Few Brits can doubt that they live in an old country. Museums, art galleries, country houses and castles have never been so popular. So it is odd that Britain, almost alone among major western nations, has no museum devoted to its national history. Though there’s a national museum of Wales and of Scotland.
Lord Kenneth Baker, a former Conservative cabinet minister, has long campaigned for a Museum of British History. He laid out his case for “a new institution to give our children a true sense of national pride” in 2008 in The Daily Telegraph. “A people that has little knowledge of its past will lack the confidence to cope with the problems of today and the possibilities of tomorrow. That is why over ten years ago I tried to establish a Museum of British History… to show the position of Britain as a world power and European power, and what over the centuries it has given the world. It would also demonstrate how Britain came together as a nation.”
Baker’s vision was challenged by Dr Tristram Hunt, in The Guardian, as “a highly particularist, drum-and-trumpet, Westminster-and-Whitehall view of the past that mainly entailed good chaps doing good things… In Baker’s golden-thread view of English liberties there is no sense of the struggles littering our past.”
But Hunt’s article did have one thing in common with Baker’s – scant analysis of the objects the museum would display, though he feared replicating “the worst kind of 1970s Soviet museums – with their cabinets of revolutionary agitprop and life-size models of Yuri Gagarin”. As an alternative, he praised the British Library’s ‘Taking Liberties’ exhibition, which explored history through milestone documents. So life-sized models and revolutionary films and badges are out, but a manuscript copy of the 1689 Bill of Rights is in.
What exactly should a national museum of history display? It is not simply a matter of ideology – of telling the right story – which is what both Kenneth Baker and Tristram Hunt assume it to be. A museum is first and foremost about objects. Sometimes those objects might be documents, which can be beautiful as well as informative. But it is paintings, posters, photographs, furniture, machines, pottery, clothes, textiles, and reconstructed rooms that make museums attractive to most visitors, not documents.
Display is as much an aesthetic issue as an intellectual issue. Visual appeal can complement good history, but historical correctness can make a dull day out for Josephine Public and her kids.
Glancing at national museums elsewhere is cautionary. The German Historical Museum is carefully considered, but it is striking just how two-dimensional many of its displays are – paintings, prints, photographs, and lots and lots of text panels. The storyline is that of the academic history textbooks. The objects are essentially illustrations. Similarly, the Nordic Museum in Stockholm obliges the visitor to read what amounts to a book written on the wall.
There is more fun to be had at the National Museum of American History, in Washington, showcasing the original Star-Spangled Banner, first ladies’ gowns and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The 19th-century gallery uses blown-up and cut-out photographs and mock-ups of domestic scenes alongside surviving objects, without much intrusive text. But in what sense is it history, when so much is inauthentic, contrived and impressionistic? We are a long way here from the self-conscious, balanced evaluation of sources, a touchstone of academic history.
Perhaps we don’t need a museum of history?
After all, specialist museums and heritage sites are drenched with history. But what makes their displays different is that most start from the objects, only bringing in history afterwards to explain them.
Pictures and objects have an unmatched, almost magical capacity to make the past come alive for a popular audience. But often they do it in ways that academic historians find partial and misleading.
History as practised by academic historians is rooted in words, not objects. After all, what distinguishes history from prehistory, the historical from the archaeological, is the existence of a written record. The challenges of exhibiting our national history run much deeper than political ideology, but are bound up in the DNA of the discipline of history itself.