One of the most common questions I get asked in my work is: “How to make history come alive?” The underlying idea seems to be “alive” = “interesting”, that people cannot understand what they do not see.

I always found this idea of making history come alive interesting. In setting up exhibitions etc, it’s almost a mantra. How do you bring knowledge and make it “interesting” – or “not boring” for visitors? The simplest and most effective ways to do that for exhibitions is to showcase artefacts (objects). But that is not enough. An item in a showcase with tiny captions is “boring”. That brings us to contextualised set-ups, where you design the display space as if it was a scene from history, and give the displayed object and subject matter some form of context. If budget allows, technology comes into play, with light shows, VR, and projections to help the visitors “feel”/”experience” an event/place long past.

There is nothing wrong with that. Reading big chunks of text can be tiresome, and not everyone is a reader. Many of the people I know do not like reading, and when it comes to history, t’s even worse. They are put off by having to “memorise dates, names of people barely pronounceable”. Many of my students are like that too. Inevitably, all my students tell me – at our first lesson – that they have no love for history for the above reasons and they do not know much, if at all. But many also tell me, it’s because they do not understand. All they see are the details.

I cannot blame them. For years, that’s how history has been taught – you memorise chunks and chunks of information (names and dates), you “learn” about “major events” like wars and dynasties of a place far removed, and you learn the “causes and effects” for these events.

Having taught a history module for several terms now, and having done several exhibitions, I’ve come to embrace less of the idea of “making history come alive”, because you really can’t. Nope, you cannot make history come alive. You can, to a degree, re-enact history (in plays, performances, experiences), but making history come alive is not the point.

What is important is making history make sense.

Take a simple example close to home – the British colonisation of Singapore. Many will know find these familiar – 1819, Raffles, Farquhar, Temenggong, Sultan Hussein, and maybe, just maybe EIC (East India Company). The conventional path is to then go on about how the British establish a foothold here, and gradually took over the administration of the island. That’s relatively easy to understand. That’s all for most students really.

Probe a bit further and you’ll realise the students do not really understand what the EIC was, and what implications it had on British administrative efforts. Throw in “government of India”, “Whitehall” and “Straits Settlements”, and the students just look blankly back at you.

When I explained what the EIC was, how it came about, it’s role in India and Southeast Asia since the 17th century, trace its developments in these places, the whole picture began to emerge and make sense. The pleasure of seeing the “oh, I see” faces is priceless. Of course, it means a lot more work on my part as teacher, going back to the very foundation – to explain the origins, the connections between events, places, and historical periods even – which have been taken for granted (or perhaps just ignored because of ignorance). But nothing makes me happier than when my students come up to me – the very same ones who have no interest in the subject at the beginning of the course – and tell me that they hadn’t realise history was so interesting, and that everything made sense now.

Sure, they have more questions than answers, but that, for me, is a sign that history has come alive: they are starting to think, to make connections, to probe.

~ Jaime

In the Workroom: Making sense of history
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