Interview with Jerome de Groot

In Consuming History, Jerome de Groot examines how society consumes history and how a reading of this consumption can help us understand popular culture and issues of representation. This book analyzes a wide range of cultural entities – from computer games to daytime television, from blockbuster films such as Da Vinci Code to DNA genealogical tools – to analyze how history works in contemporary popular culture.

Jerome de Groot probes how museums have responded to the heritage debate and the way in which new technologies have brought about a shift in access to history, from online game playing to internet genealogy. He discusses the often conflicted relationship between ‘public’ and academic history, and raises important questions about the theory and practice of history as a discipline.

We interviewed Professor de Groot by email:

You note early on in your book that we should consider history as a product. Could you outline what you mean by this?

I mean that sometimes it makes sense to conceptualise the way that the past is being used, bought, deployed and thought of is as a commodity, with particular value, economic and marketing impact (and, in many cases, profit margin). Nearly every instance of the past in popular culture is inflected by financial transaction – be it historical film, television, treasure hunters, antique dealers, museum shops, etc. So it makes sense to think in terms of commodity, and therefore to see history as product, as brand, as something that is used in ways akin to other economic artefacts. History is definitely, definably, product at points – think about the last time you went to a museum and visited the gift shop to buy a tea towel with an image on it, or a fridge magnet, or the various ways that the advertising world uses the past.

Some academic historians have a very negative view of public or amateur history, and argue that academia needs to be aloof or apart from what they see as the “debasing of history”. How would you respond to this view?

I have a few thoughts on this matter, which you are right, is still very much present. Firstly, I think it is simply foolish to ignore the wealth of material out there – it is a dereliction of duty not to audit the ways in which culture gets its history, whether we like the answers we get and the things we have to watch. Ignoring historical television, or film, for instance, seems to me to be to disengage from the ways in which history works in culture and, of course, as history is a social form of knowledge (as Raphael Samuel argued) we have a duty to understanding it as such. Furthermore the ways in which popular history – like novels, films, magazines – works is incredibly complex, so it is not debasing at all. The Academy should be rigorous, and thoughtful, and distanced from the types of production – but it shouldn’t ignore it.

Our website, like many others, publishes a wide range of material – academic articles, interviews with historians, and also video of television documentaries, and posts on video games, movies, and historical fiction. Our news section can range from university appointments to Renaissance Fairs. In some ways this can blur the line between academic and public history. How does this model of presenting history fall into what you see as the dramatic growth of online resources about history?

I think this demonstrates clearly the ways in which the internet has created new, dynamic relationships between people, places and knowledges that had hitherto been discrete. It just makes the melange of popular history more complicated and chaotic, which is very much a good thing. The internet – again, whether we want it to or not – is a great leveller and destroyer of divisions, and this kind of website illustrates how that can generate interesting and challenging ways of thinking and working.

Your book talks about the many forms that history can be delivered, such as video and online content. Have you made use of these media yourself when teaching to university classes?

I have used most of the standard web 2.0 tools for teaching – blogs, wikis, video, audio, etc – and I am just about to teach a course using Ebook readers which I am very excited about.

Finally, you point out that interest in history by the public has grown dramatically in the last couple of decades – is this trend true for all historical topics or periods, or does the way that history can be presented in new forms, like re-enactment, television documentaries and websites favour one kind of historical topic over another?

I don’t think so. Obviously there are the periods that are returned to constantly due to popularity – Mummies and Nazis, as I was told once – but the growth in public history has meant that all kinds of historiographic approach, type of history and story are represented. So public history on TV, for instance, encompasses microhistory, military history, the history of kings and queens, queer history and history of empire, approaches to slavery, genealogy, geographical and economic history, meditation on time-travel, autobiography, social history and so on.

We thank Professor de Groot for answering our questions.

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