We just had our first taste of the ego that is David Starkey. My wife and I are museum professionals – we just watched Starkey’s series on Henry VIII and are both still reeling from the experience. The content relied on the normal soap-operatics one has come to expect from TV programmes featuring historical figures – in many ways it was actually pretty good, but the whole effect was somewhat spoiled by Starkey’s ham-fisted attempts at theatrics and his utter disregard for the historical evidence he insisted on over-handling – and by that we mean physically handling with the same ham-fistedness as demonstrated in his theatrics.
My wife recoiled in horror at several points as, no doubt, the curators, archivists and collections management staff did in the various libraries and archives that Starkey visited – I doubt that the ones who appeared on-screen normally look so tight-lipped and disapproving in their everyday lives. It was interesting to see the varied use or non-use of gloves in different archives and the instances where contact with the documents was clearly prohibited (most evident in the perusal of the Bede scroll). This may be a petty professional observation, but such observations are exactly the kind of thing that marks a professional. As professionals we both noted the numerous occasions on which Starkey insisted on poking and prodding at the documents.
Museum collections, libraries and archives are the repositories of knowledge that have endured for centuries precisely because there have been fussy people watching over them. The likes of David Starkey and his need for dramatising the examination of evidence by poking and prodding at it are an embodiment of posturing, ego and self aggrandisement taking precedence over the maintenance of our heritage. That heritage is there for all to access should they have need of it – access is core to collections care in any professional museum, library or archive – but the media need to be aware that historical material is not simply a prop, it is a physical record of the past that can yield more information in the future as science develops new techniques for analysis. This requires a degree of care in its handling to ensure information is not lost.
For us the jury is still out concerning Starkey – he comes across as knowledgeable, outspoken and opinionated (which we have respect for), but he is also melodramatic and careless with source material (which lessens our respect considerably). It almost seems as though he’s trying to be an historian’s David Attenborough – without the considerable merits of Attenborough’s charm and his deep-seated respect for his subject matter.