Entering the past should be easy - History Scotland blog

09 October 2014
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History Scotland blogger Neil McLennan asks whether computer games and films are presenting an over simplified or false representation of the past. ...
Entering the past should be easy - History Scotland blog Images

History Scotland blogger Neil McLennan asks whether computer games and films are presenting an over simplified or false representation of the past.

This spring and summer I was lucky enough to spend time in three separate historical activities which helped to reawaken my passion in areas of history I have not looked at for some time, and also to spark a reappraisal of how we best engage with the past and how we get others to engage actively with the past.

In today’s world we need to be even smarter in how we take people on a journey with history that interests, informs and inspires them to be not just aware but also awoken by what Professor Tom Devine referred to as 'the Queen of Disciplines'.


There are many distractions in the world today, some of which history could and does harness, but many others which take away attention from our history and heritage and in fact erode the purity of the subject when they are coupled with it.

The main point of entry for many, if not most of us, has been through printed matter - be it magazines, books, historical fiction or a fascination with printed matter from the past. That medium is slowly losing its appeal for some and we need to think about how we re-engage people with it and what other entry points we can use to help people link up with the past. Too quickly computer games and film matter are painting inaccurate pictures of the past and are not actively engaging the learner in higher order thinking skills about the past. Films, and I am sure computer games, can provoke an interest, but all too often they are also creating passive recipients of low level information which in many cases is false or a misrepresentation of the past.


The other main focal point for people wanting to link up with our past is through our museums and history and heritage centres.  These need to be on the front line of engaging the public actively with the past and sparking the next generation of historical thinkers. My three history experiences left me with mixed views on this being possible.

During the spring of this year I visited one of the newer ones, the reopened Bannockburn Centre which focuses on the Battle of 1314. I went with an open mind, reminded of the positive experiences my S1 class had on visiting the old centre and the enthusiasm it sparked in one particular student who almost missed the bus home as a result of his fervour! In my opinion, the centre had played into the hands of the video game culture and had tried to engage via this and this only.

Whilst the war game itself offered learners a chance to really think, it also confused some, who left thinking that Edward I of England had secured victory at the famous battle. The final 3D video at the end was largely ignored by students whose focus had mainly been on the interactive war game. There was little other opportunity for active learning and thinking, with pre and post video’s didactic and the hologram figures of the past also non-engaging apart from the motion sensors to kick start a one way conversation with them.


On a trip to Shetland, my confidence in history centres and museums to act as a positive entry point for finding out about the past was renewed. The Scalloway Museum 'lit the fire' in me. The set-up of the museum from local issues and early times to more recent history and global history via the Shetland Bus story was organised and effective.



Moreover, the ability of the museum to engage all age ranges was clear to see.

In particular the emphasis on early years activities at the end of the centre was a joy to witness. Seeing youngster engaging in costumes and items from Neolithic man to Victorian era was great to see.

My final touchstone with the past was in the last two weeks when I was on a walk in East Lothian. Coming along the John Muir Walk into Dirleton, my fiancé and I were delighted to stumble upon an archaeological dig. The local history group was working with council archaeologists and most importantly young people.


On speaking with some of the dig leaders we were quickly directed to the youngsters themselves who were ably equipped to give an overview of the activity ongoing and the history behind the areas whilst offering some insights to the artefacts found at the site. Truly amazing history and learning. 

So what has been the common denominator through all of this? The answer - People. A bit like ‘People Make Glasgow’….. ‘People Make History’.

The friendly, engaging staff at the Bannockburn Centre and volunteers at the Scalloway Museum coupled with the volunteers staff who had clearly lit a spark in the young tour guides at the archaeological dig.

And so how do we square the conundrum of getting people engaged with books and historical sources? The key is as simple as history itself. History is about a jigsaw puzzle of evidence and learning is a jigsaw puzzle of inputs, interactions and lightbulb moments. Everyone has something to offer and our heritage centres and museums are key to this as long as they embrace that philosophy of a mixed economy of learning. 

Neil McLennan is an educator, writer and former president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History.