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.