A response to Hashtag History

Reading about Hashtag History today has been – to quote a particularly odious guest at Fawlty Towers – really getting my dander up. The Hashtag History website proclaims that its aim is to provide (or fight for) “History for all”, to reclaim it from the “people out there who believe history should be presented only in the way historians want it”. Hashtag History’s contention is that the presentation that historians demand –namely that historical material ought to be referenced, footnoted and provided with a bibliography – is tantamount to a barrier to “the masses” accessing history.

The impetus behind this contention is the article written by actual historian Kate Wiles for History Today, about the proliferation of historical images (particularly medieval illuminations) on Twitter that are frequently posted with no reference or credits, making it extremely difficult if not impossible for anybody interested in the image to explore it further. Hashtag History argues that silly memes using historical images might grab someone’s imagination in a way that journals like History Today will not because, in their words, “History Today is a magazine for the academic”. If silly memes are burdened with having to provide references then this will only “keep history in the academics club”. This clarion call to bring history to the ‘masses’ (a somewhat unsavoury, patronising term) sounds well intentioned, but how extremely muddle headed it all is.

Let’s begin with the writer’s description of how (s)he became interested in history. The interest was apparently inspired by Jurassic Park, and further stimulated by a visit to the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur exhibit. Jurassic Park may not be an attempt to depict anything like paleontological reality but it was nonetheless produced with the advice of Jack Horner, an American paleontologist (a form of historian, no?). The Natural History Museum’s exhibitions are produced by those specialists who work at the museum – paleontologists, keepers of collections, curators, researchers – some of whom no doubt qualify as academics and/or professional historians.

My own love of history was partly galvanized by reading History Today. I subscribed to the magazine (it is a magazine, not a journal) as a teenager. I was far from being an academic, merely a young person passionate about history and with a geekish thirst to learn more. It is undoubtedly a rigorous publication, written by specialists in their fields, and it demands a certain level of intellectual engagement. But to describe its target audience as “the academic” is quite wrong.

Hashtag History allies itself with the likes of Horrible Histories and “live historians and volunteers who push the imagination” in wanting to give history back to the people. Horrible Histories are not akin to “silly memes”. They are rigorously researched books that rely on information provided by historians and historical researchers. Live historians are – well – historians. And volunteers (I’m guessing (s)he is referring to those who work at historical/heritage sites?) are almost invariably extremely well informed, well educated people who research their areas with all the rigour of the professional historian (indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if some, or many, volunteers are retired historians/educators themselves). So I’m at a loss to understand what kind of history Hashtag History thinks it needs to reclaim?

I am **all** for history being accessible. As a writer on historical matters (including museum/heritage interpretation) and museum curator it is my job to make history engaging to a non-specialist public. One of the motivations behind my work is my indignation, not to say downright fury, that so much art history writing is so deliberately obfuscatory that it creates a near unbreachable barrier between the public and the subject.

There is nothing wrong with having your interest in history piqued by non-academic sources, whether its Jurassic Park or Blackadder (from which I gleaned many a historical erm – fact). But behind any good, engaging history is either an actual professional historian or a person with meticulous research skills, using sources that are themselves well researched, well referenced, and properly contextualised. In short, academic sources. There’s no need to reclaim history. If you want, as Hashtag History claims, “History told properly”, then it should be done by qualified people. Like those who do it for a living.

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About ruthgarde

I am a writer and curator based in London.
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