Magazine article History Today


Magazine article History Today


Article excerpt

New Year is full of new beginnings and resolutions of greater or lesser seriousness kept with varying degrees of success. We constantly try to change the present in order to alter the future. Yet while we slip the calendar over, the past is changing too.

For there is no security or safe haven in that past. History is constantly re-inventing itself, shaken like a child's , kaleidoscope - the same materials shaped into profoundly different patterns. Attempts to fix history in objective aspic for the purpose of promoting a national or ideological myth are fruitless; its inevitable yoking to the agenda of a specific time and place often being apparent at the time and certainly since the myths have collapsed. Where are the snows of the Soviet Union's yesteryears - and what of Marxism's relevance to the interpretation of history? - something we have endeavoured to discuss in the last couple of years with our End of History series (now published in book form). Such changes remind readers that no history is set in stone.

Sometimes history's very materials change. |Put not your trust in princes' is a maxim which might well - for 90s Britain at least- be amended to read |put not your trust in heritage'. It would appear the fire at Windsor Castle has wreaked considerably less havoc than originally feared - but it acts as a salutary reminder that we cannot just shield everything in a protective bubble against time and fate.

For if Windsor Castle had been razed to the ground with all its treasures, would that have been a catastrophe greater than any of the heritage |disasters' of the past? How would one rank it against the destruction of the library at Alexandria, whose torching in the fifth century AD may have robbed us of up to 95 per cent of the literature of classical Greece? Yet culture and heritage survived - albeit with different materials, different patterns - in the kaleidoscope.

Even if material evidence from the past is not destroyed, or has been rediscovered (our knowledge of medieval wall-paintings, according to Pamela Tudor-Craig, has doubled in the past thirty years through their recovery from under layers of plaster and whitewash in our churches and cathedrals) - our attitudes to it are changing dramatically. This incidentally is why the recent attempts under English Heritage's new chairman, Jocelyn Stevens to establish a |winners and losers'league table of monuments in care - and then to try and shuffle off responsibility for those facing relegation - was so profoundly foolish and short-sighted.

Our interest in the social and cultural functions of historic remains is more in flux today than ever. Today's |loser' may be tomorrow's |jewel' - could Jocelyn Stevens have lived through the 1960s demolition of Euston Station's |classical' arch and not understood that? Fortunately there seems to have been a drawing of breath following the chorus of protest at the new chairman's |rationalisation' proposals and History Today readers may wish to strengthen the intake by writing to Jocelyn Stevens at English Heritage, Fortress House, 23 Savile Row, London W1X 2HE, to add their objections to the proposed cuts, and to any diminishing of the organisation's role.

Disparaging references, from Mr Stevens or anyone else, to the |bumps in the ground' outlook of modern archaeologists are sights similarly wide of the mark, for today, archaeology and the writing of history intersect as perhaps never before. In mid-November three lead coffins lay in the ruins of a seventeenth-century chapel in southern Maryland while all manner of hi-tech equipment and programmes, including one courtesy of NASA (the past meets the future indeed) were employed to discover more about their occupants (with what success you may read about later in this issue). …

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