Warts and All…

Our interpretations of the past are often very rosy – it rarely even rains! Reconstruction, by artist Jan Dunbar, of an Early Neolithic farmstead in the east of Scotland.

I am old enough to remember the introduction of immersive ‘time travel’ type heritage displays. They often involved using electric ‘cars’ to progress through a reconstruction, or series of reconstructions, of the past. There were even sounds, and appropriate smells, along the way. I, along with many others, loved them. Today, I think most people will have experienced this sort of thing.

I can remember some heated debate about the ‘sanitizing’ of the picture they presented. There were no horrible wounds or injuries, no distressing sights, the acoustic background inevitably contained bird song, and bad smells were confined to the merest whiff of body odour. Rats and other vermin were invariably cute, and the people, generally, well fed, and healthy. It is generally the same when you watch a television drama, or read a novel. Our view of the past was, in essence, comfortable.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to notice that things are changing. Museums are tackling more challenging aspects of the past and the displays can be thought provoking, even disturbing. The realities of our inhumanity to each other can linger in the mind long after we have got home and poured that restorative gin.

It is the same with television and novels. Producers are less worried about exploring material that might once have been deemed ‘unsuitable’. And novels can be downright depressing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, living through the current twenty-first century pandemic, I have tended to go for lighter, uplifting, reading matter. I have, perhaps, avoided thinking too deeply about the awfulness of life. Inasmuch as I thought about it at all, it did not worry me that heritage interpretation presented a rosy view of the past. We all know that the past was often difficult and gruesome. Don’t we? Did we really need to be reminded of the horrors?

I have been trying to challenge myself to stick with more difficult reading matter, and it is not that hard. Indeed, I have found it rewarding. Maybe this just says more about myself, but I am beginning to feel that we can no longer take the downside for granted. We are never going to touch on all the varied aspects of life. But we do ourselves no favours by blocking out the bits we don’t like.

There is scope for new interpretations in all fields of life. There is definitely scope to embark on new trains of thought, new challenges, new ways of seeing the past. Discomfort is relative, but it is no bad thing to accept our mutual humanity and share the bad as well as the good.

If you want to start, there are some excellent new museums displays emerging. And I can recommend this as an excellent novel that will turn your ideas about a popular period of history (and what might constitute a ‘happy’ ending) on their head: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang.