Day Two - How Do - and How Should - We Think About the Past? Exploring Historical Consciousness'

There is no time like the present to talk about such issues, given the recent government announcements. Ceri's timely presentation explores how we might learn about the past, and questions which past that should be. Niall Fergusson complains that we have only an episodic, rather than a grand narrative in regard to history in this country. But the question is, if this is the case, who determines what that 'grand narrative' is?

Thus arises the term 'historical consciousness'. This concept expresses the methods by which individuals and collectives come to understandings of the past, particularly important in museums and the heritage sector as well as schools. John Tosh's work, Why History Matters, shows how we need to be critical in thinking about history, and stop conflating it with the present as many museums do. Presentations of material culture, Tosh argues, fail to convey the gulf between then and now - particularly problematic in costumed interpretation and re-enaction. Whist Tosh thinks that we should relate ourselves to the past on both familiar and strange terms, the emphasis, for him, should remain on the strangeness of the present to the past.

There are four typologies of Historical Consiousness which Ceri presents. The traditional, the exemplary, the crtical and the genetic, each of which get progressively more subtle and complex. That is not to say, however, that the more nuanced versions can only be used by professionals - Rusen, in fact, argues that all, even school age children, can use the genetic approach to historical thought, which makes new interpretations of the past through critical reasoning, questioning and understanding the relative relationships of cultures. It is the education system itself which needs to realise and acknowlegde that there is no simplicity to history, and that even the youngest child brings with them particular expectations, tacit assumputions based upon their experience which leads them to reinterpret events in ever new ways.

These levels of historical consciousness are really interesting - and I think will be critical in Ceri's work upon the use of costumed interpretation in representing the Middle Ages, and in answering her question 'Why is the Historian's engagement with the past so different from that of the Museum?'

I, for one, don't know the answer.


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