Bend it like Beard
SHOULD HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION BE HISTORICALLY ACCURATE?
Many people – especially historians of course – would say it’s crucial for historical interpretation always to be historically accurate. The famous historian Professor Mary Beard doesn’t necessarily agree, however. She argues that it’s acceptable in some cases to sacrifice absolute accuracy for the sake of authenticity. So what’s the difference between accuracy and authenticity?
One example Prof. Beard gives is that of a drama about the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II. One character is heard telling another that a Royal Navy vessel has just been sunk, with a substantial loss of life. In fact, the vessel in question was sunk a week or two after Dunkirk.
Beard’s argument is that the lives lost in the sinking were roughly on the scale of those lost overall during the evacuation. Transposing the event is a pointed way of giving the audience an authentic feeling of the level of the disaster. I’m not sure I agree with her on that example, but I do take her point. In effect, she’s arguing for emotionally engaging the audience.
Emotional engagement is the key to learning and understanding. That makes it sound as thrilling as a three-month course on Victorian book-keeping, but in fact it really is thrilling. It transforms interest, or even boredom, into fascination. And once they’re fascinated, people long to learn more about what they’re experiencing and to understand its meaning and significance.
But does it justify departing from strict historical accuracy? Well, if it’s done with care and judgment, perhaps it does.
Of course, there are cases where none of us is at all strict about historical accuracy. The most notable example is the use of language. If we included a video drama in a project based on the 13th century, our client would probably not be happy if all the characters spoke in the authentic English of the period, because visitors would understand almost none of it.
At THE REAL STORY we have a strong interest in the development of the English language through time (and across the regions of Britain), but we’re unlikely to suggest using it accurately in dramas set 300 years ago or more. Instead, we use the rhythms and structures of the period, with a few of the archaic words whose meaning is obvious through context, so audiences have the flavour of the original but can understand it. Sacrificing accuracy for the sake of authenticity.
So should we ‘bend’ historical accuracy in order to engage visitors? If so, what are the limits?