“Celebrate and commemorate”… but what about educate, engage and inspire?

 In books

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an event, put on by The History Press, which in effect launched their First World War Centenary publications. The event was very well organised and the venue (The Army and Navy Club on Pall Mall) was a perfect setting for their launch.

I didn’t count them, but I would guess there were between 80 and 100 people in attendance; a mix of History Press representatives, authors, historians, book sellers, buyers and journalists. All waiting to see what the History Press had up their sleeves for the Centenary. The line up of speakers were just as impressive on paper as the venue, headlined by luminaries such as Dr Andrew Murrison (Minister for International Security Strategy & The Prime Minister’s Special Representative for the Great War Centenary Commemorations), Professor Peter Doyle (a renowned Geologist and military historian),  and Luci Gosling (Historian and author). The role of Swindon in the Great War also featured in the talks, as did the Leeds Museum. All in all it was a good show.

Dr Murrison talked eloquently (as one would expect of a cabinet minister) of the need to ‘commemorate and celebrate’ the First World War during the upcoming centenary years. Professor Doyle showcased his forthcoming book with some interesting battlefield relics and contemporary items and Luci Gosling showed some great images from the Mary Evans Picture Library.

However, I couldn’t help thinking something was missing.

For me the Centenary years offers up a genuine opportunity to educate and inspire the public, especially the younger generation. For a number of reasons, kids, teenagers, young adults and indeed some not so young adults often have little or no knowledge of the war. This is starkly highlighted in a recent YouGov survey carried out a few months ago in which a general lack of knowledge around WW1 was uncovered.

Yet, not once was the word ‘education’ used in any of the keynotes. Not once was the notion of ‘inspiring the public’ to have an interest in the war mentioned. Not once was the idea of trying to ‘improve engagement in children and teenagers’ discussed, and that, for me at least, was sad. Sad because although there were lots of very interesting books on show, tackling lots of different aspects of the First World War, from fashion to relics, to the role of women in the war and how individual towns were directly affected by the conflict, but as I stood there I asked myself this question:

‘Which of these books would stop a teenager in their tracks as they walked past it and make them pick it up and flick through?

The answer, I am afraid, is ‘probably none of them’. Don’t get me wrong, they are all good and credible books in their own right, but had any of them been written to ‘inspire and engage’ the next generation.

I was attending this event because I myself have a number of WW1 books ‘waiting in the wings’ to be published by The History Press. One of them, ‘The Great War 100’ will attempt to tell the story of The First World War using infographics. I am not for one moment going to pretend that this book will be the answer, but it might, just might, offer up an alternative read for kids, teenagers and other people that would normally pass by traditional history books. I am desperate to get more of these people reading about history, not just the First World War, but any war and any period of history. Realistically though, I am powerless to make much of a difference. I am not a historian, I am not in possession of a PHD from Oxbridge, I am not a heavy-weight journalist or broadcaster. I am just a marketing guy living in Hampshire.

I really hope the books on show yesterday are not indicative of the books that will be published over the Centenary years by all the major publishers, if they are then I really think an opportunity has been passed up. An opportunity that may not re-appear again.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Amanda Randall

    Good point Scott, I felt the same at the meeting; it’s easy to attract people who already get history, but hard to break into new markets, although I think many young people are interested in history. History is usually popular in primary schools where it’s often more hands on, but from what I’ve seen, it’s a different picture in secondary schools, unless you’re lucky enough to get a fantastic teacher! Books like yours with infographics will make a difference I think. It’s a tough one, but I’m not sure that £5m spent on battlefields trips will have much effect in the long term. I wonder how the BBC are planning to handle it? I think they announce their plans next month.

  • Andrew Murrison

    Thank you. I regret I could not stay for the following talks but I’d make two points. First I don’t talk about celebration but commemoration. Second, I referred to exploring the causes, conduct and consequences of FWW and made reference to the £5.3 million government educational package to be run by Institute of Education for all maintained schools in England.
    Andrew Murrison

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