Thursday, November 18, 2010

Longfellow’s Children?: Reading Common-place’s Poetic Research Column

The editors of the online journal Common-place perhaps had Whitman’s line from the 1855 preface of Leaves of Grass: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem” in mind when they decided recently to inaugurate a column that features contemporary poetry based on historical research. “Poetic Research” is a reminder that history is not the sole province of professional historians and that some of the best history has been written by poets.

To introduce readers to the column, the site offers this statement:

Something is going on in the world of contemporary poetry--history is flooding in. Poets are pursuing history and its dilemmas head-on; they are using primary source material to flesh out social, political, and lyric imaginaries; they are ransacking the tools of historiography to provision all manner of aesthetic expeditions. Within the last ten years or so, such creative inclinations have quietly evolved into a major, and pervasive, mode of literary production. History lovers, take note: these poets’ research work is thorough and driven, their archive instincts are free-range, even feral, and their use of historical source runs from the beautiful to the bizarre.

Why are so many twenty-first-century poets weaving American history into their process and product? What are the effects of this literary-historical groundswell? The answers are forthcoming, issue by issue, here in Common-place. Each edition of this new column will present the work of a poet whose creative process is deeply engaged with historical research. We will read their poems. And the poets will also give us something new, something the literary world hasn't asked for yet, a Statement of Poetic Research—poets’ own descriptions of history’s influences on their art, how they approach (and are altered by) research, and the new ways they hope their work brings history to readers.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the statement’s boldness, I sense a bit of defensiveness here. As if poets may be self-conscious about treading on historians’ turf and therefore need simultaneously to flaunt their “feral” spirit while asserting that their research processes are both “thorough” and “driven.” But is such a show necessary? Is it not our modern, professionalized conception of the historical discipline that has created a distinction between poetry and history? Are we not part of a common pursuit: gaining a deeper understanding of how and why human beings have thought and acted in certain ways in particular times and places? Perhaps contemporary poets feel it necessary to apologize for the sins of their forebears: Homer, Virgil, Tennyson, and Longfellow, to name a few. Many critics, past and present, argue that their history was not accurate—they distorted the truth or just got basic facts wrong. Different from their predecessors, today’s historical poets, this statement suggests, are capable of balancing good research with “beautiful,” and even “bizarre” creativity.

As a public historian I have a different perspective on this issue than some of my stodgier colleagues might. In graduate school, I worked at the Paul Revere House in Boston, a historic site that would not exist without a poem. Longfellow’s 1860 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” was the text that made a middling Boston silversmith of modest significance to the revolutionary cause into a household name and a staple of historical curricula. Whenever I began a talk with “Listen my children and you shall hear,” young and old visitors alike could invariably add: “Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,” and they could always recite the line: “One if by land, and two if by sea.” From there, it was easy to get them engaged in the story of Revere’s ride and its significance to the outbreak of the American Revolution. Although I confess to having corrected the historical inaccuracies of the poem many times, Longfellow was, I hoped, the gateway to a deeper understanding of a key moment in American history.

As an interpreter, I was painfully aware of the stark contrast between Longfellow’s lyricism and my academic explanations of past events. Poetry, it seemed, was a much more effective means of communicating a history that people both remembered and enjoyed. In some ways, it was perhaps also truer, in the sense that it conveyed the spirit of the Revolution and the contingency of the moment better than historians’ descriptions of the same events. So, do the poems on Common-place’s “Poetic Research” page match up to their distinguished forebears? Readers will have to judge for themselves. The first two installments--Robert Strong’s account of the making of the Eliot Bible, “Bright Advent,” and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s musings on the “The Age of Phillis” (Wheatley, that is)--offer dramaturgical explorations of cross-cultural encounters. We hear, for example, John Sassamon and John Eliot’s musings on the challenges of translation and conversion, Susanna Wheatley’s advice to her slave, and Phillis’s longing for her African mother. For this reader, hearing from, rather than about, these historical actors was refreshing and illuminating. With precious few historical sources to narrate the history of Native-English interaction in seventeenth-century New England or slavery in eighteenth-century Boston, having poets’ imaginative reconstructions of the thoughts and dialogues of Eliot, Sassamon, and the Wheatleys (owner and slave) opens new avenues for discussing and thinking about the past.

Whether readers enjoy these particular poems as much as I did, I think they will agree that Common-place’s decision to include poetry alongside its excellent essays and book reviews was inspired. Other history journals would do well to emulate their model. Like a good issue of The New Yorker, prose and poetry complement one another, making for a challenging, but ultimately more stimulating, reading experience.

~ Will Walker

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chile's complicated commemoration of 1973

This September Chile celebrated its 200th birthday. And not unlike other nations that have marked this monumental milestone, the Southern Cone country rolled out the proverbial red carpet to celebrate the event. Throughout the long, thin country festive festivities flourished: fiestas patrias, national dances and dishes, declarations and speeches.

In addition to the bicentennial celebrations, Chile also put together a laundry list of public works projects to polish the occasion: Santiago’s 690 kilometer intra/intercity bike path, the river-walk park Gran Parque Mapocho, Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center, and the renovation of the nation’s National Stadium, among many others.

This September also marked the 37th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Marxist president Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. But for the commemorators remembering ‘la via chilena al socialismo’ (the Chilean path to socialism) and Allende’s Popular Unity government, mixing the bicentennial euphoria with the memories of a socialist dream crushed by the harsh realities of dictatorship brought about a bitter-sweet taste.

Perhaps this was no more apparent than at the September 11th memorial act hosted by the human rights organization Agrupación Metropolitana de ex Presas y Presos Políticos at the National Stadium. As many may or may not know, the National Stadium was converted into a concentration camp for 58 days following the bloody U.S.-backed coup. There, countless thousands of Chileans and hundreds of foreigners passed through the portals and into hell: tension, torture, terror; detention, disappearance, death.

I had followed an invitation by the Agrupación’s president and director, Ms. Wally Kunstmann, to participate in the inauguration ceremony not of the newly remodeled stadium (something reserved for the following day) but of a small section of stadium seating that had been left untouched during the bicentennial renovation. Assigned “special protection” status in 2003 when the stadium was declared a National Historic Monument (thanks in large part to the Agrupación’s initiative), the wooden bleachers and entranceway just beneath, known as “Escotilla 8,” were saved in memory of the stadium’s one-time prisoners.

The handbills distributed at the evening event by aging members and younger allies of the Agrupación informed me and hundreds more that “For the first time, the National Stadium opens its doors on this emblematic date to pay tribute to President Allende, to the comrades that were detained in this site of prison and torture” and that the stadium’s “stands after 37 years recover their dignity.”

Today’s visitor to the stadium will at once notice the marked difference between Escotilla 8 and the newly polished stadium dressed in state-of-the-art seating and a world-class track and field. Escotilla 8’s splintered row-benches and uneven concrete stand in stark contrast to the clean, straight lines of the stadium’s new multi-million dollar improvements. The disparity between the historically saved section of seats and the stadium’s upgraded aesthetics is at once drastic, and impossible to ignore, generating an emotive, if not eerie, sensation for the unsuspecting visitor.

Memorializing the figurative and physical starting point of seventeen years of state-sponsored terror has proved a daunting task. Even with the 2003 National Historic Monument designation, constructing mediations at the site has resulted in a laundry list of problems: competing memorialization projects, state and political stonewalling, and schisms between human rights organizations. It is ironic then that the bicentennial renovation contributed to revealing the stadium’s not-so-secret secret. By revamping the sporting complex, so too was the stadium’s scar exposed.

The inauguration of Escotilla 8 proved to be historically important for human rights actors and activists commemorating a complicated past. The large banner I helped hang with Agrupación members above Escotilla 8 read “Contra la Tortura y la Impunidad” (Against Torture and Impunity), an assertion that seems especially urgent given September 12th’s official bicentennial inauguration of the newly renovated National Stadium. This event was presided over by recently elected right-wing president Sebastian Piñera (whose party faithful make no bones about their pro-Pinochet sympathies) in an effort to move the country forward to an uncomplicated future. In Chile, then, the official mantra appears to be: in with the new and out with the old—leaving human rights commemorators with the difficult task of “reconstructing memory” in the face of impunity.

But I have a feeling that the future, like the present and past, will indeed be complicated. In many ways Escotilla 8 and its nod to 1973 stand out as a bitter black-eye, not only in the newly polished National Stadium but also in the sea of Chile’s bicentennial sweetness—and, of course, in the annals of human rights and history.

~ Zachary McKiernan

Guest blogger Zachary McKiernan is a graduate study in the History Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mourning or marketing? The strange afterlife of the Montréal Expos

In 1967, Montréal hosted a world’s fair, Expo ’67. It was Canada’s centenary, and Expo is often looked back at as the moment when both Montréal and Canada came of age and entered onto the world stage. For Montréal, it was a victory, the first Canadian city with an international reputation, and it went on to hold the 1976 Summer Olympics. That didn’t end so well, with the city left under a mountain of debt. The Olympic Stadium, an architectural disaster, took 30 years to pay off. Colloquially, Montrealers refer to it as the Big Owe.

But all of that was in the future in 1969, when the Montréal Expos took to the field for the first time at Jarry Park in the city’s north end. The team’s name, of course, recalled 1967, commemorating and immortalising Montréal’s summer of love with the whole world. The Expos were Canada’s first baseball team (the Toronto Blue Jays followed in 1977). Montréal had a long history with the sport, dating back to the 19th century. It was also in Montréal, on 18 April 1946, that Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, playing for the Montréal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate.

Nevertheless, an entire new vocabulary had to be created to translate the game into French with the birth of the Expos. Much of the credit for this goes to original Expos broadcaster Jacques Doucet. For instance, in French, the field is le terrain, and le lanceur stands on le monticule before throwing to his receveur, unless le frappeur gets in the way and smacks un coup sûr. Montrealers flocked to Jarry Park to watch Nos Amours. In 1976, after the Olympics, the Expos moved to the Big O (the more acceptable nickname for Olympic Stadium).

For their first decade, the Expos lost. A lot. But then, in 1979, in the new stadium, they won 95 games and embarked on a 15-year run as a perennial contender. They made the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season, only to heartbreakingly lose to the LA Dodgers. The irony here is that it was the 1981 strike that got the Expos to the playoffs. The next time there was a strike, in 1994, things didn’t go so well for Montréal and its Expos. When the strike began, the Expos were 74-40, the best team in baseball and comfortably in first place in the National League East. But that was as far as it went: the rest of the season and the entire post-season were cancelled. The Expos lost their chance at immortality and a World Series victory.

The 1994 strike was also the beginning of the end for the Expos. In the aftermath, the owners began a firesale of all their best players, including the Canadian Larry Walker. And the Expos slid into mediocrity, or worse. Ownership was unstable. Plans for a new stadium down the street from the Montréal Canadiens’ new home fell through (the site is now covered with soulless condos). Montrealers fell out of love with the Expos. Crowds dwindled. 8,000 fans in a stadium that seats 50,000 is more than depressing. Ultimately, the team was owned by Major League Baseball (MLB), which farmed the team off to Puerto Rico for some “home” games, and then, in 2005, moved the team to Washington, itself a failed MLB city.

After the Expos left town, Montrealers quickly forgot them, and re-focussed all their passions on the Canadiens, the most successful hockey team of all time. But, in the past few years, the strangest thing has happened. Expos paraphernalia is all over the city. Expos caps, t-shirts, jerseys, toques, hoodies, warm-up jackets (just like the one manager Buck Rodgers wore in 1986). Expos caps come in the traditional “beanie” style, in bleu, blanc, rouge, as well as the more traditional blue version they wore from the early 90s. For the fashion conscious, the cap also comes in purple, black, brown, green, yellow, orange, and even camouflage.

An unscientific study of four sports paraphernalia stores in downtown Montréal this week reveals that Expos’ gear cannot stay on the shelves. It’s easier to find new iPhone than a black Expos cap in this city. I myself own three Expos caps, the beanie, the blue, and a brown one. (In my defence, the beanie and the blue actually date to when the Expos still existed.)

This leaves me wondering how much of this trend is Montrealers mourning the loss of Nos Amours and how much of it is clever marketing? The Expos gear today is part of MLB’s “Cooperstown Collection,” recalling the heritage of the sport. And certainly, vintage sports logos and gear are all the rage. Jerseys and caps of defunct teams are sported by everyone from rappers on MTV to my students. Similarly, disused logos of teams that are still around are just as popular. Thus, one could be excused for forgetting that the New York Titans have been the Jets since the early 1960s. Or that the Hartford Whalers moved to Carolina to become the Hurricanes in 1996. Long-standing clubs like the Chicago Bears and Boston Bruins market their old jerseys as “vintage.” The NFL even mandates certain games as heritage matches, and the teams wear vintage uniforms.

So is the plethora of Expos gear a reflection of this trend? Are we being duped by MLB once again here in Montréal? I know I for one feel slightly queasy in buying Expos gear, or even admiring it. On one hand, it recalls my youth, a time when the Expos were contenders, and it recalls fond memories of games at the Big O, or on the radio or TV, in French or English. And baseball, if nothing else, is a sport that is marketed based on its history, its place in (North) American life. More than that, the mystique of the game also translates north (as well as south) of the border. We have our own fields of dreams here.

And this, ultimately, is the problem when marketing meets nostalgia. Nostalgia isn’t simply some kitschy view of the past, it is a real, tangible emotion. It plays heavily on our hearts, as we recall our pasts. The advertising industry has clearly figured this out. It appeals to our nostalgia in trying to sell everything to us, from cars to beer to food. And, ultimately, the Expos are just another part of this. Certainly, Expos nostalgia is a real, tangible emotion in Montréal, but we are also just the intended targets of a slick marketing campaign. And ultimately, what makes me queasiest is the fact that not only did MLB kill my baseball team, I am now shelling out my money to the very same corporation for a new Expos cap.

~ Matthew Barlow

Thursday, September 30, 2010

History on the menu

I spent the first part of this summer in North Yorkshire leading the University of South Carolina’s England Field School. In the early evening while we gathered in the TV room waiting for dinner to be prepared, I valiantly argued that East Enders was the best thing on the BBC – a downright cultural phenomenon that they should appreciate. The students decidedly disagreed. They favored Great British Menu, a reality cooking show where regional chefs competed, course by course, with the ultimate winner cooking for Prince Charles and 100 guests.

Although sulking a bit about the students’ choice, I slowly got hooked on GBM. What intrigued me about the show was its sponsorship by the National Trust, a charitable organization founded in 1895to preserve “places of historic interest for the benefit of the nation.” The competing chefs were each assigned to a National Trust property, and they had to draw inspiration for their food from the gardens and surrounding area.

This move into sponsoring a reality cooking show actually fits nicely with the National Trust’s ongoing campaign to support a local foods movement. NT has developed a food policy that guides the procurement of food sold at the restaurants and tearooms at NT properties. Capitalizing on the beautiful gardens at many of the NT estates, they market the working gardens that provide tasty snacks for visitors.

Indeed, the description in the NT guidebook of the restaurant and garden at Clumber Park was so intriguing, that my friend and I decided to visit one Saturday. The day was perfect. With beautiful sunny weather, we strolled through the gardens, visited the small exhibit rooms, and enjoyed a three-course lunch in the courtyard restaurant.

The meal was delicious – and I urge US parks and museums to consider hosting “real” restaurants instead of mass-produced institutional fare. But everywhere I turned, the message “Eat Local” was hammered home to the point it became the dominant topic of conversation.

Granted, my companion and I are not average visitors. As museum professionals with rather strong backgrounds in foodways, we always visit such sites with a critical eye. Sometimes those critiques come at oblique angles.

For example, Clumber Park has a great exhibit on WWII and the home front. Clumber Park happened to be a huge munitions store as well as the testing ground for war machinery. I applaud NT for creating an exhibit that goes beyond the typical country home or garden variety. How does this connect with Great British Menu? The connection comes with the juxtaposition of the exhibit on the WWII decontamination facilities next door to the tearoom. Did any other guests look at the munitions map of the estate and question the quality of the water supply? I’d be much more reassured about the National Trust’s campaign against bottled water if I were guaranteed that the local water source was not contaminated with lead.

I’m not against historic sites as being places of advocacy, nor am I against the local foods movement (did I mention how good the restaurant was!), but I encourage curators to continue to back up their positions with honest scholarship. It is great advertising to claim the walled garden provides the food for the restaurant, but one look at the chalkboard of what’s in season proves that the property is not self-sufficient.

Do an exhibit on the challenges of the local food movement--both the current trend and its historical base. How self-sufficient were these grand homes? How many acres of farmland were necessary to supply an aristocratic meal? Or a corollary question: what did the diet look like seasonally? I suspect that if visitors had to choose between a historically accurate meal and one sourced today, there would be no competition.
Challenge visitors to think about the lasting effects of war. Do the decontamination facilities and buried munitions pose any health problems with regard to the water supply or the food grown on the estate? If so, explain how National Trust has mitigated the contamination. If not, explain the science so people aren’t worried about what might be buried in their own backyards.

It would only take a few more text panels or a 30 second plug on Great British Menu, to turn a public relations campaign into a learning opportunity.

~ Allison Marsh

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Artifact of the Road Not Taken

The National Museum of American History is home to all sorts of presidential artifacts. From Warren Harding’s silk pajamas to the gavel used in Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial to the ornate inkstand Abraham Lincoln dipped his pen into when signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the material culture of the American presidency is preserved, exhibited and interpreted. Last year, the museum added to its collection one of the solar panels that had graced the White House roof during the Carter administration. In doing so, it joined the Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, which also houses one of the president’s panels.

When Carter first had the solar panels installed on the roof of the White House staff eating area in 1979, they represented “Solar America,” just one strategy among many to educate Americans about the energy crisis and to instigate a national effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuel through a combination of individual changes and national legislation. From wearing a cardigan sweater during a speech on energy policy to exhorting the virtues of self-sacrifice, Carter wanted to underscore the fact that change often begins at home. Putting in the solar panels on the White House was his way of demonstrating this.

It was also an object lesson on the choices available to the nation. Carter declared, “A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people-harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

The 32 solar panels came down off the White House roof in 1986. In 1991, their new home became the cafeteria roof at Maine’s Unity College, which exercised its commitment to sustainability by putting up twelve of the panels, where they were in operation until 2005; after that point they remained on the roof but were not operational. In 2007, Swiss artists Christina Hemauer and Roman Keller, with cooperation from Jimmy Carter, made a documentary about the panels, entitled, appropriately enough, “The Road Not Taken.” They took two panels from a storage facility at Unity and traveled and delivered them, in a van powered by biodiesel, to the Museum of American History and the Carter Library, examining the history of Carter’s energy efforts along the way. The Museum of American History added its panel to the White House collection, while the Carter museum made its acquisition part of a permanent display on the former president’s energy initiatives.

While 2002 saw 167 solar energy panels installed on White House grounds, courtesy of the National Park Service, no American president has made a personal commitment to using renewable energy sources at the White House since the Carter Administration. Last week, environmentalist, educator and writer Bill McKibben and three Unity College students sought to change that. They delivered one of Unity’s solar panels to the White House with a request that Obama install it as a symbolic resolution to address climate change and address energy issues despite the Senate filibuster of the energy bill.

McKibben and his crew wanted to bring home the fact that President can make a difference by doing small things. As McKibben pointed out in a recent article, “That’s what we kept telling reporters as they turned out along the route: if the Obamas will put solar panels back on the White House roof, or on the lawn, or anywhere else where people can see them, it will help get the message across--the same way that seed sales climbed 30% across the country in the year after Michelle planted her garden.”

Disappointed by their lukewarm reception and the White House’s refusal to accept the solar panel, McKibben and the Unity students nonetheless acknowledged another lesson from history as they carted the panel away. Yes, Obama entered the White House with a message that was remarkably similar to Carter’s speeches of the ‘70s--emphasizing national unity, sacrifice and a spirit of creativity coupled with responsibility as our best bet for licking the nation’s problems. Americans responded to Carter by electing Reagan. With seven weeks until a midterm election that sees a surprising number of candidates declaring that there is no such thing as climate change, they did not want to give the pundits and adversaries of President Obama any more ammunition.

Me, I think Obama should erect that solar panel, call it living history, and be proud of it.

~ Margo Shea

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Should everything have a history button?

On Wikipedia, Cultural Patrimony, and Historiography: This particular book—or rather, set of books—is every edit made to a single Wikipedia article, The Iraq War, during the five years between the article’s inception in December 2004 and November 2009, a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages.

It amounts to twelve volumes: the size of a single old-style encyclopaedia. It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead”.

This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.

James Bridle's printed and bound Wikipedia article the Iraq War, with edits, is a fantastic visualization of how Wikipedia works when covering a contentious and ongoing topic. "For the first time in history, we’re building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information," Bridle enthuses. "Everything should have a history button."

I have mixed feelings. Whatever the opinions of academics like myself, the cultural importance of Wikipedia is only growing. I think it is fair to say that it has become the first stop for basic factual information for most people in our culture--college undergraduates, journalists, professionals in all kinds of fields, and (rumor has it) even a few history professors. There is no use fighting it anymore. At the same time I suspect the genesis of Wikipedia articles is fairly mysterious to most users. Brindle's row of bound volumes illustrates the mutability of Wikipedia. It is shifting sand.

What Brindle doesn't do is offer any analysis of the forces that went into the 12,000 edits of the Iraq War article. It would be interesting to see someone mine the data. Are there spikes in the editing activity, and do they coincide with breaking events? Can the users be divided into categories or factions, and how do the factions seek to control the narrative? What has the role of the moderators been in shaping the article? This article points to some interesting possibilities for such research. As one of the commenters over at MetaFilter wrote, "I guess that's the difference between 'making an art project' and 'writing a book.'"

Bridle's talk which accompanied the project is available online, as are the slides. His blog,, featuring "literature, technology and book futurism" is wonderfully thoughtful and interesting.

~ Larry Cebula
Cross-posted from Northwest History

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Voices from the Grave

Quite by accident while researching freeware backup solutions, I stumbled upon a web site that did not back up my systems, but instead tried to convince me to back up my “vital digital property.” Legacy Locker, which has been around since Spring 2009, sells services to protect families in the unfortunate but inevitable event(s) of “loss, death, or disability.” Basically, for a small fee of $30 per year, they will store passwords to your online accounts. (I immediately think of my super important Facebook page and the millions stored in my off–grid PayPal bank account.)

The brainchild of Jeremy Toeman, Legacy Locker begs your serious consideration as an online service filling a legitimate, contemporary need. "I have young children that can't read yet,” Toeman enthusiastically reveals. More importantly, “One day my blog will have meaning to them in the same way you find an old photo of your grandfather and wonder what the story was.” With measured testimonials from news organizations (Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! News), Legacy Locker postures for position in a market already saturated with personal e-solutions for [fill-in-the-blank].

The visuals of the Legacy Locker landing site are tidy but pedestrian, a formulaic web delivery to help the target audience feel comfortable with the untidy topic of death. The page has a carefully structured layout and calming baby blue palette. Prominently featured is a white, middle class, heteronormative family, back dropped by a pseudo-Craftsman suburban split level. (What world am I living in? Not this world!)

Legacy Locker exemplifies the kind of niche entrepreneurial opportunities modern digital culture has created for hobby archivists. Capitalizing on the momentum of personal digital archiving, these often trivial markets target consumers interested in creating a personal narrative of themselves: children and anniversaries, accomplishments, careers, memories and memorials, lots and lots of pictures, and...passwords.

At what point does archiving of digital minutiae, the minutiae of the minutiae, become a ridiculous exercise in self-absorption? MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter (and OMG, Tweet-a-Watt) are among the better known venues. The fascinating sociological cult of self is exhibited by a near frantic mania to preserve our own legacies, an eagerness to establish social relevancy via real time scripting of our story, the preemptive writing of tomorrow’s history.

Archival functions are a system of preservation. Within historiography, digital archiving of objects and documents has the broad mission of ensuring preservation of materials for access by current and future generations. Archivists, like everyone else, have particularities of standpoint—education, generation, nationality, race, gender, sexuality, politics, geography—which shape perspectives concerning appraisal and retention. These inherent biases complicate the measurement of value, those objects important enough to be documented. There is obvious and significant difference between the professional and hobby archivist, and value-of-self creates opportunities for passionate, explorative discourse.

“On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” Nietzsche’s canonical essay, speaks to the unanswerable questions of historical ownership and relevancy: "The fact that life does need the service of history must be as clearly grasped as that an excess of history hurts it... History is necessary to the living man in three ways: In relation to his action and struggle, his conservatism and reverence, his suffering and his desire for deliverance." Nietzsche discusses at length the painful fear of irrelevancy humans impose upon themselves: "The fiercest battle is fought round the demand for greatness to be eternal... For they wish but one thing: to live at any cost". Perhaps, through archiving the self, we hope to “balance the ledger of life,” and through calculated e-conservation efforts we will successfully establish eternal personal mandate. We will have succeeded in defining our historical selves and will have attempted to preserve (our)selves for others who we hope encounter our dutiful archival efforts.

Technology is growing at an exponentially fantastic speed. The archive grows in unison. But do my loved ones really need a web service to help them cope with my LinkedIn account when I “pass?” At the risk of exposing myself as trapped in the same tar pit as my ancestors, I seriously think they do not. My survivors can find the crayon drawings from first grade in a box in the garage, clearly labeled. The legal papers are filed with the attorney, copies in the desk. Passwords? For the time being, I’ll continue to use a freeware password application. The super secret code to that is on the Post-It under the keyboard. See you on the other side. We’ll look at pictures of our grandfathers.

~ Anne Gehr

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cleopatra's Allure

Cleopatra, the Search for the Last Queen of Egypt,” which premiered at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in June, is probably the most widely hyped exhibition I’ve seen in a long time. Philly has adopted the exhibit as its own, promoting it on the Amtrak line to DC, and on every Philadelphia tourism website I’ve seen, even so far as to create a “Cleopatra VIP Hotel Package” available at 11 area hotels.

The Franklin Institute, known for its kid-friendly focus on scientific process and the history of innovation, seemed like an unlikely site to jump on the Egyptology bandwagon, but I was certainly intrigued and excited by the prospect of an immersive day of learning and entertainment, from a “Mummies” IMAX movie to lunch at “Cleo’s Portico,” to, of course, the exhibit itself. But could it possibly live up to all the hype?

Cleo is splashy, no question, but there’s genuine science, history and museological practice behind all the glamour. The 4-minute introductory video for the exhibition is reminiscent of a promo ad for a new HBO miniseries, but it clearly lays out the exhibition’s central question: who was Cleopatra, really, and how can we learn more?

Cleverly divided into sections based on key places in Cleopatra VII’s life and associated archeological expeditions by Dr. Zahi Hawass (searching for Cleo and Marc Antony’s Tomb) and Franck Goddio (the underwater archeologist excavating ancient Alexandria and its surrounding environs), the exhibit uses theatrical lighting and a first-person narrated audio tour detailing Cleo’s life in the best tradition of historical fiction. The exhibit is anchored by some truly amazing artifacts, including a piece of papyrus, signed by the queen herself with the emphatic phrase “make it happen.”

At the same time, the exhibit plays a lot with visitors’ notions of authenticity. Yes, identified artifacts are from the right time and place to be associated with Cleopatra, but were they truly encountered by her? For example, a stone statue of a Ptolomaic queen is identified as an artifact that could have represented Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s enigmatic nature seems to hold the whole exhibit together, maintaining the attraction of the mysterious unknown. Since all images of Cleo were ordered to be destroyed by Octavius and his Roman cohorts, Egyptologists are quick to claim that no one knows exactly what she looked like. Herself a Greek in the line of Ptolemy, who adopted Egyptian culture and espoused a hybrid religion, Cleopatra knew a thing or two about image control. She portrayed herself in the style of Isis in a statue or on a coin as a generic Roman queen. Over the years, she has been portrayed as an unrepentant temptress and, more recently, as a smart political leader, but always in a thoroughly gendered fashion, wielding uniquely female power.

The exhibit waxes so enthusiastic about Cleopatra’s lasting allure that I had to test it for myself. Do people really care that much about Cleopatra, or is this a product of Philadelphia’s, National Geographic’s and a couple of archaeologists’ wishful thinking? Despite its claims within the exhibit to the contrary, the exhibition website does not open many avenues of exploration into Cleo’s legacy. National Geographic’s Cleopatra home page provides mostly passive video links that continue to claim Cleo’s importance without a whole lot of contemporary backup. (Even the interactive Cleopatra game is behind a download and cost barrier...) So, I tried a different tactic. A google image search for Cleopatra yields 1,910,000 hits ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Halloween costumes to computer games. Perhaps most fascinating to me was a Daily News article detailing the controversy over Angelina Jolie’s selection to play Cleopatra in an upcoming Scott Rudin film. Paired with a detailed computer model of the ancient queen whom no historian would claim can be fully physically described, Jolie is criticized for being too white. I suppose that a place in the contemporary debate over race, power and image is quite enough to prove relevance.

So in the end, what role does this blockbuster traveling exhibition play in the public history endeavor to spread critical, engaged historical scholarship to a wider audience? Exhibits like this act as gateways, bringing people into institutions which likely have less splashy but no less provocative exhibition gems hidden away in their anterior wings (although the Franklin’s mainstay science exhibits never seem to be lacking for foot traffic). More importantly, exhibits like these offer opportunities for partnerships between far-flung universities, collecting institutions, consultant historians and exhibition designers who can work together with the promise of their product reaching diverse audiences, hungry for “something new” in their favorite museums. Collaboration is a public history buzz word for a reason. When more people work together, topics broaden (pop culture meets artifact connoissureship meets environmental history) and that ever-elusive relevance is achieved.

NOTE: The photo, taken by a member of my family, is of me in the “Cleopatra shop” in the Franklin Institute on 7/10/10.

~ Adina Langer

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Curated Boutique

As an avid reader of fashion magazines and blogs, I’ve noticed a curious trend over the past few years. Upscale boutiques are described as “curated,” selling “discerning” and “careful” collections of items. Are they just borrowing the language of museums or is something else at work when the worlds of retail and curation collide?

While I’d scribble a critical comment in the margins of any student paper that began this way, the Oxford English Dictionary defines curate (v) as both “to act as curator of (a museum, exhibits, etc.)” and “to look after and preserve.” This scanty definition raises two key issues. To “look after and preserve” suggests that there are certain objects that have been accorded value, either individually or, more likely, culturally, while the first half of the definition invokes a person whose job it is to preserve such objects (in a museum, for example), and also to arrange them, as in an exhibit. Such arranging suggests something further, which is that the arranged objects will have more meaning because of the process of exhibition and the knowledge of the curator.

Both of these aspects are clearly at work in a curated boutique, such as Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a store that sells the work, especially jewelry, clothing and home accessories, of a group of Philadelphia area artists. Its name, of course, is that of a famous essay by Walter Benjamin on the impact of mass production on the meaning of objects. Art in the Age is not coy about their retail philosophy:

“Rather than exist at a distance in the white cube of the gallery space, we weave our offerings into the collective surface of myriad personal contexts. In this troubling epoch of industrial commodification, standardization of reproduction, and fomentation of a society of shallow spectacle, Art In The Age issues a challenge and rally cry. We fight fire with fire, subsuming the onslaught of watered down facsimiles and inaccessible displays with thought-provoking products of real cultural capital.”

Curation, in this instance, is a counterpoint to a retail environment defined by dollar stores and Targets, where items are produced and sold in huge quantities as cheaply as possible. Art in the Age displays its wares as if in a museum, with lighting, for example, to emphasize its unique qualities. They are usually accompanied by information about provenance: Where is it from? Who made it? What is it made of? Older techniques and materials, symbols of a bygone age of hand or small batch production, are highlighted. While the art gallery is the most obvious reference point, the history museum and archive, as storehouses of forgotten and potentially fascinating trifles, is playfully hinted at too. Indeed, any distance between the museum and the store is collapsed in a set of stationery with Civil War images from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

However, unlike the gallery or museum, the shopper is encouraged to touch, wear or imbibe (at least in the case of the liquors made by the store) the objects. Rather than hold the distanced but appreciative viewer as an ideal, the curated boutique creates a shopper who is knowledgeable but emotionally invested. The most important overlap between the curated boutique and the gallery or museum is in their role in the lives of the people who frequent them. Visiting a gallery or museum is a performance of cultural capital. Invested with the power to confer significance on objects, the museum becomes a space where knowledge about taste is transmitted. Similarly, the objects in the curated boutique require knowledge to “get.” The curator in each instance is the guide--or to use a term of Pierre Bourdieu’s, the “cultural intermediary”--whose touch inscribes an aura on the newly fetishized objects of the age of mechanical reproduction.

~ Mary Rizzo

(All photographs by Whitney Strub)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Eat, Shop, Learn

An effective model to present community history?

In El Paso, you can find delicious Mexican food on every major street, but Mercado Mayapan offers more than a tasty, affordable meal. Recently, while enjoying a plate of enchiladas Zacatecanas, I started thinking about Mercado Mayapan through the lens of this “Off the Wall” blog. Mercado Mayapan is an offshoot of La Mujer Obrera, an organization that provides vocational training and other services to Mexican immigrant women. Mercado Mayapan is self-described as a “social purpose business.” Aside from providing work experience and training, Mercado Mayapan seeks to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage. The complex includes four sections: a market specializing in Mexican food staples like fresh tortillas and pan dulce (sweet bread); a commerce area with stalls selling artisanal, fair trade products from Latin America; a museum and cultural area; and a food court that serves traditional foods from Mexico. Mercado Mayapan also offers cultural programming each month that range from showcasing foods from different Mexican states to music and dancing. These dynamic activities make Mercado Mayapan an intriguing choice to address intersections in history, culture, and politics outside a traditional museum setting.

The mercado’s bright streamers, artwork, and soft folk music encourage visitors to spend time in the comfortable atmosphere. The mercado's open floor plan allows visitors to move easily through each section; ideally, somebody who goes for lunch can walk off their meal in the commerce area and museum—eat, shop, and learn under one roof. Most programming draws on Mexican culture, yet the Museo Mayachen focuses on history from a US-Mexico border perspective. The museo currently has two exhibits documenting the experiences of garment and migrant workers and Chicano activism in El Paso. The museo declares itself the “first community museum in El Paso.” That effort is visible in the large amount of photographs and objects donated by individuals. The photos and objects are placed prominently in the exhibits and are accompanied by short, bilingual text panels. The informative text panels provide a starting point for these topics that are underrepresented in El Paso history. However, there are no hands-on educational activities, options for visitors to leave their comments or personal experiences, or guidance in finding other sources to learn more about these topics. This absence makes the exhibits one dimensional rather than interactive and limits how much the public might take away from this experience.

For an organization with limited resources and an expansive vision, Mercado Mayapan is a notable achievement in empowering low-income women, relating history from a bottom-up perspective, and celebrating the border’s Mexican heritage. La Mujer Obrera has traditionally worked without assistance from other community organizations in El Paso for fear of their vision being co-opted. I wonder how much collaboration with local history organizations, museums, or universities might enhance the museo’s exhibits without straying from their commitment to community involvement. Without this kind of input, the museo may be unable to move past conventional exhibitry, leaving it lagging behind the commerce area, food court, and marketplace. So far, eating and shopping are the most interactive and compelling activities at Mercado Mayapan. The potential exists for learning, as embodied in Museo Mayachen, to become a fully developed aspect of the mercado as well.

~ Vanessa Macias

Monday, August 2, 2010

Don't touch that dial!

Public historians sometimes see our our academic counterparts as tradition-bound and reluctant to engage the general public or to embrace new technologies. So it's worth taking note of a terrific radio program hosted by three academic historians: BackStory - With the American History Guys. The show bills itself as a "public radio program that brings historical perspective to the events happening around us today." Historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh "tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths." The shows are topical and typically include not only the hosts but guest historians with special expertise in the topic at hand, other guests with something to say about the topic, historic sound clips, and short interviews.

A recent episode, Independence Daze: A History of July Fourth, illustrates the approach. Guests include Pauline Maier, who draws on her book American Scripture to talk about the creation and changing meanings of the Declaration of Independence; a history of fireworks and the Fourth provided by James Heintze, author of The Fourth of July Encyclopedia; and David Blight narrating a reenactment of Frederick Douglass' famous address "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro." Other guests include public officials in charge of Fourth of July celebrations, fireworks vendors, and listeners calling in. Along the way the hosts discuss popular support for the American Revolution, the political uses of the holiday in the 19th century and in the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder,and how a secular holiday has acquired religious overtones in the 20th century. The program is a thorough and entertaining survey of the history of this iconic American holiday.

Other recent show topics include Scales of Justice: A History of Supreme Court Nomination, Climate Control: A History of Heating & Cooling, and Coming Home: A History of War Veterans.

As impressive as the show itself is the associated website. Each episode has a page that includes not only downloadable MP3 files but audio excerpts of show highlights, really extensive links to further readings, and a discussion board where listeners add their own perspectives on the topic. And of course you can subscribe to podcasts of the show via iTunes or through various RSS readers. The website is a wonderful resource for teachers--every episode could easily become a lesson plan with primary documents, short and accessible secondary readings, and audio.

Not every episode or every part of each episode works equally well. The jokey interchanges between the host sometimes feel forced, some guests are more scintillating than others, and speaking extemporaneously the hosts sometimes indulge in generalities or even get some minor point wrong. As an example of the latter, one of the hosts on the Fourth of July episode repeats the old myth that John Adams described Americans as divided over the revolution with a third in favor, a third against, and a third neutral. This is a myth that I frequently repeated myself until J. L. Bell set me right.

Quibbles aside, BackStory is a terrific public history project from three leading American historians, building on strong institutional support from the Virginia Institute for the Humanities, the University of Virginia; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the University of Richmond; the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and others. Backstory is model of what academic historians can do when they go public!

~ Larry Cebula

Sunday, July 25, 2010

You give me fever?

I would like to consider a selection of contemporary artists who utilize archives and history in their work as a method of reconstituting the meaning of history, past, place, identity, exhibitry and authorship. Since there are many interesting artists working with history and archives I will concentrate on a couple and continue with more in my future reviews.

I had the opportunity to see the exhibition “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” in the spring of 2008 at the International Center of Photography in New York City. A piece from the “Archive Fever” show titled Intervista (1998) by Anri Sala is a twenty-five minute documentary video which takes place in Tirana, Albania, several years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Returning home from his art studies in Paris, Sala finds a reel of processed 16mm film while helping his parents move into a new house. He takes the film back to Paris and restores it.

The footage is situated in communist Albania and shows his mother, Valdet, at about the age of thirty meeting Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxa and delivering a speech followed by an interview for the Communist Youth Alliance. Sala is unable to understand what his mother is saying in the interview because the audio reel is missing. With Valdet having very little memory of the interview, Sala must search for other sources of information to uncover the mysteriously missing audio. Sala questions the film interviewer and several political officials that were present at Valdet’s interview, but he is still unable to get any worthwhile information. In a final attempt, Sala takes the film reel to a school for the deaf and a team of people agree to work with him on deciphering his mother’s words by reading her lips. The film continues with the newly translated audio subtitled over the original footage and interspersed with conversations of Sala and his mom in the present day watching the restored film.

The film exists in the present while also living as a historical document of communist Albania and revealing his mother’s forgotten past. She goes through stages of denial, embarrassment and eventual acceptance of the historical footage, which implicates her as a youth party member saying the predictable slogans of the Communist Albanian era.

Another piece in the “Archive Fever” exhibition by artist Lamia Joreige titled Objects of War (2000-2006) consists of various video testimonials from Lebanese citizens living in Lebanon during the fifteen year Lebanese War. Joreige has each of the interviewers choose a personal object that reminds them of the war and then describe their memories associated with the object and of that time.

Both the object and the testimonial of the individual act as evidence. The collection of videos seemingly attempts to paint a picture of a collective experience of those living through the Lebanese War. However, while each account is true to the individual recounting it, the intention of the archive is not to provide a statement of truth. Rather, its purpose is to show a diversity of discourses and testaments of what happened during the war. This highlights the question of how accurate history can be with devastating events such as war when personal experiences can be so wide ranging.

The title of the ICP exhibition “Archive Fever” was appropriated from a paper delivered by French philosopher Jacques Derrida at a conference at the Freud House in London in 1994. In the paper Derrida traces the etymology of the word “archive” to its Greek origin, “arkhe,” to illustrate the power structure of the archive. Here, documents are collected and sorted into an ideal system and put into a repository, which are presided over by an authority. The documents are seemingly publicly accessible yet sheltered away. Those entrusted to watch over the documents yield the power to interpret them as they please.

The “fever” of the archive Derrida refers to is not so much an obsession with using the archive as it is with presiding over it and looking for an absolute beginning. The search is infinitesimal and Derrida relates the repetition in archiving to the Freudian death drive. He states that archive fever (mal d’archive) is a desire to return to the origin, the most archaic place that preceded our birth. In a sense, looking for a way to obsessively memorialize or restage something/oneself is a means of moving toward an earlier stage of life. Derrida theorizes that this tendency of archive fever would also cross over into computer information technology, especially email.

The relationship between the title of the exhibition and Derrida’s theoretical paper suggests parallels with artists attempting to undermine the authoritative power of the archive and make information democratically accessible to the public. With grand hopes of emancipating a forgotten past, the pieces are still trapped within the art institution that houses them, another kind of archivist. The pieces might also be considered to invoke nostalgia and an aestheticizing of the past (and illustrate archive fever itself?). Regardless, I think that the attempts to produce an alternate archive, as shown with Intervista and Objects of War, make poetic and powerful attempts to shake up and redefine history.

Intervista and Objects of War are examples of alternative historical displays that I believe are contemporary and engaging compared to many historical site-seeing exhibits that I have seen in my travels. While art exhibits like “Archive Fever” may not be taken totally seriously as places to learn about history, I think that we are seeing increasingly blurred lines within historical exhibits. Many exhibits are taking the form of becoming more interactive, creating immersive environments, and using art and performance to engage their audiences. Historical exhibits have often used art such as sculptures to mark a place of importance and provide a monument to memorialize an event. This kind of exhibitry seems slightly outmoded to me and I think there will be an increasing trend toward more interactive installations and video based exhibits.

- Melissa Boyajian

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dulwich OnView: Not Dull

Is it possible that something interesting might come from a place called Dulwich? One suspects that the people who reside in this area of South London try extra hard at dinner parties to appear lively and witty given the name of their place of residence. It’s a bit like hailing from the town of Hicksville on Long Island. Hicksville at least has Billy Joel--he grew up there. What does Dulwich have? Apparently, Dulwich has . . . a Picture Gallery. Actually, they have England’s oldest public art gallery (it was founded in 1811). And, judging from Dulwich OnView, the community’s website that is dedicated to “celebrating people and culture in and around Dulwich,” they have a healthy measure of civic pride and quite a few interesting things to say.

Winner of the 2010 Museums and the Web “small” award, Dulwich OnView is a combination fan site, visitors’ guide, local historical journal, and community bulletin board. Organized and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers “who love Dulwich Picture Gallery and the local community,” the site provides news and reviews on arts events, local history, food and drink, health and fitness, and, of course, the Picture Gallery. Subjects of recent posts include a brief explication of a seventeenth-century painting, an ab workout in “Kevin’s Fitness Tips,” background information on the winner of an art competition, and an interview with Robin Hardy, director of the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. In this last piece, Humanities and Media student Daniel Pateman, who enjoys red wine and David Bowie according to his bio, not only provides a transcript of his interview with Hardy but also describes the local cinema’s “Wickerman Sing-Along”--an event that sounds almost too strange to be true.

Living in a town that (un-ironically) bills itself as “America’s most perfect village,” I can certainly understand civic pride. Like Dulwich, my town (Cooperstown, New York) is best known for a museum--actually, we have three--and residents are justifiably proud of the amount of “culture” in their small upstate New York hamlet. We do not have a Cooperstown OnView, however, and reviewing Dulwich’s website made me wonder if this was, in fact, just what we needed. We certainly don’t need any more self-promotion. Such a website, however, might actually serve a more useful function than bolstering local pride and attracting tourists. Even in a place with only 2,000 year-round residents, communication can be a problem. When I moved here two years ago, I often complained that I had no idea what was going on around town. There seemed to be an insiders’ network that knew about things like the Pumpkin, Garlic, Apple, and Harvest Festivals. Reading local newspapers helped, and the Chamber of Commerce’s website was occasionally useful, but in general I found out about local goings-on, if at all, through word-of-mouth. By my second year, I could at least guess when and where most things were going to happen, but I still occasionally felt clueless.

Then something happened that, in my estimation, transformed the nature of communication in my small town. Many of the local institutions started to appear on Facebook, and suddenly I knew exactly when the next exhibit opening was happening. I knew when the baby lambs had arrived at The Farmers’ Museum. I knew when the farmers’ market was opening. I knew when and where the creative writing workshop would be. I was an insider. Facebook, more than almost anything else, had made me feel a part of my community. As a late adopter and self-ascribed Facebook skeptic, it was hard for me to admit it, but I liked how social media had changed my life.

Connecting this train of thought back to Dulwich OnView raises two questions for me: first, I wonder if Dulwich OnView bestows the same kind of insider status on Dulwich’s denizens that local institutions’ Facebook pages did for me, and, second, with the advent of Facebook (and Twitter, Foursquare, etc.) and the proliferation of personal blogging sites (Wordpress, Blogspot) has such a website become unnecessary? Anyone can volunteer to contribute to the site, so it feels inclusive--although the posting of articles does not appear to be instantaneous and there is definitely an editorial process in place. Judging by the range of contributors, they have not had trouble recruiting. The stories that volunteers write are decidedly local and are likely of interest mostly to people who live in and around Dulwich. In that sense, then, the site performs the same function as a Facebook page. However, it is superior to Facebook in that it has its own appealing design and allows for more in-depth content. Dulwich OnView reflects the place in a way that the boilerplate design of Facebook cannot. On the other hand, Dulwich OnView lacks the dialogue that one typically sees on social media sites--even though it does have a comment function.

The key difference between institutional Facebook pages and Dulwich OnView, however, is that the website is volunteer-run. It is, as DOV author Ingrid [no last name given] writes, “community driven, not museum driven.” Ingrid, who has worked in the education department of the Picture Gallery for fourteen years, argues moreover that the website is “more about [Dulwich Picture Gallery] within the community than [Dulwich Picture Gallery] itself.” Ultimately, the website is like a community newspaper, just cooler and without the annoying editorials from disgruntled townsfolk.

~ Will Walker

Monday, July 12, 2010

Imaging and Imagining Ourselves There: Flickr’s “Looking into the Past”

Most of us are familiar with Flickr, an online open source platform for sharing, tagging and talking about user-generated digital photos. Around 5,000 images get uploaded every minute, lending credence to the notion that many of us are operating in a techno-blur of obsessive documentation and display of our lives, our people, our surroundings.

Just like everyday life, these images blend the profound with the trivial, the ubiquitous with the obscure. Go to Flickr and you will have the opportunity to peruse photos organized into a dizzying array of categories, some as seemingly inane as “Empty Chairs” or “air conditioners,” or for all the Wallace and Gromit fans out there, “cheese.” But Flickr also encourages communities of photographers who share an interest in things like “urban decay in the U.S. South” to meet up in cyberspace. It amplifies and draws attention to things like Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, an urban regeneration initiative on Detroit’s east side that recycles discarded stuff to create a vibrant, creative space out of the dilapidation and decay of abandoned urban spaces.

So, is Flickr just a catch-all of contemporary imagery? An everyman’s archive that makes curators thankful that, in the past, it was a lot more difficult to document and preserve images and the results are a little more, umm, discerning? For people interested in preserving, exhibiting and connecting with the past from a public and democratic perspective, the site offers some interesting lessons even as it archives and displays photos that resonate with history.

In a recent article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Cristina Garduño Freeman makes the compelling argument that photosharing on Flickr reflects a new kind of “intangible heritage;” more than public archives of images, the photo galleries and the conversations that come out of them augur a new sort of public space. She writes, “Part of what makes participating on Flickr meaningful is the social interactions and negotiations that occur through the exchange and sharing of photographs.” (Cristina Garduño Freeman, “Photosharing on Flickr: intangible heritage and emergent publics” IJHS Volume 16, No. 4-5, July-September 2010, pp352-368.)

If you think about it from that perspective, Flickr makes it possible to create and sustain conversations through images about the personal, social and public meaning of places that matter to us. Lots of people are doing this through the “Looking into the Past” group, created by Flickr user Jason Powell over two years ago. Photographers all over the world are taking historic images and overlaying them onto contemporary spaces. Streetscapes, buildings, family gatherings in the backyard--to name just a few subjects--are undergoing visual transformations that mash up the past and the present. The results are visually arresting and really fun to look at. While many of the images are manipulated using scanners or photo-editing software, others are old-school versions in which the photographer simply holds the historic image in a way that positions it as an overlay of the present scene. Either way, each image is a ticket to time-travel, a disconcerting glimpse of past meeting present.

There is a lot of play here between people and places, an oddly compelling photographic effort to mess with time. Some of the images (like this one of the Historic Ebey House on Whidby Island, Island County, WA) situate contemporary subjects within a historic image, while others place people from the past within contemporary settings. Here, tea drinkers in Kew Gardens circa 1920 are seated within today’s park.

So, what’s so exciting about DIY montage? The project is intriguing for several reasons. For those making the photos, it encourages close observation, invites an awareness of the relationships between past and present, and allows one to dwell for a moment or two in that space that is neither here nor there, not quite now, not exactly then. “Looking into the Past” engages a sense of place and a sense of time that is unique, that draws on our senses and that captivates our imagination. The photographer and those who look at the images catch a fleeting glimpse of our place in time as one that is simultaneously ephemeral and lasting.

The conversations and discussions that emerge are compelling. It is interesting to see the sharing of technical expertise about how to make these photos in the discussion pages of the “Looking into the Past” pool. From advice as simple as “Don't go out on a windy day. It is IMPOSSIBLE to hold up a print if it's windy,” to specific and detailed suggestions on photo-editing strategies, the best of the Web 2.0 knowledge commons is at work. People share ideas, insights and tricks. They also compliment each other and make one another visible in the process. The discussions are not all technical. Here and there, people who live in the same vicinity talk about the state of urban preservation or the uncanny lack of change in a particular place. Photographers who return to the scene of a train crash or protest spur conversations about those historic events.

Finally, for those of us who are interested in how people interact with the past in the course of their everyday lives, this project is a kind of twenty-first century coda to Thelen and Rosenzweig’s The Presence of the Past. It lets us see and understand how the past matters to the thousands of people posting images in the “Looking into the Past” gallery. The results are similar – lots of personal and family images, hundreds of storefronts, well-traveled routes in one’s hometown, sites of personal and private meaning. There are a few politicized images, like a 4-image composite of a street scene in Vancouver where police charged a demonstration of unemployed people, but most of the images are scenic, architectural, or deeply personal. In case we were wondering, as global citizens, we care an awful lot about the past, but most of us reserve enthusiasm for “our” past.

More than anything, “Looking into the Past” makes me want to dig out my camera and scour historic images and then seek out their contemporary counterparts in space. It makes me want to play with time and place, and to imagine different histories in the process. Pretty exciting!

~ Margo Shea

Ed. note: The image at the top of this post is of Eden Place, Birmingham, England.

Monday, July 5, 2010

More faux pirates than you can shake a saber at

A week ago I put on my boots and my puffy white shirt and sailed up to the NorCal Pirate Festival, a pirate-themed event at the docks on Mare Island in Vallejo California. There were vendors selling piratey wares, musicians playing sea shanties, games of all kinds, and more pirates than I’d ever seen! Perhaps more pirates than the world has ever seen: the festival unofficially broken the Guinness record for the largest pirate gathering in history.

Amidst all the revelry, I spied a tent with some well-dressed looking folks who didn’t look like pirates to me. Curious, I struck up a conversation with a man who introduced himself as William Fairfax - not a pirate! He explained that I was in the Bahamas and I’d stumbled upon the Governor’s House at Nassau harbor on the island of New Providence, a British colony. The year was 1781. He introduced me to the honorable Governor Woodes Rogers who told me the story behind their camp.

According to the Governor, in the 1780s Nassau looked not unlike our 2010 Festival: a haven for all manner of pirates. These were the real pirates of the Caribbean. Many of them had once been legal privateers, and some upheld a code to only plunder ships with foreign flags, but nevertheless they were thieves and British merchants were losing most of their ships’ cargos to pirates. Something had to be done.

And that was where Governor Rogers’ plan came in. An ex-privateer himself, Rogers won the favor of pirate governor Benjamin Hornigold and together the two led a pirate recovery program.

It was refreshing to see the other side of the law represented at the Pirate Festival and I told Governor Rogers this. He nodded and said that he’d wanted to “even things out a bit” and this was his way of adding an educational dimension to the festivities. He lamented the lack of historical accuracy in popular pirate movies featuring sea monsters and zombies. “History is more interesting and fantastical than fantasy,” he said. “It’s some pretty strange stuff.”

At this point, Rogers asked me if I would like to renounce my piracy and sign a pardon. I figured that it sounded better than being hanged and he even said I could keep my booty, so it seemed like a pretty good deal. The governor signed and stamped my pardon and I was no longer pirate. A good thing too because Mr. Fairfax informed me that another lady pirate, Anne Bonny, was due to be “given a fair trial and hanged” that very day.

~ Margaret Middleton

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