Ruth Goodman on Inside the Factory, and the stories behind everyday objects: 'Understanding history makes one value things as they are today'
Early modern British historian Ruth Goodman on new series of Inside the Factory, the process of building history in layers, and the importance of studying social history.
The process of starting out with a single everyday object and building upon it in layers is what social historian Ruth Goodman does on the show Inside the Factory.
Instead of simply trying to understand how an object fit into peoples' lives, she is considering their interaction with it in larger ways.
History, Goodman thinks, teaches one the important lessons of change and adapting.
Think of a cooking pot. Just sitting there, the materiality and physicality of the object offers one plenty of information. The material it’s made of, its shape and construction, and how people may have interacted with it. Now think of the first-ever iron cooking pot. With its introduction, there’s an undeniable change in people’s daily lives, in the way they cook, and the type of food and flavours they consume. It also signals a change from cooking on wood to cooking on coal, further evidence of a decided shift. Besides the physical information, it carries the intangible memory of its own personal social history. Think of the earliest users of the iron cooking pot. In trying to imagine a person’s interactions with the object, one is provided with another set of information. How did they pick it up? How did they use it? How did they adapt to this change? From here, one can move out to broader questions. What was the manufacturing process for this object? What trade links were involved in making this possible at that particular time? What sort of ideas did people have about it, were they generally favourable ones?
This process of starting out with a single everyday object and building upon it in layers is what British social historian Ruth Goodman does with every new object she encounters on the show Inside the Factory. Now gearing up for its fifth season, the show seeks to explore anything that can be made inside a factory. While presenters Gregg Wallace and Cherry Healey are literally inside the factory and understanding the technical processes, Goodman has short segments in each episode, often at picturesque locations, offering a history of the object in focus. She works at understanding the need for the invention and use of the object, how it spread and popularised enough to become mass consumption in the present day, while also studying its functionality and how it has been useful to people at different times. While tracing the biography of the object itself, she’s also strongly focused on its social history and how people have interacted with the object through time.
“I think the objects are clues that allow us to see into the past,” says Goodman in an interview with Firstpost. They’re evidence of a different time, and documents of ever-changing history. Her process of going about this is primarily “keeping your eyes open and your ears open” and thinking about objects in a rather practical sense. “If you think through a product, how it’s used and who is using it, why you’re using it, that starts to help you look into different directions about how it fits in the social history,” she says. She starts with the object’s presence today, considering “how do we use it now? What does it mean to people now? How are the people incorporating it into their life now?” And then she starts journeying backwards into the past. “Has it always had these meanings? Has it always been useful in this way? Has it been possible in this way? Or available in this way?”
Instead of simply trying to understand how an object fit into people’s lives, she considers people’s interaction with it in larger ways. “And I believe [with] social history, that’s the central part. I think what social history means is, ‘how do people cope? How do people manage this? What do you people think about it?’ And obviously that’s going to change over time. It’s about people,” she explains.
Navigating this process can sometimes be tricky because of the variety of subjects the Inside the Factory team covers. When preparing for her segment, sometimes things jump to mind immediately, and sometimes it must necessarily be a one-zone inspection. Here, however, it helps to be part of an enthusiastic team, each with their own set of interests and a passion for history. “There’s a lot of discussion about which aspects we should look at,” she says. Sometimes their discussions pique another team member’s curiosity “and that’s also exciting, that you can follow somebody else’s interest.” The team is always mindful about not getting hung up on the same things, looking for different aspects of the stories they encounter.
The real challenge is deciding which stories to tell, since each object they investigate has its own rich history with several stories attached to it. “Whenever you start looking at the history of anything on an ordinary day in your life, [it] turns out to be something which has many twists and turns. There is no such thing as a single history,” she says. History isn’t formed in a linear manner either; there’s branches, tangents, and side-lines all to be considered and mixed together. “It’s always things, the ideas, and people coming together, trying to find which story to tell; it is quite hard,” she adds.
Goodman, who has also starred in Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm, and Wartime Farm among others, and has authored How to be a Victorian and How To Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life among others, and has lived a life entirely immersed in history – specialising in the early modern period. “I think understanding the past is a really useful tool for understanding the present,” she says. Studying history makes one ask questions – “Why is it like this now? Why are we not something different? Are there different constraints?” – and allows one to see the world in different ways. Understanding history makes one value things as they are today, not taking the world for granted.
It also teaches one the important lessons of change and adaptation. “I think, what history says is — everything changes.” Things were different in the past, the way things are now are only the way they are now, and they can, of course, be different in the future. “Sometimes people say ‘oh but we’ve always done it like that.’ And as soon as you look in detail, you find, no we haven’t. Everything has always changed. And it can carry on changing,” she says. History, for Goodman, “is about change and about the power of people to make that change happen.” And understanding the history of everyday things helps Goodman “be ready to move on”.
Inside the Factory series five airs on Sony BBC Earth on 25 December, 2019 from 6 pm to 9 pm, as part of a Christmas special line-up.
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