Is it the historian’s responsibility to explain why history matters?


opinion column illustration

Illustration © Kaisu Savola 2014

Not that long ago I overheard a conversation between two girls who had just finished their A-levels. They were discussing and comparing the usefulness of the different subjects they had studied during their twelve years of schooling. They liked mathematics but weren’t sure what to do with it afterwards, psychology had been exciting but not that useful, and they both agreed that history was not relevant unless you were interested in it, which neither one of them was, apparently. As a post-graduate history of design student about to embark on a year-long research project, I felt it my obligation to convince them that history does, in fact, matter beyond personal interest, but at the timeI found myself at a loss for words.


I didn’t realise, then, that an easy way of responding to those girls would have been to point out that history exists around us all the time and everywhere, that it does not subsist statically in the past. History, in all its forms, is actually unavoidable; it is present in our personal lives, the media, the entertainment industry, the arts, and politics, just to mention a few. There are countless articles published daily that rely on historical fact to try and explain what is currently taking place in Israel or Ukraine. The entertainment industry is giving us one blockbuster after another set in historical conditions while Facebook creates an historical timeline of our personal lives everyday. Similarly,contemporary art is laden with references to art history, just as modern music owes immeasurable credit to the history of its genre.


But why does all of this matter? And more importantly, is it the historians responsibility to be able to explain why it matters? In a recent column for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik points out that history is most often thought to be important because we could learn something from it. Gopnik argues, however, that actually, history just shows us how nothing usually works out the way it was planned, suggesting that we should think twice about our actions. When reading Gopnik, and considering the examples mentioned above, it seems like history’s exclusive function is either to educate, explain, or entertain. If history is seen only as education, all of the fun disappears. If the expectations put upon history to explain or provide answers to present quandaries are too demanding history loses its autonomy. History as entertainment often neglects the verity offacts for the sake ofa good story. But at its best, perhaps by combining all of these functions, history does help in finding out why the world is the way it is. Understanding this will inevitably provide a better chance of understanding our place in all of it, too.


The conversation between the two girls bothered me for days afterwards. Hearing it made me realise that I cannot think of history as something self-explanatory or inherently interesting and relevant to everyone just because I see it like that. In other words, it is the historians responsibility to understand and communicate why history matters. Reaching out to a wider audience is not possible if the importance and the intrigue of history are taken for granted. There is nothing wrong with writing for other historians, but all knowledge of history cannot be contained in those professional circles, that are, in the end, rather small. Therefore it is crucial that every once in a while we update our own ideas and perceptions about history; maybe history is something that exists beyond the archive and our academic books after all. As design historians, our starting points may range from something as wonderfully ridiculous as a collapsible top hat to a piece of a Victorian toothbrush, or a student design magazine from the 1960s, but no matter how deeply intrigued and fascinated we might be by these objects, personally, it is not worth much if we are unable to communicate their importance to others in an engaging way.


In the end, it is every historian’s own choice whether they want their work to reach only that tight circle of colleagues, some corporate heads and decision makers, or those two 18-year-old girls. Making that choice, or at least considering the type of people who will read the text, watch the TV-show, use the app or listen to the podcast, will help in communicating the importance of the subject. Doing so will not detract from the independence or meaning of historical research, nor will it lead to historians losing their integrity by merely telling the stories that people want to hear. Communicating the significance of history within our own field provides more meaning to our otherwise rather solitary work and helps us to create engaging experiences for a wider audience. Being able to explain why history matters will, ultimately, make us better academics, dress history specialists, curators, archivists, teachers, and journalists.


Kaisu Savola

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