‘History is as much a reflection of the present, as it is an attempt to understand the past.’ Discuss.

Introduction

When using the term ‘reflection’ it is important to define what this means. With regards to this essay, the term will be used to refer to both the mirroring of events and the process by which current thought influences the presentation of the past, vice versa where the past influences thought upon the present day. Similarly, what is considered as past and what is considered as present? Whilst existing in our past, at one point in time, a source such as a newspaper article was written in the present, either reflecting on their recent past, or becoming ours. Taking this into account, the essay will examine reflection of the present across multiple time periods. History is the act of studying events of the past, typically political, economic and cultural; usually to aid understanding of the causation and consequences of these. However, history can also be considered a reflection of the present to aid our understanding of the past, in that we can apply our own knowledge of current politics and social standards to evaluate previous political systems and living conditions. Arguably, the past could be better evaluated within its own context as it does not apply to our own, whilst the consequences of the events of the past become the present we are currently experiencing.[1] History in education is one aspect in which history reflects the present over an attempt to understand the past, as the curriculum highlights what it thinks students should learn, whilst memorialisation is both an attempt to understand the past yet is created in modern society.

Main Text

Across history, there are parallels between the reactions to epidemic diseases and medication. The response to the smallpox vaccination of 1796,[2] the more modern attitude towards AIDs and treatment by vaccination since the 80’s,[3] in addition to the scare of the MMR vaccine controversy of the 2000’s which led to a refusal of the vaccine by many parents.[4] In the case of the smallpox vaccination, Jenner exposed patients to cowpox through inoculation, after making the connection that milkmaid’s contracted cowpox but never smallpox. However, due to the lack of medical knowledge during this period, the uneducated patients were opposed to the vaccine, an attitude which is exaggerated in cartoons from the time where the fear of turning into cows after having the inoculation is illustrated.[5] The fact that these responses are repeated across a large time period suggests that history is as much a reflection of the present as an attempt to understand the past, as the previous case studies are used as a comparison to current situations and knowledge, almost to the extent that the past can be used to predict the present, especially in terms of medicine; although the past will never repeat itself.[6]

To further this argument, past and present conditions are often compared to evaluate wellbeing, suffering or enjoyment of the previous decades. This would suggest that history reflects the present as much as it is understanding the past, as the present is being used to evaluate situations of the past. For example, it could be argued that the first half of the 20th century was poverty ridden, with extended families crowding into perhaps one or two rooms; or the family situations in which children left home at 15 or younger in search of job prospects or marriage, considered abnormal by today’s standards where women in the UK receive the same education standards as men and tend to marry later due to prioritising their career.[7] These odd conditions of family life in the 30’s, are only considered that as we judge them by the luxury we experience today, whereas the contemporary people may have thought those conditions an improvement to what they suffered in the Victorian and Edwardian era, yet again this is still a comparison of their present to their past. Alternatively, people of the medieval period, after cities had been constructed, looked back on the Golden Age with nostalgia, after realising that the beauty of the world was before man had destructed nature’s creation and created bustling, manmade cities ridden with filth, starvation and poverty.[8] These examples imply that our understanding of the past comes through establishing the differences between that and modern society, therefore taking the argument that history is a as much a reflection of the present as it is an attempt to understand the past.

On the other hand, history is not necessarily a reflection of the present, but is still linked to the present day with regards to memorialisation in terms of museums and preservation. Whilst we are not comparing conditions or experiences from the past to our own present, we are using current heritage designs to preserve the memory of previous time periods. In most instances, museums occur within their own context – which arguably is the most efficient way history should be studied to achieve full understanding;[9] meaning the artefacts are preserved in the habitat they would have occurred in. These most commonly include houses of the aristocracy now owned by the national trust, such as the Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire previously owned by the Anson family since 1624,[10] alternatively the Anne Frank house located in Amsterdam, which hid the Frank family amongst other Jews from The Nazis during the Holocaust.[11] These museums both contain the furniture and décor of their previous inhabitants, rather than the objects being removed to alternative museum exhibitions. Arguably, the Anne Frank house in terms of reflecting the present, or solely an understanding of the past is quite the contradiction, as Otto Frank, Anne’s Father, desired for the removable furniture to be taken into storage rather than be on display in the museum[12] – which one could argue reflects the present due to his then current feelings on the house and the memorial process. Yet, this was actually a desire which stemmed from the past events, when on exiting the house the soldiers removed all of the Annexe family’s belongings, which would argue that this is a pure example of the context of the Holocaust period rather than a reflection of present debates on memorialisation and the construction of museums.

The contradiction to this argument appears when artefacts are in fact removed from their contextual habitat and are displayed in glass cases in modern museum buildings and exhibitions, such as those in the British museum, which houses exhibitions of statues and sculptures from the Ancient Egyptian and Grecian periods,[13] showing a slight reflection of the present as modern methods of preservation are used in that the building was not created within the context of the exhibits, but rather an present afterthought when in search for a place to house them, pulling these items of the past into present culture. This illustrates our present methods of historiography and curating which, whilst currently present, may be examined from a historical perspective in the past, and contrasted with contemporary methods, much as we currently compare methods since the medieval period. This argument can also be used when evaluating whether sources such as novels, newspapers and books of the past reflect their present, which thus becomes our past and point of research.

Arguably, newspapers create history from current reflection of the present day, which can be considered both from a historical and modern viewpoint. Whilst the historians of today may look upon a newspaper article critically within its own context, as a primary source taken from that event in history, it must be acknowledged that whilst they may not apply their own present context to the article when under examination, this source was once a present reflection of society, as newspapers are published not for the purpose of creating historical sources, but informing the population of current issues. For the writers of the article, it reflects their present, for us as historians in the present it is an understanding of historical events. This is similar to the writing of Charles Dickens in Great Expectations[14] or Oliver[15], which weren’t written to intentionally become a primary source for historians, yet due to his accurate and in depth reflections of the present society he lived in, has become a source that historians may turn to, despite being fiction, as these sources provide insights on social history in terms of how the working classes and aristocracy lived. This could also be applied to contemporary authors of today who unintentionally are creating evidence of current culture which could be used as a primary source for historians in fifty years’ time. The argument here is that the essay title is a matter of perspective when defining what qualifies as past and present in terms of reflection, as present inevitably becomes past, thus reflecting the present whilst aiding the understanding of the past for future historians.

Whilst the present inevitably becomes the past, the consequences of present events inevitably become the future, as the past contributes to the present we live in today, rather than an alternate present that could have been were these events or consequences different.[16] Taking this into account, if the consequences of events such as war and revolution are more important factors to study than the causes,[17] which must be evaluated in terms of significance, cost, benefit and seriousness, in addition to their wider context – the impact this has had on relationships with other countries. This implies that naturally, history is supposed to reflect the present in addition to aiding understanding of the past, as the consequences of events cannot be studied immediately, unless short term.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the question of whether history is as much a reflection of the present as it is an attempt to understand the past comes down to a matter of perspective on definitions of past and present, as the present inevitably becomes past, therefore historians are examining sources that were once contemporary. Although it can be argued that history is purely an understanding of the past without any influence of present factors in terms of specific museum preservation, others show a slight reflection of the present with regards to methods of exhibition. Evidently the past and present hold parallels with regards to social responses towards advancing ideas in medicine, which suggests that the past helps understand the present in addition to the present issues being applied to aid understanding of the past. In contrast, the past also tends to be understood through the establishment of differences between that and modern society, either sparked by nostalgia or sympathy from the present day. Overall, the process by which present becomes past and future becomes present is naturally occurring, therefore suggesting that reflecting on the present to understand the past, or reflecting on the past to understand the present, is a perfectly viable method of understanding both previous and modern societies, as only then can the extent of the consequences of historic events be truly established.

 

Bibliography

Berridge, Verginia. Strong, Philip., ‘AIDs and the Relevance of History’, Social History of Medicine, (1991)

Cubitt, Geoffrey. History & Memory, Manchester University Press, 2007, Ch.1 History and Memory, An Imagined relationship

Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations, Oxford University Press (1860)

Dickens Charles. Oliver Twist, Penguin Classics (1838)

Evans, Richard J. In Defence of History, Granta Books (2001)

Thomas, Keith. Perceptions of the past in Early Modern England, in David Bates, Jennifer Wallis & Jane Winters (eds.), The Creighton Century, 1907-2007, London Institute of Historical Research (2009)

White, Jerry. The Worst Street in North London, Cambell Bunk, Islington, Between The Wars (1986)

BBC History, Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/jenner_edward.shtml [Accessed: 14/11/16]

Fine Art America, Cartoon: Vaccination (1802) http://fineartamerica.com/featured/cartoon-vaccination-1802-granger.html [Accessed: 14/11/16]

National Trust, Shugborough Estate, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate [Accessed: 15/11/16]

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1 A.C.E, http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.1.first.html [Accessed: 20/10/16]

The Anne Frank Trust, Museum http://www.annefrank.org/en/Museum/ [Accessed: 15/11/16]

The Anne Frank House (Museum), Amsterdam, visited April 2015

The British Museum, The British Museum (Museum [Visited October 2016]) http://www.britishmuseum.org/ [Accessed:15/11/16]

The Guardian, Roy Greenslade, ‘The story behind the MMR scare’ https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/apr/25/mmr-scare-analysis [Accessed: 14/11/16]


[1] Geoffrey Cubitt, History & Memory, Manchester University Press, 2007, Ch.1 History and Memory, An Imagined relationship pp.20-66

[2] BBC History, Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/jenner_edward.shtml [Accessed: 14/11/16]

[3] Virginia Berridge, Philip Strong, ‘AIDs and the Relevance of History’, Social History of Medicine, (1991) pp. 129-38

[4] The Guardian, Roy Greenslade, ‘The story behind the MMR scare’ https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/apr/25/mmr-scare-analysis [Accessed: 14/11/16]

[5] Fine Art America, Cartoon: Vaccination (1802) http://fineartamerica.com/featured/cartoon-vaccination-1802-granger.html [Accessed: 14/11/16]

[6] Virginia Berridge, Philip Strong, ‘AIDs and the Relevance of History

[7] Jerry White, The Worst Street in North London, Cambell Bunk, Islington, Between The Wars (1986) Ch 5. ‘The Family and Social Change’

[8] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1 A.C.E, http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.1.first.html [Accessed: 20/10/16]

[9] Keith Thomas, Perceptions of the past in Early Modern England, in David Bates, Jennifer Wallis & Jane Winters (eds.), The Creighton Century, 1907-2007, London Institute of Historical Research (2009)

[10] National Trust, Shugborough Estate, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate [Accessed: 15/11/16]

[11] The Anne Frank Trust, Museum http://www.annefrank.org/en/Museum/ [Accessed: 15/11/16]

[12] The Anne Frank House (Museum), Amsterdam, visited April 2015

[13] The British Museum, The British Museum (Museum [Visited October 2016]) http://www.britishmuseum.org/ [Accessed:15/11/16]

[14] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Oxford University Press (1860)

[15] Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Penguin Classics (1838)

[16] Geoffrey Cubitt, History & Memory, Manchester University Press, 2007, Ch.1 History and Memory, An Imagined relationship pp.20-66

[17] Richard J Evans, In Defence of History, Granta Books (2001)

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