8 ways to make history come alive

IMG_0778I know lots of people who have an adverse reaction to any mention of history.

Possibly scarred by an unenthusiastic teacher at school they think it’s all about memorising dates and being able to regurgitate biographies for old, dead, white men.

If that’s what you think history is like, trust me, you’re doing it wrong.

So here’s my 8 tips on how to make history come alive:

1. Read historical fiction.

Whatever the era you are interested in, whatever kind of fiction you usually read, chances are excellent that there is great historical fiction waiting for you.

Subscribe to our historical fiction newsletter to get a monthly email recommending fantastic new titles and older historical novels, grouped by theme. I find there’s always something in the newsletter that I have to add to my to be read (TBR) pile of books. So, dangerous, but fun.

2. Read historical non-fiction.

If you prefer fact to fiction, don’t worry. Good historical fiction is full of fascinating facts and some historical non-fiction is  so weird you will struggle to believe it.

Biographies of people from past times make for great reading and are way more fun than a dry list of dates and events. Last year, I read and adored two non-fiction titles by Sarah Wise about grave-robbing in the 1830s and the treatment of ‘lunatics’ in the Victorian era. I’m looking forward to reading  Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England : How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago by Roy and Lesley Adkins, sometime soon  – it is working it’s way up to the top of that TBR pile.

3. Read primary material from history.

Are you sick of seeing words like Machiavellian and Dickensian and not really appreciating what they mean. Go and read the source material, I’ll wait here.

So, that was quick – I guess you opted for The Prince rather than Great Expectations, yes? Anyway, there are plenty of thumpingly great texts that offer insight into the time they were written.

I’m also a huge fan of digitised, online historical material – check out Project Gutenberg for books, Librivox for audiobooks, Trove for its incredible collection of Australian newspapers, Gale News Vault (which our library members can access through our online resources) for British newspapers, and the National Library of Scotland’s Word on the Street collection of broadsheets, just to name five of my favourites.  If you are interested in a particular event in the last couple of hundred years of history, it is fascinating to see what the press had to say about it at the time.

Want something a little more local? Wow, are you in luck. Our very own Local Studies Library has a wealth of photos, letters, scrapbooks, ephemera and more covering the history of the Gold Coast.

* Disclaimer: you realise I’m a librarian, right? So you get that the reading thing kind of comes with the territory? OK, we’re good, let’s move on.

4. Cook like you’re living in the past.

Alright, I admit it, man does not live by reading alone. Woman neither. Sometimes we need bread. Or other tasty treats.

The great thing about cooking historical recipes is that, obviously, you get to eat them. Sensory immersion in history. Perfect. Again, obviously, this is actually only perfect if you choose your recipe wisely – no fried dormice or stuffed udders.

You can find  recipes for every era, every culture and every skill level online, or for a combination of food and fiction try An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey, which I very much enjoyed. For early 20th century tastes check out a copy of  A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes, with traditional British recipes for each month. Which segues us beautifully to…

5. Watch historical movies or series.

The costumes! The language! The styling! What’s not to love about watching historical shows?

I was in Melbourne recently and had the opportunity to see the beautiful costumes for the ABC’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries series based on Kerry Greenwood’s delightful books set in the 1920s. What a gorgeously styled series!  I’d also recommend spending a whole day just watching back to back episodes of the BBC’s iconic Pride and Prejudice series. Also, I know they are for kids, but the Horrible Histories series are a lot of fun. I defy anyone to watch the music clips from any of the series and not learn an interesting new fact.

6. Discover living history groups.

The images in this post are a bit of swash and buckle being enjoyed with the Prima Spada School of Fence at History Alive, an annual event that is held at Fort Lytton in Brisbane on the June long weekend. It was, as ever, a bucket load of fun, with Suffragettes marching past Roman encampments, Vlad Tepes chatting with Vikings and much more. Living history and historical re-enactment groups dress, act and perform in character for the period of history they are passionate about. They are awesome! Check out any groups near you – they do amazing research and really bring history to life. Locally, you can find out more from the Queensland Living History Federation, or search online for groups in your area.

7. Get histocrafty.

I think I just invented a word! Even if you don’t want to go all out and join a living history group, you can still get hands-on with history by finding a costume or craft from the past to try for yourself. Now, for safety reasons, let’s not get too authentic chewing mercury into hat bands or anything. I’ve may a few reticules in my time – have a look at Jane Austen’s sewing box : craft projects and stories from Jane Austen’s novels by Jennifer Forest if you’d like to do the same. If you’re after something a little more lavish have a look at Embroidery Designs: For Fashion and Furnishing from The Victoria and Albert Museum by Moira Thunder. Divine!

Not into needlecraft? Try whittling, or throw a pot, or toss a caber. Oh, wait, that’s not a craft. My bad.

8. Research your family tree.

I don’t just mean draw up a list of names and dates. Put some flesh on the bare bones of historical data with details about their lives. Do some online searching and check censuses to find your ancestors’ occupations. Find out where they lived and check Google Maps to see if you can still see their house. Have a look in Trove to see if they made the news. You could discover

Recommendations? Please add your favourite historical books, shows or recipes to the comments below.