Book Me: Keeping History Real

This scowl could only be saying, “Interpret history for yourself!” (Image:

Some days history comes alive and some days it stays comatose. Why is that? Why does one subject or exhibit or picture, etc, spur a curiosity in the past and another makes voluntary dental work sound like fun?

I had one of these moments at an interpretive center the other day. I can’t call it a museum because museums tend to emphasize collections of things as is, without intensive interpretation.

This location wasn’t bad, but there were a lot of ambient battle noise recordings that could have been a couple of decibels lower. That coupled with an audio playback of each written display in tight quarters resulted in a cacophony that made me want to leave rather than immerse myself in history.

On the other hand, it might have been me because I was tired out from a long couple of days of filming, so I wasn’t in a very receptive mood. However, on the road home as I read the short pamphlet about Fort Necessity in southwestern Pennsylvania I really got into the subject. Who knew that a multi-thousand dollar interpretive center would fail to inspire where a 50 plus cent sheet of folded paper with a few paragraphs would?

This is the dichotomy of history and of the use of interpretive centers, which are more and more replacing old style museums.

Is interpreting history wise? Should not each one of us have a chance to examine the facts unimpeded and come to our own conclusions?

What if the bias of the interpretive center is wrong? Are you really teaching history or are you perpetuating an opinion?

Probably both. We must interpret, and any teacher of history, no matter how much they try to avoid it, is interpreting the subject via their own personal bias to their students. That’s part of being human.

Developing a personal curiosity into history can help each of us interpret the facts on our own. If an exhibit fails to enthrall you then dig into some books on the subject. You might find the angle that eluded you and develop a whole new area of interest.

Keep history real!

Amanda Stiver


Natural History, Naturally

History covers all sorts of topics and usually we assume “history” means social history – the study of groups of people, the way they live, their actions, and specifically their interactions, peaceful or violent. But let’s not forget natural history.

Natural history is the study of plants and animals, the natural world. Nowadays we have more specific scientific names for all the various sub-categories. Natural history museums are in every major city and usually at every university. There you will learn about the indigenous peoples of the area (why they are tagged with plants and animals and not with human history I have no idea), geological formations and distinguishing characteristics, local animal and plant species, etc.

Pliny of this and Pliny of that

Way back when, Pliny the Elder published his Naturalis Historiae in 77-79 AD. It covers a multitude of subjects and is, according to our friends at Wikipedia, a compendium of ancient knowledge from sources and experts extant at that time relating to and drawing on the natural world. His work served as the model for the study of natural history through the centuries.

Natural history, quite naturally, relates to social history because people did and still do make their living from the natural world. Despite those nice glossy “modern” dwellings and all our digitized efforts, we still have to root around in the dirt to get our veggies and I guarantee without agriculture our societies will collapse in famine and pestilence.

Know the natural world

What I mean to impart is that it is as important to understand how the natural world really works (be careful, there are experts who purport to know and whose theories of climate, health, and ecology drawn on more supposition than fact) as it is to have a good grip on social history.

It also serves to remember that we haven’t been industrialized all that long, so knowing how the ancients and the denizens of the “olden days” lived helps us to gauge if society is moving in a positive technological direction or toward disaster.

The Great Museum Debate

Narrowing the itinerary, I had decided on four museums. The Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum, the Imperial War Museum, The Churchill War Rooms, and lastly, the grand poobah – The British Museum.

Sadly, on that trip to the UK I had no time for the first three-fourths of the list, but I made it to the British Museum. The edifice is impressive – a wide yard with steps that lead up to a long portico of sturdy, grey columns.

Fetch your hiking boots…

When I think museum, I think a small, well organized place with five or six rooms you can see in a fairly short time. This is not the right impression for the British M. The £2 map you can buy to keep you on track is a maze of room upon room of antiquities.

With only a few hours to see a tiny sampling of what it has to offer, I strolled through the main exhibit hall of Egyptian artifacts (the Rosetta Stone among them) into the Parthenon sculptures and back down the Assyrian hall. I looked in vain for a Scythian exhibit, only to find out it was closed for repair, so I took a short turn in the temporary display of 18th century exploration. I entirely missed the ancient British artifacts, Asian, and African exhibits, among all the rest.

It’s hard to take in the scale of so many ‘things’ housed in the museum complex, but it helps to imagine a very classy warehouse where you can see into most of the boxes. To learn more about the museum, the web address is

I recommend going because it’s the abode of bits and fascinating pieces of ancient civilizations, but also because the building itself is an historic landmark. Frankly, most of London is an historic landmark.

Museums draw you to the past. Coming face to face with an ancient Egyptian carving brings reality to your sense of history – something that looking at a picture in a book cannot do. You may be surprised at how your assumptions are burst by seeing how much smaller or larger a famous artifact is from the way you imagined it would be.

Who owns what?

On a related note, there is a continuous debate about the ethics of major European museums keeping ownership of items discovered in other countries (mostly former colonies or protectorates). British, German, and French museums, among others, house some of the seminal pieces representing Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Many nations want their items returned, and fairly enough, as they exemplify the cultural history of those places. On the other hand, with the instability, politically and religiously of many nations of origin, some argue that human history is best protected by keeping the items where they have been for the past century or more.

Arguing in favor of this sentiment was the 2001 destruction in Afghanistan of two giant statues of Buddha by Islamic extremists. Likewise the ensuing chaos and devastation of Iraq at war has resulted in the pilfering and destruction of many Assyrian and Babylonian artifacts from Iraqi museums.

Consensus eludes the world on this issue at present, but compromises have been suggested. Returning the originals to their homes, but not before precise copies can be made to remain in place at western museums. Not unlike the copy of the Lascaux caves in France that was made to protect the original from too many respirating tourists.