poking the past


Amanda Vickery, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London, kicked off her TV series ‘At Home with the Georgians’ last week. She enters a crowded marketplace, dominated by men modelling themselves on Schama and Starkey, and frequently presenting a distinctly macho brand of history (what’s done is done, but all the same, Be Very Afraid). Vickery’s innovation was wonderfully simple: she travelled with an ipad. So, intercut with the familiar historical reconstructions and country-house shots, we were treated to numerous close-ups of documents and images being prodded and poked into life by the historian’s finger. They slid in and out, grew and shrank at the touch of a screen, in an display of pure archival prestadigitation.

All this sets me wondering about the ways in which our unparalleled ability to reproduce documents from the past might be changing our attitude to those documents–increasingly making them the subject rather than merely the source of history. And sharpening our sense of their material specificities–allowing us to see the weave of the paper, the shimmer of ink–even as it robs us of much crucial physical information, and obliterates the memory of the archive in which the original resides. But for now we should surely celebrate Professor Vickery’s coup in showing us that, like 18th-century gentlemen, 21st century historians can get ahead through their gizmos.

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