Fashioning History: Current Practices and Principles

Written by Robert F. Berkhofer Jr.
Review by Lucinda Byatt

This is a book on historical practice and the methods used to fashion the past. How should historians position themselves in order to target what the author calls the “history effect”, that combination of interpretation, representation and, yes, in some cases invention, that refers “to past reality as much and as accurately as possible”?

Berkhofer includes stimulating chapters on museums and displays – in which he also includes interpretative intervention, such as re-enactment – and films as historical representations. The question of re-enacting past customs and practices raises the problematic question of changing standards in morally acceptable behaviour then and now. Curators and recreators have to question the balance between accuracy and authenticity on the one hand, and interpretation and modern and indeed moral standards on the other. Berkhofer does not write specifically about the historical novel, but his comments about so-called “factional” films can be transposed from screen to page. The blending of fact and fiction into “invented fables” may reveal nebulous versions of history.

This is a sound introduction to a wide range of problems concerning the age-old conundrum of what is history, how sources are preserved and used, and the importance of recognising the various yardsticks used in different specialisations.