Tuesday 25 November 2014

A prelude to Friday's Lab: Up An' At 'Em!

The visual has the capacity to be incredibly powerful. We have recently seen how much so at the Tower of London: 888,246 ceramic poppies were planted to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War, each poppy representing a British military fatality. Images of the installation have spread across the world - it is, after all, a striking sight.

The importance of this installation extends beyond London and indeed, beyond the First World War. It demonstrates how and why we need the visual in our approach to history. A textbook can be plonked onto a desk full of dates, names and numbers. But can we really expect children of any age to fully appreciate what the textbook is attempting to convey without any effort to bring it to life for them? The effect of the poppy installation lies in its ability to represent a vast number of military fatalities; to generate the shock of realisation that the sea of red is also a sea of individual human experience. It has been instrumental in igniting interest in the First World War amongst children and adults alike.

I find it difficult to stray from the theme of the First World War. On a trip to the First World War battlefields of northern France and Belgium my history teacher single-handedly put me on the path to becoming a historian. He marched us out of the trenches at the Somme; he read a soldier's poem to us by his grave; he said the Exhortation under the arch of the Menin Gate. The Last Post is imprinted in my mind. It may also be simple coincidence that one of the most memorable theatrical performances I have seen was R. C. Sheriff's Journey's End. The aural - as well as the visual - feeds our imagination.

The impact of the visual is not limited to the twentieth century - it transcends all time and place. I have recently written a blog for the New History Lab on the current BBC2 documentary series Secrets of the Castle. I discussed how the construction of a thirteenth-century castle - Gu├ędelon - can spark our interest (see the blog for further details!) Being able to see (and hear) a modern interpretation of how a medieval scene may have looked and sounded takes us one step closer to understanding it.

But with projects such as Gu├ędelon, it is the human element which makes it so compelling. How else can history - effectively a study of human experience - be brought to life? This Friday 28th November, the New History Lab will be hosting a talk given by Jed Jaggard. Jed is a professional historical re-enactor (of all periods!) and founded Up an' At 'Em History! (http://www.upanatemhistory.com), an organisation which, quite literally, provides hands-on history for everyone. He will be discussing the importance of the visual in heritage and education, both being an integral part of history beyond (and including) the academic discipline. Jed is a great believer in the representation of the past, as long as it's as accurate as possible.

People in Jed's profession play an incredibly important role in our understanding of history; they encourage the younger and older generations alike and nurture a love of the subject. They are living history. As we all know, history is not - and never should be - confined to academia or a dusty old textbook at school. Its tales are for everyone to enjoy. I am so looking forward to welcoming Jed to Friday's Lab, and I hope to see you there!