On this chilly Sunday day a little figurine on a bookshelf looked at us. We looked back at the figurine. And we thought- we should really talk about how various objects can be useful for historians to understand past societies as well as some modern issues. In this post of Historians In Conversations we’ll be discussing how historians tend to treat physical evidence, specifically statues and figurines, and propose some ideas of our own about the process. Our ‘example’ object will be a mass-produced Soviet statuette of Imperial poet A.S. Pushkin, which stands on one of our library shelves.
‘Objects’ and the ‘historical’
Technically, any object which is able to tell us about the past society can be considered ‘historical’. This is because historians can use an object to reconstruct some parts of a society and therefore understand it better. For instance, a historian can look at a statue and consider the way the contemporary industries functioned. For example, in the case of mini-Pushkin, the statuette can help us to potentially understand the way the ceramic and glass industries functioned in the Soviet Union. This specific form was mass- produced, which allows us to conclude that the Soviet Union had a large ceramic industry as there would be no point in mass-producing so many little statuettes if there was no demand for it from contemporary population. Furthermore, a historian can decipher more abstract attitudes, such as power relations. Indeed, it would be ineffective for a State to waste resources on mass-production of little statutes had there not been a valuable enough reason to do so. As a result, it is possible to suggest that there was a wider reason for why such statuettes were produced. We think that the production was probably linked to some form of social instability, in order to make a society focus on its positive aspects rather than the negative ones. Consequently, any object from the past which helps a historian to understand the contemporary society better can be considered ‘historical’.
Images and Icons
However, there is another layer in how historians use objects when interpreting the past societies. Statues, in their celebration of an individual, are used to understand what the contemporary society found valuable, rather than actions of an individual. For example, in the case of the mini-Pushkin, historians could theorise that one of the social values of Soviet Russia was the overall neat presentability in an education setting. Indeed, judging by the overall appearance and comparing it to another statuette we’d concluded that our statuette presents Pushkin in a possible education setting. The socio-cultural value of ‘neatness’ in such settings could be seen in Pushkin’s well-ironed clothes and it being tucked in as well as seemingly readable handwriting. As a result, this depiction of Pushkin probably point to the values of USSR rather than to the ones that had existed in the Russian Empire.
Historical objects and collective history
This brings us to yet another layer in how historians use objects when interpreting the past societies. This layer is much more abstract and is related to the way how the contemporary society related to its collective history. Our mini-Pushkin is an interesting example. The ‘real’ A.S. Pushkin was a controversial figure in his lifetime. The man got bad press for general debauchery behaviour, like participating in illegal duels, being constantly in debt, and undermining the power of the Crown by having links with the Decembrists. However, any hint of such behaviour doesn’t emerge from our statuette. In fact, our mini-Pushkin, seems more of a diligent, perhaps slightly dreamy, youngster; rather than a controversial figure. As a result, it is possible to suggest that following the Revolution of 1917, the interpretation of Pushkin’s place in history got a ‘rebranding’ from an elite aristocratic poet to a dreamy man of the people. This is evident in our statuette (see photo below). Statues, therefore, help historians to understand how a society related to its past. Consequently, for a statue to be ‘historical’ it has to be made in the past and point to an idea of how society saw an individual which the statue portrayed.
By means of a conclusion
As mentioned above, such ‘rebrandings’ of influential individuals happen all the time in every society one way or another. Pushkin is definitely not an individual case in this process. These ‘rebrandings’ don’t take away much from our understanding of history and they most certainly don’t “erase” history. In fact, the various interpretations that arise as a result of the discussions around the statues and the individuals they depict aids everyone, historians included, to understand the collective memory of the society we live in.
To explore this topic further…
- If you’re interested in reading about the ongoing debate about the place of statues in cultural memory, a good place to start is David Olusoga’s Guardian article that was written in response to this year’s toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.
- If you’re interested in how culture, history and various objects interlink with each other, may we suggest you take a listen to BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast.
- If you’re interested in the historical figure of Pushkin, a good place to start is T.J. Binyon’s Pushkin:A Biography. Be aware that the book is fairly weighty and is not a bedside-read type book.
- As a way to wrap up this Sunday post, we recommend for you to give a listen to BBC’s In Our Time podcast discussion of Eugene Onegin.