Winston Churchill once said: “The further back you can look, the further forward you are likely to see.” There is so much truth in that statement and yet it is almost impossible to get young people to read about history let alone enjoy it. Why? Where does it all go wrong? Hang on…I hear the philosophers among us saying maybe ‘the history haters’ are all ‘right’ and us ‘history huggers’ are all ‘wrong’; that history is just a boring old pile of stuff that happened in the past and we should all just forget about it and move on. I don’t buy that theory. History has everything to do with the present and the future. Respect for the past is respect for what one’s ancestors have achieved, what they strived for and what we can learn from the mistakes they made, after all we are geographically, physically, spiritually and financially where we are today because of the choices they made in their lifetimes.
When I was at high school we were fed a very bland diet when it came to history. We learned everything parrot fashion just to get through the dry, boring syllabus and nothing was ever done to make it more interesting. We did not discuss, debate, challenge or unpack any part of it. So my love of history certainly did not come from that quarter. There was also no television (South Africa only got a television service in 1976) so we couldn’t watch documentaries nor was there any Internet to surf. So my love affair with history began with my family and in libraries . My parents encouraged reading and nurtured my tender interest in archaeology. We often visited the library – all those fascinating books on Ancient Egypt and underwater archaeology published by Life (anyone remember those?). As a kid I particularly loved books on dinosaurs, fascinated that these creatures had ruled the earth for millions of years and then ‘Poof’ …gone in the blink of an eye (well, in evolutionary terms that it is). Doesn’t that last part make the hairs on your neck stand up and a niggle of concern tickle your grey matter? If it could happen to them, then what about us and our blatant disregard of the warning signs of global warming, large scale extinctions of animal species and the era of super bugs. Maybe the next era in evolutionary terms will be that of viruses…but I digress.
History can be made interesting. One only has to look at the example set in many British Museums where re-enactments and interaction are the order of the day. The recent film “A Night at the Museum” starring Ben Stiller sparked a lot of interest and I read somewhere that one of the Museums in Cape Town had staged a Night at the Museum ‘experience’ where actors posed as the people in the exhibits and came to life to huge shrieks from the public.
There are exhibits in British Museums where one can experience what it was like to be in a World War One trench with the sound of gunfire and flashes of artillery lighting up the set – even the smell of rotting mud I am told. Never having been to it I am not sure if the last part is true but with or without the mud, history needs to be brought to life in order for younger generations to become interested in it. When children begin to ask questions about what they see then you know they are interested. When my children ask questions about history I am so happy I have to stop myself from bombarding them with a lot more than they bargained for!
The murder of historian and raconteur David Rattray was a very sad event and it made me think about him and what he had achieved when it came to bringing history to life in this country. He was a story teller of note specialising in the Anglo-Zulu wars and he would take people out onto the plains where the battles were fought and one could feel the tension rise as he told how the impis had appeared on the hill ‘over there’ and the pandemonium that followed below. Apparently no-one who heard him had anything but praise for the man and his fans amongst others included Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi – traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu Nation and Prince Charles. If only there were more people like David and I am sure there must be, who would be given more prominence on our TV channels and at our schools so that a lively interest in history would be sparked.