History is remarkably powerful. It shapes contemporary culture and informs our collective and individual identities, even when centuries separate us from events of the past and their eyewitnesses. Recently, there has been an increasingly mainstream debate over ‘difficult’ histories – aspects of the past that teachers struggle to navigate in the classroom, that spark impassioned public debate on Twitter, that ministers fumble with like hot political potatoes.
At the Cumberland Lodge conference, ‘Difficult Histories and Positive Identities’, historians, authors, academics, curators, and many more, gathered to discuss these important histories and their relevance today. The format comprised a series of paired presentations by guest speakers, followed by audience-led conversations. I have reviewed some of the key themes below, and the engaging discussions that they each ignited.
‘Past truth’ and why history matters
The day began with Professor Margot Finn considering the collective value in developing historical awareness. The ensuing Q&A considered some of the eponymous, modern-day architecture that remembers figures who significantly impacted on society but also committed or promoted horrific acts, from Edward Colston (slavery) to Francis Galton (eugenics). Some argued that removing these names from public spaces ‘whitewashes’ history and risks future generations forgetting the past, but others felt that their deletion heralded social progress.
Next, the author Keith Lowe addressed the topic of remembrance and memorialisation. Here, a motif arose which later recurred: that monuments and wider historical narratives often laud heroes, or solemnly commemorate victims, but conveniently ignore the rest of society, who sat somewhere in the middle and passively acquiesced to the rise of brutal regimes.
Another theme was the UK’s education system and its role in identity formation. There was debate over the trade-off between breadth and depth in history curricula, and around the struggles that over-worked teachers face in incorporating controversial historical truths into their packed lesson plans.
This session commenced with a talk from Yasmeen Akhtar, director of Alexander Haus, an education centre established in a former country home that was taken from its Jewish owners under Nazi rule and subsequently divided by the Berlin Wall. Dr Katie Markham followed, with a comparative discussion of ‘museum activism’ in Northern Ireland and Cape Town, contesting government narratives on The Troubles and apartheid history, respectively. The importance of activist museums and the crucial lens they offer on difficult histories that have been neglected by mainstream establishments was also highlighted by Lisa Power MBE, a trustee of Queer Britain, the UK’s first LGBTQ+ museum.
The subject of managing and chronicling history was covered by Christian Davies, foreign correspondent for the Guardian and Observer, who offered a fascinating case study on how deliberate distortion of historical events by those at extremes of the political spectrum can influence collective societal memory in the modern day.
Peace, reconciliation and positive identities
My most powerful conference memory was a heart-breaking but uplifting presentation from Kemal Pervanić, a concentration camp survivor from the Bosnian War and founder of Most Mira (meaning “Bridge of Peace”), a charity that promotes tolerance and cohesion amongst northern Bosnia and Herzegovina youth, through arts and community projects.
I was also struck by the delegate who challenged the very notion of ‘difficult histories’, asking ‘difficult for whom?’. For many, it is mainstream history that is the most ‘difficult’.
Next, Sean Pettis, a programme manager from Corrymeela, discussed the Community’s organisation’s peacebuilding efforts in Northern Ireland. One delegate remarked on the potential value of studying atrocities from other countries and epochs, as a segue into confronting those closer to home, when seeking to educate younger generations about their nation’s difficult past.
History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes, as the saying goes. There is a lot of bleak truth to this. To offer any hope of breaking this pattern we must preserve, teach and learn from the past. This inspiring, multidisciplinary conference gave me new perspectives, and filled me with a sense of obligation to share and act on them, going forward.