25: Bring your history to life

history; arts and heritage; heritage; culture; Why do we need to know about our history? Does what happened in the past have anything to do with us?

The answer is simple: Yes.

Wherever you live in the world, the land you live on is full of thousands of years of human history. Some of this history can be seen: old buildings, memorial sites or street names. There is also a large portion of our history which we can no longer see: cultures that did not necessarily build lasting structures for us to visit today, people who did not record their history in writing. Even if we can’t see it, the history is there, in our culture and in our memory.

Either way, our history defines us and therefore it should be explored to the fullest and understood by each of us.

For today’s Simple Thing, have a think about where you live. What is the name of your town or street? Do you know why it is called that? Is there a place you can visit that will shed a light on your home’s history?

In South Africa, for example, the main airport in Johannesburg was called Jan Smuts International Airport up to 1994 and in 2006 was re-named O. R. Tambo International Airport. But who were Jan Smuts and Oliver Thambo? How long does it take before the name of a person who played a role in history becomes associated more with the park, street or airport bearing their name than with the person themselves and what they did?

“My concern is that amongst blacks and whites, and the new emerging black middle class, they are rapidly in my opinion forgetting where they came from. We all have short memories and a lot of them I feel have lost sight of the fact that their new-found wealth, status and position came at a huge sacrifice and cost by hundreds of people, if not thousands.”

– Nic Wolpe ‘Remembering South Africa’s revolution’

In London in the UK, names of men who lived even longer ago are still used by us on a daily basis, without us even knowing it:

“Britain was invaded by Angles and Saxons from northern Europe and it is to them that we owe the vast majority of the names of other, smaller settlements that were later subsumed into London. Most places ending in –ham, –ton or –ington are named after otherwise forgotten Anglo-Saxon chiefs. Paddington, Kensington and Tottenham are three of these – originally farms or homesteads associated with Padda, Cynesige and Totta, whoever they were. Similarly, a name ending in –ley is likely to have been a clearing in a wood and Wembley was the clearing associated with Wemba.”

– Caroline Taggart ‘The surprising reasons behind London’s oldest place names’

One of the main reasons for a lot of tension in the world today is that we have a relatively short memory. We forget the way things came about. We defend customs, traditions, borders, religions and languages which we feel are intrinsically ours, but which are in fact all imports from other cultures, creating a colourful and interesting blend.

In the UK, too, we are quick to forget how things came about. Have a look at these posters published by Refugee Week:

History - Fish&chips created by refugees

Fish and chips, for example, were brought to the UK by Jewish refugees expelled from Portugal in the 17th century.

History - M&S created by refugees

Marks & Spencer was co-founded in 1884 by Michael Marks, who came to the UK as a Jewish refugee.

History - Mini created by refugees

The creator of the Mini, Sir Alec Issigonis, was a Greek who fled from Turkey in 1922.










As much as the influx of refugees is contentious in countries like the UK, we often do not realise how much they have contributed to its history.

Countries all over the world have organisations dedicated to preserving our cultures, traditions and history. From museums to estate houses to castles to protected coastlines to sacred memorial sites –  there is an abundance of sites open for public exploration. Visit and support these places, to preserve your history. Not only will you bits of history that have shaped society as it is today, you will also find how it contributed to shaping you as a person.

For some inspiration on where to go and explore in the UK, have a look at our Arts and heritage enthusiast page. We have currently only listed UK activities on this page, but we will be adding places from all over the world soon. If you have any suggestions of places to visit where you are, let us know!

Share with us where you went and what you found out!

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