Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Where the universal present meets the personal past: "The Wilderness Downtown"

For most of us, music videos don’t immediately bring to mind historical engagement. What’s more reflective of the current epoch than a viral YouTube video featuring feline euphony or Rebecca Black’s ultra-present-focused “Friday”?

But Arcade Fire’s “Wilderness Downtown” collaboration with Chris Milk, featuring their hit 2010 single, “We Used to Wait,” is a remarkable exception to this rule. Chris Milk’s interactive video, a “Google Chrome experiment,” got some significant buzz in tech  and advertising circles after its release, but why should it interest public historians?

This interactive video is essentially an exploration of personal nostalgia, providing a bridge between childhood and the present through the wonders of Google street view. There have been some notable digital history projects in recent years that work with this feature, enabling users to superimpose historical views on the present or even overlay multiple historic maps on a given geographical region. But this video gets directly to the emotion of the matter by enabling users to plug their childhood addresses into the video’s algorithm, generating scenes from the places where they grew up as the music evokes a ever-more-distant past when, “we used to wait for letters and sign our names.” At the end of the video, viewers are given the opportunity to “write their childhood selves a letter” using a remarkable digital paint program that turns their words into branches and floods the scene with birds. This evocative moment concludes a “trip” through the universal present and the personal past.

In The Presence of the Past, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen conclude that our personal histories provide the strongest, most present connection to the past, providing a gateway for broader interest. When I began the process of reviewing this video, beyond my initial “Oh cool!” first reaction, I asked some friends and family members for their thoughts. My brother, Micah Langer, a 21-year-old almost-college-graduate provided a wonderful personal analysis: “Arcade Fire seems to really speak to a generation of people who grew up in between spaces--in the suburbs and edge cities of North America. Growing up in such places, at least for me, it is easy to feel adrift and disconnected from the rest of the world. Perhaps those are universal growing pains, but I think the anonymity and uniformity of suburbs amplify them. It's interesting how the video gives one a bird's-eye-view of a town or a school, places that seemed to be the beginning and end of the world during our childhoods. Seen through a wider lens, one sees how these places fit into a bigger picture. It is an exploration and elaboration of the dizzying nostalgia and disorientation one might feel upon dialing in their sentimental places on googlemaps, and it's somehow comforting to realize that you aren't alone with that feeling.”

I think it’s that notion of not being alone with this fascination with the personal past that makes this video particularly resonant. It’s a useful reminder for public historians that the place we start when we explore history is inevitably our own backyard. 

~ Adina Langer

Monday, December 19, 2011

A New Paradigm for Institutional History?: Looking at the Smithsonian Archives’ New Website

The Smithsonian is, of course, not the only institution associated with the federal government that maintains an archive about its own history. The National Park Service, for example, has made a substantial investment in documenting the histories of its parks. The Park Service's institutional histories, however, generally exist on a park-by-park basis while the Smithsonian's efforts are more centralized. For the Park Service, this allows for great diversity in its histories. It also means, though, that few people will access the information contained in them. Indeed, most of these histories are for park staff and NPS administrators, not broader public consumption—although some, like Seth Bruggeman’s Here, George Washington Was Born, reach a somewhat larger academic audience when published as books. With the launch of its new website, the Smithsonian Institution Archives points toward a new era of accessibility and engagement for institutional archives.

 When I first visited the Smithsonian Archives almost a decade ago, the reading room and staff offices were located in the Arts and Industries Building (above)--the original home of the United States National Museum. A far cry from its heyday in the late nineteenth century, the building had been emptied of exhibits and collections, and everyone kept telling me that the ceiling was going to collapse. Still, it was a thrill to be working in this historic structure, especially since I was researching a dissertation on the history of cultural exhibitions at the Smithsonian. From a comfort and convenience standpoint, however, it was less than ideal. There was nowhere to get lunch--I usually ended up eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the Hirshhorn sculpture garden--and the reading room was cramped. Consequently, I was pleased when, a few years ago, the archives moved to a newly constructed building a couple of blocks from the Mall. What this shiny, climate-controlled office building lacked in character, it more than made up for in creature comforts.

Now the Smithsonian Archives has a new website to match its new home. Happily, with its digital presence, the archives has not had to sacrifice character for comfort. In fact, the new site does a much better job than the old one of highlighting the services available for researchers and showcasing materials from the collection. Simple, clean, and user-friendly, the website also features the extensive institutional research that archives staff, volunteers, and interns have done. The value of this website, however, may go beyond practical concerns. It just might suggest a new paradigm for institutional history.

Unlike NPS's mostly internally-oriented histories, the Smithsonian's new website is geared towards engaging a broad audience of online users with its content. On the homepage are links to a blog, discussion forum, featured exhibits, and a section called "Today in Smithsonian History." Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which the institution has embraced the interactive web in creating this site. For example, the current front page features a link to the Smithsonian's photostream on Flickr, which displays rare photographs from the Scopes trial. (These photos were discovered by a volunteer researcher at the archives in the records of the Science Service and published in Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century.)

And from a social media perspective, the website is a gold mine, with lots of fascinating things to tweet and post to Facebook. Given the prominent social media logos on the homepage, this was clearly a major topic of discussion in the development process. As someone who is always looking for interesting content to disseminate to my students and others, I appreciate this focus on sharing. The deeper question, however, is whether a website focused on sharing institutional history with a broad audience will be successful. Or, to put it more bluntly, does anybody (other than a relatively small group of public historians and museum professionals) care about institutional history?

Anecdotal evidence points strongly to the fact that people like to go behind the scenes at museums and historic sites--to pull the curtain back on the processes that go on in collections storage facilities, exhibits labs, and staff offices. Therefore, maybe the Smithsonian Archives’ new website will encourage more people to take a peek behind the curtain and begin to think critically about the ways in which history, culture, and science are packaged and presented by institutions such as the Smithsonian. And, maybe they’ll have some fun doing it.

~ Will Walker

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Participatory Mapping: Place-Making as Process in Montréal’s Mile End

Maps are more than pieces of paper. They are stories, conversations, lives and songs lived out in a place and are inseparable from the political and cultural contexts in which they are used.   (A. Warren, cited in Giacomo Rambaldi, "Who Owns the Map Legend?")
Places resonate. They are keepers of stories and avenues for remembrance. As the Mile End mapping project demonstrates, community place-based projects offer opportunities to give shape to the past, outline the present and envision the future.

Home to 24,000 residents, the Mile-End boasts eclectic architecture, locally-owned businesses, vibrant streetscapes and a diverse population mix of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Eastern and Southern Europeans, university students, creative types and émigrés from France. Increasingly, African, Asian and Latin American immigrants to Montréal are settling there as well. While fears of gentrification and the sanitizing properties that accompany it have been raised cyclically since the 1970s, today the Mile End remains the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Canada.

Since 2007, the artist and volunteer storefront collaborative articule in Montréal’s Mile End neighborhood has drawn attention to the area’s arts organizations and creative spaces by producing a biannual community art map. Last year, spurred on by activist artist and articule outreach coordinator Coco Riot, the group added a twist to their initiative. They began by asking questions like, “Who decides what is and what is not art?” “What makes the Mile End a creative place, particularly friendly for artists?” “How do we add residents’ daily improvisations in space to our definition of artistic vitality in the neighborhood?”

These questions were explored in a series of community map-making workshops. They were coordinated by local, grassroots groups and individuals--Pied Carré (a nonprofit neighborhood collective dedicated to preserving affordable artists’ spaces in the Mile End), Bricolage urbaine (a newly-formed group dedicated to urban education and community action around urban planning issues), subjective cartographer Emmanuelle Jacques, civic initiative Ouvert/Open and Les Amis du Champs des Possibles, a volunteer-run environmental group focused on preserving green space and biodiversity in the neighborhood. A local sixth grade teacher devoted a month of classroom time to the initiative.

Large, colorful and productively chaotic, the twenty or so maps produced by more than two hundred Mile End residents throughout the series of workshops were exhibited at articule in October. These participatory maps engage history in different ways. A group of former residents of the neighborhood returned to their old stomping grounds to participate in the activity, to reminisce and to affix their memories to a map. Their finished product offered useful and interesting historical data, showing the regularity with which each mapper had moved within the area in childhoods marked by residential displacement in a city of renters, the community’s hubs and boundaries, the fault lines to be negotiated with “outsiders” and “others” and the spaces and institutions that have endured, lending character and stability to a dynamic, diverse community.

One group of urban explorers spent a few hours walking the brownfield site along the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. They gathered and displayed over 30 different kinds of plants, historic evidence of decades of plant migration due to the transcontinental train route. Another map explored railway rights of way by asking people to use thumb tacks and cue cards to map out their routes and crossing spots along the CPR train tracks, which until recently were accessible to pedestrians but have since been fenced off.

For strangers who made maps together, conversation led to sharing of intimate, personal histories as well as discussion about the area’s most treasured historic buildings and significant places. The map became a process for meeting neighbors, finding points of convergence and drawing shared meanings of place. While some items appeared random – like the running ground of abandoned cats and the best people-watching site in the neighborhood, they reflected a spirited and detailed conversation.

Sixth graders made a series of transparent, overlapping maps that documented historic sites, memorials and monuments as well as traffic flows, bike paths, locally owned business – even the architecture of surveillance through security cameras and locked gates. They claimed their neighborhood, pinpointing graffiti, which they designated either pretty or ugly, “secret passages” and other information known and recognized only by residents of an area.

Riot reflected that the project both documented and created community, adding that the completed maps will be archived in a library for research and community access. Citing it as a strong start to what is hoped to be the first of many mapping initiatives, Riot was heartened by the response.

The process helped organizers identify strategies for wider community involvement and begin to ask, if not answer, tough questions about a problem that confronts most local, participatory initiatives in economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods -- the finished product represented a narrower historical and lived experience of class, culture and ethnicity than the neighborhood itself reflects.

In the first year, participation was dominated by, though not limited to, residents who identified as “belonging” in the Mile End, those who felt comfortable coming to a new place for an event and who had the free time and energy to attend. While diverse linguistically and in age and nation of origin, they were generally middle class and not new immigrants.

Riot is eager to apply lessons in place-making to widen participation. Addressing the practical realities of diversity in their neighborhood, organizers are locating spaces of regular interaction and engagement amongst all residents as sites to hold future mapping activities. They are also working with interested representatives from Hasidic and new immigrant communities to figure out the nuts and bolts of their future involvement in community mapping.

Perhaps the transparent, layered maps made by middle school student participants can be a model for the future of the project. As in any diverse urban neighborhood in the 21st century, there simply is no one map of what it has been or what it will be. But by getting a wide array of residents to create many maps, and by finding ways to look at them together as parts of a complicated and ever-changing whole, articule is poised to develop a model for participatory place-making that acknowledges difference while locating and fostering spaces of convergence.

~ Margo Shea

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Toynbee Tiles: Viral exhibitry from the pre-Internet world

The Toynbee Tiler's main style, in Philadelphia's Center City.
At its heart an exhibition is a display of objects, grouped together by a shared theme, style or message, and designed for public consumption. In the award-winning 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, four men from Philadelphia search for the creator of an idiosyncratic series of public art pieces that, in its consistency and repetition, can be seen as an exhibition.

While the film plays out as History Detectives for hipsters, the story is compelling. The tiles have a central, cryptic message that invoke historian Arnold Toynbee and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick:

“Toynbee idea
In Movie 2001
Resurrect Dead
On Planet Jupiter"

The Toynbee Tiler has been prolific, installing his pieces since the 1980s in the asphalt of urban streets from his home base in Philadelphia, across the Rust Belt, to South America. The tiles defy explanation, though they have the stylistic consistency of a single artist. While the basic message doesn’t vary, he adds, at times, addenda and marginalia that range from mentioning the USSR to critiquing the media.

While the film is fascinating on a variety of levels, one of its most poignant aspects is the way the filmmakers create a portrait of the unknown Tiler. Through interviews and by tracing clues scattered in the tiles, newspapers, and minutes of an esoteric organization, they suggest that the tiles were primarily a means of communicating a public message in a pre-Internet world. Today, the Toynbee Tiler would have an easier time writing a blog, but the film shows his attempts to use other methods to find an outlet and audience for his message, from ham radio transmissions to calling in to talk radio shows. These strategies were small and inconsequential, and he found himself blocked by corporate media control of the airwaves.

City street as faulty archive: remnants of a decaying tile.
His response? An exhibition of public street art, curated against asphalt grids, through the creation and placement of a series of tiles carved out of linoleum and adhered to the street with tarpaper.  (To try this tiling technique yourself, check out the tutorial from Make magazine.) The ultimate ephemerality of the pieces as they erode under years of traffic renders them less archive than temporary exhibition. While the message of his tiles is unsettling--including one known as “The Manifesto” that disturbingly veers into anti-Semitism--the audacity of it as exhibition practice is intriguing.

Of course, in the age of the Internet, interest in the tiles has only grown as scattered individuals who had seen a tile in their city became aware of their spread. Interestingly, contemporary art groups have incorporated the tiles into their own street art. House of Hades, one of the more prolific of these collectives, creates their own tiles that critique the media, adopting one of the Toynbee Tiler’s favorite themes while purging it of its more unsavory aspects. Such approaches preserve the formal qualities of the tiles while effacing much of the haunted affect inhering in the obsessive repetition and syntactical unhingement of the originals. Connected today with a street art culture derived from graffiti and expressed in ways that strategically repurpose public space (for example, in the images of artists like Banksy), the contemporary tilers’ method is necessarily different in meaning from the Toynbee Tiler.

Other artists adopt the tile technique for less ambiguous messages.
While it seemed that he utilized his unique exhibition method for lack of other options, today’s street artists reclaim public spaces as an explicit means of countering corporate dominance and its ubiquitous expression through advertising. Like the tiles, today’s street art injects mystery into the public sphere, making familiar territory unfamiliar and altering perspective but its purpose is much more knowable. It aims to challenge power while also sending a message--a DIY ethos shared by the contemporary craft movement and quite different from the solitary statements of the Toynbee Tiles.

Not only are the messages themselves quite different, they are now received by more jaded eyes. For instance, many people leaving a screening of Resurrect Dead in Philadelphia admitted that they first assumed the tiles were either a student art project or a viral marketing campaign. Changes in technology, meaning, and modes of dissemination since the 1980s have gutted the semiotic landscape in which the Toynbee Tiles first appeared, leaving us more knowing about these kinds of visual languages but also perhaps nostalgic for the more truly mysterious affect of the Tiler’s exhibits. While contemporary modes of cultural signification build off his techniques, they also make impossible this kind of unknowable world created by a singular vision.

~ Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

Easily missed at 9th and Walnut, this small tile's ambiguous message can be read as step one of an instructional series or a plaintive expression of solitude.

(All photos are by Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Reality of Fiction in Post-Pinochet Chile: Los Archivos del Cardenal

I have been traveling to and from Chile for various reasons at various times since 2005, acquiring a deep appreciation for the country and its cultural subtleties and social mores—to say nothing of a Spanish accent steeped in Chilean slang.  But if I have learned anything since my initial days, it is that one must exercise sensitivity when approaching the dictatorial past.  On my most recent flight here, for example, I found myself especially mum when engaged by a well-dressed, middle-aged Chilean woman about my upcoming adventures.  Instead of revealing my true intentions—a year’s worth of historical research related to human rights and memory—I reverted to the tourist line: surfing, senderismo (trekking), and sun.  And we continued our conversation concerning Chile’s naturally beautiful landscape, not its unattractive past, maintaining the unspoken but readily recognizable veneer aimed at keeping the dictatorial past contained to the quiet corners of private, personal conversations rather than something to be discussed openly with strangers on airplanes, public transport, or other places where class and political lines may cross.  
That is why I was particularly pleased with the recent release of a new mini-series—Los Archivos del Cardenal—on Chile’s national broadcast channel, Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN).  The series, consisting of 12 "chapters," takes cases collected by the Vicaría de la Solidaridad under Cardinal Raul Silva Henríquez during the dictatorship and reproduces them for public consumption.  For those not in the know, the Vicaría, an organization of religious and lay Catholics, as well as non-believers, was arguably Latin America’s most active, if not high-profile, human rights organization during the 1970s and 80s.  It worked to protect Chileans suffering from Augusto Pinochet’s persecution by offering legal, medical, moral, and financial help, as well as establishing numerous national and international networks of support.  It is no secret, then, that the Vicaría is intimately linked to human rights activism and, moreover, that it has created an archive that documents crimes against humanity. 

Neither is it a secret that Los Archivos is a fictitious account of the past, however based in and inspired by the actual Vicaría.  Nicolás Acuña, director of the show, has taken the sensitive subject of dictatorship and exposed it through the commonplace medium of public television—to the chagrin of some and championing of others.  In a conversation with Acuña, I learned that among those who supported the creation of the show—a group that includes former Vicaría social workers and Chile’s first transitional president, Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994)—are historians and other academics who helped with the series’ stories.  Acuña, born in Chile in 1972 and raised in exile in Sweden after the coup, wanted to create an “historical document that pays tribute to Vicaría workers,” something that he feels fell through the cracks during the center-left Concertación governments between 1990 and 2010.  

The careful avoidance of Chile's tumultuous past has made itself felt in both opposition to the show and the creators' caution in approaching stories of resistance.  Senator Carlos Larraín voiced the conservative response when he said, “The series takes events that occurred exactly 40 years ago, but with an obvious political connotation: the left as victim, and this is what gives fans the fire to act politically with a certain amount of superiority” (author's translation).  Moreover, Acuña told me that to attract more viewers (or put fewer off), the team “couldn’t play too much with the theme of human rights.”  This, then, is why the series is also laced with racy scenes of love and has, well, a fictitious feel of a “police-investigative series.”  
But in an interview on Chile’s popular 24hrs, Acuña and actor Francisco Melos also spoke of the responsibility to show, despite the hardships of dictatorship, that people still lived, loved, drank whiskey, and laughed.  Thus, the debate that is circulating in op-eds, public discourse, the political circus, and my circle of friends, revolves not only around the usefulness of fiction versus history, but the reality of present and past politics, to say nothing of the demands of TV as a dramatic form.  Meanwhile, for the first time on public television, open references that damn the dictator(ship) are flashing across millions of Chilean screens.  

However, even if the (political) line between the Vicaría’s history and the fiction of Los Archivos is unclear, what is clear are the paralyzing scenes of torture, daylight disappearances, and the discovery of human remains in hidden graves.  Too, the series is not short on uncovering moral motives and struggles.  In one particularly moving scene, Chileans are invited to muse on the moral compass of a torturer of the country’s infamous National Center of Intelligence (CNI) as he returns home from work to stroke the cheek of his sleeping son.  As a viewer, I find that these images send shivers down my spine, a response that combines the emotive, the moral and the political. Moreover, and especially important, I think, is that for the interested and/or skeptical, follow-ups and fact-checking of each “chapter” can be cross-referenced to the “real” or “archived” case vis-à-vis a project directed by the Universidad Diego Portales.  There is also the option of visiting the Vicaría’s successor organization, La Fundación de Documentación y Archivo de la Vicaría de la Solidaridad (pictured above), to continue the historical inquiry.  

Approaching the past in post-dictatorship Chile is no easy task. From fictional crash-course lessons on public television to more established forms of memory-making through museums and memorials, any entranceway into Chile’s painful past is significant—and controversial, given the national and international public attention and debate that Los Archivos has generated in interviews, articles, and reviews.  As historian Steve Stern recently suggested while speaking at the “Memories in Construction” seminar at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Los Archivos is another step in the "materialization of memory in the physical-cultural landscape of a new generation of Chileans too young to have a direct remembrance of the dictatorship."
Los Archivos, like other films and television based on history, raises the question: when (or) is it useful to fictionalize the past?  Or can fictionalized history serve a special purpose when approaching sensitive issues such as crimes against humanity?  Whatever your answer, in Chile, for better or worse, the “materialization of memory” of such crimes for today’s generation is taking root in the form of Acuña’s “historic document”—a collaborative but careful effort that is more loyal to the past than it is faithful.  Yet, despite this reality of fiction, I look forward to what I hope is a not-too-distant future when my airplane conversations can focus on Chile’s physical-cultural landscape, not just its natural beauty. 

~ Zachary McKiernan

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

History, history everywhere

 On my walk from the commuter rail station to Tufts University the other day, I was struck by a kind of instant stage set or living history environment or nostalgic theme park created by an organic food delivery truck trailer parked behind the Porter Square Shopping Center in Cambridge.  The owner of the company and his mom were both featured on the side of the trailer, not an uncommon strategy for organic and family/local food producers as ways to differentiate themselves from more anonymous or purely commodified supermarket food.

What made this really interesting, though, was the fact that the back of the shopping center is itself painted with heritage-oriented murals depicting various periods of the neighborhood's existence.  Images of the mansion, cottages, and gardens that pre-dated (and were torn down to build) the plaza decorate the architecturally undistinguished back view, along with portraits of neighbors and some generic "olde-tyme" street views.

And more interesting yet, for the purposes of thinking about how historical materials, narratives, and knowledge are encoded in contemporary landscapes, is the plaque historicizing the murals themselves.  

This blog is devoted to reviewing historical exhibitry in an age of "ubiquitous display," and this kind of landscape of instant/casual/under-the-radar documentation and memorialization is exactly what we mean by "ubiquitous display."  If someone had happened to ride past on a vintage one-speed bicycle while I was standing there taking pictures, my day would have been complete!

~ Cathy Stanton

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Explorations in “Historical Hotness”

Hey, handsome stranger
Saw your pic in the archives
Too bad you're dead now

Rebecca Goldman, winner, Archival Haiku 2011

Mustaches are really hot right now.

Not modern mustaches—though handlebars seem to be making an ironic comeback—but the facial hair of the past.  Seeing through the facial hair to the faces, viewers move, perhaps, toward a more empathetic view of people of the past.

Mustaches of the 19th Century was an early harbinger of this trend.  Beginning in 2007, the blog posted photos of unidentified gentlemen with interesting mustaches, complete with snarky faux-historical commentary. The photos all came from the collections of the University of Kentucky Archives; the blog was jokingly conceived as an online exhibit by a photo archivist there.

This year, a Smithsonian Magazine poll celebrated the Civil War sesquicentennial by asking visitors to vote on the best facial hair among those who served in the conflict.  As of late August, 2011, Ambrose Burnside, whose eponymous whisker style is now known as “sideburns,” was blowing away the competition. The comments are full of nominations of other Civil War figures with notable facial hair (“Where’s Longstreet?”), laments for the lack of Southerners among the 25 photos in the poll, wishes for the return of such arresting facial hair, and comments on the beauty of the officers' hair and eyes.

Facial hair is not the only suddenly compelling part of history’s faces.  My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, a tumblr blog situated “where early photography meets historical hotness” presents photos of men from the 19th century.  Most of the photos identify both the person pictured and the repository, a tribute to the care for accuracy of the site's founder, Michelle Legro, a writer and editor.  The site became a minor meme, possibly due to its location on tumblr, a lightweight blog platform that makes sharing trivially easy. 

And as a response to the popularity of the men-only My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, Jerry Simmons, an archivist at the National Archives, started My Civil War Girlfriend, “a place to share photos of your favorite 1860s-era cutie.”  A photo of Sarah Emma Edmonds is captioned “I think my Civil War girlfriend can beat up your daguerreotype boyfriend” and, while soliciting submissions of photos with clever captions, the site comes with a caveat to treat all the photo subjects kindly.

These sites showcasing the appearances of the people of the past do objectify those people--but in a gentle, silly way that affirms their—and our—common humanity.  Who knew sideburns could be gateways to the soul?

~ Suzanne Fischer

IMAGE:  Albert Wolfe, c. 1901 from My Daguerrotype Boyfriend

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ice wars: The rebirth of the Winnipeg Jets

Canadian governments on both sides of the political spectrum since the Second World War have been much less willing to invest in the country’s military (the world’s fourth-largest in 1945, but only the 56th today) than in the image of Canada as peace keeper (most notably through the invention of the UN Peacekeepers by Canadian diplomat and later Prime Minister Lester Pearson). Indeed, the Canadian Forces recruitment campaign ads on TV feature the forces rescuing explorers in the Arctic, and assisting at the sites of natural disasters. For many Canadians, this is our interaction with the Armed Forces: they bail us out of floods and, in Toronto, snow storms.

Recently, however, two occurrences have upset this traditional view of Canada and its military within the country. In June, the Winnipeg Jets hockey team was re-born. The Jets had been a member of the National Hockey League from 1979-95, when the team, plagued by a tiny arena and a sinking Canadian dollar, flew off to Phoenix to become the Coyotes. This spring, however, the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to Winnipeg businessmen and moved back to the capital of Manitoba. The problem of the small arena was solved by a new building downtown and that of the economic issues by a Canadian dollar that is at par with the American greenback. Never mind the fact that Winnipeg, with a population of just over 500,000, is the smallest city in the National Hockey League.

The name “Jets” has a long history with the city of Winnipeg, given the city’s involvement in the aerospace industry in the country, and the Royal Canadian Air Force, whose 17 Wing is based at CFB Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Jets 1.0, however, did not capitalise on this connection, beyond the team name. The Winnipeg Jets 2.0 have a different idea. The new team has patterned its logos on the classic Second World War symbols of the RCAF, complete with the roundels (themselves based on the British RAF) and maple leaves. The colours of the team, military blue, gun metal grey and maple leaf red, have a definite martial feel to them. The Jets’ chairman, Mark Chipman, stated, “We felt it was important to authenticate the name Jets and we believe the new logo does that through its connection to our country’s remarkable Air Force heritage, including the rich history and relationship that our city and provinces have enjoyed with the Canadian Forces.”

The timing of the Jets’ return and Chipman’s announcement were interesting. Last month, the Canadian government announced the restructuring of the Canadian military and the re-naming of the forces. In particular, the Canadian Navy and Air Force got their “Royal” monikers back, after losing them in 1968 during the last restructuring of the forces.

In 1968, the country was riding a high of (Anglo-Canadian) nationalism, coming off the success of Expo ’67 in Montréal. The nation’s literati extolled the virtues of the “True North, Strong and Free.” That same year, Canada got a sexy, young Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who inspired “Trudeaumania”, as women from coast to coast dreamed of the PM (I’m not making this up, my mother was obsessed with Mr. Trudeau after her crush on Paul McCartney wore off). The removal of the “Royal” from our military seemed an imperative, as did the rationalisation of the Canadian military.

In 2011, the Conservatives are back in power after a long walk in the wilderness and after a frustrating stint as the leaders of a minority government. The Conservatives, just like the Liberals in 1968, are bent on re-making Canada in their image, but the image is a rather different one. Stephen Harper’s government is focussing on allegedly “traditional” Canadian values: the military, the north, and hockey (they forgot beer and Tim Horton’s, but that’s another story). Canada’s government spends a lot of time extolling the virtues of the nation’s armed forces and is spending a lot of money on refurbishing the military’s hardware. At the same time, Canada is a belligerent in Afghanistan (though, to be fair, this campaign began under the previous Liberal government) and has provided support in Libya.

This has been somewhat of a shock to many Canadians; the Twittersphere and blogosphere have been chirping about the “un-Canadianess” of the focus on the military. But, as a friend of mine, a former member of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (once based in Winnipeg, no less) noted in a discussion about the re-naming of the military, a strong martial culture has long existed on the Prairies and the Maritimes, at odds with the peace-keeping trope that has dominated in the nation’s largest cities and the industrial cores in Eastern Canada and the West Coast. Having said that, Canada’s martial history is largely centred on the two world wars. Canada does not have a great military tradition outside of the periods from 1914-18 and 1939-45.

In short, what we have is a very blatant struggle for a usable past in Canada between the federal Conservative government and the opposition Liberal and New Democratic Party. Beyond that, it is a struggle for a usable past on the part of Canadians of different political stripes. And the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 have ventured, perhaps unwittingly, into a very loaded political minefield.

~ Matthew Barlow

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fear and loathing at the Coliseum

There's no doubt that my favorite news story of the week is the one about policemen in Rome going undercover as tourists, garbage collectors, and--yes--gladiators in order to cool the jets of rival groups of real faux gladiators who pose for tourists' photographs near the Roman Coliseum and elsewhere. Apparently some of these bad boys had been fighting amongst themselves over prime pieces of tourist turf, and the police stepped in to try to restore order.

Having studied military reenactment for a number of years, I can attest that the public seems endlessly fascinated by the antics of men in arcane military garb, and I'm not surprised that this story has been flitting through the mediascape as a quirky novelty item. I also suspect there's more going on than the basic news story is capturing, but even the bare-bones version raises questions for me about the place of self-outfitting performers within historical places and productions. Whether it's hobbyist reenactors providing a corps of extras for a History Channel project, "natives" of various kinds pursuing the time-honored strategy of performing themselves for the tourist gaze, or "olde tyme" tour guides taking visitors around a city near you, encounters with the past increasingly seem to involve these entrepreneurial costumed figures who animate the landscape and give their audiences a little jolt of "pastness," along with a good photo op.

As I say, there may well be much more to this particular story, but it makes me wonder whether this is just an Italian thing--wise guys in leather skirts--or whether our globally straitened circumstances are producing new tensions at these frontiers of the knowledge and service economy. If there aren't enough tourist euros to go around, do the costumed performers start turning on each other, making represented warfare into something real? In a year that's already seen camels and donkeys from tourist concessions at the Egyptian pyramids ridden into the midst of a revolutionary gathering as an intimidation tactic, maybe we're getting hints that the boundaries of the real world and historical make-believe are not only blurring, but becoming impossible to sustain at all.

~ Cathy Stanton

Friday, July 29, 2011

Teddy Roosevelt's rocks: Speak softly and carry a big history

The recent reviews of Ken Burns’ National Parks film in The Public Historian got me thinking about the NPS site in my hometown, Oyster Bay, Long Island. Sagamore Hill was the home of Theodore Roosevelt for most of his adult life, and it was where he died in 1919. Many years later, it was also the place where I began my career in public history, as a seasonal park ranger. I often return to this site, both physically and metaphorically, when pondering issues in our field.

One of the things that I love about Sagamore Hill is the way it allows visitors to explore both history and nature—appropriate for a site that honors a person who was both president of the American Historical Association and an ardent conservationist. The focal point of the site is Roosevelt’s house, which is filled with trophies from his many hunting expeditions, a dramatic, if not universally appealing display of Roosevelt’s visceral connection to the natural environment. The farm fields, orchard, woodlands, salt marsh, and beach near the house are even more important evidence of the influence of nature on Roosevelt. (Currently, NPS is implementing a cultural landscape rehabilitation project at the site that includes restoration of the historic farm fields and orchard.) Fittingly, other Roosevelt-related sites--Mount Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota, and Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C--share this trait of intertwining historical and natural landscapes.

So what does this have to do with rocks? In addition to Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay is filled with memorials to Theodore Roosevelt and the Roosevelt family. (In fact, I’m writing this post in the town’s public library, which contains a memorial to the president’s son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who died during World War II.) As a kid, I went to Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School, visited the Theodore Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary, and played on the playground at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park.

In that park is a curious little memorial that, although not under the purview of NPS, sums up why I think Roosevelt is the perfect link between historical and environmental narratives. It is literally Roosevelt’s story written in rocks. The rocks were collected in the early 1920s, shortly after Roosevelt’s death, from various places where significant events in his life occurred. For example, there is a granite block from Moosehead Lake, Maine where Roosevelt went as a young man to regain his health and a boulder from San Juan Hill, Cuba where his “Rough Riders” made their famous charge for American imperialism. There is also a boulder from the Adirondacks where he learned that McKinley had been shot, another from the Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal, and a piece of anthracite coal from Pennsylvania which was a gift from Gifford Pinchot (see image at top).

Although historians don’t often use rocks as artifacts to interpret history--we generally think, perhaps rightly, that furnishings, clothing, tools, and other pieces of material culture offer more compelling interpretive opportunities--these rocks are strangely captivating to me. I think it’s because I see in them a way to think about history more expansively--almost as a geologist might. They might even lead us toward an approach that some scholars have labeled “Big History.” Proponents of this type of history like to examine things on a grand scale--the really longue durée. (Check out this TED talk from David Christian where he traces the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the Internet in 18 minutes.)

As used in the memorial, the rocks are little more than relics, similar to the handfuls of dirt that people took from the old Yankee Stadium before it was demolished. Yet they represent epochs of earth’s geological history and multiple human histories as well. Thinking of them in this way requires some imagination and a willingness to think beyond their narrow association with Roosevelt and ponder much longer time spans and processes. Imagine using the San Juan Hill boulder to probe the arrival and habitation of Native peoples on the Caribbean islands, Spanish conquest, and American intervention in support of Cuban anti-colonial fighters. The natural history of the island is an essential part of any of these human histories. Similarly, picture using the piece of anthracite coal to explore the exploitation of natural resources, industrial development, the politics of energy, and labor struggles. Indeed, each one of “Teddy’s rocks” is exploding with interpretive possibilities. If given the opportunity, a good park ranger could make these connections come alive for visitors.

As we struggle on a global scale to understand the long cycles of climate change and the consequences of human use and misuse of resources, this kind of interpretive shift may be not only intriguing but essential. For me, it is Roosevelt’s history--as both conservationist and historian--that encourages thinking in this way. Speaking in Jamestown, Virginia in 1907--another appropriate location for thinking about the intersections of human and environmental histories--Roosevelt said, “The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life.”[1] For Roosevelt, the “environment” or “nature” did not exist separately from American society. He understood that human history and natural history are inextricably linked.

~ Will Walker

[1] H. Paul Jeffers, The Bully Pulpit: A Teddy Roosevelt Book of Quotations (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1998), 30. See also, Douglas Brinkley, Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 691-692.

* Many thanks to editor Cathy Stanton for some excellent wordsmithing on this piece.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Witnessing "history"?

3...2...1... We have lift off! Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off for her final voyage on July 8, marking the end of NASA’s 30-year old shuttle program, and I was there. Honestly, it is bigger on TV. But television doesn’t adequately capture the physical sensation of participation.

The feeling of excitement was palpable, beginning when we checked into the hotel. There was the child clutching his planet-covered pillow, the students wearing their Georgia Tech Aerospace Engineering tee shirts, the news crew with their giant cameras, and us (my parents, sister, brother-in-law, five-year-old nephew, and a good friend from college). Only a few hours later, the wake up call came and bleary eyed we rendezvoused in the elevator just before 3:00 a.m. to head to the Kennedy Space Center. There was traffic. There were lines for security. There were lines for admission. Then we were there.

Clutching our tickets for the 4:45 a.m. breakfast with an astronaut, it began to sink in. We were taking part in a historic event...or at least that’s how the news kept billing it. As someone who was there, I’m not sure that would be the adjective I’d use.

Let’s back up for some perspective. I am part of the shuttle generation. The first shuttle launched in 1981 when I was five--right when permanent memories start forming (that's me, age seven, in the middle of the photo at the left, at NASA in Houston). I clearly remember the Challenger explosion, or more accurately, Mr. Baker (the elementary school principal) running through the halls yelling for the teachers to turn off the televisions. We were all ready to watch the first teacher in space, but suddenly it was silent and we were all sent home to have our parents explain what we had just witnessed.

I briefly toyed with the idea of rocket science when considering colleges, but space had become a bit pedestrian. It was no longer news to watch a shuttle launch. With the exception of identifying Orion in the night sky, I didn’t think much about space, but I also didn’t realize how much the shuttle program was still a part of me. I was in graduate school when Columbia was lost during reentry. Pairing Challenger and Columbia seemed like a no-brainer for a history of science and technology lesson. Most of the students couldn’t care less. They were not children of the shuttle program.

When President Bush canceled the shuttle program and President Obama cut NASA’s budget, I didn’t think too much about the implications of space exploration. But when NASA announced the end of the shuttle launches, I knew it was my last chance to participate in shuttle festivities, and I knew I wanted to be there.

And so I found myself waiting for hours, surrounded by thousands of other space enthusiasts, anticipating the end of an era. It feels strange, as a historian, to be marking an historic event in the present. My fellow shuttle watchers didn’t share the sentiment. They had nothing but hope and excitement and a feeling of privilege (and maybe a bit of luck) to take part in the event.

Most of the day had the atmosphere of an oddly subdued party. Even the most amateur meteorologist could look at the clouds in the sky and see there was a good chance the launch would be canceled, so we all just milled about, looking at exhibits at the visitor complex, silently hoping that everything would be all right, and following the live feed from NASA.

Former astronauts were on the stage sharing their experiences as the crew went through their final checklist. As it got closer to launch time, Ground Control began giving thanks to all of the men and women who had made the 30 years of the shuttle program possible. Misty-eyed patriots cheered at each remembrance. The crowd gave a collective shout of joy at T minus five minutes, T minus three minutes, T minus one minute. Then, at T minus 31 seconds, someone ordered a hold. I don’t think anyone in the crowd took a breath. We just waited. It had to go up. It just had to. Countdown resumed, and the crowd started chanting. Five...four...three...two...one...and then...nothing.

We were all at the visitors center complex, which is eight miles from the launch pad with a line of trees blocking the horizon. We knew it would take a few seconds before we would see the shuttle, but I don’t think anyone thought those seconds would be so interminable. Then someone shouted, and the crowd surged forward, and you could see the trail of fire through the sky. The shuttle popped into the clouds, reemerged moments later, and was then lost to the clouds for good. A successful launch.

Hours of waiting for seconds of viewing. Is this what it looks like to see history as it unfolds? I’m a bit of a skeptic. Despite the fact that I now own the official launch program, have bought a lanyard for my grand finale launch ticket (shown at left), and mailed some commemorative covers to my Postal Museum friends, I’m left unconvinced by the historic nature of the event.

Don’t get me wrong. It was fabulous, and a memory I will hold dearly. But is it history? Regardless of what the souvenir merchandise available in the gift shop claims, I don’t think we will know for several decades. I believe that determining the historic-ness of this final shuttle launch depends on the future. Is this the moment America hands over manned space flight to Russia? Is this the beginning of an even stronger international collaboration with the space station? Is this the necessary cut needed to jump forward to deeper space exploration and potential travel to Mars? Or does this launch mark a turning point where American society looks internally towards its own planet rather than dreaming of space?

What are the responsibilities of public historians or historians of science and technology or the media or simply space enthusiasts to mark an event and call it history? What material culture should we save, what memories should we document, what stories should we perpetuate?

~ Allison Marsh

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Classified past

The summer TV season is just around the corner, and I can’t wait. It’s a guilty pleasure that I don’t usually brag about to my academic colleagues, but I adore summer TV. Summer television, like beach reading, is supposed to be entertaining – romance and intrigue without the burden of a challenging plotline. For me, last summer’s dark horse winner on the television turned out to be USA’s Covert Affairs. I admit up front that the plot is ridiculous: I know that curators at the Smithsonian (the main character’s cover story) do not fly back and forth to the British Museum regularly, and I am skeptical that all the women at the CIA come to work dressed in cocktail attire, but the show hooked me in Episode 2 when the Agency had to grab a machine from the CIA Museum in order to decode information being transmitted through an old Cold War radio transmission station.

Ridiculous, right? Well, somewhere in Hollywood there is a historian with a sense of humor who is getting the facts (mostly) right. The CIA does have a museum, although I bet it is a stretch to believe that current intelligence officers are using its collections today for active assignments, right?

Actually, it is not a stretch at all. According to Museum officials, the Agency workforce does consult with the museum periodically on technical lessons learned from operational applications of some of the historical items held in the collection. Any current intelligence officer worth his or her salt knows the importance of learning from the past. What better place to do so than in the museum!

Ever since I learned about the CIA Museum, I’ve been intrigued. The museum is not open to the public (you need to be pre-screened to gain admittance to Langley, and even then you are under strict escort), yet it has a very high visitation level from CIA employees and dignitaries. Besides the problem of access, much of the museum’s collection is classified, which can complicate the exhibit design process. Who knew you needed government clearance to be a collections manager?

But the intrepid team at the CIA Museum is determined to reach the public. They are currently in the process of redesigning their website. They have partnered with other institutions and would like to develop traveling exhibits. They are working to draft a collections plan that conforms to American Association of Museum standards (too bad AAM doesn’t have a deaccessioning policy for classified objects). And of course, they are reaching out to couch potatoes like myself through popular television programs. Technically, that last bit isn’t true. It is the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs that liaises with the media. The CIA Museum does not unilaterally reach out to tv producers.

I love it when museums show up on TV (Bones, Warehouse 13, White Collar), but I wonder if museum professionals should be a bit more proactive in describing what we actually do. We all have such great jobs, and all of our cultural institutions have fabulous objects with wonderful, made for Hollywood stories. We just need to get our own story out. I propose that the National Council on Public History develop an “Ask the Public Historian” call center with a direct line to Hollywood so that we can do a bit of professional activism. Plus my mom would love it if I could win an Emmy.

The new season of Covert Affairs begins tonight.

~ Allison Marsh

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The history in kidlit

When I was a kid, I spent most of my time in the nineteenth century. It all started with the "Little House" books. My grandmother read them to me, and they became the very first chapter books that I could read all by myself. From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump to Little Women, All-of-a-Kind Family, A Little Princess, and Anne of Green Gables.

Yet, there were so many things in those books that I just didn't understand. What was consumption and cholera? Why were puffed sleeves such a big deal? What did the food taste like? Why was Sara Crewe in India? What’s this Great War they keep talking about? There's one key thing that all of these books have in common: they are either semi-autobiographical or they were written as contemporary and, over time, have become historical fiction. Either way, they're an important source in learning about history--a source that most historians have ignored. To me, they should be considered in much the way memoirs or oral history are considered--perhaps not true in every detail, but more true than not.

By the time I got to college, I was convinced that I was going to be an English major and become a writer. Then, I got an internship at the Dallas Historical Society, going through their archives and writing educational curriculum. It took me almost another year to admit that I was really a historian, which surprised me at the time. Perhaps it shouldn't have--I had already spent most of my childhood in the past.

As I began to dive into the study of history, I began to make all sorts of random connections between the history I was studying and the books I had loved as a child. I kept returning to one book in particular, Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery. Set during World War I and published in 1921, it’s one of the few novels about the home front. Recently, a new edition of this classic was published in Canada. Benjamin Lefebvre and Andrea McKenzie have put together a wonderful edition, complete with introduction, timeline, glossary of events, and some World War I poetry. It beautifully sets the story in its historical context. When I first read this book, I had so many questions about World War I, and it took years to find the answers. But now, all of those answers are in one beautiful package!

If I had to pick just one book to explain my whole thesis about kidlit history--that there is some history that is found in children's literature and can't be found anywhere else--this book would be the one I would pick. Primary sources on the emotions and daily lives of the women that watched and waited are hard to find. We tend to document the extraordinary. Though these women were living in extraordinary times, I don't think they realized how much their lives were changing.

Montgomery knew she was telling the story of the masses of Canadian women that worked at home and waited. She wrote "In my latest story, 'Rilla of Ingleside,' I have tried, as far as in me lies, to depict the fine and splendid way in which the girls of Canada reacted to the Great War--their bravery, patience and self-sacrifice. The book is theirs in a sense in which none of my other books have been: for my other books were written for anyone who might like to read them: but 'Rilla' was written for the girls of the great young land I love, whose destiny it will be their duty and privilege to shape and share." In their introduction, Lefebvre and McKenzie write "Rilla of Ingleside thus pictures, as no other war novel of its time does, a uniquely Canadian perspective about the women and families who battled to keep the home fires burning throughout this tumultuous era." Montgomery was a historian, even though her books are always shelved with children’s literature.

In my current job as a museum educator, I'm pulling children's literature in whenever and wherever I can. Using books that kids or adults are familiar with is a wonderful way to make connections with history. And in talking with colleagues, I know I’m not the only one that can trace a love of history back to literature first discovered as a child. In the last couple of years, I’ve started paying more attention to the threads of history woven through these books, and it’s been a fascinating journey. If you’re interested in coming along, please join me on my blog.

~ Melissa Prycer

Guest blogger Melissa Prycer has a MA in Public History. She is currently the Director of Education at Dallas Heritage Village. This piece was cross-published with the National Council on Public History's June 2011 newsletter.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Human Rights Lessons: The Letelier-Moffitt Monument and an International Terrorist Attack

On September 21, 1976, former and now deceased Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet brought international terrorism to the U.S. capital. As part of a plot to eliminate opponents of the military regime which took power in a bloody U.S.-backed coup on September 11, 1973, Pinochet’s crosshairs targeted Orlando Letelier, Chile’s one-time ambassador to the US under President Salvador Allende from 1970-1973. Working in exile after the coup at the Institute for Policy Studies, Letelier, with recently married colleagues Ronni and Michael Moffitt, shared a car ride to work that fateful September day in DC. When the automobile made its routine route to Sheridan Circle via Massachusetts Ave., it exploded. Mr. Moffitt was thrown from the car, but Letelier and Mrs. Moffitt were less fortunate, and were pronounced dead within an hour of the attack.

More than 30 years later, I sat on the sidewalk next to the explosion site to sketch the modest monument memorializing the tragic event. A few people passed me, staring, perhaps wondering (or perhaps knowing) what the monument marked. I, meanwhile, wondered how it came to be--who was responsible for memorializing, in 1981, this place of tragedy and terror. I later learned that the creation of the memorial was connected to the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award, which was established in the immediate aftermath of the attack. After the annual conferment of this important award, ceremony attendees would assemble in homage at Sheridan Circle. Peter Kornbluh, now a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and then a GWU graduate student who helped spearhead the award and memorial initiatives, recently explained that after the first few awards ceremonies there was a need among the victims’ families and friends for something at the site much more concrete: an approximately three-foot high monument with a granite base, crowned by a bronze plaque with the profiles of Letelier and Moffitt that matched the commemorative coin handed out with the award. The inscription reads “Justice, Peace, Dignity,” followed by the victims’ names, birthdates, and Sept. 21, 1976.

It is curious though that although peace has since returned to Chile, justice and dignity are still watchwords for many victims—and their allies—of Pinochet’s terror. In fact, in Chile, many of these actors and the organizations they have formed turn to memorialization to achieve a justice and dignity that has been far from forthcoming despite two official truth commissions (Rettig, 1991 and Valech, 2004), modest economic reparations, and a few nominal convictions of Pinochet’s perpetrators. A 2007 conference report, Memorialization and Democracy: State Policy and Civic Action, suggests memorialization is second in import only to economic reparations for victims of state sponsored violence. As such, Chile in the post-dictatorship era has seen almost unparalleled activity in memorialization and commemoration events, with many, if not all, formulated under the language of human rights.

But back in the US human rights language isn’t normally associated with memorial making—though, importantly, the Letelier-Moffitt monument is. It was fascinating for me to learn of the relationship between the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award and accompanying monument. This is undoubtedly an indicator of the vibrant human rights movement which was ignited on exactly the same day Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973. As Edward Cleary writes in the opening pages of Mobilizing for Human Rights in Latin America (2007), “The watershed event in the contemporary human rights period for most observers of Latin America from the United States and Europe was the bloody coup that occurred on the ‘other September 11th.’” Thus, while Pinochet flexed his power, so too did the families and friends of Letelier and Moffitt. By establishing a human rights award in conjunction with a human rights memorial, these activists responded with powerful practical and symbolic tools to reproach Pinochet’s crimes against humanity, insisting on the political meanings of this sacralized ground. In fact, in a delayed way, the memorialization efforts in DC in 1981 can be considered a precursor to the many human rights memorials that stand today in Chile. And this is of no small significance because, according to the “Memorialization and Democracy” report, Chile “has made exciting progress in reconstructing the memory of gross human rights abuses” and “serves as an example for other countries.”

Yet like Chile today and DC yesterday, marking sites of tragedy and terror is hardly a seamless process. In DC, Kornbluh and company met opposition from the political right, including conservative pundits who labeled the monument “communist.” Moreover, between its construction and inauguration, the monument was defaced with red paint on more than a couple of occasions by, it is suspected, Pinochet’s embassy officials. This forced Kornbluh, after many hours cleaning and much elbow grease, to buy a tarp and chain to protect the monument. As for Chile, memorializing sites of tragedy and terror, of detention and torture, comes with an impossibly long list of complications that include, but are not limited to, state stonewalling, schisms among human rights organizations, and site specific contingencies. Yet, a closer reading of these complications reveals more than the controversies that they provoke: an engagement by civil society to confront directly—and publicly!—the atrocities of the past. In Chile, alone, there are close to 150 permanent human rights memorials, with 12 of those deemed National Historic Monuments.

Today the Letelier-Moffitt monument no longer generates the controversy it once did; nor, do I suspect, does it receive more than modest attention beyond the insiders who know the story of Orlander Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. Kornbluh, though, would like to see an addendum added (next) to the monument that specifically cites the terrorist attack to better inform those passerbies wondering what it marks. Because as much as it memorializes Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, so too does it begin to shed light on the influence of an international human rights movement sparked by Chile’s military coup--and, of course, how this movement has turned towards memorializing sites of tragedy, torture, and terror in an effort to achieve justice and dignity.

~ Zachary McKiernan

Image credits: Peter Kornbluh (monument), Zachary McKiernan (sketch)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Diggin' the census

From the early 1900s on, the interest in genealogy has been fairly widespread in Norway. Lately though, there has been an explosive increase in interest. This can be contributed to two main factors. One is the series “Who do you think you are?” (Norwegian version). The other factor is the release of the digitized version of the 1910 census, now available online.

Researching family history might be easier for Norwegians than for Americans. Unique to Norway is the amount of resources available to genealogists. There is a plethora of sources easily accessible online. Genealogy is also very popular in neighboring Sweden and Denmark, but the genealogist’s situation there is different. Swedes have to pay for material Norwegians can access online for free. The Danish situation is quite similar to the Norwegian, but they lack our unique and extremely useful tool, the bygdebok, which will be addressed later. In other European countries (for example, Germany) there are few sources online. Parish records, for instance, can only be obtained through archives, and for a fee.

The National Archives of Norway are responsible for digitizing sources and making them available for researchers and the general public. The work of digitization and transcription is however divided between the different regional state archives and universities. Available online, and free of charge are: the censuses of 1801, 1865, 1875 (not completed), 1900 and 1910. Most parish registers are scanned and available online, and the work is still in progress. The parish registers contain births, christenings, confirmations (confirmation was mandatory before getting married), marriages, and burials (millions of pages). Also available are sources like probate records and real estate records, at least 14 million pages. In addition to work done by the state archives and universities, a lot of material is scanned and transcribed by genealogists and local history societies. This gives the Norwegian hobby genealogist access to an enormous amount of information online.

But how to proceed? All the public records can be accessed through the Digital archive’s homepage (i.e. the National Archives of Norway in collaboration with the universities). The Digital archive’s homepage contains several links that can be helpful to the new genealogist. There are links to a Forum for contact with the Digital Archives, the Users Forum, and “Ask the National Archives”. There’s also a link to an online course (interactive and free) in gothic handwriting. The reason for learning to read gothic handwriting is that only the censuses are transcribed; the other sources are scanned documents, i.e. primary sources.

But all the easily accessible resources online don’t fully explain why genealogy is so popular in Norway. There are two other important factors to consider: Knowing with certainty where your great grandparents come from (as most Norwegians do), does make it easier to start tracing the family history. Not knowing when your great grandparents were born, only where, the common tool to use would be the bygdebok (literally village book).

The bygdebok is a genre unique to Norway, and in my view of great importance to the popularity of genealogy in Norway. This kind of local history has been addressed by some of Norway’s finest historians, and has been seen as a legitimate pursuit among historians. In Denmark, by contrast, local history has been regarded with a certain amount of skepticism, has had little prestige in the past, and was by some seen as contributing to separatism, and therefore not encouraged. The Norwegian bygdebok can be described as a form of total history. In these bygdebøker the local history is recorded, usually starting with a description of the archeological finds in the area. As a rule the names of owners and families living on each farm hundreds of years back are provided. It would be fair to say that these books cover most of Norway. Some of the bygdebøker are available online, otherwise the ones you need can be sent to your local library free of charge. The bygdebøker are widely used by genealogists, although in the genealogist community it’s expected that every genealogist also checks the primary sources. If not, she can risk getting the nickname “bygdebokavskriver” (avskriver = copier).

The general interest in genealogy has led to international actors with different agendas popping up online. If you need to boost your genealogical pride, you can hitch your ahnentafel to GENI (a collaborative genealogy platform) as I did on a winter night. According to GENI I’m related to many significant Norwegian profiles, all the way back to the legendary king Nor who established Norway. However, the ancestors you find on GENI must be taken with more than a grain of salt, though it must be said that there are several capable moderators continually cleaning up the lineages. As for now, I take pride in the surprising (and well documented) discovery of an ancestry of well respected boat builders and well educated men and women living in a small valley in Vestlandet (the western part of Norway) stretching back hundreds of years. Finding these previously unknown ancestors has made me curious for more information. Several of the boat builders kept a “diary”, records of incidents in the family, and of the boats they built and sold. This book is published (three books bound into one), and two days ago I got it in the mail. It was interesting reading, and reading it has only spurred me on...

There are ongoing projects, many collaborative efforts between professionals and amateurs, to make even more material available to the public. In the future I expect the databases will get more user-friendly and better coordinated with each other. There’s a certain urgency about identifying the pictures in the museum’s databases before it’s too late, and also for people to share old photographs they possess with the public. There is in all the projects mentioned here an underlying thought of a common inheritance--an inheritance we work together to preserve, which is for everyone to use and enjoy.

Bottom line, in Norway genealogy can easily become an obsession, and for most people the hobby has challenges enough for more than a lifetime.

~ Anett Ytre-Eide

Guest blogger Anett Ytre-Eide earned a Master of Philosophy in Culture and Ideas Studies from the University of Oslo in autumn 2010. She is interested in living history, phenomenology and "thinking with her feet", and is a new genealogy enthusiast. The conductor of the military band in the c. late 1890s photo above is her second great grandfather Samuel.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

If Ken Burns made car ads

Car ads are like little zeitgeist-meters. They’re amazingly responsive to all kinds of social anxieties, which they instantly repackage in ways that allow us to continue feeling good about driving. Feeling nationally or personally emasculated? Concerned about the transition into being a soccer mom? Worried about climate change? Fear not. You can buy a minivan and still be hot; owning a Nissan Leaf will cause you to be hugged by grateful polar bears. All is well in the world of the car ad.

Which is why Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” ad, which debuted in a two-minute version during the 2011 Super Bowl and has been running in a shorter format since then, is so striking. It brings the anxiety right into the frame of the commercial, using image, music, and association to evoke the long pain of deindustrialization and the resulting gutting-out of cities and economies. The full-length spot, which has topped ten million views on YouTube, features Detroit-based rapper Eminem driving through the city in a gleaming new Chrysler 200 (née Sebring) while a raspy male voice discusses the city’s ups and downs over footage of monuments, factories, athletes, homes. The opening riff of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself," a nervous insistent strumming, permeates the piece, giving it much of its edgy feel. Eminem winds up at the stunningly restored Fox Theater, where the guitar riff merges with a vocal crescendo from a black gospel choir on the stage, dropping to a reverent hush behind his somber delivery of the line, “We’re the Motor City, and this is what we do.”

I have no particular trouble finding things to critique about this ad, because, well, that’s what I do. There’s a subtle “othering” of Detroit’s industrial and postindustrial working people, in the “Imported from Detroit” tagline and in the images of past struggles—Diego Rivera’s famous Detroit murals, the gigantic iron fist of the memorial sculpture to Detroit boxing great Joe Louis—and present production of goods (the unseen workers behind the gleaming Chrysler 200) and services (the doorman who nods to Eminem as the car rolls past an upscale hotel). Despite the invocation of working-class heroisms and skills, the emphasis here is on luxury and the relationships that sustain it. The doorman’s brief nod seems to reinforce Rachel Sherman’s argument that these service-economy laborers become complicit in creating and sustaining the very hierarchies that limit their own options (see Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels, University of California Press, 2007). This othering of the working class is subtly racialized, particularly in in the appearance of the gospel choir, which, as Douglas Harrison notes, is a kind of convenient shorthand in American pop culture for moral strength and resilient human spirit, appearing to transcend race while drawing on histories of racial struggle. The ad also plays with the romance of ruins, but very fleetingly, in a early brief shot of an empty building façade that is immediately superceded by more heroic and positive images. It hints at the struggle-and-recovery story even while it draws on the aesthetic fascination of decay and decline (the contemplation of which has become almost an industry in itself around Detroit).

So there’s lots to question here. But what I really find myself thinking when I watch this ad is, “Damn, these guys are good.” Never mind that it’s difficult to tell what’s an “American” or “imported” car at this point; never mind that the real challenge for places like Detroit is to try to discover what they might become apart from the gigantic industries that dominated them in the 20th century. The ad works on the level of myth, implicitly tying together the histories of labor and racial struggle, industrialization and deindustrialization, Detroit and America, TARP and Toyota, in a way that asserts persistence and resilience on every level. Oh, and it’s selling a car, too. The fact that the car seems like an after-thought only makes the ad more effective. This is the “tragedy with a happy ending” that William Dean Howells famously said Americans prefer when they go to the theater. It invokes loss, but in a way that feels shared and thus ultimately unifying. It is, in short, a Ken Burns film.

If Ken Burns made car ads, he would work for Portland, Oregon-based Wieden + Kennedy. W+K is fully capable of making jauntier car ads; their popular “Hate Something, Change Something” campaign for Honda, aimed at improving the image of the diesel engine in the U.K., was chirpy and upbeat (and wouldn’t it be nice if someone would undertake a similar makeover for diesels in the U.S.?). But they’re also not afraid of sentiment, and they’ve learned a thing or two from Burns about evocative music and how to enlist the gravitas of difficult histories without allowing them to provoke too many questions that might disrupt that bittersweet sense of shared struggle. (Their recent ad for Royal Enfield motorcycles is really a hymn to the city of Chennai, arguably the Detroit of India. Watch it and tell me you don’t find yourself thinking of Burns’s Civil War series.)

Ken Burns moves historical materials into the realm of the mythic, and W+K is moving that powerful combo into the realm of advertising. It’s daunting to think about how to counter that technique. A few comments on the YouTube ad do take a critical tack, but the overwhelming response is emotive and supportive. The ad creates a kind of virtual vernacular memorial space for the slow disaster that is Detroit; people are asserting solidarity and pride in a way that seems directed at the city’s working class but that is really being stimulated on behalf of capital, not labor. What would a counter-myth for a post-industrial, less car-dependent society look like? When we find one, we may do well to take a leaf out of W+K’s book when we're ready to sell the public on it.

~ Cathy Stanton