Nostalgia – a force for good or bad?

My relationship with nostalgia is paradoxical.  I recognise that it is nostalgia that drove me to be interested in history and heritage in the first place, but I also recognise that nostalgia is a psychological process that can’t always be trusted – see my work on this subject here.

I’ve been interested in heritage from a very early age. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of day trips to stately homes and castles. In fact, I chose to spend my childhood birthdays in damp English castles and musty smelling country houses than having a party with all my friends – I would rather have the treat of a day immersed in history than go to a theme park or Laser Quest. This was probably considered very geeky at the time but I am too old now to care about that!

My love of past times back then was driven by the idea that ‘things were better in the olden days’. This idea was cemented by the adults around me always harking back to the days when ‘children could play outside until night time’ and doors were always left unlocked. To my innocent mind, if I had lived in the ‘olden days’ I would have definitely lived in a castle or a stately home because of course, I would have been in the upper-echelons of society and part of the social elite. Obviously as I grew older I realised that that probably wouldn’t have been the case, but I suppose the thought never left me. Was it really that bad for people?

Abandoned house

We’ll never know, because we weren’t there to live through it – and that is where nostalgia comes in and dangerously fills in the gaps. Like an insidious germ it creeps into the consciousness and convinces you of a distorted reality. Heritage has a lot to answer to on this subject because more often than not it portrays a sanitised version of history. This is due to numerous factors – budget constraints, personal interpretation, lack of understanding of historical resources – but at least heritage is trying to interpret history, albeit for the masses. I’m not a purist but some do this well, others really do not. We definitely need to question heritage and not take it at face value, but then that can take the enjoyment out of it. Having an enquiring mind is sometimes a bit of a nuisance!

By analysing the role nostalgia plays in my work on the subject, I was able to analyse myself and rationalise how I felt about heritage. My love of history was probably borne out of a sort of ‘borrowed nostalgia’ – after all, I wasn’t around pre 1981, so I can’t possibly feel nostalgic for a time I never experienced!

Nostalgia allows us to connect with the past, albeit in an inauthentic way. But at least it is a connection of sorts. If we only ever looked forward and wiped the slate clean every day, there would be no history to make up the rich fabric of time and we wouldn’t be able to progress as a society. The words “you have to look back first to look forwards” spring to mind. We just need to be careful in what we choose to believe in…