Mary Beard: “I couldn’t give a toss what Roman emperor Donald Trump was most like” plus 3 other things we learned about her
In a special interview to mark 500 episodes of the History Extra podcast, we spoke to acclaimed classical historian, author and broadcaster Mary Beard. Here are four things we learned…
Some of the best discussion around Civilisations took place on social media
Civilisations, the BBC’s 2018 headline art series presented by Mary Beard, Simon Schama and David Olusoga, spanned 31 countries on six continents and aimed to cover ground that Kenneth Clark, in his 1960s series Civilisation, left untouched. It was perhaps inevitable, says Beard, that much of the discussion which followed was tied up in comparisons to Clark’s original.
Mary Beard is a regular tweeter to her more than 200k followers (find her here: @wmarybeard), and says: “It was very interesting that the best discussions – and some people might think this is unusual – were actually on social media. The engaged and intelligent responses that I got on Twitter after my programme was really encouraging. It was a cut above what came out of the standard press, and partly I think this was because the press had gotten so hooked on asking, ‘Was this better than Kenneth Clark’s version?’ Most people haven’t watched Clark’s version. So, although it was kind of a journalistic obsession, it didn’t really mean much to most people.
“I think that [the comparison] rather stifled some of the kind of discussions that we could have had, because it became a kind of stand-off between Clark – in his tweeds, discussing the greatness of civilisation – and those slightly conservative commentators who wanted to say ‘Does Mary Beard really think that a prehistoric Mexican head is as good as the Apollo Belvedere?’ I never said anything of the sort, but I thought it was a way the press had of not looking at the big issues that we were trying to raise.”
No one reads the labels in museums
In her role as the presenter of the BBC’s arts discussion show Front Row Late, earlier this year Mary Beard spent a day as a gallery assistant at the British Museum – an experience which she describes as “a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled”.
And, at a time when museum visitor figures are down, it was a great chance to see how people interact with the artefacts and displays in museums.
“I’d always wanted to see a museum gallery from the point of view of the people who were there, not just curating it, but guarding and attending it. I thought it would give you such a different view of the museum, which it really did. It was a bit of a spoof, but it was a spoof with a point.”
“I was a bit shocked that nobody looked at the labels," says Beard. “They looked at some of the information panels, but I know how much immense effort goes in from museum staff when writing those labels; they struggle over every word. I think that in a day, in one of the galleries in the British Museum, I saw hardly more than a couple of people actually look at a label. They had other information available to them; they were using gallery guides in paper form and a lot of people had things on their phones, I think. But I thought, ah that’s interesting, because I put a great deal of store about the label.”
Twitter has made discussions about history “more democratic”
Mary Beard admits that social media can sometimes mean “getting into scrapes”, but in our podcast she explains how it also offers a wholly different world of engagement from when she began her career.
Sometimes I do still think ‘Look, I’m the professor of ancient history around here’
“In the past, you might have written something in a newspaper or a periodical, or go on the radio, and you didn’t know what people thought about it. You might see what a reviewer saw about it, but you wouldn’t know what the ordinary listener or reader thought about it, unless they chose to write you a letter. Now you have an instant engagement with the people you want to talk to.
“There’s nothing more exciting than live-tweeting through a television programme you’ve made. Because people do ask questions. Someone might say ‘Oh, I missed where that was’, and you can just tweet them back. Sometimes they’ve got really interesting observations or disagreements, which you can start a conversation about.
“It can be time-consuming, but it really does change your interaction with the readership and in that sense, it does make it more democratic. Now, I think one can overestimate the democracy involved here. After all, sometimes I do still think ‘Look, I’m the professor of ancient history around here’. I never say that, but I sometimes think it!”
We’re always rediscovering the ancient Greeks and Romans
Prior to this interview, Mary Beard has joined the History Extra podcast on a number of occasions to talk about subjects including the ancient cities of Rome and Pompeii. When asked why Classics has such a big, enduring appeal for each generation, Beard explained how the Greeks and Romans still, certainly in Britain, matter to us.
I couldn’t give a toss what Roman emperor Donald Trump was most like
“The Romans are still present in the world in which we live, for better and worse. Why is London where it is? It’s because the Romans put it there. They are undeniable, they’re in the soil, still.
“But I don’t think they’re relevant, I don’t like it when people say ‘Oh, the Romans are so relevant’. I can see what they mean, but actually the Romans are dead and gone and I couldn’t give a toss what Roman emperor Donald Trump was most like, that’s not what I’m into.
“But I think that we’re still having conversations that the Greeks and Romans kicked off, and we’ve learned to debate things that are important to us, through listening to how they debated it. It is very difficult to have an intelligent conversation about democracy or liberty, or the rights of the citizen without seeing, sooner or later, that we’re actually involved in the ancient conversations about that.
“Of course, I don’t mean for the life of me that Greco-Roman culture is the only ancestor of our culture – thank heavens it isn’t! But on the other hand, we are still talking their talk and I think we don’t really understand our own language if we don’t get some sense of that. They also help us to see ourselves from the outside. I think history is partly about realising how weird you’re going to look in 2,000 years’ time!”
Mary Beard is a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge as well as an acclaimed author and broadcaster. Mary has presented a number of series on ancient history for the BBC. Mary was talking to Elinor Evans on the History Extra podcast, listen to her full interview here.
Elinor Evans is Deputy Digital Editor at HistoryExtra.com