Too much history is a dangerous thing

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The Independent Online
It sounds a glimpse of heaven for all parents trying to keep the kids quiet and themselves sane as the school holiday marathon drags on through the dog days, with the finish line still weeks away. A spanking new museum, interactive and with all the high-tech trimmings, setting out the 2,000-year history of Britain in its uplifting and multifaceted splendour. It would be educational, fun - who knows, maybe even free - and, needless to say, just the sort of thing to capture a nation's re- found self-belief on the eve of the millennium.

Alas, heaven will have to wait at least a little, and perhaps for ever. The idea belonged to a consortium of the great and good, led by the recently ennobled Kenneth Baker, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, for a pounds 110m Museum of British History in central London, to be realised as part of the millennium celebrations. But the Commission turned it down, saying the project was not sufficiently "unique" to warrant the requested pounds 50m of funding from lottery profits. Undeterred, Lord Baker is casting around for alternatives. But for the moment the avenues look closed. And perhaps it is just as well.

For the question must be asked, does Britain need any more history? At school a pupil may be able to drop history when he or she turns 14 (an opportunity, Lord Baker pointedly notes, offered otherwise only by Albania in Europe). Outside in the real world however, you drown in the stuff. We have museums by the thousand; their standards of presentation may sometimes be debatable, but not their contents. What country has so lovingly fostered its links with the past, from blue plaques on houses to restored ships, and entire urban districts and country landscapes preserved in aspic? Indeed, are we not told ad infinitum that Britain's problems, from the monarchy downwards, stem from our refusal to let go of the past?

Despite the denial of lottery money, Lord Baker exudes confidence that the scheme for a glistening state-of-the-art Museum of British History will go ahead. Annual profits of pounds 1.7m are forecast within three years. Luminaries such as the former chancellors, now Lords, Healey and Jenkins, as well as the film director Sir David Puttnam, are among its supporters. And if this distinguished company can drum up enough wealthy backers, fine.

But there are surely causes more urgent and more deserving of the ordinary punter's pound than a small extra attraction in a country which in some respects is already a living European Disneyland. To which Lord Baker retorts that the danger is not that we will die of a surfeit of history, but that we will perish from our ignorance of it. The millennium celebrations, of course, are supposed to be about the future, "but you can't talk just about the future. You can't face the future unless you know where you've come from".

But here, a different problem arises. The future is not in doubt, ran the joke in the old Soviet Union, only the past is uncertain. Except it proved no joke, for nothing contributed more to the demise of Communism than Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to open the sealed vaults of his country's past. By such standards, of course, Britain has little to hide, for all its qualms about a Freedom of Information Act. But a fullblown museum of national history would throw up controversy enough.

In the first place, what sort of museum should it be? The Baker preference seems to be for a pantheon, of heroes from William Shakespeare to Isaac Newton, from John Maynard Keynes to William Gladstone. Its occupants might include Good Queen Bess and Winston Churchill, passing via Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and all the others who built the empire upon which, for roughly one tenth of the millennium that is about to end, the sun never set.

Indirectly indeed, that empire is a prime reason why we find ourselves in this pickle. If the world were on Paris Mean Time or Moscow Mean Time, the millennium frenzy and attendant squalls like the Baker Museum would have passed us by. Alas, however, when the international confererence to resolve the matter was held in 1884, Britain was top nation, source of the world's most authoritative shipping maps and navigational charts, boasting possessions in every corner of the globe. Greenwich, home of the Royal Observatory, was the obvious, overwhelming candidate to be the site of the prime meridian.

For the last 113 years, therefore, each new day for the entire world has officially dawned there, the planet's silent, unceasing tribute to Britain's glories. As Lord Baker explained on the BBC yesterday, "This small island has much to be proud of ... in this century alone we have shaped the modern world."

Even if that assertion is true, others will not see it as an unmitigated boon. History is composed of millions of ordinary men, not merely a few great ones. Its essence is argument; one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. If it truly seeks to distinguish itself, the Baker museum must acknowledge that Britain's record, like that of every other country, is not pristine white but a tapestry of greys. What of slavery, religious persecutions, the underside of the Industrial Revolution, imperial excesses and diplomatic capitulations like Munich? These, though, are not the notes the millennium celebrations are designed to hit.

Or suppose instead we decide to don a little national sackcloth. Events a couple of years ago in America provide a salutary warning. No country "does" museums better than America, and no museum on earth, surely, is finer than the Smithsonian in Washington DC. But its special exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima showed the extreme peril of tampering with received historical wisdom.

Even in World War II, the Smithsonian dared suggest, the Japanese were not all bad, and President Truman's decision to use atomic weapons might have been overhasty. The outrage among veterans and the political right was seismic: the exhibit was amended, then truncated and ended early. Such are the rewards of evenhandedness.

Would the Baker museum attempt as much in dealing with British history and its ambiguities? If not, then the entire project risks becoming little more than mouthpiece for a British variant of what the Americans call "exceptionalism", a belief that a country (theirs) is singled out by destiny to be different from (read, better than) all others. That, however, is less history than jingo-ism, unsuitable at 14 or any age.