My visit last year to Sir Peter Jackson’s amazing ‘Knights of the Sky’ exhibition at the Omaka Aviation Heritage centre – one of the best air museums on the planet – raised all sort of questions for me as a historian.
The point of difference about this exhibition – and, for that matter, about Jackson’s WW1 ground war exhibition in the former National Museum in Wellington – is the detail. The reality. The equipment is grimy, used. The mannikins have been impeccably presented with stubble, fingernails, dirt – everything ‘dressed’ down to the finest detail.
I suppose it’s what one might expect from a film-maker whose schtik has always been ‘real’ and who has access to the incredible resources of Weta Workshop. And when it comes to feeling as if you are ‘there’, this is the way to do it.
But it also raises a deeper philosophical question about history.
How do we define it? Experience it? Is an exhibition like this one a ‘more real’ expression of history than other museum exhibitions that simply display artefacts in cabinets with interpretation boards? Can we even define our history by the artefacts and materials left over from it?
Inevitably these questions have exercised historians for millennium (think Herodotus), and certainly in recent decades and centuries – ever since the idea of ‘studying the past’ as an intellectual discipline of itself became widespread. Like so much about our thinking these days, much of the philosophy of modern historiography can be traced to the ‘age of reason’ and the rationalism of the eighteenth century, and the way that thinking has evolved since.
This has framed the key question: how do we perceive history – and what is ‘real’?
You’d think that an artefact you can see and touch is ‘real’, and this is what Jackson has certainly presented. Or maybe it’s the lists of facts – ‘one d–n thing after another’, as someone once said?
Actually, no. The physical reality of a past time and the chronology of events is all valid, sure – but it is only a part of what it meant to be there. So too is the list of events. All of them are merely parts of the human reality which encompasses all of the wide panoply of human endeavour, just as the present does.
Perceiving that human reality is notoriously tricky. It is more than the written record, more than just the physical reality of the time, more than lists of events. All these things show us part of that reality – but not the whole thing. And the vision is always patchy.
How to handle that patchiness – how to frame our vision of the past and use available information to build a picture- has always been one of the fundamental debates in history-as-intellectual-discipline. How do we do it? Many ways have been tried, from the French ‘annales’ school, which tried to list everything on the basis of ‘completeness’, through to a mid-late twentieth century effort to ‘harden’ history by applying ‘scientific’ principles to the data.
This last was laughable – the main effort in New Zealand resulted in an argument that, if you disregarded all the evidence other than documents showing that colonists got drunk, hit and sued each other, then you could prove that their society consisted people getting drunk, hitting and suing each other. It was sufficiently shrouded in academic dribble that this fundamental logic flaw was masked. Although presenting us with the spectre of historians marching boldly forth with one hand firmly clamped on their intellectual pudenda, it really wasn’t a viable approach.
Statistical analysis, like all aspects of history, has its place – but it isn’t the sole or complete answer.
Is there a way forward? As I’ve argued in some of my books, the nature of the philosophical problem is such that it doesn’t have an answer – we cannot transcend it. (Weirdly, one book reviewer who’d never met me and knew nothing of my character insisted that I thought I was ‘above’ the issue, which was odd, as I’ve always said the opposite).
All we can do, I think, is understand. Meanwhile, if you do want to check out some unreal history, have a look at my book Fantastic Pasts – a wild comedy adventure in alternate New Zealand history. It’s free to Amazon Prime customers in 2016.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016