What can we learn from Neil?

If you can’t tell from my tweets recently I love Neil Macgregor. In fact I think I am little besotted. The way he writes and presents history is my cup of tea. I read his History of the World in 100 Objects two years ago and I genuinely think it is one of the best history books I have ever read and one which changed my practice profoundly.

In the last month he began a new series on Radio 4, Germany: Memories of a nation to accompany a new exhibition which opens at the British Museum this week and my love has grown. I am a massive Germanophile so I knew this would be up my street but I have been mesmerized by the quality of the history he presents and the engaging stories he has told.

At the weekend I went to hear him talk about the series, and the book, and the exhibition, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and sat there I realised we can all learn a lot from good old Neil.


1. Objects are brilliant

There is something magical about actual artefacts or objects from the past. The past often seems like a ‘foreign country’, yet objects provide real evidence that this actually happened no matter how bizarre the past they represent. As teachers the more we use them in class the better. Listen to the episode on Charlemagne’s crown and you’ll see what I mean.


2. Stories matter 

Why do you like history? I like history because of stories. I always have done. It’s why I liked it as a kid and it’s why I like it now. Analysis is a great thing and developing some pesky second order concept is useful BUT what makes history magical is stories. And what makes history unique is that these stories are real. I’ve always thought that the best history teachers are story tellers and watching Neil Macgregor talk about the gates at Buchenwald made me realise I was watching a master. Now and again we need to remember this.


3. History is memory

This series is quite notably called memories of a nation, not a history of Germany as Macgregor points out that Germany, like Britain, does not have a history it has many. And importantly he chose this title as history is a collection of memories. History is what we choose to remember and how we choose to remember it. I am not sure I often point that out to my students but I think I should. It’s an important point to consider and one I genuinely think I have never ever mentioned to my shame.


4. History isn’t just British Queens and Kings

I’ll admit it I am a little bored of British history. I’m done with Kings and Queens and listening to this series on Germany has reminded me we are surrounded by rich history over the Channel and maybe we should teach this instead now and again. Why don’t teach a bit of German history that isn’t in the year 1919 to 1945? We should. It’s relevant and interesting. At Redland Green teach a unit to Year 9 about the DDR and it goes down a storm. Maybe we should teach more.