It seems more and more that history is becoming a choose your own adventure story. Nearly two thirds of the British public, for example, will take their Empire’s glory, trade, and wealth whilst conveniently skipping the chapters about slavery, genocide, and continuing global inequality. The survey that discovered this public pride in Empire, conducted in 2014, has resurfaced in debates surrounding Brexit – it’s hard to be optimistic that people would show more reservations about their country’s bloody history if polled today.
This selective remembrance of the past is not unique to Britain. Debates rage across the world about public memory of past events. In the US, the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces has reignited arguments about the character of the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War. Despite decades of consensus with the historical profession, a consensus which highlights the evils of slavery and believes its preservation to have at least partly motivated Southern secessionists, right-wing commentators, politicians and members of the public continue to espouse tales of the noble Confederacy and the ‘lost cause’ of Southern independence. It is important to note that some historians are deeply concerned by the removal of monuments, but through fear that memory of the past will be become more distorted by their absence than by their presence.
Misremembrance of the past is not limited to such grand debates, however. Even seemingly benign, minor points made by historians in relation to ignorance of the past have been received with smug disdain and venom. Mary Beard, for example, recently found herself under fire (again) for her bold assertion that at least three people in Roman Britain might not have been white. As a woman in the public eye, Professor Beard’s treatment on Twitter and across various media outlets is not unusual; what is unusual is that the type of historical information now up for public scrutiny has become so seemingly benign. Beard was disparaged for her apparent attempt to transfer modern, leftist ideals onto the past – Fred down the road, of course, would know more about Roman Britain than a woman who has dedicated her professional life to studying it.
Significantly, the criticism levelled at historians whose work has a multicultural or feminist perspective is not limited to those outside academia. One notable academic (not a historian) decided to contribute to the tirade of abuse Professor Beard received, citing his study of genetics and statistics to ‘prove’ that most of what historians are saying is ‘BS.’ Niall Ferguson, noted contrarian historian, claimed a victory for himself when he tweeted about the popularity of the Empire amongst the British public. The rest of us, unaware that presenting historical truths became a competition at some point, are now scrambling to catch up.
Classicist Mary Beard
The film industry too has produced some alarmingly inaccurate films recently. Whist no historian would expect, or really want, a film to be a word for word dramatization of a past event, it is only fair to expect the broad framing of things to be true to the past. Sofia Coppala’s The Beguiled, for example, recently managed the seemingly impossible task of imagining the Civil War South without a single person of colour. That she then misused a historian’s work to justify her focus on gender not race (as if whiteness is not, actually, a race) was a further blow to historians of the 19th century South. Dunkirk, too, must be (and indeed has been) called out for its sweeping rewrite of the past. Critics have noted Christopher Nolan’s failure to include any people of colour in the film (apart from the few black troops briefly seen amongst the French forces). Women too, despite being show working as nurses and on a few of the rescue ships, are mostly props, setting the scene for the men who are the real focus of the film. The lack of historians involved in both of these films (Nolan worked with Joshua Levine, but appears not to have involved any other scholars in a major way) must be considered a key factor in their failings to be faithful to the past.
It’s not all doom and gloom. In these apparent failings of the historical profession to reach the public, the value of interdisciplinary work is shown to be invaluable. Heritage sites and organisations are making more effort to highlight the forgotten histories in our midst, particularly those stories that centre women and people of colour. The excellent new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC., incorporates narratives that have traditionally been side-lined into its main exhibits – no more hunting for the one lonely cabinet that acknowledges the existence of women before 1970.
Despite recent disappointments, literature, performance and film must be credited for their efforts to enhance our understandings of the past. The past few years have seen a fantastic array of popular films, TV shows and books which intervene in public understanding of past events in a positive way. Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad, for example, draws on decades of historical scholarship to create a heart-wrenching depiction of women’s experiences of enslavement in the nineteenth-century US. FX’s Cold War era espionage series, The Americans, has been praised for its depiction of the emotional and social realities of intelligence work.
In an increasingly polarised environment, the past, and how we remember it, has entered the arena of political debate. If the public are so sick of hearing from experts, historians must turn to other means in order to ensure that their research remains relevant. Interdisciplinary cooperation is more important than ever, and making connections outside of academia, particularly within the creative and entertainment industries, is vital. Most importantly, historians should take note of Mary Beard’s handling of her most recent criticism. Rather than stepping back and ‘leaving the bullies in charge of the playground,’ historians must continue to challenge, engage with, and inform the public about the past, our memory of it, and how it continues to affect us today.
Liz Barnes is a PhD student at the University of Reading and is funded by the SWW DTP. She is the History Editor of Question.