Big Ben

It’s been a tumultuous last few weeks here in the UK.

From attacks targeting kids and Saturday night revelers to a political about-face and rebuff of Prime Minister May’s political party to a tragedy based on nothing more than human negligence and greed – we felt history being made. Yet, typically, history is viewed as something that exists in the distance, far away from the here and now, separate from the events of everyday life.

So when does history begin? Is there a clear line between past events and current affairs, even when those affairs are of obvious historic significance?

I’ve asked this before, in the context of projects that I might pursue with my team. We’d like to do a Time Traveler Tour of Berlin during the Cold War, for example, but history as defined by copyright law – 70 years – makes it too recent to license the use of period images at an affordable cost.

Map & Magnifying Lens

Some scholars say, "History requires a certain distance between event and analysis if the latter is to assess the former in terms of significance and consequence”.* By this definition, historical scholarship requires the gathering of all possible relevant information, which can take years, decades even, to pull together. The true consequence of current affairs, the same people argue, is not knowable until such documents are available. And when memory, not reaction, informs testimony.

Other scholars contend there is no single cut-off point for when history stops and current affairs begin. They maintain that as long as you have enough sources to critically interpret the past, you can write history.

Writers of historical fiction suggest that history predates your own lived experience. Most people think that events cross into history after ten years have passed. Journalists consider their interpretations of current events to be “the first drafts of history.”

Our #HistoryHero campaign is now in full swing. We've collected over 100 heroes, some of whom are individuals still living: Malala, President Obama, and Hillary Clinton, to name a few. As they are agents of change, whose actions are making history now, they can and should be #HistoryHeroes too.

I think a distinction can be made between past and contemporary history. The latter are events in the recent past, like the Manchester attack and the Grenfell Tower fire, which have an immediate impact on the present and relevance for the future. Such events are not mere current affairs – ongoing cultural, political, and social events in the present that need the perspective of hindsight to be fully understood. Contemporary history comprises events that may be called historical, even as they occur, because they exist in a context: they are understood due to similar events that precede them. What’s more, they have consequences that, although not yet experienced, we can clearly see coming.

Battery operated clock

To me, the boundary between History and current events is fluid and dependent on the nature of each event in question. They are historic because the world has been changed as a result of them. But history, in this case, has not been kind.

So, please, join me in remembering the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, the Manchester and Tower Bridge attacks, as well as similar acts of extremism that have preceded these events. May they point us to a better way so that lives will not have been lost in vain.

Help us contribute a few positive vibes to this crazy world. 
Tell us: Who inspired you. Who gives you hope?
Who’s your #HistoryHero?

History Heroes do not need to be famous or even well-known. They do not need to be figures from centuries passed. They do not even need to be human. Check out our all-new blog series to meet some of the characters we've featured so far.

Share the name (or names) of your favorites. We’ll let you know when it’s their turn to be featured.

In Peace,

*Professor Paul Fouracre, University of Manchester, UK