Being there and being then: Ideal presence and historical tourism
Weston, R. (2011). Being there and being then: Ideal presence and historical tourism. The Journal of New Zealand Public History, 1(1), pp. 84-96.
Permanent Research Commons link: http://hdl.handle.net/10289/7017
Should history be affecting? Should we engage with it emotionally? These concerns were central to eighteenth and nineteenth century historiography and remain relevant to historians, especially public historians. Eighteenth century historians like Godwin were highly exercised by the effect of history on the reader, particularly the moral effect. Relatedly, eighteenth and nineteenth historians speculated constantly on the extent to which the reader ought to be proximate to and engaged with their subject(s) and the extent to which they should be detached and maintain a distance from them. There is a tension here – some say a choice – between history as a primarily affective and aesthetic discipline and history as a cognitive, objective, scientific discipline. That history thus has a “curious doubleness” is a perennial observation, going back to Herodotus and Thucydides. But assuming the ongoing, central place of affect in History, I have to account for the general lack of affect on me of the historical place. This seems to put me at odds with most people though not, I suspect, all historians. In what follows I would like to reflect on a recent personal experience of historical tourism in Mexico. I am not an historian of Mexico: I have never formally studied Mexican history nor written about it. Yet I have been fascinated with it since being exposed to parts of William Prescott’s classic History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) as a young boy. Nearly forty years later I managed to travel to Mexico and visit some of the places about which I had enjoyed such a profound literary-historical experience. In terms of Mexican history I was an amateur historian; above all, I was a tourist.
University of Waikato
This article has been published in the journal: The New Zealand Journal Of Public History . Used with permission.