The past has always held a powerful fascination for me
I think it’s because it offers us a glimpse into where we came from. Looking back, we can spot features that contributed to who we are as individuals, families, communities, nations, and a species. History, quite literally, has made us.
My love for the past goes back as far as I can remember. But it was as a teenager that I really caught ‘the bug’. I spent years working as an actor and swordsman at Renaissance festivals throughout New England. I spent my summers portraying Elizabethan courtiers, knights errant, and even some of literature’s most famous swashbuckling heroes. While this was a great source of fun throughout my teenage and university years, it also awakened in me a rather unexpected realisation. Although I was dressed in a suit of armour or a sumptuous doublet, and although I was portraying certain cultural features that nowadays we would consider quite archaic or alien, the actual people themselves, their personalities and motivations, were fundamentally no different from you or I. This understanding has inspired the way in which I teach others about History to this day.
Having completed a BA and an MA, both with a particular focus on History, I found my way into the museum and heritage sector. One of my interests being early arms and armour, I worked for five years at the Royal Armouries Museum, Britain’s national museum of arms and armour. This career took me from its museum in Leeds finally to a curatorship at H.M. Tower of London. To spend my days working at a site that has witnessed almost 1000 years of history, be it good or ill, was an experience that will stay with me forever. Yet throughout all of this, the same realisation shone brightly through: the people who lived and worked on this site, and who used and made the objects I cared for, revealed themselves to still be so very familiar.
All of this is largely back story, for it is when I came to London that the part of my journey with which we are concerned with here truly began. Over the past two years, I made the acquaintance of several individuals who in their own ways are working with governments and other organisations to try to make the world a better place. Two such individuals of particular note are Vinay Gupta (of the Hexayurt Project and The Future We Deserve) and Dougald Hine (of The Institute for Collapsonomics and The Dark Mountain Project). These two do a lot of work on the present and possible future decline of our societies and ways of life. They look not only at what is happening, but also at what needs to change if we are to avoid or at least cushion the blow of the worst possible future scenarios. Looking around you, it is easy to see that such work is fast becoming relevant.
Although I was fascinated with the work they were doing, I felt that, as an academic and historian, there was little I could personally lend to their efforts. I was disabused of this notion over an extended period of time by a series of unexpected events. I would frequently join them at meetings and discussions, less as a formal participant and more as a hanger-on who was going to the pub with them after things had wrapped up. With my intentions always being to sit back and listen, given that the subject matter was usually something with which I had little to no experience myself, I nonetheless found myself leaning forward at least once or twice and remarking on some idea or comment with something like ‘If you’re looking for useful precedents for that idea, perhaps you should look into this or that group from the 12th century who were doing the same thing.’ or ‘The last time that strategy was attempted was in the 1890s, and it didn’t work then either. So since little of the important factors have changed since then, it’s likely to fail again today for much the same reasons.’ Insights or understandings of the way in which past events were connected to present circumstances or have an impact on future ones that seemed obvious to me were often regarded as previously unknown yet useful data for others around the table. After this happened enough times, I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to take these ideas and do something with them.
And thus, one year ago, Applied History was born.
It seems such a simple concept, using knowledge of the past to understand present circumstances and to guide future decisions. But all through my life I have been frustrated and amazed by the ways in which allegedly educated people, occupying decision-making positions in government, business, and similar organisations, seem to be making the same mistakes as did our ancestors. It is guided by that famous saying, ‘Those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat it.’ While this statement is practically a cliché nowadays, it nonetheless holds true.
Historians have been the caretakers of 10,000 years of data on various answers to human problems. Some of this is no longer relevant to us, but much of it still is. My goal is to take this knowledge from the ‘Ivory Tower’, where it has been preserved for centuries, and bring it down ‘into the trenches’ where it can be put to equally good use.