On this day: the role of anniversaries

Newspapers, magazines, blogs and Twitter are awash with anniversaries. Today’s Birthdays, On this Day in History, #OTD and so on greet me every morning. I know a handful of famous people or events that share my birthday, and I am usually aware of forthcoming anniversaries for the people or institutions that I study. It cannot have escaped your attention that this year sees a Dickens anniversary and a royal jubilee. But why should it be in any way meaningful?

There is, of course, a meaningful history attached to the celebration of anniversaries, and one that has been studied by a number of historians. Looking at which, why and how famous individuals have been remembered for centenaries, bicentenaries and tercentenaries can tell us a great deal about how people view their own time, and how they make sense of their heritage, their nation, their discipline or their institutions. It is a product of that age of invented traditions, the 19th century. One of the scene-setters was the Shakespearian tercentenary in 1864, for which an ambitious programme of events was organised. By the early 20th-century such celebrations abounded: Shakespeare again in 1916, James Watt in 1919, Newton in 1927, Faraday in 1931, and many, many more. Many of the themes are touched on in this fascinating article on the Watt and Faraday celebrations, by Christine Macleod and Jennifer Tann (£).

Because of my sense of the fact that such celebrations tend to say more about us than they help develop a real understanding of the past, I’ve been pretty sceptical about anniversaries. This tendency was probably not helped by the fact that for three or four years it was my job to create a list of forthcoming anniversaries for the newsletter of the British Society for the History of Science (back issues here: there’s plenty more interesting stuff in there than these lists!). I was told by my elders and betters that it was a tradition and much appreciated by our members. In an era before Wikipedia, it probably was, but in my innocence I did not understand why.

Since entering the ‘real world’ of grant applications, large organisations and media relations, my eyes have been opened. While I still can’t quite understand why dates separated by a year, a decade, a century or whatever should be so readily accepted as having significance, I now understand why historians go along with it readily enough.

An anniversary seems to be the only way that history can be accepted as news, barring a really dramatic archival or archaeological discovery. Journalists, editors and readers are, it seems, more prepared to accept a story on an event/book/exhibition if it is connected to an anniversary – and, therefore, somehow carrying its own logic and relevance. Thus, publishers, directors and funders are more likely to be convinced that your idea is worth a punt. It also, of course, carries a natural deadline that helps to focus efforts, gain momentum and generate collective endeavour. A general sense that something must be done to celebrate this or draw attention to that can coalesce much more easily around a forthcoming anniversary.

It would seem that I have now become the anniversary’s greatest fan. Today I was delighted to see the marking of the 250th anniversary of Tobias Mayer’s death with a great post over at The Renaissance Mathematicus. I pointed readers of the Longitude Project blog toward it, especially since the bicentenary Nevil Maskelyne’s death last year was an excuse for a number of posts creating a more rounded portrait of the erstwhile ‘longitude villain’. The anniversary made it sensible to have a symposium devoted to the man, and also got him into New Scientist.

Of course, the whole Longitude Project, and the NMM’s forthcoming exhibition on longitude are also knowingly linked to the 2014 tercentenary of the first Longitude Act. I am now beginning to think that it would be worthwhile to start planning for the 350th anniversary of the Royal Observatory (OK, it’s not until 2025, but in the scheme of things, in a busy life, that’s not really so far off, if we’re to pull of a significant redisplay as well as suitable events). These institutional beginnings do, at least, carry a little more weight than birth and death anniversaries, that mark the two events in a life that the hero has least control over, but why should “founded 300 years ago” mean any more than “founded 298 years ago”?

Are we letting the cart lead the horse, in research terms? Should we be working harder to sell what we really think is significant instead of going for the easy option? Are anniversaries a harmless means of raising awareness, or can they obscure the importance of history: accounts, stories and interpretations which are for everyday, or perhaps for some unplanned particular day, and not just once every century. Did the huge Darwin bicentenary of 2010 achieve much, beyond sating everyone’s thirst for talks and TV programmes about the man? Have we, in short, made ourselves slaves to the anniversary?

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21 thoughts on “On this day: the role of anniversaries

  1. Pingback: On this day: the role of anniversaries | Whewell's Ghost

  2. From a historian’s point of view, or perhaps even a scientist’s, anniversary years produce much published content about the figure or event so that, in the future, one could look to those publications to see how folks viewed the figure or event. It’s good for learning the historiography of something. For example, 2009 was the Darwin bicentenary, and there were many journal issues and books devoted to dissecting the topics. Same in 1959, and some in 1909. These can be handy go-to resources for learning about Darwin as viewed by historians or biologists at those particular times.

    • Late night typing! Thanks for the Darwin 2009 correction!

      I agree that it is fascinating to look back at centenary celebrations and the publications they have produced, but in an age of professional scholarship it seems perhaps less valuable. After all, all of those who published good, well-informed work on Darwin for 2009 had already published plenty on Darwin and would, presumably, have published whatever they did in 2009 at some point anyway. It would be easy enough to find it again in the future, presuming digital access to journals remains.

      I think it was more about doing such a lot at one time that the world outside would be *bound* to notice. They did, I think, but there seem to be plenty of mixed feelings from those involved about whether it really achieved much. Though, if it didn’t, I’m not sure what would!

  3. As my post on the Tobias Mayer anniversary seems to sparked your chain of thought I feel that I should comment. ;) The biographical sketches that I post on my blog are part of my campaign to undermine the big names, big events version of the history of science. By regularly featuring interesting and for the evolution of science and technology comparatively important but little known researchers I hope to bring people out of the Galileo-Descartes-Newton-Darwin-Einstein is a scientist mode of thinking. Given the fact that the list of potential candidates is vast I need some sort of selection procedure. Although it is not always the case I tend to feature somebody on their birthday, day of death or date of major discovery. Sometime I see X or Y has an anniversary and think I could write a post about them and then don’t with the thought now I have something to post next January or whenever. Sometimes I will post about someone just because without an anniversary, John Hadley for example. However the anniversaries provide a useful and simple framework for a rather haphazard and irregular series that should keep me in blog material for a long time to come.

    The Mayer was something rather special because living, as I do, almost in Nürnberg and being actively involved in the history of astronomy of the area I have been aware for more than a year of the impending 250th anniversary of his death and the fact that some of the places strongly associated with him (Marbach, Göttingen) are planning big celebrations this year. We aren’t, which I find slightly sad but we’re planning on doing Simon Marius proud in 2014; four hundred years Mudus Jovialis.

    • This was more prompted, in fact, from my own desire to get a link to your Mayer post up on the Longitude blog than that post itself! It is, though, something I have been thinking about ever since I wrote those BSHS anniversary lists and, especially, since I started work at the museum. The longitude anniversary, Royal Society anniversary, Maskelyne anniversary, 125th meridian conference anniversary and more have all reared their heads, as well as Darwin and others outside my immediate field. It has always seemed a little crazy to me that this seems to be the easiest, or only, way to argue for doing something – but I can’t argue that it has not been successful!

      It’s good to hear your view, and I think that the point of finding a way of linking an otherwise disparate series makes very good sense, especially when you are pointing to people who do not have a name that’s an obvious draw. Choosing birthdays also allows for a nicely random mix – going through chronologically, or by field, or nationality, might be more repetitive and less entertaining.

      I certainly won’t stop using anniversaries to my own ends, but I think I need to remind myself to work on finding other more educative or pertinent links.

  4. The 400-year anniversary of the first telescopic sky observations in 2009 was the trigger for declaring this the International Year of Astronomy, a major decentralized science outreach event reaching millions and having many – though often subtle – legacies still felt today. Similarly the World Year of Physics in 2005, celebrating 100 years of Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis, and the planned World Year of Light in 2015 – linked to several anniversaries, though not that deeply – offer(ed) great ways to spawn public interest in science then and now. It’s a constant challenge for science historians and communicators, though, to ensure that the correct things are hailed (such as that in 1609 Galilei neither invented the telescope nor used it to prove heliocentricity as even many astronomers seem to believe) and put in a proper context. But at least someone is listening …

    • Thanks for this – I can’t believe I forgot to mention the 2009 IYA! It was the first thing that hit me when I arrived at the Royal Observatory in 2008, leading to conferences, events, exhibitions, my first blogging venture and my colleague Richard Dunn’s book A Short History of the Telescope, all just in Greenwich. It was, indeed, huge – and found more than a little space for history, although, as you say, it was somewhat on the margins, with the chief message being elsewhere.

      Perhaps for collective endeavour on that scale an anniversary is the most successful way forward – giving sufficient advance notice. However, it is very much history in the service of marketing, or prestige, than the discipline itself.

  5. Becky,
    I think it was Horace Lamb whose quote goes, “I did try to make things clear, … and somehow to make these dry bones live.” For those who are NOT historians, who work each day trying to make the dry bones of the science/math of old dead men come alive for secondary students, these events give great opportunities to do so. Teacher’s don’t need to tell their students when Jersey Shore, or the equivalent there in UK about Essex (don’t know the name of such a show in Germany), but it helps if we can advise them that there is some special about Riemann, or Gauss, or Galileo on the tv…. then maybe they will be excited enough to explore Thony’s blogs about the guys who tend to get overlooked,
    And if the special days are not there often enough, we make up our own…. Only 21 days until PI day (That’s 3/14 for us in the US, Guess you could settle for 22/7 over there)….
    Thanks for your great blog

    • Thanks Pat – mention of Jersey Shore and Essex suggests another useful hook, to use alongside anniversaries, which is geographical location. There is, obviously, plenty of this already, but I recall reading something about how some local Lambeth schoolchildren were amazed and excited to learn about Faraday having been born so close to them in Elephant & Castle. It helped them learn something not just about Faraday’s work, but about his career trajectory (and perhaps to inspire their own) and the changes to their locality over time.

  6. I think we need to recognise, as for science, that history is part-entertainment so playing to a public enthusiasm for anniversaries as “hooks” is entirely reasonable even if it does not appear so from a purely academic point of view.

    • Yes, indeed. As I say, I’m not going to stop using them just a) I think we ‘public’ historians might think a little harder to find some more meaningful hooks (e.g. curriculum, geography, links to news stories, etc.) and b) I still can’t really understand what the enthusiasm for anniversaries is caused by. Is it cross-cultural and innately human? Is it specific to modern society? Does it appeal to men/women/children equally?

      • Anniversaries are deeply embedded in religious practice, maybe that’s the precedent. Also anniversaries work well with how news is “created”. Geography is a nice hook, it’s one of the things I pulled out from the science museum catalogue data to see which objects originated near my location. Connecting to news stories ad hoc is all very well, but it requires you to generate material rapidly if you don’t have it to hand. I guess nowadays museums would routinely link material to curriculums.

      • “Connecting to news stories ad hoc is all very well, but it requires you to generate material rapidly if you don’t have it to hand.” – it does, but is very effective if you can pull it off, or keep an eye out for things that resonate with your research.

        “I guess nowadays museums would routinely link material to curriculums” – they do, but not always as widely/imaginatively as one might like. The education departments in museums are full of education specialists and not subject-specialists, researchers or, indeed, people with detailed knowledge of the museum’s collections. There is much, much more that researchers in museums, universities and elsewhere could do on this front.

  7. Geographical connections is certainly a good hook to awaken interest along the lines of, “did you know that the guy who invented the atomic bomb came from your town?” (Just kidding!) I find the BSHS travel guide a good initiative in the directions. However even here if you wish to engage the attention of local authorities, schools, businesses etc you almost always have to combine the geographical with the anniversary.

    We will be celebrating Simon Marius who is Middle Franconian in 2014 because it’s the 400th anniversary of the publication of his principle work. In 2015 Albretch Dürer as mathematician because it’s the 500th anniversary of the publication of his celestial maps, the first ever printed ones. Both are big name local figures with schools named after them etc but if you try to generate interest in some sort of history of science activity involving them and it isn’t an anniversary nobody is interested in supporting you plans. Give them a juicy anniversary and they’re all too eager.

    In terms of world-wide marketing Nürnberg has redesigned itself in the las twenty years as Dürer City and there are bucket loads of books, pamphlets, audio-guides and so forth but none of them even mention that Dürer was an important and influential Renaissance mathematicus. The anniversary will give us the chance to at least partially redress the balance.

    What is really needed is to convince educators, both teaching and political, to include science and scientists in the general flow of social and cultural history. To stop treating history of science as a separate, special and somehow esoteric discipline but I have to admit I’m not really sure how to go about it.

    • “What is really needed is to convince educators, both teaching and political, to include science and scientists in the general flow of social and cultural history” – absolutely!

      I think the only approach is to keep plugging away, in as many ways, formats and places as possible.

      I think that the good folk of Manchester CHSTM had some success getting involved with the Manchester History Festival, and I do think it’s essential that historians of science engage with history groups and events as well as science festivals and the like. I find it interesting that I get invited to speak at science festivals, scientific societies and by science teachers, but very rarely by history societies and teachers – especially since I am an historian and not a scientist. I think I’m going to have to be a bit more proactive in this area!

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  9. Pingback: Cutting a dash: men of science as ‘historical hotties’ | teleskopos

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