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?