Let’s Get Physical: Objects and History
Popular works of history have often employed material objects as a lens through which to analyse the past. By attaching significance to objects, artefacts and buildings, historians are able to elicit greater public engagement with the past. The history of people is inextricably bound up with the history of the physical world around us. Here, I will explore several different examples and attempt to uncover why they each offer both a useful framework of historical analysis, and a means through which to engage the general public in the past.
The popularity of museum culture is itself a testament to the enduring value of objects as a gateway to the past. These buildings house a multitude of different objects, which are used as a narrative focal point. Visitors are first invited to become enthralled by the ancient artefact in front of them, or even the expertly crafted replica. These objects are subsequently situated in context, leading the visitor on the path towards historical discovery. The object and the artefact therefore act as the “catchy headline” of the history world, without which it might be considerably harder to engage the average tourist in the complex and boundless past.
An especially popular museum is the British Museum in central London. Historian Neil MacGregor explored the importance of the object in public history through his ‘History of the World in 100 objects’ exhibition, and its accompanying book and Radio 4 series. Whilst historians can often find themselves confined by the conventional paradigms of the discipline, such as ‘national history’, MacGregor has used the object to break out of such constraining frameworks. The Rosetta Stone serves as a useful example. The stone was inscribed with three different languages, originated in Egypt and was subsequently fought over more recently by the French and the English during the Napoleonic wars, when the British etched the fourth and final language upon it. This object and its history can therefore not belong to one nation, or one era. It’s significance as an object continues to be transfigured with the passage of time. The process of exploring history through, what Mary Beard has described as, ‘lumps of granite’, becomes an almost subversive act, breaking out of historical paradigms. This enthrals the general public, for whom such objects become an engrossing enigma, impossible to put into one ‘box’.
However, MacGregor has shown that, even when adopting ‘conventional’ historical frameworks like the nation-state, such as in in his book Germany: Memories of a Nation, objects, buildings and sculptures act as useful focal points from which to draw out important historical nuances. A standout example from the book is the significance given to the Brandenburg Gate. The gate itself tells a story, one that combines the history of both Germany as a nation and Europe as whole. The first person to use the gate as a triumphal arch was Napoleon Bonaparte, whilst Berlin was under French occupation. Napoleon promptly removed the bronze quadriga from the top to take back to France as war booty, altering the object itself. The quadriga was returned in 1814 at the end of the French occupation, with the addition of the Prussian eagle, used to re-affirm Prussian triumph over the French.
The gate, and the physical transformations it underwent, therefore tell the story not only of Germany, but of the European power struggles of the 19th century. As the gate has continued to stand in the same place, it has also become pivotal to the narrative of Germany’s more recent history. During the partition of Berlin, the it was isolated and inaccessible, immediately next to the wall. The gate therefore took on another layer of symbolic importance. East Berliners gazed upon the gate as they looked to the west. The supposed symbol of national triumph had been transformed into a symbol of national division in the aftermath of World War Two.
In France, the use of objects as historical focal points has actively shaped the country’s geography. The ‘Axe Historique’ extends outwards from Paris to the west: a line of monuments and triumphal sculptures which create a physical historical narrative, or journey, upon which people can travel. Whilst the axis has had to undergo some slight adjustments to accommodate geographical realities, it is so precisely aligned that the Arc de Triomphe can be viewed clearly from La Défense, which is some 5km away. Here, objects have not only served an important function in national memory, but have become central to the way people visit, explore and make their own history within the city.
Whilst national museums and monuments are important to public history, they often privilege dominant historical narratives – ones that often best serve to reinforce the primacy of the nation-state. However, the use of objects in public history projects can act as a means through which to recover and reclaim the historical narratives which are absent from most public museums. ‘Wearing Gay History’ is a project that uses a collection of different t-shirts, mainly from the last twenty years, as a means of memorialising LGBT+ history and culture. The website clearly states the aims of the project: ‘whether to protest, satirize, or show pride, the LGBT community’s often ignored history can be seen vividly in the clothing we often throw out’. However, such projects do have their limits. The creators themselves recognise that the archives they have digitized are biased towards the history of white, gay men. The project could therefore benefit from diversification and some moves towards intersectionality, but still, it serves to demonstrate the utility of objects in creating a shared sense of history amongst sub-cultures, a need not always fulfilled by the ‘official’ museums and monuments produced within the dominant national paradigm.
Objects and buildings have also taken on a central role in local history projects. In my local area, ‘Radical Essex’ aims to explore the county in relation to ‘radicalism in thought, lifestyle, politics and architecture’. The recent ‘Essex Architecture Weekend’ invited local residents to take a tour of Essex’s architectural gems, such as the brutalist University of Essex Building, designed by Kenneth Capon, in Colchester. This project, and its interactive map, allow residents to engage with local history geographically. Using the map, I was able to find out about the ‘Stanford-le-Hope vegetarian colony’ in the town where I grew up, home to 12 vegetarian pacifists for the duration of World War Two. Tools like this invite public engagement amongst history enthusiasts and average residents alike. Historical narrative is fused with the physical and the geographical in order to engage the public with the history that surrounds them and that they encounter unknowingly everyday.
In history as an academic discipline, it can be easy to forget that the past exists physically, as well as textually. The use of objects, artefacts and buildings as focal points for history is incredibly important for the success of public history. Whilst we still need those 800-page, detailed historical volumes to painstakingly sift through, it would do us good not to forget that history can also be felt, held and stood in.