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The Importance of History: A Personal Perspective

A brief article about my study of history at university and what it has meant for me.

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The Importance of History: A Personal Perspective

Studying history at university has led me to a better understanding of my life. History is made with every footstep, every breath, but it is more than just looking back in time and commenting on objects, people and events. You engage with former personalities, ideologies and cultures, attempt to understand what made a certain period so unique and recognisable, and interpret the past for yourself. In a certain context the smallest of detail can prove vital in understanding the why and how of history. It is the ability to pinpoint these fine imprints that leads to the greatest understanding.

In my final year I studied the relationship between history and the theory of memory. What I took from it was the true ability to reflect on the past. Memory is considered unreliable and corruptible as a historical source. It can be manipulated and forgotten, intentionally or otherwise, whereas history at a basic level is based on fact and objective truths: dates, statistics, physical landscapes. However the two are connected and in my opinion it is impossible to separate them. History provides a platform of facts and an objective setting which is built upon by memory. It is memory which provides the emotional detail such as personalities, behaviours, ideas, attitudes etc. It is from this that I consider two different approaches toward history and memory: analysis and re-experience respectively. And it is the combination of re-experiencing a memory and analysing the past in which that memory exists which leads to reflection. Reflection being the ability to interpret and understand fully the events of history.

I was brought unexpectedly face to face with the reflection of my own life through studying the cultural history of Vienna around 1900. I was introduced to artists and thinkers who responded to and challenged the social and political landscapes around them. In particular it was the writing of Hugo von Hofmannsthal that stood out. His abstract and dream-like descriptions of his world and the affect it had on him as a person felt strangely familiar, like he was describing what I wanted to express. The more I learnt about him and that world the more I admired him and was inspired by him. Likewise the artist Gustav Klimt and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud were also figures of considerable influence from that same period. Not necessarily because of their ground-breaking work but because of their intent on expressing their ideas publicly. The work of all the above artists was heavily criticised because it didn’t follow traditional and rational ideas, forms and subjects. It symbolised a major development for the worlds of art, science and thought. It would open doors that allowed expression as a form of art, and something to be valued in it’s own right. And this came at a time when I was questioning the relevance and validity my own ideas had in academia.

The importance of history is in that it takes both the ability to reflect and expression as a path to an identity whether that be a personal, cultural or national identity. To put it another way, for me it has allowed me to reflect on my own thoughts in a way that has given them structure and form so that they can then be expressed freely. I know then that those ideas are genuine. When you accept that what you express has value in it’s own right, regardless of words being published or images being exhibited, you get a real sense of yourself and start to form an identity.

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