Archive for the History Category

Learning From History

Posted in Current Affairs, History, Society, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on March 17, 2013 by richardhowle

I have always loved history. At school I was lucky enough to have teachers who helped me understand that history is about understanding and learning, not facts and figures. Facts and figures are important, yes – but only to aid that understanding and to provide context.

This week Paul and I had a birthday break in Berlin and as we sat on tour bus going round the city (traveller tip – always a great way to get your bearings in a new city) my heart sank as the pre recorded commentary spouted pointless facts and figures about a beautiful city. “This road is 50 meters wide”. Who cares? I can see how wide it is, tell me something that will help me understand its significance to the city, tell me about the things that have happened here…..

Thankfully the whole visit wasn’t like this and a visit to the Checkpoint Charlie museum helped provide an insight into what life was like in the divided city and what impact it had on all of our lives. I have been lucky enough to visit lots of museums and exhibitions in lots of cities around the world that have helped feed my love of history and my understanding of the world that we live in. The ones that have a human edge to them, real life accounts of what life was like, such as the Museum of Occupation in Riga or the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, are the ones that are the most illuminating and informative.

However just reading about events or examining artefacts still isn’t enough. Nothing beats experiencing it for yourself. Meeting the people, seeing the locations,  watching, listening, smelling, touching – getting under the skin of a place is really what makes  history come alive.

When I was younger I was lucky enough to go to Moscow and there I visited the Moscow Arts Theatre and watched a production of Chekov’s A Cherry Orchard. I had studied it school and thought that I understood it. But it wasn’t until I saw the play in context, performed in Russia, by Russian actors with a Russian audience that I really understood it.

So whilst I have read a lot about Berlin, the second world war and the cold war, actually visiting Berlin has given me a whole new level of understanding. Seeing the city, understanding the geography and impact of the wall, visiting the museums, viewing the exhibits and displays and imagining what life must have been like. Then sitting on a train opposite an old German woman and realising that she had lived through it all, suddenly makes it real. Makes it human. What if it was you, what if it was your city? This didn’t happen to the nameless and faceless, this happened to you and I.

Berlin wall

A City Divided

This is why history is important. To help us understand what has happened, to provide context for what is happening today and to help inform our decision making about tomorrow.

Facts and figures, dates and statistics are all very good, but they don’t explain why and how. History is a real, living thing and we will do well to listen to it and to learn from it.