Gazing Beyond the Navel: Why the History of History is Essential for Good Citizenship

I’ve spent the past six years studying how eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers wrote the music history of Scotland. Some well-known figures who made contributions to the writing of music history include the poet Allan Ramsay, the novelist Sir Walter Scott, and the American writer and politician Benjamin Franklin. These writers had very few musical sources which could be securely dated to earlier than the seventeenth century, and so my conclusion was that the music history these gentlemen wrote was primarily a product of wider eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ways of thinking about historical progress and their perceptions of Scottish historical events (less brief version available here).

Studying historiography (how history is written) is unfortunately the fast track to an extreme philosophical conundrum: I am forced to acknowledge that the history of history that I write is as equally a product of my experiences and wider environment as the histories written by the eighteenth-century gentlemen I study. What then, you might ask, is the point in this apparently arcane task?

Today I’d like to share my latest thoughts on the importance of studying historiography as crystallised by my recent encounters with Stuart McHardy’s book A New History of the Picts (Luath Press, 2011) and the online ‘AskHistorians’ subreddit.

A New History of the Picts

A New History of the Picts was a Christmas present from my dad. I should perhaps have approached it with more caution since my dad did present it to me with the words: “This is going to make you really angry, here’s Beowulf to cheer you up afterwards”. How right he was! The author of A New History of the Picts built conjecture upon conjecture as if they were facts, and he frequently drew parallels over more than 1000 years of history without supporting evidence from the intervening period. I was angry because he showed such a cavalier disregard for the methods of assessing evidence that historians attempt to adhere to in a book which presented history to a general readership.

AskHistorians

I stumbled across the ‘AskHistorians’ subreddit having googled “ask a historian” after encountering the excellent ‘Ask a Scientist’ website. ‘AskHistorians’ is an online community in which registered users can ask questions about history and other users can answer them. Users can vote on the quality of posts, with posters earning “karma” as a mark of community-judged esteem. Users who have particular expertise can be nominated to become “flaired” users provided they can demonstrate to the moderators that they have provided at least three high-quality answers. The guidelines of the community stress the need for well-referenced and nuanced answers “assessed against the standards of Historiography and Historical Method”. I was initially excited by the prospect of the website, but ultimately I was disappointed. Curiously enough, my disappointment stemmed not from the content, but from the lack of users who used their real name to post. Was I becoming an academic snob? I thought not, rather the lack of names bothered me because it inhibited my ability to properly judge the users’ answers as I would judge other sources I use in historical work: how could I make a judgement about their possible biases, for example, if I didn’t know who they were?

So why study the history of history?

Despite their differences, A New History of the Picts and ‘AskHistorians’ both bothered me immensely because I felt they undermined good historical method. McHardy’s book had acquired an aura of authority through being published, and yet many of his conclusions seemed to be driven by a desire to pursue his personal agenda of presenting a glorious Scottish Pictish past heroically resistant to colonising forces. Had his book been presented as a manifesto for understanding Scotland in the present this would have been more acceptable, but it wasn’t. ‘AskHistorians’ seemed more promising with its emphasis on referencing and nuanced historical debate, yet by remaining anonymous the authors undermine the importance historians give to considering who made a source and how this might have had an impact on the nature of the source.

Studies of how history is written, like mine, have value beyond their academic disciplinary boundaries by drawing attention to the way in which history is inevitably a product of its time, place and the circumstances of its writers, and so highlighting the need to approach the work of all historians with the same critical methods with which historians are taught to approach the documents and artefacts that they use to understand the past.

In Scotland in 2014 the past is constantly being co-opted and reworked in the service of the present debates about independence. In contexts such as this, understanding that history is socially constructed by human beings, and being able to critically recognise that construction, is not only important for history as an academic discipline, it is also vitally important for good citizenship.

But I am a human being with an agenda to pursue, so please don’t just take my word for it!

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Out of the Footnotes and into the Fire: Musings on the Presentation of Historical Debate and Uncertainty Outside the University

Let me begin with a small confession:  for the last few years my partner has refused to watch any history documentaries with me.  Apparently my mutterings of “I’d like to know what the evidence is for that” and similar are distracting.  Perhaps he does have a point, but I think that my frustration with many of the programmes is justified:  too often they present history as if it were fact, stripping indicators of interpretation, debate and uncertainty.

In this post I want to start to look at how such interpretation, debate and uncertainty can be communicated outside the academic discipline of history and related subject areas by considering two case studies taken from my own recent experiences.  The first case study considers the ‘Access to Research’ initiative, and the second considers the Groam House Museum of Pictish art.   

Access to Research

The Access to Research initiative allows anyone who is a member of a participating public library to access participating academic journal articles without charge.  This is an amazing initiative for independent researchers such as myself, but it also aims to expand access to publically funded research to the general public, and it is this aspect of its mission that I have reservations about. 

Access to Research might appear to solve the problem of the lack of acknowledgement of interpretation, debate and uncertainty in presentations of history outside the academic world since anyone could theoretically now access that debate via their local library.   Yet I don’t think that initiatives like Access to Research are the answer for two reasons:  firstly, if history is presented as a series of incontrovertible facts there is nothing to spur consumers of it to go and search out debate; and secondly, debate in the form of academic journal articles is not very useful to those who are not disciplinary insiders, a point that was brought home to me on my first encounter with Access to Research. 

When I heard about Access to Research I was not only excited as a historian, I was excited as a member of the great public – at last, I had access to all the information I could need about the leading issues of the day!  Eager to explore the riches at my fingertips I searched the database for “climate change”.  Now, I like to think myself reasonably science-literate, and I’ve just had seven years intense training in using academic journals, and so I was unprepared for the feelings of confusion and bewilderment with which I viewed the results of my search.  So many results!  So much specialization!  Which ones should I start by reading?  How would I know whether I was reading the most important papers?

I quietly shut down the website and went to reflect over tea and biscuits.  While Access to Research does theoretically provide access to all the debate and argument that might be needed to counteract the effect of those documentaries that leave it out, it cannot be used practically for this purpose because of the form in which the debate is presented.  I was forced to confront the sobering thought that academic journals are only a good way of communicating debate to a handful of disciplinary insiders.  Sifting the huge number of articles to get at the most important and influential requires an investment of time and the development of expertise that is simply impractical for non-specialists. 

Groam House Museum

Detail of the Nigg Cross Slab

Detail of the Nigg Cross Slab found in Nigg Old Church near to the Groam House Museum in the Black Isle © Jo Clements

Amongst the many benefits of living in Inverness is the proximity to the Groam House Museum of Pictish stones.  In the permanent gallery the stones are displayed with information panels about the stones and their context.  This potentially presents a problem, since not very much can be said with any certainty about the Picts.  The Picts seem to have inhabited eastern and northern Scotland from sometime prior to the third century A.D. until they became part of Alba in the tenth century, and have left a landscape dotted with distinctive carved stones.  A consequence of the lack of information is that the Picts and their stones are subject to extensive scholarly interpretation, debate and uncertainty.

The Groam House curators have come up with a way of reflecting this uncertainty within a small space which is really quite inspired.  The first interpretation board as you enter the museum reads: 

Information panel at the Groam House Museum

Information panel at the Groam House Museum

For a long time the Picts have been thought of as mysterious.  Like all mysteries this is the result of knowing too little about them. 

In this museum you will learn some of the answers history and modern archaeology have provided to old problems.  You will also read about some of the new of the new guesses being made about the Picts based on new information.

To simplify things facts which most people believe to be correct are in normal type.  Ideas not accepted by everybody but which may be right are in italics. 

The important thing to remember is that we still do not know that much about the Picts.  You may come up with some better ideas yourself. 

To find out…read on.     

This simple sign highlights the fact that there is debate about the Picts.  It alludes to the idea that even the common view of the Picts is not set in stone, and allows them to present some more contentious ideas without either according them the status of the accepted view or having to include unwieldy discussion.  

The interpretation panels don’t present the totality of the argument, but to do so would be neither effective nor desirable, running the risk of alienating visitors with too much information.  In simply reflecting that there is interpretation, debate and uncertainty they present a much more faithful view of the work of historians and our understanding of the period in question than many of the television programmes that made me so cross.

So where now? 

The conclusions I draw from these recent experiences are that when presenting history outside the academic discipline it is enough in the first instance to simply signpost that there is debate and uncertainty.  Groam House presents an example of really effective practice.  For those whose interest is piqued and who want to find out more about scholarly debates Access to Research presents a somewhat unwieldy tool, despite its value for other purposes.  In future posts I plan to consider how uncertainty and debate are reflected in other media, and how these might fill the gap between the space-constrained solution presented at Groam House and the information overload provided by Access to Research.

As always I welcome comments, suggestions and reading recommendations.     

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Welcome to ‘Making Scottish History’

Hello!

Hello, and welcome to ‘Making Scottish History’, a blog which will explore how history is created and presented, with a particular focus on Scotland.

We’re probably all familiar with the adage “History is written by the victors”.  All history is written by a human being formed by a unique set of experiences with human opinions and biases, and the history they write will to some extent be influenced by those experiences.

Yet all too often the active role of the creator of history is hidden from the view of those consuming the history; I’m going to explore this creative process and its presentation in this blog.  I will discuss the success (or otherwise) of examples that I come across, and the visibility of the creative process in the transition from academic historical writing to history for consumption by “the public”.  I don’t promise to confine myself to these topics, however, and other history-related posts might creep in!

I hope that fellow historians will read my blog.  I also hope that others will too.  I intend to write my posts as if I were discussing the issues with my friends.  I hope that you enjoy it, and will join in the discussion.

Scottish Music History

My name is Jo Clements, and I’m a historian of Scottish music.  I completed a Masters at the University of Glasgow in 2008 and a PhD in 2013.

In the course of writing my Masters dissertation I became increasingly frustrated with the secondary literature on Scottish music history:  much of it was old, and tended to be poorly referenced, but yet was presented in an authoritative manner that brooked no discussion.

My search for the sources used to write secondary literature led me the eighteenth century.  I became fascinated with the writing of music history over this period:  could the roots of some of our modern ideas lie in music histories written over 200 years ago, and if so, where did those ideas come from?

As a consequence of these studies I’ve become passionately interested not only in how historians go about creating history, but in how they then communicate that history with all its glorious gaps and ambiguity to their audience.

Historical Tourism

Over the last couple of years I’ve become involved in presenting history to tourists.  I worked as a volunteer guide at the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow.  Since summer 2013 I have been a steward at Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, a hugely popular site on the Scottish tourist trail.  These experiences have given me further perspectives on the presentation of history that I will draw on and discuss in the blog.

Scotland 2014

2014 is an interesting year to be living in Scotland.  On the 18th September Scotland will vote on whether to become an independent country.  2014 also marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a battle at which the English forces were sent home “to think again”, a fact made much of in the press from the date on which the year of the independence referendum was first mooted.  The referendum comes towards the end of the year-long nationwide ‘Homecoming 2014’ festival which celebrates Scottish history and culture.

This is a year in which Scotland’s history, its meaning, and its place in contemporary identity are at the forefront of political and cultural life, even if this is not always explicitly acknowledged.  What better time for consideration of how history is, or should be, created and presented?!

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