Who Owns History?

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” 

James Baldwin [1]

Disclaimer, the questions and claims explored in this article are merely for points of discussion. I found myself putting a disclaimer prior to anything I could see becoming controversial and thought a general disclaimer would serve better. These are not necessarily opinions I hold myself, rather I want to break down the walls that have barred us from discussing issues such as what will be explored in my blog post in an open and judgement free zone. I feel as though as historians, especially public historians, we need to be having open conversations and debates about these questions.

In 1992 a three part documentary detailing three important Canadian battles from the Second World War aired on CBC Television in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. Entitled The Valour and the Horror, the three-part two-hour episodes consisted of “Savage Christmas: Hong Long 1941”, “Death by Moonlight: Bomber Command” and “In Desperate Battle: Normandy 1944”. The series was written by Brian McKenna and Terence McKenna, with Brian also directing the series. [2]

For anyone who is aware of the series, it caused quite a controversy. You see, The Valour and the Horror was not a positive depiction of these significant Canadian battles, rather it was quite the opposite. As David Taras explained, “…it delivered a scathing indictment of what it depicted as the immorality and incompetence of senior Canadian and British commanders.” [3] If there is one way to cause a controversy, it certainly is by stating that those in senior ranks were not as chivalric or as competent as our textbooks or stories that we’ve heard have led us to believe.

But this blog post isn’t about historical depiction in film and television (stay tuned for something on that at a later date), rather this is a question that I have been asked by professors since the beginnings of my undergrad. I remember being asked this question in an undergrad public history course and not having an answer.

In class when the discussion on what topics in history we shouldn’t touch (when it comes to video games, but more broadly digital history) came up, it sparked a debate within myself. I could see both sides of the picture. After class I remember meeting up with a friend in her office and for almost an hour just endlessly ranting about who owns history, what can and cannot be touched, who makes the decision, authenticity, authority and historical truth. By the end of the conversation, I felt as if I had accomplished nothing by talking about it, I didn’t come up with a definitive answer. I understand why historians and certain groups are protective of history/their history. Trust me, I am protective of my history as well! However, I feel that after grappling with the existential crisis inducing question of , “who owns history?” for as long as I have, I have come to terms with something, that a lot of historians are going to take issue with.

No one owns history and no one should ever own history.

In the case of The Valour and the Horror, historians (whose area of expertise pertains to the subject of interest) and veterans believed to be the rightful heirs to the military, if not at the very least, Second World War history. How can you deny a veteran their right to own their own history and share it as they please? How can you say a historian shouldn’t have a say in what the National Film Board of Canada releases in regards to historical depiction? In the same vein, how can you deny a journalist his or her right to write about what they wish?

History is a narrative constructed by those after the event and it takes form because of the various narratives that contribute to it. So how can we claim history is to be owned by a single person or group, if its constructed by various different narratives? In the same vein the question about historical truth and memory (being faulty) can be brought into the conversation. But, I will leave those issues for another time.

Evidently, this is a morally ambiguous gray zone. We obviously can’t just let the public run around saying what they wish, portraying history as they wish and say “oh the public will be the public”. No matter the intentions of the person, there is room for things to go wrong. I mean the path to hell was paved with good intentions. I also don’t agree that we should be playing around with sensitive events in history (such as the Holocaust) and letting anyone do with it as they wish. What I am arguing is the fact that we can’t dictate to people what they can and can’t do, we can only advise them on our professional opinion.

I think we also have to get out of the mindset that this is a potential/future problem. Anytime I have heard the discussion on what topics not to touch in history, people always talk about it as if it is a problem in the future, not that it is currently happening. That in the future, people might be making video games on darker topics, rather recognizing it is likely happening as we speak. I mean it has happened (the Valour and the Horror), it is happening right now and it will continue to happen in the future. People are likely already playing with the Holocaust in what we would deem as inappropriate ways. Rather than debating on what to do to potentially prevent it, we should be discussing ways on which we can intervene without overstepping and proclaiming to own history.

That in itself is a slippery slope! Can we intervene without overstepping? Can we intervene without a slight indication that we as historians own history? Can we even prevent it if we wanted to? Another question that come into the conversation is authority. So, historians may not own history, but do we have authority over it? As professionals who dedicate their lives to the study or application of history, does that mean we have some authority over it? Or do those who have lived through it have authority? What about those who are not alive anymore?

Do you see the existential crisis inducing problems these questions lead to? No? Just me? At the very least, from my ramblings, you can deduce that by asking one question, it leads to five more questions, to which there are no answers! There may never be an answer, but just as I said in my blog post last week, we need to be discussing it. Sure, there may never be a solution or answer, but by talking about it we are aware of it and are discussing it. Just as its okay to not have answers on how to approach dark tourism, its just as okay to not have answers on who owns history.

In the end, people are going to do what they want with history. People are going to make games regardless, people are going to make movies on history (with or without a historians input and help), and people are going to play with history in ways we may never agree with. Its a fact of life and its something we as historians we need to grapple with. We as historians don’t own history and we never will. We can argue whether people even own their own history. If we make the claim that historians own history, we in some way revert history back to being elitist, that only certain people can play with it and everyone else is limited to history in the forms we produce.

We, especially as public historians, should be open to taking on projects where the public or other professionals in other fields can become active participants. We play a valuable role as historians as we understand (or are attempting to) understand, preserve, write about, and (insert whichever word you wish to use to describe how you interact with history). It is wishful thinking that for every video game, podcast, book, movie, television show and musical that a historian will always be consulted. But, we as public historians, should try to offer our professional opinion and expertise right?

In conclusion, I will leave you with this quote by American historian Eric Foner from his book Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World that neatly sums up my opinion on the matter. [4] Consider this quote a tl:dr of my entire blog post.

“Who owns history? Everyone and no one–which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.”

Eric Foner [5]

~ Kat

Further Reading

Bercuson, David J., and Sidney Wise. The Valour and the Horror Revisited. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1994.

Foner, Eric. Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.

Taras, David. “The Struggle Over The Valour and the Horror: Media Power and the Portrayal of War.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 28, no. 4 (1995): 725–48. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0008423900019363.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. jessicachernich says:

    I totally agree with this! Your post harkens back to Titanic themed proms and bouncy houses I’ll occasionally see pop up on social media. As public historians, we are responsible for providing appropriate interpretations of the past that, as you said, in a way that promotes active participation. We can’t pick and choose who “owns” history. Doing so is detrimental to the past, present, and future.


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