History is more than the sum of its parts

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.

Ah! The HONOUR of it all, meeting a fallen foe at last, my friend Englander!
Ah! The HONOUR of it all, meeting a fallen foe at last, my friend Englander!

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.

So cool!
So cool!

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).

Lots of layer blending in this one, and I'm saying this about my own book!
Lots of layer blending in this one, and I’m saying this about my own book!

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


3 thoughts on “History is more than the sum of its parts

  1. I admire Sir Peter Jackson’s WWI exhibit, and wish I’s been able to see it, rather than just pictures and videos. However, I’m sure everyone is glad he didn’t go all the way and add realistic smells as well. Much of history, even the romantic bits, would have smelled really bad compared to what we’re used to.

    I also remember studying the English mystic Margery Kempe. Because of her religious visions she was venerated by many but it’s got to be said that in real life she would have been a real pain in the nether regions to be around. She spent extended periods wailing loudly which must have been extremely irritating to her travelling companions. Some even tried to leave her behind in Italy during a trip to the Holy Land. Seeing a film about her with real time wailing included would’ve been ghastly.

    1. There were a couple of ‘sniff’ exhibits! A demo of what mustard gas smelled of. As for the actual odour of WW1 – yeah, kind of glad they hadn’t added that. Tolkien described it in The Lord Of The Rings in the Dead Marshes, which were a fairly precise description of the Western Front.

  2. Great post! The one question that jumped out to me early on – whether it is more “real” to have legitimate artifacts or a “realistic” recreation – is one I think about a lot.

    On the one hand, I feel a draw toward those things actually brought from the time authentically. There’s a show about a guy in Vegas who “restores” antiques to their original working condition, and it just about breaks my heart every time because by the end of the show, the original antique is about 10% restoration and 90% replica. I recall one episode where he restored a fighter pilot’s helmet, and actually made new decals for it, discarding the originals. I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t just put the original in a case as is and then make a replica if that’s how far you were going to go!

    But on the other hand, I appreciate a little dramaturgical recreation to make things feel for a modern audience as they did for the original audience. The best example I can think of is Baz Lurman’s Moulin Rouge, where they made the inside of the club a fantasy of color and light in a way that was totally unrealistic for the time, but which presented a level of excitement that a more authentic presentation could never have given a modern film audience. In the DVD commentary, one of the producers (I forget who) said that they felt they had to add to the presentation in order to convey to modern audiences what the actual patrons of that time would have felt in reaction to what we would see as a mild and modest scene. It made sense to me that to recreate the experience of the reaction authentically, the filmmakers had to be inauthentic in their dressing of the set.

    I’m quite torn between the two.

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