“First, climb to the roof”: making contemporary history consumable

Helen Kingstone

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


How do you convert history into something that can be consumed? While faux-medieval consumer goods are an easy hit, this is harder for more proximate periods. In ‘On the Present in Literature’ (1956), Ernst Bloch invokes a snippet from Goethe: ‘If you want me to show you the vicinity, you must first climb to the roof.’ We thus need spatial or temporal distance to view a (historical) landscape in it due proportions. How could this kind of distance be created? That was a problem that confronted all those who wanted to market the recent past as a commodity, whether in the form of books or tickets for leisure activities. The solution was artificial overview. What people lacked in daily life, they would pay to gain through man-made means.
By bringing together the early-Victorian historiography and journalism of Thomas Carlyle and Harriet Martineau, I show how both evoke that most popular contemporary means of visual overview: the panorama. Carlyle’s image of ‘an Asmodeus’s flight’ over Paris in his The French Revolution (1837) is taken up by Martineau for an almost-supernatural vision of the 1851 census where, without any ‘diable boiteaux ..., every housetop in the kingdom was taken off’.
Panoramas themselves, as Billie Melman and Ulrich Keller highlight, often drew their subjects from ‘the recent past still alive in collective memory’, particularly military history: panoramic depictions of Waterloo abounded after 1815, and the form resurged in popularity during the Crimean War. Museum displays could go even further to make history manageable, providing a narrative for consumption in a single sweeping gaze. As Bruno Latour describes it, visitors could ‘travel through all the continents, climates and periods ... between one case and the next!’
This paper brings together Victorian historians, journalists, curators and impresarios, to examine how they used strategies of physical distance and elevation to transform contemporary history into leisurely consumer culture.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016
EventBritish Association for Victorian Studies annual conference 2016: Consuming (the) Victorians - University of Cardiff, Cardiff
Duration: 31 Aug 20162 Sept 2016

Academic conference

Academic conferenceBritish Association for Victorian Studies annual conference 2016


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