On 1st July (resonant date), I'm doing a lecture at the IWM as part of the Museum's 'First World War Remembered' Day. This has grown out of study days for students which I've been running with the Head of Research and Information, Nigel Steel. The day involves curators and historians talking about artefacts and describing how they're put together to create history – academic, public and popular. On that note, it's interesting to note how the Museum's publicity department has chosen to describe the subject in its website entry on the day:
When the First World War began in August 1914 many believed it would be over by Christmas, but the power of modern weapons quickly turned it into a bitter struggle. For more than four years soldiers on both sides fought a series of infamous battles at Ypres, Verdun, Gallipoli and the Somme. Millions of lives were lost and little appeared to be gained. The First World War represented a turning point in history and its impact can still be felt on communities across the world today.
Those who know me and my work will know that this is not exactly the description of the war I would go for. I realise that it's necessary to engage and interest a non-specialist audience, but I can't help but see this as a kind of 'default setting', piling a set of cliches one on top of another.
But it highlights an area which I've been interested in for some time. I've always wanted to be a historian whose work reached a popular audience. If you want to do that, you need to get the punters in, and you probably need to accept that you'll come up against cliche and lack of thought – so the issue is how do you react to that? Do you throw a massive hissy fit and throw your toys out of the pram? Or do you go for a sort of entryism, in which you try to sneak in the uncertainties and ambiguities of history and try to help the audience think critically about their received beliefs? If you do the latter, have you in fact sold your soul – because your ability to get that information across will probably be limited by format, time and audience? Where do you draw the line?
In my book and in an article recently written for BBC History online (but not yet up), I've tried to suggest that First World War historians probably shouldn't get too frustrated with the fact that myths about the war are too entrenched for us to shift. Better that people use those myths, care about the war, remember those who fought, and – in a minority of cases – try to find out more – than that the war is completely forgotten.
(And let's leave aside for the moment the fact that in the Museum's email newsletter I'm described as well known Queen Mary historian Dr Dan Thompson. Obviously not that well known…)