Wednesday, June 30, 2010

History "Off the Wall"

Welcome to the National Council on Public History's new exhibit review blog! Our goal here is to think about history exhibitry "off the wall"--that is, to move beyond existing definitions of what a history exhibit is by finding and reflecting on some of the emerging places and ways that historical display is appearing in our wired, mobile, global, re-localizing, over-heating, contentious and creative world.

We have a talented cadre of reviewers who will offer their thoughts on anything and everything that might come under the heading of "history exhibitry" and an experienced cohort of "conversants" who'll be responding to the reviews and helping to move our collective conversation along. We hope readers will weigh in, too!

In our first two reviews, Kevin Bartoy reflects on the art and performance of activist history, and Adina Langer muses about digital "museums of everything." Join us for what promises to be a provocative unfolding conversation about where 21st century public history is headed!

Glimpsing new possibilities

This short clip of actor Tim Robbins reading the words of historian and gay activist Martin Duberman on the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion is taken from a collection of videos from the "Voices of a People's History" project, a performance-oriented offshoot of Howard Zinn's iconic work "A People's History of the United States" (Zinn, who died earlier this year, is seen in this clip introducing Robbins' reading). The clip, and the project, prompt a lot of thoughts for me about authorial voices and the power of performance in conveying history.

Although I have been influenced by many historians of the classical canon, I cannot say that these institutionally sanctioned historians have changed how I think about the past, the present, and the future. I have more often found inspiration at the edges of academia or even outside of the academy altogether. There are two historians who have affected me deeply. Only one of these individuals is considered a historian (even though the academy ridiculed him with the "epithet" of "activist"). These two individuals are Howard Zinn and Eduardo Galeano.

Both of these men used the words of past individuals. Yet, they used these words and these lives not as an act of appropriation, but instead, as an act of sharing. They documented words and lives in order that they would continue on in the memories of the present and influence the actions of the future. In doing so, Zinn and Galeano created something greater than history, something that defied institutional boundaries and artificial labels. They forged a new mode of expression grounded in history but influenced by journalism, poetry, storytelling, and art. For Galeano, the magical realism that embodies the soul of Latin America provided the inspiration for a vision of the continuum of history. For Zinn, in his later life, the performing arts provided a similar canvas upon which to produce history as art.

I firmly believe that the works of these individuals equals or supersedes any of the works of the historical canon. In a world that is driven by insanity, as ours seems to be at present, the only sane action is to strive for and then embrace that most pejorative epithet provided by the status quo, "activist." We have to approach history as an exercise in sharing not as appropriation. We have to find new ways to meld history, art, and activism. But, most of all, we need to touch the lives of others with the lives of others in such a way that the others become us.

I know that we have a long way to go, but when I see the work that is being accomplished by Voices of a People's History, I feel secure in a belief that we are making great strides. Bringing the voices of the past to the present is history. This is the connectivity with the past that promises us the possibility to inspire and to forge a better tomorrow. We need more histories. We need more art. We need more activism. But, most of all, we need more possibility.

~ Kevin Bartoy

Culture 24: Worth emulating?

The UK's portal to museums, archives, heritage sites and art venues is this year's Museums and the Web recipient of the Archimuse "Longest Lived" award. First launched in 1999, the site is a true grand-dame in internet years, but with a 2009 makeover and an enthusiastic embrace of RSS, Twitter and open-crawling, Culture 24 is certainly "up" with the times. On its surface, this website appears to be essentially journalistic. Each landing page features an image-and-article layout reminiscent of a local news source. The site's genius lies in its iterative subject taxonomy and use of tags to allow visitors to *explore *its content from every possible angle. (See the sitemap for a full taxonomy.) To provide an example, Culture 24's home page offers a subject menu including "Places to Go," "Art," "History and Heritage," "Science and Nature," "Spliced," "Teachers," and "Sector Info," Clicking on "History and Heritage" reveals a new menu which includes, "Archeaology," "War and Conflict," Transport," "Work and Daily Life," "Literature and Music," "Historic Buildings," "Time," and for a limited time only, "World Cup 2010." Social historian that I am, I'm moved to click on "Work and Daily Life." My choices don't stop here! Now I'm offered, "Industrial Heritage," "Rural Heritage," "Childhood and Education," "Family History," "Royalty," "Faith and Belief," and "Race and Ethnicity." Only at this level can I dig down no further. But even then, if I'm not moved to click on the content offered here, I can click on "Spliced" and see everything categorized by "Objects," "Words," "Sounds," "Pictures" and "Online."

As a veteran of vociferous (and sometimes cantankerous) discussions about subject headings and object classifications and subclassification, I know how tough it can be to settle on a taxonomy that works, enabling a true "Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum" approach to content, which is perfectly appropriate for a web portal. I only wonder whether something like this could be tried with success in the US. Are we too diverse regionally and culturally for this approach to accessing culture? I would argue to the contrary. A project like this to link together resources from the 50 states would be a boon for domestic vacationers and international travelers alike.

As a historian, I offer one persistent critique of Culture 24. It seems to lack an archive of its content and it sadly does not appear in the Internet Archive. A site like this could be a rich resource for British cultural historians, and yet, its embrace of the "here and now" culture of the internet essentially limits its utility to scholars in the future. Aside from maintaining a geographically-mapped database of cultural institutions, update-able by individual institutional representatives, this site does not embrace its own record, preferring to update itself endlessly in a cycle of process-nullifying renewal.

~ Adina Langer