I love history.
I love reading it. Watching it. Listening to podcasts about it. And having a conversation with anyone who shares my passion — or convincing those who don't, that they should.
I recently had the honour of launching a book about Flemington House in Melbourne. The house is long gone but its memory is enshrined in the Aussie tradition of the Melbourne Cup when the country focuses on the famous racecourse that bears its name.
One of the early owners of the house had supplied horses to the British army in India before World War I and they renamed the mansion Travancore after the kingdom in southern India where he did business. Travancore is the suburb which now sits on the site of the former grand estate, and which I call home.
The history of the area is important.
All history is important. But why?
Schoolkids might say they'd be quite happy to exist in a world without history exams. To never have to remember the date of the Battle of Hastings, who the father of the modern Olympics was, or how many assassination attempts there were on Fidel Castro. (Answers at the end of the column).
So, why should we care about history? What is history for?
Beverley Southgate, a history theorist, wrote a book on that very topic.
He argued that as soon as we ask what history is meant to be “for” we can enter an ideological and political minefield and, he said, half-jokingly, that can interfere with a historian's funding.
So history, according to Southgate, is always “partial, incomplete, selective, biased” because it is written for some purpose.
History is in a new era where it is contested or attempted to be rewritten — often via online conspiracy forums — and sometimes aggressively so.
We watched the insurrection at the US Capitol in January 2020 with our own eyes. People there that day had bought the “big lie” about Joe Biden stealing the election from Donald Trump.
The old adage that history is written by the victors is challenged when you have more than one person claiming to be the victor.
Charlotte Higgins, the chief culture writer for the UK Guardian, wrote on this recently.
She said that the anger and vitriol that had sprung up around history and memory makes museums more vital “because society needs places where debates about history, identity and culture can be enacted, without violence”.
In periods of war, the museum's role in preventing what has been termed “cultural cleansing” takes on new significance.
Higgins, in her report, pointed to this playing out in the work of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in Kyiv, pictured.
The museum team is working against time and political tide to preserve the objects already in its collection — sending displays of Greek pots and Scythian gold to safer locations — and to collect new artefacts of the brutal invasion.
After the Russian withdrawal from the towns of Bucha and Irpin, the museum team went into the once peaceful streets that had been turned into battlefields.
They collected everything from abandoned Russian ration packs and a soldier's boot, half-destroyed signage from a pharmacy, and weaponry — “raw, bloodstained witness to the violence enacted there”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin consistently denies that Ukraine is a sovereign nation with a distinct culture or history. His ideological justification of his senseless war has made the work of the artefact collectors and museum curators a matter of urgency.
Higgins said the impulse to “collect material and quickly, pragmatically display it in the emptied-out museum is not just about amassing evidence for study by future historians — it is also about asserting that they actually exist; that this actually happened”.
In another interview, the head researcher at the museum in Kyiv, Oleksandr Lukianov, said people's natural instinct is to clean up things with negative memories, but “the better we capture the situation now, the easier it will be for those who come afterwards to research and understand this period”.
This humbling, heroic commitment to passing information to future generations is steeped in the knowledge that to do nothing risks the identity of Ukraine's people and culture being erased. That pretty much answers the question of what history is for.
English historian Dame Cicely “CV” Wedgewood said: “No one has a duty to the dead except in relation to the living. The dead can look after themselves; the living cannot”.
The lesson to the living from the National Museum of the History of Ukraine is that it is not just the past which can inform and enrich and enlighten us, but also the present, when truth is its touchstone.