By Georgie Todd
When we think of ‘history’ there are probably two images that pop into our minds: one of a grey-haired, old professors hunched over a dusty tomb of ancient words, or one of grand manor houses and castles, high ceilings and banquets fit for kings and queens. It is this split between ideas of history, between academic and social influences, that defines and shapes how we engage with our past, and how our past shapes us.
The first image of the professor and their dusty books is, quite simply, a reasonable representation of academic history in the sense of reading, understanding, interpreting, and publishing research. There is a systematic process that academic historians must go through in order to get their research out into the world, the most prominent stage being the peer review of their work. This typically ensures that what is getting published is reliable, accurately and sufficiently sourced, and, in a word, good history – however, this system of peer review is often, and arguably wrongly, pressed onto sites of public heritage and engagement. This is where our second image comes into play, visions of grandeur, of royals floating down their grand hallways in fine Victorian dresses, of knights in shining armour defending castle walls – this is the popular public history that is found in heritage sites across the UK.
When visiting sites of heritage, it is often impossible to maintain a sense of emotional detachment and to view the objects around us as purely academic sources of information. This is what separates history from heritage. Most of us have visited a heritage site, more often than not on a school trip to the local historic manor house where we were taken on a tour of the grounds, and perhaps told stories of ghosts that still linger in the corridors. I, for one, recall a trip to Salmesbury Hall where we were told of the White Lady who died of a broken heart, whose wails can sometimes be heard in the dark. Of course, stories of ghosts are just that: stories. However, ghosts and hauntings so often linked with historic sites may have deeper meanings. The connection we, wider society, feel when visiting these sites stem from an emotional desire to create meaning and identities from our past, and the stories we are told and the images we imagine all culminate in a wider narrative that links our present to our past. Heritage sites are important in creating that cultural meaning that can be applied to contemporary life.
However, there is then the issue of the academic influence of history and historic research that is ingrained in heritage sites. As previously mentioned, academic peer review keeps a watchful eye over published historic research, and rightly so, ensuring the reliability of research. It becomes questionable, however, when the organisations in charge of heritage sites and museums are regulated by a similar process, in which comparison to one another creates unity of presentation, most often than not one of emotional detachment. For example, when visiting the World Museum in Liverpool, the placards outside each exhibit offer information on the date found, an estimated age of the item, and a brief summary of the items purpose. However, the context behind the artefacts are often lost: who were the people who used it? What were their daily lives like? How can we see ourselves in them? This empirical form of history and presentation fails to provide a meaningful narrative that gives us a connection to our past, and also can alter our perception of the past resulting in some histories being overlooked.
It is therefore incredibly important that heritage sites value the emotional connection people have when visiting. Although empirical facts are of course needed for educational purposes, the emotional need to feel a connection to history cannot be overlooked as this is often what drives public interest. The history found at heritage sites is more than anything a display of culture, and to be rid of that in favour of academic facts and presentation runs the risk of diminishing its true value. After all, who doesn’t love a good ghost story?