History in the Contemporary: The Historian, Public Memory, and Historical Figures

As is fitting, ideas about history move with historical developments. Recent events, such as the COVID-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter resurgence last summer have stirred the imagination for reflection on the role of the discipline, and its practitioners, as well as our relationship to the everyday lives of history and memory. Statues, as perhaps the most prominent example, that once silently decorated our gardens and squares, have now come into question and become the bearers of historical and political discourse from all angles, invoking new interpretations of the right to display and remember. How therefore must we think about our history, and the problems traditional interpretations inhibit is dramatically changing in these ‘historically unprecedented’ times? We welcomed thoughts on this question on what it means to do and participate in history in the contemporary. 

What does it mean to do history in the contemporary? Is it meaningfully different as we experience developments in areas such as diversity and technology in comparison to the 20th century? 

Doing history in the contemporary is different in the fact that we simply do not know how the set of stories ends yet. A lot of the work of historians is periodisation, and this involves imposing meaning, themes, and classifications to history in a way that often feels arbitrary. These perspectives often place events and individuals in a scope far greater than their lifetime that can only be understood looking backwards. When doing history in the contemporary – that is, trying to place events into some sort of narrative or legacy as they happen or linking the present to the historical processes that formed it, this is a lot harder.

Jess Womack 

I am somewhat sceptical to any notion of exceptionalism in general and I think it applies here as well. Regardless of the promotion of ‘digital humanities’ the methodological core of philology and statistical data remains unchanged, though any new technological tools should of course be used as appropriate. Similarly, the historiography of race is not novel in that sense. After all, classics such as C. L. R. James’ Black Jacobins was published as far back as 1938, though again further research and reflection are absolutely called for. On the other hand, what does change with time might be less content, and more context. In this sense, I find the relative lack of ‘history’ in the twenty-first century (so far) quite interesting. Comparison with the twentieth century is especially stark, defined as it was by the world wars, decolonisation, the rising and falling of different strands of liberalism, fascism, and socialism alike. Their perception of the historical past would therefore be significantly different. Hence, it makes sense that we have started to reconsider our approaches in the last few years. As, in the Global North anyway, the malaise of post-Cold War system seems to increasingly smoulder away. 

Inge Erdal 

In the last 20 years alone, the world has changed unrecognisably and our viewpoints on the world’s history will have inevitably changed with it. An important element of this for the study of history has been the standardisation and transcription of archival and primary sources. We now not only have better availability to places of study, but also to the wider world with greater access to technology. For example, Edinburgh University’s own interactive map over the places of residence of accused witches (www.witches.is.ed.ac.uk) allows people to view historical records that would previously only been available through heavy textbooks and inaccessible archival records. Regarding the second issue of diversity, in comparison to the twentieth century, we have created a much more nuanced (although regrettably not fully inclusive) approach to interpretation of histories that are often forgotten in favour of ‘old white men.’ Such developments have allowed a new wealth of topics into “the academy”, such as Queer history, Black history, and Women’s History. This allows for a much more layered and entangled form of history than ever before. Overall, to do history in the contemporary is to take on an ever-broader range of sources, topics and voices; hopefully ones that will only increase and diversify with time and technology.

Melissa Kane 

There is certainly a different feeling about studying and writing contemporary history – it has a closer connection to the present and helps us understand our current world. I find focusing on our contemporary history helps me to be analytical towards current topical affairs and issues. I think that the study of history is at an interesting stage in which we are beginning to see the use of online material and, ever more increasingly, social media as source material. This opens a wealth of source material, as well as greater accessibility to much of these materials. Although, there are still ethical considerations to be made about how these sources can form archival collections and what type of formal permissions will be required. 

Mhari Ferrier 

How do statues effect public memory? Is this memory different for the historian and the general public? How stable is this effect? 

Let us be honest – statues are not the primary way that anyone learns about history. The claim that to review or remove statues is to ‘erase history’ is fundamentally flawed when mechanisms like education and media are far more significant ways that people learn about or shape their understandings of the past. What statues do instead is to enshrine the values and priorities of the society that erected them into public memory. At the point a statue is raised, it becomes a statement from a certain historical context that someone represents events or values worth not just remembering, but emulating. As such, when that society moves on, their meaning shifts. Yet to a casual observer, the statue remains a statement that the person or event it commemorates is continually worthy of celebration. This is most apparent over issues such as Confederate statues in the United States. Such statues were raised with a mind to tell a certain narrative about the Civil War, and the South that emerged from the conflict. Today, that meaning has changed.

Jess Womack 

Statues are something built by a specific group in an environment and imposed on the rest who live and work there, and once built they are quite hard to get rid of. While this is most often quite benign, most buildings are inoffensive, for the mind if not the eyes, statues are more symbolically charged and more conspicuous. Indeed, the symbol is the entirety of their function. While this symbolic charge on public memory should not be overstated, I also find it doubtful that they have no effect. After all, why else would they be there? Edinburgh is very charged in this sense, with plenty of war memorials scattered throughout the city centre. My favourites in this category would be the memorials on top of Castle Rock, with placards telling the reader in a delightfully passive voice of the brave men who died in imperial conflicts like the Indian Uprising (1857) and the South African War (1899-1902). This is one aspect where I genuinely do not know what people not versed in this type of knowledge think or get out of them. If nothing else, it strikes me as incubating a banal nationalism. 

Inge Erdal 

Our understandings of history are much more affected by our present world and ideologies than anything else. I have watched the debates surrounding statues with interest, and it has been great to see the work of Professor Geoff Palmer succeed in gaining an additional plaque to the Dundas statue in St Andrews Square, for example. Statues, as well as wider commemoration and memorialisation of events, tells the historian a great deal more about the times in which they were constructed than the actual events being commemorated. Historian Karen L. Cox’s book Dixie Daughters explores the meaning of this type of commemoration in relation to how the United Daughters of the Confederacy remember the Civil War, which is a useful illustration of these ideas. I personally have no qualms about certain statues being removed and believe they would provide a greater deal of historical engagement in museum collections or similar. When you think about it most statues do not provide a comprehensive explanation of who they represent, and therefore are not really adding to the public’s historical understandings. 

Mhairi Ferrier 

At a political rally in Phoenix Arizona, in August 2017, ’eminent scholar’ Donald Trump said, ‘They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history.’ His statement was a response to activists trying to remove Confederate statues and monuments. But as John Oliver pointed out in his topical piece on the Confederacy, “Monuments are not how we record history, books are, museums are…statues are how we glorify people.” “Whose Heritage”, a study by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in 2017 found that there were “at least 1,503 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces,” and “more than 700 Confederate monuments and statues on public property” across the United States. The vast majority of these were erected decades after the Civil War during the 1910s, 1920s, and the Civil Rights movement. They were not erected to remember the war, or even to glorify the Confederate soldiers and generals, they were erected to intimidate African Americans and bolster support for white supremacy. All this had largely been forgotten by the twenty-first century.  Statues and monuments glorify the individuals depicted and the causes which they stood for; they are not about remembering history. Even when they were erected, they were a symbol of support for what that individual supported. No one in the past was perfect and we should be careful in judging them by current standards. But If people want statues to be used to remember history – stick them in a museum.

Alex Smith 

Statues show to us the people we are supposed to know; the powerful leader, the brave insurgent, or those who died in valiant ways, according to the narrative set by its commissioner. Thus, the statue retains two simultaneous contexts; the one in which it was created, and the one in which it is interpreted, but do not always retain the nuance that would be critical in historical work. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last year has once again criticised this lack of accountability and nuance and forced us to reinterpret these ‘public sources’ in its wake. It is also important to remember that these discussions are nothing new and we have faced these issues of conflicting values in contexts throughout our history. One such example that I recently became aware of is the statue of the Duke of Cumberland that once held space in Cavendish Square, London. Also known as the ‘Butcher of Culloden’, the statue lacked public admiration for its absence of aesthetic value as attitudes towards Scotland began to develop away from rebellious stereotypes, resulting in its eventual retirement and later melting.  The statue was eventually remade in 2016 by Korean artist Meekyoung Shin, this time of soap, before once again being removed. This, like the statues of Edward Colston, Winston Churchill and Robert E. Lee demonstrate the role that statues create in public memory, as an awareness of a nation’s history and its elected ‘heroes’ which will inevitably come into conflict with modern and changing values.

Melissa Kane

Do historians hold a responsibility to correct popular ideas of historical figures? Do they have more responsibility if those figures were problematic? 

Historical figures are often glorified or demonised. Names like Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great are greeted with preconceptions of greatness, military prowess, and amazing leadership. In contrast, men like Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan are seen as vicious, brutal, and cruel. However, there is a very strong case that Caesar and Alexander were equally cruel. Caesar killed and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Gauls, and Alexander got drunk and killed his friends. All historical figures are far more complicated than they are in popular ideas. Historians have a responsibility to make this clear and update modern perceptions. Historical figures need to be viewed from a variety of perspectives and placed within their contexts. Historians are free to disagree with historical figures on issues, but they also need to be careful when applying modern values and culture to them. No one was perfect, and things were viewed differently in the past. This does not mean that these aspects of people should be glorified, but context is important, and historians have a responsibility to view historical figures within their own time and location. All historical figures are problematic in some way, they all did something or held an opinion that disagrees with modern viewpoints. It is why they should not be glorified or demonised. Nothing can change the past. Historians should be at the forefront of learning what people did wrong in the past, what they did right, and how that applies to us now. Nothing more. What needs to change is modern historiography, so that a wide range of perspectives, especially minority ones, can be engaged in the study of the past and historical figures are viewed from as many angles as possible. 

Alex Smith 

In any historical discussion, it is always important to discuss not only the positives and strongholds of your subject but also the negatives and the inevitable downfalls. It is, therefore, assumable that the same should be held of discussions surrounding popular historical figures, to create a three-dimensional narrative that is currently missing from much of public history. The role of the historian within this, I would argue, is not to necessarily place into the public memory a singular interpretation that goes against conventional acceptances. Instead, I think that the greater work and role of a historian is to create and develop this complex narrative of a person that is often limited to historical circles of debate to the public sphere, particularly when that figure is one of fame and popularity. There will inevitably always be the stereotype of the historian who fails to watch a historical enactment without the ‘it did not happen like that’ comment or (for Reign/The Tudors fans) the laughability of costumes in television and film, but it demonstrates a wider motivation to hold a responsibility to educate and revaluate historical figures. Regarding problematic figures, I do also believe that this increases the value in holding such responsibility to ensure that those who are not worthy of public admiration fail to achieve it and the public romanticisation of problematic figures of history is stopped wherever possible. 

Melissa Kane 

I do think that people have a moral responsibility to challenge the belief of others that they find erroneous and harmful, and have their beliefs challenged themselves. That said, I am more sceptical of whether historians should do that. First of all, historians do not all agree. Sure, some things are uncontroversial, like Columbus not being the first European to visit the Americas, but others are bitterly contested, for example politically divisive figures like Margaret Thatcher. Secondly, I fear it betrays a technocratic attitude of talking down to other people, who are to repeat the words of the experts, and who again are experts because they have the right professional and academic credentials to be accepted as such, rather than how truthful it is or is not. I think therefore that in such cases the emphasis should be less on ‘correction’ by appeal to abstracted authority and more on good-faith conversation by speaking for your own beliefs and claims to knowledge. Similarly, the political dimension inherent in struggles over public memory should always be acknowledged, along with the self-recognition that you might also be wrong and should therefore avoid condescension beyond all else.

Inge Erdal 

Absolutely. While there is nothing wrong with simplified or pop history – in fact, this is a fantastic and necessary way to engage society with the past – the problems emerge around figures and events that caused significant harm. Because, in many cases, that harm is still ongoing. By upholding harmful individuals as heroes or beyond fault, history becomes the contemporary as we make a statement about the values and priorities of the society we chose to shape and live in. For groups who suffered at the hands of problematic figures, to laud them is to say that these identities are still unwelcome or unimportant. And the idea that we cannot criticise or correct misinformation about history, especially national hero figures, only contributes to an atmosphere in which the truth is subject to whichever narratives uphold the dominant public discourse.  

Jess Womack 

‘If studying history always makes you feel proud and happy, you probably aren’t studying history.’ 

This is something I came across recently on social media, and I think it is a useful statement here. It is certainly necessary to try and correct popular understandings of history, as these inaccuracies are often damaging to certain communities and this very much extends to historical figures. It appears to me that some of these problems arise from the belief that many people have that history is made up of fixed facts and events, whereas, as historians know, we are constantly adapting and improving our understandings of the past due to the availability of new source material and analysis. Perhaps placing a greater emphasis on historiography in the school history curriculum could help address this.  In popular discourse, several key historical figures problematic actions or behaviours are simply glossed over, and all history practitioners have a duty to address this in relation to their work. Social media, especially Twitter, has really brought these conversations and discussions to the forefront. For example, Dr Stephen Mullen (@glasgow_sugar) is routinely correcting members of the public’s inaccurate, and often insensitive, beliefs about the Atlantic Slave Trade. I think modern means of communication have a lot to offer these conversations.  

Mhairi Ferrier 


Jess Womack is a History and Politics Graduate from the University of Cambridge, currently studying for her MSc (Taught) in History at the University of Edinburgh. A columnist for Retrospect, you can read more of Jess’s work here.

Inge Erdal is a 3rd Year MA (Hons) History student at the University of Edinburgh and a columnist for Retrospect. You can find more of his pieces here.

Mhairi Ferrier is a 4th Year MA (Hons) History student at the University of Edinburgh, currently engaged in research focused on the Highlands and Islands region of Scotland. Contributing as a columnist for Retrospect, you can find articles written by Mhairi here.

Melissa Kane (@melissaaalyson on Twitter) is a 2nd Year MA (Hons) History student at the University of Edinburgh. Writing for Retrospect as a columnist, you can find more of Melissa’s work here.

Alex Smith is a 1st Year MA (Hons) Ancient History student at the University of Edinburgh whose main interests lie in ancient and military history. Contributing to Retrospect as a columnist, you can find more of his pieces here.

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