Same story, different facts? How we use and abuse history

Tuesday 6 September 2016

War, terrorism, government in crisis, migration, demands to remove or replace historical statues? Whether we remember or not, we’ve been there before.

Just brush away the déjà vu and look at the historical facts. That’s why the six public discussions on how we regard – and disregard – the past will be so compelling. Under the title ‘History now and then’, they are run by the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and follow a highly successful series in 2015/16.

As before, they are organised and chaired by cultural historian, writer and broadcaster Daniel Snowman, and will feature top historians including Margot Finn, Margaret MacMillan, Chris Wickham, David Starkey, Taylor Downing, Diarmaid MacCulloch and Miri Rubin.

Lectures will take place monthly (6–7.30pm) in the comfort of the redesigned and refurbished Institute of Historical Research in Senate House, University of London, and each has its own theme:

  • Rhodes statue and beyond (5 October): How far can or should history be re-written to accommodate contemporary values? The panel, Martin Daunton, Margot Finn, Jinty Nelson and David Starkey, will consider the pros and cons of ‘apology’. Have some aspects of history become unacceptable even to discuss?
  • History and change (2 November): Is history necessarily the story of 'change'? Who or what creates change? Margaret MacMillan, Rana Mitter, Gareth Stedman Jones and Andrew Roberts, will reflect on the role of ‘great men’ and ‘great women’ in driving historical change.
  • The proper focus of history (7 December): Should history focus on the nation? A locality? The wider world? Or should it focus on ‘things’ instead? Should it have a short, precisely defined temporal focus or a longer Durée? (Maxine Berg, Jerry Brotton, Richard Drayton, Chris Wickham).
  • Lessons from the past (11 January 2017): Does history 'repeat itself'? What kind of 'lessons' can we learn from history? The panel, Jeremy Black, Taylor Downing, Ian Mortimer and Lucy Riall, will explore the idea of counterfactual history: could the past have been different?
  • History and religion(s) (8 February 2017): What role has religion played in the unfolding of history? The panel, Felicity Heal, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Miri Rubin and Brian Young, will ask whether it has been a fundamental motivating force or a reflection of deeper socioeconomic trends and priorities.
  • The future of the past (8 March 2017): How will future historians judge today’s history writing? What do modern historians over-emphasise or under-emphasise? Caroline Barron, Anne Curry, Charlotte Roueché and Jane Winters, will discuss the influence of ‘big history’ and ‘big data’ and predict how the writing of history will change in the digital age.

History is undergoing an unprecedented boom. Last year, the Victoria and Albert Museum welcomed 3.5 million visitors, an 8 per cent rise on 2014, while huge audiences tuned in to costume dramas such as Downton Abbey, Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones. Books and TV programmes abounded on historical anniversaries (Magna Carta, Agincourt, Waterloo, World War I). And consider the popularity of family history – or the interest aroused by the rediscovery and re-interment of the bones of King Richard III. But if people get excited, they can also get angry at what they consider the misuse or abuse of the past. 

‘History has never been so popular,’ comments Daniel Snowman. ‘Yet important current issues are too often discussed with little regard for the backstory. This series aims to encourage historians and non-experts alike to seek out the links between past and present, between history ‘then’ and ‘now’. For, as the great French historian Marc Bloch wisely put it many years ago: “Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past.”‘

IHR director Professor Lawrence Goldman, says ‘We are not the first generation to have reflected on the nature of historical change, the role of religion in history, and the legacy of honouring bad men, to name three of the themes to be discussed at these events. But our audience can expect original and provocative responses from some of the finest writers and debaters on the nature of history. We hope you’ll join us for monthly events that will force us to re-examine the relationship of past and present.’


Notes for editors:
1. For all enquiries, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8859 /

2. The Institute of Historical Research (IHR) was founded in 1921 and is one of nine institutes that comprise the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. The Institute’s mission is to promote the study of history and an appreciation of the importance of the past among academics and the general public. It offers a wide range of services both onsite and remotely which promote and facilitate excellence in historical research, teaching and scholarship in the UK, by means of its library, events programmes, fellowships, training and publications. It is a leading centre for the creation of digital resources for historians, and promotes the study of London history through its Centre for Metropolitan History and the Victoria County History.

3. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities and celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2015. Officially opened in 1995 by Sir Anthony Kenny as a federation of the University of London’s research institutes, it has established itself as the UK’s national humanities hub, publicly funded to support and promote research in the humanities nationally and internationally. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2013-14, SAS: welcomed 743 research fellows and associates; held 2,081 research dissemination events; received 26.4 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 202,891 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. Find out more at or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

4. The University of London is a federal University and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University is recognised globally as a world leader in Higher Education. Its members are 18 self-governing institutions of outstanding reputation and nine prestigious research institutes. Learn more about the University of London at