Simon Schama's A History of Britain ended this week with a typically brilliant entwining of the lives of Winston Churchill and George Orwell (both characterising key threads in the unravelling British empire).
As something of a postscript, and perhaps an answer to a few critics, Schama's written a fine lecture on history and television (better edited transcript at The Guardian than two short excerpts at BBC Four). It's ostensibly about televisions facility with history, but about a whole lot more than that too. I love this quote:
"It was Walter Benjamin who agonised (right up to his death) about the "Angel of History" blown backwards into the future, stunned by the mounting wreckage of the past, incapable of making them whole again. But it was also Benjamin who accepted that the future, for better or worse, would be experienced in fragments: topographies glimpsed through car windows each comparable to a celluloid frame; the music of life passing through fields of sonic distortion. We could take it or leave it. If we left it, there would be others happy to be the manipulators of the staccato media - Albert Speer, Leni Riefenstahl.
The obligation to capture memory, and catch in the mesh of contemporary wiring, Benjamin thought, was especially urgent at times of danger. This is one of them; no time for historians to fetishise the meditative. History commands attention for its gifts of freedom, empathy and the possibility of reconstituting community; all big words to which the practising stiffs of the craft are constitutionally allergic. But the big words won't go away."
Note the community function of history there. Schama expands on this:
"Community, because sewing back together the cut skein which once tied the continuity of generations offers the possibility of reconnecting meanings and experiences separated by the arbitrary divisions of time and space."
Interesting pointer as to communities connecting over time and space. Rings lots of bells, yes? And later, discussing how academics etc. threw up walls around history, orienting towards text rather than image but merely serving to simply self-reproduce its own institutions, Schama notes:
"Now those walls have been overthrown by the coming of the digital archive, brilliantly exemplified on the Library of Congress's American Memory website, available alike to scholars and neophytes, graduates and grannies. History may stop being a profession and become again a community."
Here's the American Memory site. We might add in the fabulous Smithsonian History Wired project (there's a feature about the site design concepts here) - this has the beginnings of some interaction/community potential, though little in the way of a more freeform personal connection, which Schama is probably talking about.
To that end, Tom Coates' recent, excellent presentation on Building New Communities - Learning From Weblogs may be more apposite. I would imagine that there's huge potential for informal historical learning networks based around weblogs.
[more history? upsideclone]