the stuff of history


“Of purely antiquarian interest”. The phrase itself smells musty now. We are no longer so confident of being able to identify a dominant historical narrative and relegate the rubbish to the dustbin of history. To us now the dustbin is history, and we are its scavengers – some professional totters, others mere amateur fossickers. Every boffin hopes to be a golden dustman, rescuing from pollen residues and crockery shards the reality that has eluded old-style, document-bound historians. It is political history which now has to compete for airtime with the history of food and families, of dress, disease and death. As David Starkey points out in his introduction to this irresistible show, it is this “thinginess” which has given the Royal Society of Antiquaries its peculiar flavour and accounts for its unique contribution to our modern understanding, both scholarly and popular, of the past. Until the 1920s, the Society’s principal meeting-room was arranged, not like a lecture room, but like an anatomy theatre: seats were ranged around a huge table on which the “Remains of Antient Workmanship” were placed to be viewed, argued about and anatomized. It was things, not theses, they looked at first and foremost.

more from the TLS here.