The Future of the Past

Posted on Sep 23, 2012

History is not the past.

History is the story we tell about the past.

And depending on WHO tells the story and HOW and to WHOM — all of this will shape the histories we have and thus our ideas about the past.

Good history then, is about story-telling. And if done well, it’s stories about people and their lives—about how they have faced challenges, struggled through hard times, how they have dealt with the realities of living, and how these personal stories fit into more broad-sweeping narratives.

History — sharing stories about the past — was born as art, as song, as performance.

Eventually, these songs were written down. The power of that written word brought to cultural memes (history, religion, government, art) an authority, a privilege, a superiority (both deserved and undeserved, both used and abused).

WRITTEN history became a symbol of advanced social evolution. ORAL history was marginalized as sub-standard and less reliable. Thankfully, and to the benefit of those who come after us, this hegemony has, in the last few decades, been recognized as the limiting, self-serving tool that it is.

For hundred years of years history has been, for both good and ill, been synonymous with TEXT, with DOCUMENTing, with RECORDing, with WRITEing (and wrongly, RIGHTing).

History is about books.

But with newer technologies, people are making cultural changes—  as was done with the printing press in the 15th and 16th centuries or with film in the 20th.

The Internet and what is now possible with just a single website are making it possible to revolutionize how we “do” history: how we find, preserve and share stories about the past.

Timelines.tv is only one fantastic example. Focusing primarily on British history, the site takes the concept of TEXT well beyond the written word— opening the door on the real promise of the Internet to “do” history in new ways, to tell stories about the past in creative ways that go so far beyond a simple book. Another example that I’m now currently bringing to life: uvahistory.com.

Most exciting: websites like timelines.tv that combine the written word and oral histories, with photos, maps, timelines, audio and video, and that open the door to joining in the act of “making” that history, offer a template for “doing” history in the 21st century— a methoed that recaptures the ART and creativity that was once at its heart— when history was about telling stories, about sharing songs, about paintings on cave walls. History again becomes art, becomes STORY.

THIS is the future of the past.