One of IPUP’s major research interests is in the particular relationship between the media and the past, and most especially, the way in which its aspects might be packaged, presented, and portrayed so that it may be available for a mass audience, as either entertainment or education (or, most frequently, a mixture of the two). Fundamental to exploring this as a research project have been two guiding principles: firstly, the need to understand something like a television series not as a single media output, but instead as a long-term and collaborative process that involves multiple viewpoints and contains within it numerous conflicts and editorial decisions; and secondly, the need to view media versions of the past not as inherently untrustworthy things, but rather as adaptations that might educate and inform us about contemporary public perceptions of the past.
The relationship between history and modern media has been a fruitful and happy one for both sides. From the genial and ever-involving lectures given by A.J.P. Taylor on the BBC and ITV, to the mammoth and expansive explorations of twentieth-century war such as The Great War (BBC, 1964) and The World at War (Thames, 1973), to the spell-binding employment of oral history in The People’s Century (BBC/PBS, 1995), television has prompted valuable and accessible discussions about the past to take place across the nation’s dinner-tables for decades. History itself has benefited from the growing appetite of the public to involve themselves in the past’s stories, as they continue to watch more history television, read more popular history books, and visit more museum and heritage sites than ever before. Inevitably, this relationship has not been without occasional conflict, and issues remain about how best to translate the past and communicate complexity while still engaging a mass audience. Yet television can and will continue to have a profound effect on increasingly broad public engagement with the past, and IPUP’s projects that explore this issue will work to highlight the value of historians having a mutually-beneficial relationship with the media.
As a medium, television has flirted not only with the production and appreciation of art but also with the discipline of art history, since at least the 1960s. Television has allowed scholars and broadcasters to venture inside the living rooms of millions, to talk about the value and the meaning of art. Television’s supreme ability to blend imagery and narrative, and to coax academics and thinkers into mixing together showing and telling, has produced over forty years of programmes that have provided comprehensible commentaries on art’s power that have stretched from The Caves of Lascaux to The Turner Prize. Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (BBC, 1969) is now enshrined as the first landmark series that brought the vast, complex, and beautiful story of Western art to a mass audience. This was followed by John Berger’s iconoclastic Ways of Seeing (BBC, 1972) that sought to explore the dense tangles of meaning, sight, and inference that lay behind the language of imagery. In more recent years, art and its place in human society has provided a fertile ground for writers and producers of arts documentaries, with thought-provoking writing married with powerful visuals by people such as Matthew Colllings, Simon Schama, and Nigel Spivey. IPUP’s project on how art history has been presented and packaged by the media has sought to tease out some of the context and background to such series, and to explore where the future might lie for the future of art on television.
Over the course of the next two years, in partnership with The Department of Archaeology, University of York, IPUP will embark upon a research project that will explore the relationship between archaeology and the public realm. This is one of three parallel disciplinary strands within IPUP’s wider research project on ‘Packaging the Past’.
In this instance, the notion of ‘Archaeology in the Public Realm’ might be seen to include a range of interconnected and overlapping fields of enquiry. These might include: community archaeology programmes and the relationships between local populations and excavations nearby; the archaeologies of contemporary society or the very recent past; the role and meaning of archaeology and archaeologists in modern popular culture; the portrayal of the archaeological process on television; and the relationship between the past’s material remains and the present’s imagination. These issues will be explored on IPUP’s webpages, and the project will culminate in a conference on these themes in 2011.