How we know about the past

How do we know about the past? Historians are people who find out about life in the past. They try to understand what, why and when things happened. Historians can build up a picture of people and events from the evidence left behind.

Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums has in its collection lots of different types of historical evidence. Paintings and photographs can tell us about how places looked in the past, clothes worn, work and leisure pursuits. Photographs capturing locations at different times let us see how they have changed and the order in which the changes occurred.

Other sources of information about changing life in this country include maps and plans. They can show the changes and growth of towns and cities such as when houses and roads were built, what they replaced, often farm land. Documents from factories reveal types of industries once important and sometimes about the lives of working people. Old letters can inform us about every aspect of the person's life from personal feelings to local and world events, what people wore, what they ate, what interested them - the small nuggets of information which put flesh on the bones of history.

Museums preserve all types of object from the past to help us better understand it. Clothes, shoes, toys, working tools, domestic tools, holiday brochures, menus, chairs - the list is endless. From these we can begin to understand a little about the lives of our ancestors, how they differed from us today and the ways in which their lives were not so different from us at all. One great way to discover lots of insights into the immediate past is by talking with older people. Engage in conversation with them and listen to their stories of when they were young, what school was like, what kind of home life they had, the type of work they did, what they liked to do on their leisure time, the kinds of sports they loved. Other people can be a rich resource for learning.

Harbour Plan – Thomas Telford Works Department Notice Book Gents Black Crombie Coat


  1. Much of Aberdeen was built a long time ago. Buildings are adapted to accommodate changing lifestyles and fashions. Buildings often have fascinating stories attached to them. Find out about the history of Provost Skene's House. Who lived there? What was it used for at different times?
  2. George Washington Wilson was a very famous photographer who lived and worked in Aberdeen. Look him up on Aberdeen Quest. Find out why he became so famous.
  3. Look at the Works Department Notice Book from Aberdeen's Richard's textile factory in 1921. The notices were pinned up in the factory e.g. information about holidays (very few), when they were going to be put on "short time" (when there was not much work). Imagine your factory has put you on "short time". What effect will this have on you and your family? Think about wages and household income.