Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture

June 18, 2009

Since the 1990s, Jerome de Groot's hugely suggestive study contends, the popular appetite for and means of "consuming" history have boomed. This enfranchisement and participation has unsettled "official" historical sources and knowledge. By offering a valuable update of Raphael Samuel's seminal Theatres of Memory (1995), de Groot likewise finds a cause in the dichotomy of professional and popular historical practice.

The book's breadth of reference is impressive: museums under new Labour; gaming and computer-generated imagery; historical novelists such as Philippa Gregory; re-enactment societies; pornography; metal-detecting; reality TV; comedies such as Blackadder; genealogy; medieval cooking; tribute bands and sampling; antiques; archaeology; blogging; and celebrity historians including Simon Schama and David Starkey.

Another merit is that the book looks at really popular culture, so Horrible Histories, Heartbeat and 'Allo 'Allo! feature alongside heritage debates in the 1980s, film and costume dramas. This is like "history" guest-starring on the BBC celebrity genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? and discovering hybrid relations and practices that it had ignored cohabiting in popular culture. Some topics are excluded - fashion, "what if" histories - and work on memory and commemoration and the Freedom of Information Act might also have been usefully probed.

One can object that de Groot is apt to load any activity with historical meaning - regardless of whether it can bear the interpretive and theoretical weight. But his approach is consciously provocative, both in its populist content and uses of cultural theory.

What he doesn't offer is much analysis of whether a popular reflexive historical consciousness was more salient in this period. DiY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain (1998), edited by George McKay, is an example of a study that plotted its limits. De Groot's study discloses as much about modern consumer and media culture as history per se. Internet technology and multimedia platforms are key drivers of change, enabling access to more abundant sources and organising knowledge in new ways.

Theory is deployed imperiously here, imposing order on a diversity of empirical material. The pervasive presence of the past suffused by a multiplex of popular cultural practices is impressively conveyed, but do most participants and viewers see things likewise?

I doubt that any reader will fail to be astounded (pleased or not) by the range that de Groot's historical radar captures. That is perhaps the point - his interpretations trump not only contextual considerations but also limited evidence of participants' and consumers' perceptions of their activities.

Viewers are regularly presented as happily engaging in the sort of sophisticated reimagining of the past and contemporary selves that de Groot asserts, but do they take history as seriously? Does the "sheer number" of historical TV programmes or leisure participants in online gaming outweigh the activities' status as entertainment?

The virtual turn is unlikely to convince many historians, not least when it is wrapped in the language of cultural theory and when it leads de Groot to contend that because historical re-enactment is unfinished and performative, its identities might be "more authentically human" than normal life. Most historians are conscious of the indefinite article and the contingencies of their research, of the constructed categories they deploy to "boundarise" history, and are quite as prone to Google.

But in other ways, taking popular culture seriously generates useful insights. De Groot notes how TV not only normalises but also reveals the otherness of even the everyday and recent past, be it in the treatment of animals in The 1940s House or language in Life on Mars; how ideas of post-nostalgia are shifting away from conservative romanticising of the past to something more disorderly; and how consuming history is simultaneously making history.

Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture

By Jerome de Groot. Routledge, 304pp, £75.00 and £22.99. ISBN 9780415399463 and 9456. Published 20 October 2008

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