or social relations. The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s is a clear example where over a relatively short period of time, there was a huge effort to debunk the previous interpretations of the national past, and of the past generally, and to impose new interpretations which would be contrary or either in contrast to the Marxist interpretations of the past.

And often when we talk about these radical transformations, it is very tempting to think well of course when society changes in such dramatic ways, society is going to perceive the past very differently as well, but the situation is never that simple because people are not that easily duped simply by being told new versions of the past, what they have been told before will remain in their memories.

So it’s a very subtle process of basically transforming memory, telling new interpretations of the past in the way that subverts and debunks the ones that were there before and basically situating new interpretations in the argumentative context that is aware of the ones that were there before.

Dan Weinbren:
I think another element to this in Eastern Europe is that it’s now very popular for people in America and in this country to revisit their ancestors or ancestral sites in those countries, they’re bringing with them money and resources from the West and thus are helping to rewrite the history of the shtetls or the villages of those countries. And they’re doing that as part of their collective family history but also they’re having an effect on the places which their ancestors left.

Chris Williams:
Thanks very much, Dan. I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for now. I think one of the things it’s demonstrated is that it’s not just us who are historians, we are all historians, and we’re all fighting over grand narratives and over attempting to make as much sense of the past as possible.

My thanks then to Jovan Byford, Dan Weinbren and Clive Emsley. Join us next time when we’ll be exploring the role of families in historical memory. And to find out more about the Radio 4 series, the Things We Forgot to Remember and history in general, you can visit our website at

I’m Chris Williams, the Producer was Mercia Goodway, and this is a BBC Worldwide production for the Open University.






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