Empathy – Historical Sanitisation or Human Celebration?

Rosanna Heverin, co-editor of History Riot, museum educator and live int476604_10151472031725257_417221119_o - Copyerpreter, discusses the role of empathy in the presentation of two exceptional women, Anne Boleyn and Amy Johnson.

Whilst walking round the Museums and Heritage Show a couple of weeks ago, I came across the Association for Heritage Interpretation’s stall, and they were kind enough to give me a copy of their bi-annual magazine. The theme they were exploring was empathy, and it got me thinking.

In my professional life, outside of being a History Riot-er, I am a museum educator. I have been lucky enough to teach at a glorious range of sites on a glorious range of subjects, from a rather frantic demonstration of the Tudor great chain of being in the splendour of the Great Hall in Hampton Court Palace, to handling Second World War artefacts underneath the fuselage of a Lancaster. But the one thing that doesn’t change, whatever it is I am teaching about, is that it is my job to engage and enthuse people of all ages about history. And the best way I can do that – irrespective of what era I am teaching about or what age group I am teaching – is with empathy. Getting children to imagine what it would have been like to be in Dresden or Berlin and look up at the night skies and see hundreds upon hundreds of Lancasters in formation. Asking women to imagine a world where they exist legally as property, first of their father and then of their husband. It is both a brilliant way into subjects and ticks a National Curriculum box for those stressed school teachers who are heroes for organising school trips to these amazing heritage sites.

A Lancaster flying over Germany on a bombing raid

But I have been thinking – for more specific learning experiences or heritage interpretations that are centred around a historical individual – how should we be empathising with these people? Is there a wrong way and a right way to empathise? Is it hiding the more negative aspects of these historical peoples’ characters to promote the good?

“Historians don’t agree on whether Anne was guilty of treason or innocent, so it is no wonder it is difficult for popular culture and fiction to decide”

It is no secret that one of my favourite historical women of all time is Anne Boleyn. I believe she features on many peoples’ lists of favourite historical women (because I’m not the only one who writes these kinds of lists…right?). I have seen Anne interpreted myriad of ways. In Wolf Hall she was a rather sour faced, highly strung piece of work (played exceptionally by Claire Foy); in The Tudors she was ambitious and infatuated with the King (a hugely popular portrayal by Natalie Dormer). In The Other Boleyn Girl she is, brilliantly, a truly horrific human, bizarrely quick to decide sleeping with her brother is the only logical way to deal with the fact she has not yet given Henry VIII a son…Now I’m not saying these are wrong or right (although the last one is completely ridiculous). Historians don’t agree on whether Anne was guilty of treason (the Eric Ives school of thinking) or innocent (the Alison Weir version) – so it is no wonder it is difficult for popular culture and fiction to decide on an Anne. But a heritage site, and educators and interpreters at those sites, have a greater responsibility than novelists or screenwriters.

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors_
Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors

 Last summer, I saw a portrayal of Anne Boleyn in which she giggled, simpered, snogged Thomas Wyatt and shouted a bit. On stage, on film or on the page, this could have been an interesting dramatisation of a character. The problem is that Anne was a real person, not a creation, and we weren’t watching a play, we were stood in a historical site with an incredible reputation.

This interpretation had been chosen – it had been written by a playwright commissioned by the management team of the heritage site, and directed to be this way. It will have been researched and discussed and selected by the department in charge of live interpretation. The interpretation formed a free part of the site’s regular daily offer – people did not buy tickets for their day with the expectation they would see some museum theatre. Instead it was placed alongside static interpretation and knowledgable guides, so for those visitors who may not know too much about Anne Boleyn, this interpretation had every appearance of researched, reliable, trustworthy interpretation.

Heritage sites have a high cultural capital. Visitors, quite rightly, expect heritage sites to deliver accurate research in an engaging way. Watching Anne flirt with Wyatt was faintly amusing, but almost certainly inaccurate (there is no documented proof that Anne and Wyatt had a physical relationship of any sort or at any time), which felt wrong to me, and utterly devoid of empathy. Listening to the murmurs of visitors around me (“ooh, she was a right madam, wasn’t she?” “you can see why she had to get her head cut off”) was difficult. I have taught about Anne and I have interpreted Anne, and whatever camp you fall into – innocent or guilty, Ives or Weir – the un-debatable truth is that she was a person. A woman who lived and breathed, and loved and danced, and argued and felt afraid and frightened. A woman who died when her daughter was only two years old.

“Empathy is as vital to me as research in creating balanced, accurate and intelligence interpretation at heritage sites.”

In creating Anne as a caricature, the portrayal lost humanity and so invoked no empathy in the audience. Every fascinating, engaging, controversial, thought-provoking aspect of her life, of Tudor Queens and of Tudor womanhood was ignored. And I realised – it is the pursuit of empathy for the historical people we discuss that helps create this vital dialogue between visitors and heritage interpreters, especially live interpreters. Empathy is as vital to me as research in creating balanced, accurate and intelligence interpretation at heritage sites.

There is, of course, a flip side to this. I am currently writing an education session for Key Stage 2 children about Amy Johnson. Amy Johnson was undeniably an incredibly fascinating woman. She was the first woman to fly to Australia, she was at one point the only woman in the entire world to be an engineer and she was the inspiration for many young women who took up flying in the 1930s, who would make up a part of that vital force, the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) in World War Two. Jane Cartwright, as a part of Spectrum Drama, does a lovely workshop about Amy when she completely enthrals children with the tale of Amy’s flight to Australia.

amy j
Amy Johnson

 What she doesn’t mention, and what I am not planning to mention in my session, is that Amy was also referred to as the ‘Gimme Gimme’ girl for her apparent love of freebies; that she was not necessarily a great pilot; that she had a sense of entitlement borne of her fame and that, simply put, she probably wouldn’t be the easiest person to sit and have a coffee with. Yet all these traits make her incredibly empathetic and are very understandable – she had worried about money most of her  life (hence the love of freebies), she had the guts to fly to Australia so who cares if she wasn’t great at landing, she had had to fight for every scrap of her fame and she had lost her sister at a young age and been treated horribly by men so yes, perhaps she was a little prickly. So why am I not going to mention them?

Primarily it is because we need more STEM role models for children, especially girls, so that is what I am going to focus on. It is also largely because it would be slightly ridiculous to try and get Year 4 pupils to consider the long-term ramifications of childhood austerity. But also because Amy, like Anne, was a real woman who lived and was brilliant. Empathy isn’t the sanitising of the aspects of history we don’t like. Empathy is the discussion and celebration of what made historical people just like us; it is a way of bringing a site to life; it makes research sing and sparkle from the page and it brings the past closer than any other skill heritage interpreters have.

Empathy is vital. Without it, we have a country of soulless and dull museums and historic houses, and the people who lived there once upon are relegated to being caricatures. But with empathy? Then we have something magical.

Rosanna Heverin is a museum educator, heritage interpreter and and co-editor of History Riot.

Follow her on Twitter: @RLHeverin

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