In the recent discussion over the future of the Civil War Sesquicentennial some people have argued that the whole enterprise has been a failure or virtually non-existent because it’s failed to reach a general public. They suggest that other such commemorations made more of an impact.
I’d take issue with this argument on various grounds. First, previous celebrations have not offered us much insight or marked revolutions in historical understanding (I present the Civil War Centennial, the Bicentennial of 1976, and the Lincoln Bicentennial as examples). Second, there’s plenty of evidence that the public reacts as interests warrant (to suggest that what happened at Gettysburg this July was a failure because of attendance while at the same time proclaiming that one stayed away because of the crowds remains one of my favorite entries in the unintentionally hilarious observation department). Third, in an age of instant reaction and impatience with results, we tend to want to see real change now, and, as historians know, it takes a long time to reshape broader impressions of historical events.
But perhaps the critics have a point. How might we reach a broader public in more imaginative ways? For that, I look to our cousins across the Atlantic, with their Horrible Histories, each of which conveys some historical truth in a memorable way. After all, this weekend is the 99th anniversary of the opening of the First World War.