Putting Ourselves Into History
I can see it isn’t easy to make a case for my deprivation, but I am putting it out there anyway – that I live in a part of London that has no local museum, and to me this feels like a loss, because where else will I put my story (where does anyone put their story?) except in a local museum?
I can see why no one thought to make a museum here. We live on a hill overlooking the city and before the houses came – which was late in the 19th century – there was nothing here but fields and tall trees, farm tracks and running streams, plus a hamlet with a few streets and some of those big, but not very grand, houses from which there still comes a whiff of 19th century middle-class living, such as white muslin dresses in summer and ice skating in winter. Girls from one big house married boys from the next. A single coach and horses ran down the hill each day, taking the patriarchal father to his desk in the City, and brought him back each night. The barrel organ man came round once a week and the lamplighter came each evening.
And I can also remember that I never wanted to move to this part of London – I thought that living on the hill would be boring – which makes it all the more surprising, my new-found feeling of loyalty to the people who walked these country paths long before I was born.
Local history has a reputation for being small-town and parochial, but for a passionate defence of its role in our lives you should try Joseph Amato’s book, ‘Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History’ (University of California, 2002). For Amato, ‘Local history satisfies an innate human desire to be connected to a place. It feeds our hunger to experience life directly and on intimate terms. It serves nostalgia, which is arguably as compelling a cultural force as the quest for progress. It fosters loyalty to a unique climate of feelings and thoughts, and honours the kind of primal attraction one has to one’s own youth – which is unique in the irreversible succession of life.’ Above all, in a globalised world it is about a passion for the local and the particular, and therefore always has at its heart the concept of Home.
Amato is clever. He lights upon two key qualities of local history. Firstly it is intimately connected to the feelings we have for a particular time in our lives – usually our childhoods or twenties.
This neatly echoes our own experience in our daytime jobs as museum-makers, that visitors feel most strongly about exhibitions that focus in on that time in their lives when they lived most intensely – usually their childhoods or twenties. It’s a moveable time, this time just before the Present, the time that is Just Past but not yet History, and we care about it and want to be part of its making, because it’s ours. (My nerdy but romantic reference here is to Helen in Book 3 of the Iliad, who sits at her window weaving the story of the Troyal War even as it is unfolding outside on the plain.)
And Amato makes another point, that local history is intimately bound up with our sense of Home (to which I would add that maybe a local museum is one of those things that make a place feel like home). Home these days is not a soft concept. With the housing shortage and now the closing of local museums, Home is becoming highly politicised. It’s not only that we need somewhere to live; it’s also that we need somewhere where we can put ourselves into history.
There is a moment along our local high street, between the fish and chip shop and the bank, when the ground suddenly falls away and you can see for miles across east London. Sometimes in the evenings you can see Canary Wharf touched with gold, and the mirrored river snaking its way across the Essex marshes. It stops me in my track each time, must have been stopping passers-by for as long as there have been passers-by to stop.
The Image at the top of the page is from Hornsey Historical Society and shows the High Street in Muswell Hill.
‘Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History’ is by Joseph A. Amato, 2002, University of California Press