The attraction for ‘how things were’ is determined by a sense of wistfulness, and is driven by distant memories, stories and anecdotes told by parents, grandparents and other family members. This and other memories, images and feeling are created and underpinned by a sense of nostalgia; so for example phrases like ‘the pace of life was just that little bit slower’ and ‘things were that little bit more relaxed’, ‘life was safer in them days’ and of course ‘the good old days’ provide all the material necessary to form associations, which help make past memories into a coherent past. This past is of course is a distorted reality and can give rise to criticism by academic or professional historians, but it feeds the needs and desires of ordinary people to know more and more in our expanding historical culture, engaging them with the past through first-hand experience.
History professionals, like most professionals tend to emphasize the differences between themselves and others. Those who “do” history for a living (whether schoolteachers, university-based historians, professionals), ‘has alarming implications for the future of our nation and our historical profession’ . In education many people, including me found that conventional history as taught at school, with it’s over emphasis on remembering factual information boring. With educational freedom and the changes to employment following the decline of the manufacturing industry there has grown an increasing number of newly alert more self aware people wanting to connect with the past new ways. This had lead to the growth in what was once called “Industrial Archaeology” but is now sometimes seen as bottom up history or Public History. With the concept of Living Museums, people can be transported back in time to experience the past hands on and participate on a personal level in how the things used to be.
“Nostalgia has gotten a bad rap. Those who seem to live in the past often face criticism from others. Many pundits and scholars associate nostalgia with reactionary thought. But have we been too quick to dismiss the experience of nostalgia. While nostalgia can, on occasion, be dysfunctional for an individual… Individuals decide – in the present – how to recall the past with meaning, which has evolved over time and is relevant in the present”.
With nostalgia, people can ‘step in to, and back out of’ the past in safety, of course when people do this it can be argued that they are often picking out the best parts of the past, so as quite often happens, there is a degree of distortion that takes place. But as their interest grows, there is a subsequent growth in accuracy as their historical culture develops and grows with it. For example the Severn Valley Railway holds several nostalgic events throughout the year. The 1940’s wartime weekends are tremendously popular, because not only does the Severn Valley Railway dress its trains and stations to look as they did in the 1940’s, they also invite the public to participate in this nostalgic event by encouraging them to dress up and role play the parts too. By allowing people to step into the role, and immerse themselves in the experience, they feel the past and form associations with it, strengthening their desire for more history. When I was attending one of these events a few years back, I spoke to two young women who were wearing Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) uniforms. Their attention to detail and accuracy was amazing. They had a really strong desire, to be as historically accurate, both in their uniforms and demeanour as possible. So strong was this desire for historical accuracy that the two women were vigorously questioning two elderly ex service men, concerning the accuracy of their own uniforms. However questioning did not stop at their own uniforms, they also wanted to learn as much as possible, from these two men, everything about their war time life, their personal experiences in the wartime years; amateurs clearly fully immersed in their passion to learn from the past. They told me that this is how they spent most of their weekends, travelling the country, dressing up and attending as many nostalgic events as and when they could, and of course in the process learning more and more by engaging with the past, developing associations, and driving the desire for more.
From an historical point of view, professional historians may argue that nostalgia like this has very little historical value, however the most important thing to remember here, is that nostalgia breaks down the barriers between amateur and academic history, the keen amateur need have no fear of ridicule from the professional. I from a personal perspective I love nostalgia; it’s a portal to the past and a way to step back in time and bring forward memories, images and feelings of times gone by. It is in fact a self fulfilling prophecy, generating a further growing demand for history on a practical level, engaging with the past and changing our relationship with it to a more personal and realistic way. It is a way to engage with the past, to open up minds and create a need to know more. From these memories, images and feeling, we create associations, making better use of our memory and we generate a thirst for learning, thus expanding our historical culture, becoming newly alert to the evidence of the visual. When we open up our minds we remove the barriers in our need to know more, and go out and experience even more things.