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This conference believes that local history has had its day

Elle, our Collections Trainee recently went to the Social History Curators Group Conference in Belfast. She was involved in the debate about local history and here’s what she had to say

This conference believes that local history has had its day.

Hitler executed 6 million people that he considered ‘undesirable.’ 6 million is an unimaginable number, it is impossible for us to comprehend. We can’t begin to explain what 6 million deaths mean to ourselves, let alone a child. But the story of Anne Frank, a terrified girl, hiding with her family, is one that we can understand. One that we can feel real empathy with.

This changes the Holocaust from a part of a World War 2 history lesson to a real event with real people suffering. Having a face that we can look at and a story we can hear, encourages us to remember that each of those 6 million people had hopes and dreams… family and friends. It changes them from belonging to the otherness of the past, to people… just like us. This is local history at its most heart-breaking and powerful and this is why not only has it not had its day, but I can’t see a time when as responsible museum professionals we could ever argue that it has.

The effect of local history on the visitor experience can be transformative. It changes an exhibition from information about other people to intimate and personal glimpses into real lives. It’s the reason why I can’t go into the Foundling Museum without crying. It’s the reason we collect oral histories. It’s the reason most of us do our job.

In short – it’s the reason… the real reason, why we have museums.

Local history will always pack a more powerful punch than national or even international history as it is these intimate and personal stories that continue to be a hook for visitor imaginations, and will stick with them once they’ve left our exhibition spaces.

A museum without human stories would be a dead and empty place – visitors wouldn’t visit and we’d only need to copy and paste from text books to write the labels. Is that the kind of museum you’d want to work in?

Despite all of this, it would be blindness, or madness, to deny that the world we live in isn’t changing. The boundaries of what we mean by local have shifted dramatically. We no longer live in one place, many of us work hours from home, have relationships that span the planet and take part in a global economy. Can local history really contend with this huge shift in the topography of our lives?

Well, unsurprisingly, I think the answer is yes.

The very essence of local history is the study of intimate and personal stories. Intimate and personal. When studying at the level of individual humans, acting to govern their own lives, we are studying local history. When we use these stories in our display we are displaying local history. Could you honestly say that your museums would be the wonderful, engaging places that they are without these intimate and personal stories? Without local history?

But, perhaps we need to change how we understand local. It’s not about geographical limits, parochial boundaries or however else you might like to chunk up a map.

Could we look at global communities through local history? It sounds a bit strange but really we’re doing what local history has always done. Studied people at the level of people.

A good example of this is small group of computer game players on a massively multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft. These groups are made up of people from all over the world acting together in small groups to undertake virtual adventures, but they also socialise and form relationships in this virtual setting. There is a local landscape at work here, but it is a virtual, rather than geographical one.

Rather than having had its day, it seems to me like local history is just getting started. Local history is giving us the tools to look at these global communities in a way that appreciates their complexities… rather than talking about ‘computer gamers’ we can talk about actual people.

Local historians aim to build a useful, incorporated and real picture of the past, where people act as people, rather than characters with a gender, class and date. We don’t want to talk about the aristocracy, peasants or an ethnicity. We want names. We want faces. We want real stories told to us by real people. What else would we be working in museums for?

Has local history had its day? From where I’m standing, it’s barely begun.

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