Weekly readings: finding a home for difficult pasts

Historical leapfrog is among the themes of this week’s readings. Writing history—whether it’s academic scholarship, family stories, interpretation or preservation of historic sites—involves making choices. You can’t keep everything when crafting a narrative.

Architectural censorship, as explored in an exhibition by Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu, is not merely a matter of aesthetics, but a means to displace undesirable populations in increasingly gentrified urban landscapes. It can also function, particularly in the context of interpreted sites, as a means of erasing particular eras and populations.

Because of the focus upon a particular time period, many Lowell stories go untold. The labor narrative of the Yankee mill girls is ignored in favor of the labor narrative of later nineteenth-century immigrants; more recent immigrant communities sit uncertainly and uncelebrated in a narrative of ongoing progress and assimilation; contemporary issues of globalization, and potentially uncomfortable discussions about visitors’ participation, are referenced obliquely, if at all.

The title of the book edited by James Oliver and Lois E. Horton is Slavery and Public History: race is often too painful and complicated a discussion to have, so talking about slavery can be a more palatable surrogate. Or not so palatable, given the conflicted and conflicting reactions of African Americans, attempts to frame the Confederacy as benignly racist states righters, and institutional unease about legal, financial, and public relations backlash. It’s hard enough to talk about slavery as an actual historical subject*; trying to talk around race by talking about slavery makes for a rather muddled conversation.

You can’t keep everything. You can’t talk about everything. But when there are obvious and persistent gaps in the things you choose to keep and talk about, then there’s a problem.


* Melish’s discussion of academics’ disagreement about the significance of the slave trade in John Brown’s life is a good example.

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Means and ends

Yesterday I read Nash’s “For Whom Will the Bell Toll?” and was, naturally, cheering for the upstart historians and their supporters in the media and community. Hooray for rabble-rousing! Down with the problematic historical interpretations of big institutions!

This is, of course, the opposite reaction I had to Linenthal’s recounting of the Enola Gay controversy, in which upstart historians and their supporters in the media and community derailed the historical interpretation of a big institution.

The observation amused me, and serves as a valuable reminder. Process does matter; it is something to consider and critique. But it’s not the only factor that influences my reaction to controversy.

Lowell and Othering (or not)

Upon reading the first chapter’s meditations upon anthropology, and the difficulty in turning analytical tools upon non-exotics belonging to one’s own tribe (howsoever that may be defined), I began to wonder if that’s part of the reason I find it more comfortable dealing with those who are safely dead. I am socially conditioned* for tact—at any rate, I am socially conditioned to consider it a good thing, and tactlessness (in myself or others) registers as a failure or outright rudeness—and so I can appreciate the desire to simply not talk about certain things, like the private lives of colleagues. I can see the virtue in such decisions, even as I appreciate the problematic aspects.

But if the people one studies are safely dead, they can hardly take offense at what one says about them. Aspects of a living colleague’s private life, perhaps relevant to understanding something about his or her professional endeavors, are things that one might hope said colleague would reveal, putting the cards on the table as it were, so potential biases, blind spots, and interesting perspectives might be more efficiently assessed. (Never mind, for the moment, the problem of honest self-assessment, where fuzzy and subjective are the best possible outcomes.) But if they’re dead—safely dead, beyond living memory dead—then you’re almost performing a service, doing the psychoanalysis they would perhaps do, alive and subscribing to current theories of What Is Important™ about private lives. And even if you remove the aspirational public service aspect, you’re still beyond the statute of limitations for tact.


* In my case, I think it’s a triangulation of the expectations of “good girls” (meek, polite, deferential, confrontation-averse), perceived and actual ineffectiveness in combative situations (that not liking to work without a net thing), and a weird sort of class consciousness (informed most strongly, I think, by working class Liverpudlians via a subset of grandparents, all of whom added a distinct English/Welsh/expat flavor to my upbringing).

Which is, admittedly, a somewhat odd thing to write on a blog that can be read by anyone in the world.

Weekly readings: preservation and national memory

The permanence of objects is a common theme in this week’s readings. Glassberg, primarily concerned with issues historiographical and professional, notes the central importance of stuff (everything from war memorials to archives). In a violation of sociological semantics, Mires describes how Independence Hall transmits a zombified collective memory after the death of the participants. Doss discusses how (shades of Hurley) local ordinances drove the creation of public art, professionalizing public artists in the 1980s and spurring the creation of memorials; this was not merely a case wherein the existence of objects affected the creation of memory, but the creation of the objects themselves was especially conscious and non-spontaneous. In “The Conundrum of Ephemerality,” Crane* points out how museums interfere with the normal process of memory (e.g. forgetting). The writing of history (academic or otherwise) depends upon those artifacts, regardless of the context of their original creation; thus they both enable and distort the process of remembering. While the objects may be permanent, the significance assigned to them can change, adding a further layer of complication to teasing out what went on in the mind of past actors (to say nothing of those in the future, a presumed audience for consciously-created memory transmission devices).


* Voiced in my head by Angela Bassett, circa 1995.

“History” versus…whatever else you call it

I really enjoyed Gaddis’s The Landscape of History; it spoke to a number of issues I’d never properly articulated.* My general approval of that book informs my reaction to early bits in Memorial Mania, as well as The Presence of the Past.

Rosenzweig and Thelen were doing social science, no question: it was all about data, collecting it in a systematic manner. Analyzing the dataset was necessarily squishy, and there was certainly art (or at least craft) to the interview process, but the goal of compiling all the qualitative data was to boil it down into quantitative results. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I still really like the way they went about it, and I think it is worthwhile to undertake such studies in the future…but it is a very different thing from the sort of history Gaddis discusses, and his book provides fodder for an alternate (or additional) reading of the rise of public history in the 1970s. Left-leaning, socially-conscious practitioners who wanted to make a difference, in a contracting academic job market…in a Cold War environment where the impact of Science and Math (especially the hard stuff) were privileged, and the temptation to retrofit fields abounded…. It doesn’t contradict the somewhat celebratory (if self-reflexive) narrative I’ve encountered several times this semester, but it does complicate it.

When Rosenzweig and Thelen eschewed the word “history” in favor of alternatives (if not synonyms) like “the past,” they uncovered their respondents’ active engagement. Doss puts it more bluntly, citing the postmodernists’ “perception of history’s repugnance” as a reason for the boom in “memory studies.” It makes me a little uneasy. I am very used to the idea that one criticizes things, even (or especially) if they are worthwhile. Renaming a thing can be useful, can describe it more precisely…or it can be outright Orwellian. Catering to one’s audience can also be a very useful thing…unless it turns into pandering. And so the repackaging that seemed like a shrewd tactic in The Presence of the Past now reads more like an indicator of a troubling trend. “History” as a discipline is subject to trends, some works are crap or evil…but it’s been around a while, and IMHO the word itself is important, in part because of all the concepts that have accreted over the years. It’s weighted, nuanced, complicated…appropriately so. This is not to say that “memory” and “the past” are devoid of nuance; they’re just different. I like using them “in addition to” (or even “in opposition to”); but using them “instead of,” quietly shunting “history” aside because it’s somehow too hard, is a different situation entirely.


* E.g. anxieties about methodological choices, most specifically my reluctance to commit. I rather like what my former co-worker said about postmodernism: it’s a useful tool for generating questions, even if it’s less satisfactory at answering them. I had a little “Yes!” moment when he said that, and reading Gaddis was kind of like a rolling version of that conversation.

I suppose in a Gaddis-approved shuffle, the public historians (rather than trying to convince the other historians that they were doing history, too—emphasis on “doing”) would take their balls and databases and go hang out with the social scientists, the rest of the historians (rather than trying to argue their discipline’s rigor and relevance) would go hang out with the physicists, and I suppose the postmodernists would sit in a corner and critique everybody. And they’d all pretty much do what they’ve been doing; they just might change the departmental codes for their classes or their tables in the cafeteria.

I am sometimes accused of not liking movies for this reason. Not just the specific movie I’m talking about, but movies in general. Oddly enough, those friends don’t accuse me of not liking, say, the U.S., or Western democracies in general. I guess they’re just less touchy about criticism of politicians than screenwriters.

Murder your darlings

“The artist ruthlessly cuts away all the material that is not vital to his story.”

Tilden’s advice (admittedly interdisciplinary) is addressed to interpreters (a rather interdisciplinary occupation, now that I think of it). But it has other parallels. Writers of fiction, seeking clarity and (perhaps) brevity, are urged to cut words. They have the luxury (well, I see it as a luxury; interpreters and performance artists might disagree) of murdering their darlings in private, not while performing for and interacting directly with an audience, but the principle is the same. And I can’t help but think of appraisal. I imagine Mr. Tilden would approve of weeding one’s newly accessioned collection.

Professional status and status as profession

I liked reading Tilden (and it sounds like at least Gail did, too). But this post provides a useful counterpoint. There are foundational texts, and then there is current work. Interpreting Our Heritage is definitely in the first camp. From my introduction to it thusfar, interpretation seems akin to the archival profession, in its practitioners’ desire to make it a professionalized field (even Tilden’s thoughts on how to achieve adequacy, since not everyone is capable of genius, point in this direction). Deufel’s call for more research echoes those from the archival profession. I cannot tell to what extent those arguments are motivated by practical concerns (research leads to more/better/current information, which allows practitioners to work more effectively) versus status (“no, I’m not filing these papers, I’m processing them”). Of course, status concerns have practical implications, and vice versa…. Mostly I’m just sort of curious about other people’s headspace, as I work on mapping out my own.

Theory, practice, and wet dog smell

“Focused, nuanced, and useful” is a bit sunshine and puppy dogs, and we can’t have that….

Tilden’s principles are fairly theoretical. I say “fairly” because they did not spring fully-formed from his head; they were created after observation of actual practice. But still. Despite his research and chapters peppered with examples of effective (or ineffective) interpretation in various media, Tilden’s principles were in the realm of theory.

Not so Hurley. He deals mainly in specific case studies. And the situations with which he dealt—communities harmed by historic preservation policies that functioned as a “mechanism of disinheritance”—can be read as the natural, dark consequence of Tilden’s principles. A city’s golden era, a few generations removed, clearly engaged an audience* and provoked a response: a desire to physically restore or recreate relics of that time.

So no matter how universal and aspirational the principles, their implementation will be complicated and the results may not be those expected or desired (never mind cases where the desired end is less than warm-and-fuzzy). Sometimes the puppy dogs get caught out in the rain.


* Which audience is a very good rhetorical question; the answer can be inferred by examining the policies enacted.

Weekly readings: interpretation and its costs

This week’s readings all explore aspects of collaboration. Tilden emphasizes the importance of an interpretation’s relevance to the audience: that is the only way to keep their attention, instill information and, most importantly, provoke them. An interpreter must develop a presentation he or she believes will resonate with audiences; this can then be tweaked based upon the needs and reactions of a specific group. By tailoring content for the audience, the interpreter engages a collaborative process; and the audience’s use of the interpreter’s presentation (e.g. never ever taking a lit cigarette into the woods again) is in a sense a result of their processing (another layer of interpretation, reactive and collaborative) of the interpreter’s message. Frisch explores issues of shared authorship of oral histories. The person interviewed does not simply regurgitate information, and public historians should not simply redistribute facts. The democratized historical consciousness Frisch champions would emerge from precisely the sort of provocation Tilden advocates. Hurley’s case studies involve collaboration between community organizations and public historians and archaeologists. The historians and archaeologists are useful resources, providing expertise, personnel, and funding, facilitating community engagement, and producing tangible deliverables…but they work toward community-defined goals, with constant input from members of the communities in which they work. In these three texts, one cost of interpretation is control. The benefit is a more focused, nuanced, and useful product.

Show, don’t tell

Freeman Tilden, discussing an evocative New York Sun account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “I imagine Mr. Ochs of the Times enjoyed this Irwin tour de force as much as anyone…”

This is a nice line. It illustrates, in show-don’t-tell fashion, one of Tilden’s principles (also illustrated in tell-don’t-show fashion, as with his description of Darwin’s writing in Beagle). Tilden couldn’t know what was in Ochs’s mind upon reading the piece, whether he enjoyed it or would have printed it. But he can imagine, can tell the reader outright that information is unavailable and then present a plausible scenario to fill in a small historical blank. And by painting this imagined picture, with just a few strokes, we can picture Ochs at his breakfast table, or perhaps office, scanning the pages of the competition. Tilden puts us there, without drawing any particular attention his use of the trick he urges interpreters to employ.