Nostalgia, we are told, is everywhere. The popularity of historical series like Downton Abbey and Mad Men, pop music’s obsession with its own past, retro fashion, and history-themed bestsellers are all seen as evidence for a omnipresent sentimental yearning for a seemingly better past. Yet, this argument is far from new. It can be traced back to the seventies, when a number of intellectuals worried about a “wave of nostalgia”, as the futurist Alvin Toffler called it in 1970.1 However, it did not need a social critic to recognise the trend. “Everybody’s Just Wild About … Nostalgia” declared Life in 1971.2 Already Time groaned: “How much more nostalgia can America take?”3 The answer was apparently: a lot. As similar assessments appeared all through the seventies and eighties, the nostalgia wave showed little signs of ebbing away.
Neither did it stop at the Atlantic. The West German magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover story in 1973 entitled “Nostalgia: the commercialisation of yearning”, which detected a “rampant passion for the passé”.4 It presented nostalgia as the latest American fad eagerly emulated by West Germans. In
Britain, finaly, complaints about nostalgia became common in the late sixties culminating in Michael Wood’s exasperated claim about the “rampant, ubiquitous, unashamed nostalgia which leers at us these days whichever way we turn”.5
Many of texts about the ‘nostalgia wave’ drew on the same examples—the same examples that are also quoted today as evidence of society’s nostalgia. In the beginning they concentrated on pop music, film and television: the Broadway revivals, the return of fifties rock stars . Soon, however, they mentioned the growing number of museums, the conservation movement, the booming trade in antiques, the family history craze, the popularity of historical re-enactments, the country house tourism—or what the British historian Robert Hewison polemically summarised under the term “heritage industry” in 1987.6
Today, when many universities have courses in ‘heritage studies’, ‘heritage management’ or ‘public history’, the term has lost much of its polemical subtext. Similarly it is questionable whether the phenomena and practices can be lumped together as evidence for nostalgia. Is it really nostalgia that motivates us to visit museums, to preserve and visit historical buildings, to collect remains of the past, to re-enact past events and to trace the history of our families? And if it is not nostalgia that motivates us, what drives our interest in the past?
This is one of the central questions of this research project. The intellectual discourse surrounding nostalgia is only its starting point. The project investigates how the perception and the use of the past has changed in Western society since the Second World War. While the term nostalgia was questionable, intellectuals convinced to witness a ‘nostalgia wave’ did have a point. The phenomena they cited as evidence were indicative of an unprecedented popularisation and democratisation of history. Increasingly amateurs began to appropriate practices like researching, collecting and exhibiting. By qualifying these practices as nostalgic, professional historians tried to discredit them, thereby reasserting their own interpretative sovereignty over the past.
The widespread interest in history was all the more striking as the fifties and sixties, with their belief in technology, planning and progress had been oriented towards the future. When these anticipations did not realise themselves, the linear conception of time was at stake. In this sense, the nostalgia wave was a manifestation of a profound ‘crisis of time’.
The project explores the popularisation of history, the appropriation of historical practices and the changing conceptions of time in five case studies on local museums, the conservation movement, the antique trade, historical re-enactments and family tree research.
- Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, London, Sydney 1970, p. 407.
- Life 19 February 1971
- Gerald Clarke, “The Meaning of Nostalgia”, Time 3 May 1971, p. 37.
- Horst-Dieter Ebert, “‘Jene Sehnsucht nach den alten Tagen…'”, Der Spiegel 29 January 1973, pp. 86-99, here 86.
- Michael Wood, “Nostalgia or never: you can’t go home again”, New Society 7 (1974), No. 631 (7 Novembr 1974), pp. 343-346, here 343.
- Robert Hewison, The Heritage Industry. Britain in a Climate of Change, London 1987.