Storytelling: Imagination and the Past

A one-day interdisciplinary conference to be held at the University of York on 26 November 2010.

Recent decades have seen a host of different attempts to use imagination to facilitate public engagement with the past. New teaching methods, especially in primary schools, have aimed at encouraging children to empathise with the past as a way of understanding people and events. This has also been the case in historical fiction, both in literature and film/television, where imagination is invoked to present the audience with a ‘believable’ or ‘realistic’ portrayal of the past, often accompanied by a cast of sympathetic characters to whom the audience can relate. Those taking a more documentary, academic approach may have reservations about using imagination in this way, yet equally would be horrified to have their work labelled ‘unimaginative’. In these cases imagination’s role is claimed to be one of shaping the past into a convincing narrative, making it presentable through a particular medium or an institutional form such as a museum. Likewise it may be used as an archaeological tool to re-create a complete sense of former times, filling in the gaps between scarce or incomplete sources, or between material and sensory experience. Re-enacting the past lays claim to its own forms of imagination, reconnecting people with a tangible sense of the past through the physical recreation of items, buildings, or even entire ways of life.

This conference aims to create an interdisciplinary forum to discuss the motives, opportunities and methods of using imagination to re-create the past. It is by no means limited to recent practises, and papers examining past cultures’ uses of imaginative interpretations/depictions of their own pasts (for example through historical plays or paintings, ceremony and customs) would also be welcome.

Topics may include, but are by no means limited to:

  • The Portrayal of the Past in Literature/Art/Film/Drama/Academia etc.
  • Appealing to the imagination of different audiences.
  • Historical fiction and drama.
  • Re-creating and re-enacting the Past.
  • The Role of Imagination in museum/heritage work.
  • The creation of local and national stories, myths and legends about the past.
  • Creative projects and storytelling in teaching history.
  • The importance of evoking imagination to stimulate public interest in the past.
  • Real/imagined links between present and past, and grafting the present onto the past and visa versa.
  • The purpose or motives of alternative histories.
  • The role of empathy in studying/teaching the past.
  • Nostalgia.
  • Biography.

Proposals of 300-400 words should be sent to Oliver Betts at [email protected] no later than 26 October 2010.