History Comes Alive reviewed

When, back in the 1970s, intellectuals observed a “wave of nostalgia”, they were thinking first of retro trends in popular culture and then of what they saw as a generally increasing interest in the past: the growing number of museums and museum visitors, the popularity of books, films and television programmes set in the past, the conservation movement, historical re-enactments and family history. Most intellectuals did not take seriously these phenomena and practices because they didn’t understand them as serious forms of history. To them they were sentimentalising and distorting rather than exploring the past. Describing them—and the people taking part in them—as nostalgic was a way of undermining and discrediting them.

When historians realised such practices were here to stay, they began to re-examine their ideas about them. A new term, public history, emerged to describe the multiform ways, in which people outside of academia engaged with the past as well as the study and teaching of such practices at universities. As an academic subject public history often tends to concentrate on the here and now: current television, exhibitions, events and so on. However, public history practices have been evolving and changing over a long time and need to be seen in a more long-term perspective.

This is what Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska’s book History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s does. It uses the nostalgia discourse of the 1970s to capture a moment of cultural change. Yet, rather than accepting the contemporary interpretation, she questions it. For Rymsza-Pawlowska, nostalgia does not cover what was going on as

“Americans in the 1970s were doing more than longing for bygone years … they were relating to and identifying with particular expressions of history in novel ways, looking to place themselves directly into the past, to know and feel experiences of historical individuals as well as to see them. … What was described by some as the ‘nostalgic impulse’ actually bound up diverse perspectives and resulted in multiple types of historymaking that cannot be defined simply as wistfulness for a lost past.”1

What at the time was described as nostalgia, then, was a much more complex transformation in people’s relationship to the past. The old “logic of preservation” was replaced by a new “logic of re-enactment”.2 People did not stop to collect and preserve the historical remains, of course, but they sought new ways to engage with the past—less distanced and intellectual and more direct, personal and emotional.

History Comes Alive charts this transition through a number of case studies. The first chapter looks at how the presentation of history on television changed from the 1950s and 1960s to the 1970s. Here the United States Bicentennial already plays a role, which comes up again and again throughout the book, connecting the different case studies. It is most prominent in the second chapter, which looks at the commemoration of the bicentennial in 1976.

The following four chapters deal with historic preservation, museums, re-enactments and archives—all of which confirm the general thesis of a more immediate and affective engagement with the past: preservation established “connections between communities of the past and communities of the present”, museums allowed for “new, embodied interactions with the past” and re-enactments weakened the “barrier between actors within the space of the ‘past’ and audiences as spectators”.3

Like their predecessors in the 1970s many historians today will perhaps be critical about such approaches, preferring what they know best, the analysis of sources and the crafting of narratives in the form of books. Rymsza-Pawlowska takes a not uncritical but more openminded position: “While I believe that re-enactment has both positive and negative aspects and that it must examined critically,” she writes in the conclusion, “I resist positioning reenactive and affective engagement in contrast to some other, more objective, practice of history.”4 Indeed, historians do not own the past. There are different ways to engage with it and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. The sharp lines drawn between history and public history in the 1970s have increasingly started to fracture.

History Comes Alive is an important contribution to the field of public history—showing how practices we encounter today have developed over time and putting them in a historic context—as well as to the field of nostalgia studies as it demonstrates that contemporary allegations of nostalgia need to be taken with more than a grain of salt.

History Comes Alive is about public history in the United States. Yet, the changes the book describes happened almost everywhere. Transnational contacts between public history practitioners naturally lead to exchanges. The first open air museum, founded in Sweden in 1891, was copied all over Europe and in the United States. The National Trust in the United States was inspired by its British namesake. Re-enactments, on the other hand, first became a popular pastime in the United States and from there inspired many followers across the globe.

Such similarities and exchanges raise a number of questions namely why history became so popular and why at this very moment. Was it a reaction to accelerated social and cultural change as is often claimed? Was it part of an overall changing “regime of temporality” as François Hartog has argued? Or is the answer more banal, rooted in social changes such as the expansion of education and the growth of wealth and leisure time?

Rymsza-Pawlowska argument about the 1970s as a crucial period of transformation is convincing. At the same time, many of the practices discussed here can be traced back to the nineteenth century and sometimes even to earlier periods. The postmodern historymaking of the twentieth century sometimes doesn’t look that dissimilar from the historicism of the nineteenth. It would be interesting, therefore, to widen the historical perspective even further.

M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 2017.

  1. M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 2017, 4-5 []
  2. Ibid., 6 []
  3. Ibid., 82, 117, 122 []
  4. Ibid., 169 []