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Public history and social knowledge – and red light bulbs

2013 August 2

I have just sent off to Jim Gardner my draft for a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Public History he is editing. The book will apparently contain newly commissioned pieces on: the changing public history landscape, public history practice and issues and challenges.

My chapter discusses public history as a social form of knowledge – exploring different examples and issues to those discussed in my previous publications. Amongst other things I discuss the ways in which people bring their own experiences and memories to a museum visit.

I was not the only child who was fascinated by a display in the old Museum of London, when it was housed in Kensington Gardens . There was a rather crude display of the Great Fire of London: essentially flickering red lights against a silhouette of black buildings. When the museum, now based in the City of London, was recently refurbishing its later galleries, staff were at pains to ensure that this particular display was retained, not because anyone thought it was conveying knowledge of the 1666 fire as such but because it signified to many Londoners their previous experience of a visit to the museum and appropriating understanding for themselves. Cathy Ross, Director of Collections and Learning, has recently explained that the model actually dates to c. 1915 and, before the latest digital revamp, confirms that, ‘it relied on a dark room, an audio commentary and some red light bulbs.’ As she has explained, ‘Evaluations have consistently shown that the Great Fire model is one of the things that people really remember, so we would be mad to take it out.’

To visitors this is a reminder of childhood visits: the  ‘information’ about the Great Fire has been re-fashioned over the years by visitors into a memory of their own experience. Whether this is experience of a museum visit as such, or of childhood, or of a past that is no more but of which only traces remain through the flickering of red light bulbs across the years is not possible to disentangle. However it is certainly an example of the way in which, even in conventional public history settings, people bring their own emotions to a visit.

One Response Post a comment
  1. Emma Tait permalink
    August 2, 2013

    I remember the Great Fire model. Great to have been reminded of it.

    All the best, Hilda, with your contribution to the Handbook.


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