Interpretations of the Past

This week, volunteer archivist, Ian Gregory, questions whether our artistic translation of the past is actually a more accurate reflection of the present?

There is, on the wall in the museum project space, a book cover titled Life in the Great Ice Age.  It depicts a young boy and a wolf running side by side, across a meadow. The boy is smiling and carrying a flint-tipped spear. Giant deer stand in the background.  It doesn’t look as authentic to modern eyes as its creator presumably hoped.


It’s all too easy to laugh at images of the past which are now history themselves, but are we any less prone to imposing our own assumptions on earlier times? Thinking back to novels and TV shows set in the past, even in far more recent eras, I think we still do this.

My mother often watches Upstairs Downstairs on satellite TV and Downton Abbey is fresh in our minds.  One of the plots for Upstairs involved miners on strike going to London and calling on a relative who worked for the Bellamy family, much to the disapproval of Hudson the butler. Is it coincidence that when the show was made in the 1970s when industrial action was all over the news? I doubt it. When Downton was filmed, striking miners no longer dominated the headlines, but same sex marriage was being legalised in Britain and other Western countries. Is there a connection between greater tolerance in the present and the presence of a gay footman in Downton?  Thomas Barrow wasn’t one of the more sympathetic characters but does it say something about our time that he was there at all?


Another interpretation of the ancient world from the old Wonders of the Peak gallery

If we look at historical novels from the 1980s we find growing numbers of strong, intelligent heroines. In The Mists of Avalon Marion Bradley re-imagined Morgan Le Fey as a priestess instead of a witch.

Returning to the Ice Age, Jean M Auel created an independent huntress called Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequels. This coincided with a female Prime Minister in Britain and a rise in the numbers of professional women in other countries.

Could it be that, in many cases, images or portrayals of the past say something about the time they were created in as well as where they are set? Whether the effect is conscious or unconscious, I think they do.


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