Northern Ireland

Festival of history and broadcasting at BBC Northern Ireland

History and broadcasting will come under the spotlight in a series of illustrated talks, conversations and preview screenings in Northern Ireland next week.

The Festival of History and Broadcasting will be hosted by William Crawley and will take place from Tuesday, 21 February to Thursday, 23 February at BBC's Broadcasting House, Belfast.

Tickets for festival events and more information can be obtained on

Already confirmed to take part in the three-day festival are writer, historian and presenter, Dan Cruickshank (BBC's Britain's Best Buildings) and Mary Beard, historian, broadcaster and author.

As an accompaniment to The Festival of History and Broadcasting, BBC Northern Ireland asked a cross-section of people from different academic disciplines and backgrounds to consider - Why History Matters.

What follows is intended as a starting point for further discussion, and as a stimulus for the sharing of other views and opinions.

Image caption Lord Patten is chairman of the BBC Trust

Lord Patten of Barnes - Chairman, BBC Trust

History is a subversive subject. That's why authoritarian governments crib and confine the work of historians.

Look, for example, at how the Chinese Communist Party has suppressed attempts to open up the study and debate of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and the individual leaders who launched or connived at both those events.

History should help us both to define our national identities in a way free of self-delusion and to learn lessons from past successes and failures.

It is, of course, easier to investigate the past than to predict the future.

The sources are so much better. Historians' predictions are not always accurate.

But, if you know where you have come from and how you have arrived then it gives us some help in steering a passage through future challenges and turbulence.

Barbara Tuchman in her book The March of Folly reminded us how leaders can make the same mistakes over and over again, ignoring what they should have learned from past disasters and blindly repeating folly.

This does not mean that we are always doomed to repeat error.

Yet I have sometimes thought over my political lifetime that at least a basic grounding in our own country's history should be a qualification for senior office.

Curiously, sometimes you need to know about the past in order to forget it more comprehensively.

That was a lesson offered in Northern Ireland by Louis MacNeice's Episcopal father.

Northern Ireland has often suffered from too much history inadequately known, a misreading or misunderstanding of the past feeding prejudice and bitterness in the present.

I think that radio and television have an important role in making us all more aware of our history. They can be great educators. But nothing can replace its central part in the curriculum of all our schools.

Image caption Professor Mary Beard is a specialist in Classics

Professor Mary Beard - University of Cambridge and presenter of BBC's Pompeii and Rome with Mary Beard.

People often make the mistake of thinking history is about the past, when it is as much about the present and the future.

It's about what we know about where we have come from, can tell us about where we are and where we might be going.

The Roman, Cicero once said that "not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child forever".

The simple fact that these words were written more than 2000 years ago shows how central history and classical history is.

To put it another way, the simple fact that the History Faculty building in Cambridge was designed to look like a futuristic department of astrophysics is a really important message and always cheers me up.

Image caption Dan Cruickshank says history is inspiration

Dan Cruickshank - Historian, Author and Broadcaster

Why does history matter?

The most familiar answer to this question is also the best. History matters because without knowing the past we cannot fully understand the present or hope to influence the form the future might take.

History is information, but it is also inspiration: it teaches lessons, offers warnings, provides examples, points directions and - perhaps most importantly - it humanises.

Pondering the past, exploring past cultures and their physical remains, cannot help but make you humble.

Humanity has achieved so must but also has lost so much. It has soared high but also sunk low. What does the future hold?

Only those with a sense or knowledge of history have a chance of seeing beyond the immediate horizon and making their voices heard. History matters because it educates, encourages a philosophical, perceptive and tolerant turn of mind and because it delights.

Image caption Professor Keith Jeffery says history is society's collective memory

Professor Keith Jeffery - Queen's University, Belfast.

History is our society's collective memory; it is where we came from; and it defines our place in the present.

We regard human beings who have sadly lost their memory - for example with Alzheimer's - as being seriously ill, and the same is true of a society which forgets its past.

The phenomenal growth in family history and genealogy over recent years is only one example of the tremendous public appetite for history, and, living as we do in times of rapid change, it is understandable that people should want to explore their past and their place in it.

But we must protect the vital resources for discovering and understanding our history.

We need to cherish and support libraries and archives, with their devoted staffs, together with the teachers and scholars - amateur as well as professional - who dedicate their lives to the high calling of history.

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