Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Computers and History

Joshua Brown and Daniel Cohen both discuss how the computer and the web have and may affect the discipline of history. Brown explores the circular process visual medium, for the purpose of education, has taken over the last 150 years. One of Cohen’s articles looks into the viability of using a digital medium for archiving and preservation. His second focuses on methods of improving history through the use of the internet.

In The Future of Preserving the Past, Cohen discusses the ubiquitousness of the web and how simple it has become for the average American to express themselves after a major crisis over the web. Because so much information was sent over the web discussing important aspects of 9/11 and even just feelings about it, it is important that this record be saved. However computer software is ever changing, new programs may soon be unable to read previously persevered documents. As more and more people turn to the internet as a means of venting, showing grief, and general communication it will become even more important to find ways to preserve a variety of voices from being silenced.

Cohen’s other article, History and the Second Decade of the Web, examines, after 20 years of experience, the strengths and weaknesses of the web for chronicling and preserving our past. Obviously there are many of both. One way is improving the dialogue between the historian and his/her audience. Through blogs and posts the historian can have direct interaction with fellow researchers or people with queries, through e-mail individuals across the globe can be questioned or contacted for research. A very useful idea is the concept of interoperability. It is the concept of combining different institutions collections under single search engine. Instead of wasting time searching the limitless web, a single search can pull up information from many different entities. Finally, the ability to data-mine is discussed. This involves searching a large mass of data for overall themes or currents. Using programs designed for this saves the researcher hours or even days of manual searching, the program does all the work and reveals the results for ones perusal. Because of the amount of information that is available on the web we need to develop these advanced tools in order to make proper and efficient use of the web and our time.

Brown’s article History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries is rather interesting look at how visual media helps and discourages education as well as how the medium has evolved over the last 150 years. After completion of a 3-D interactive project, Cohen and company found that their program did not educate students and teachers as much as they would like. They found information tends to come in two varieties, one that blends and combines information into a seamless environment and the other that maintains separate objects that can be manipulated and changed. Looking back to P. T. Barnum and illustrated newspapers, Brown realized that by keeping separate objects it gives the viewer the opportunity to make their own connections and concentrate on things that are relevant to them. Brown believes part of the future for educational visual media will be drawn fro our past in order to have its most effective outcome.

While the articles were all similar, each had its own take on the future of computers and their ability to preserve and enhance the study of history. The most exciting thing, I think, is the consensus on globalized communication. Through the internet we might one day get the opportunity to work with some great minds from across the globe without having to buy a plane ticket. As these men have said the future for our discipline is exciting and filled with many possibilities if we take advantage of them and work together to realize some of these far reaching goals.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

History and Film

All of our authors discuss history and how it has been told through film. Natalie Davis, Vivein Rose, Julies Corley, and Robert Brent Toplin all agree that historians need to take a more prominent role in the production of historical film. Film is incredibly popular and is often the only medium that some people experience some history. Unfortunately, historical films have been produced some with little to no history training, leading to a simplistic narrative not revealing the true depth of the story in order to prevent this.

While similar all of these articles deal with different aspects of film and history. Davis examines whether film or written literature is the most effective way to communicate the past. Due to the inability to communicate the many sides of the story film is complemented by a book that can be written after reflection and done in order to flesh out stories that may have been overlooked during film production.

Rose and Corley take a look at Ken Burns and his seeming monopoly of the historical film industry. They feel he is doing the history profession a disservice by displaying a bland film disconnected from accurate scholarship. However, we as historians have allowed this to happen. They offer a number for ways for this to happen. By practicing on-camera skills, have professional historians engage in criticism of film (rather than general film critics), and train ourselves to critique films for historical accuracy and soundness. We as historians have to actively reach out to the public in order to deliver history that will expand the national narrative not limit it to “great men.”

Finally, Toplin discusses five ideas or questions that can lead to the future of historical films. Toplin admits that advancements in the study of film and history in recnt years has been great but in order to legtiamize and strucutre the study has five questions to explore. I especially liked the urge to study films to third level, not just critiques of the films or even a look at the people behind the film. Research needs to be taken to the third level, stidy of everything from story narratives, interoffice meos, to draft scripts. Toplin offers this and other interesting routes to advance the study of history in film.

All of these articles agree, without input from historians historical films will not be raised to the level of complexity and accuracy that they are possible of.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Frisch and Terkel

Our readings for the last two weeks, Studs Terkel’s Touch and Go: A Memoir and Michael Frisch’s A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, deal with a similar subject, oral history, and to a lesser extent, public history. However, they are worlds apart in terms of style and readability.

Terkel’s book at first had the feel of an old man’s ramblings, incoherent babble full of obscure references. As I read on though, I developed a deeper respect for Terkel’s writings, in particular the last few chapters. The book began rather confusingly, the repeated references to silent film era stars and early 20th century plays were a little beyond me. As I said I was not overly impressed by the memoir until I had reached the twenty-fourth chapter, a cutting review of the “United States of Amnesia.” Studs pointed out the dangers of forgetting the past; the invention of the past. The American story is so uplifting and progressive because it is so inaccurate. Americans do not want to face a disturbing past, it “…might disturb our sense of complacency, our sense of satisfaction. (p 234)” I think this speaks to many problems in the field of public history, such as, heaven forbid, revisionist exhibitions and displays or the recent “History Wars” o f the 90s. The nation has forgotten its past thereby forgetting who we are as a nation, leading to the series of global travesties we currently find ourselves embroiled in.

I was surprised by the lack of mention about oral history. Not having read any other of Stud’s books and being primarily familiar with him through his oral history work, he discussed his work foremost as a radioman and actor. Overall much of the book seemed disjointed but the ending was powerful and forced me ponder some deep issues.

Meanwhile A Shared Authority was much more professionally written than Touch and Go but equally unapproachable. While not as engaging, the book covered a wide variety of topics over Frisch’s career. Most of the pieces seem to focus on issues of authorship, for instance who receives the credit of an oral history- the interviewer or the interviewee? I was shocked by the difficulties involved with assigning the author of a documentary that the New York Times Magazine helped edit. The Times refused to name all involved as author and then demanded that solely Frisch be given credit. Similarly to Terkel’s closing chapters, issues of individuality, the American ideal, and the community, a gathering of minds, are found in contention. Both authors favor a community approach, sharing ownership with the broader audience for a more complete and authentic experience.

As public history itself, both of these books are concerned with the audience. Both can be seen as attempts to actively engage the public in order involve them in the making of and remembering of our past. Despite their vastly different approaches both realize the importance of making public history active and alive rather than an object for passive consumption

Monday, November 3, 2008

Remaking America John Bodnar

As Americans we choose to celebrate certain events from our past. Which events and who chooses them is the basis of John Bodnar’s book, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. It explores the way vernacular or local memory is linked to the wider world of national politics and how the past has been used for political means. Vernacular memory, that which local communities create to celebrate foundings or local heroes is inherently threatening even if it is frequently converted to serve the needs of official patriotic memory. It is through the unequal exertions of power that certain memories are commemorated while others disappear into fog of forgetfulness.
Through rather broad and recurring generalizations, Bodnar shows how the cultural elite, those with political and economic power, have distorted symbols to stand for the ideals that promote their interests. Vernacular memory was grounded in local interests and associations that were known, felt, or experienced directly. As a number of small communal or regional experiences, vernacular memory acted as a divisive force pulling the country apart. Official memory “…stressed the desirability of maintaining the social order and existing structures. (Bodnar, p 246)” As originators of vernacular culture died ties between the community and the memory weakened, easing the way for the memories adoption by the government. This is why the cultural elite and national government worked to codify symbols and tweak them to encourage national unity.
An important aspect of memory, especially vernacular, is its constant evolution through time and experience. Vernacular memory is especially susceptible because of tactile experience, as distance from the individual and the event increased so did the emotions pertaining to that event. Bodnar believes that history is a very politicized event, over time separation between individual and event occurs and indifference seems to set in. In the end power breaks down resistance and the view of those with power usually dominates, this is shown through experience of the nation-state’s overwhelming need to show memory as a unifying and bonding experience. In the past change has been described as progress, an orderly procession of events that have led to current state of economic success. Officials use this progression to derail fears about current crisis or defuse the pain and turmoil that so frequently accompanies drastic change.
Following wars, such as the Civil War and the World Wars, more commemoration focused on bringing the country together and celebrating triumph over “the enemy”. Focus on personal experience, the vernacular memory, was frequently much more sobering, death, pain, hardships, and loss.
Even today we face the concern of changing and changed cultural symbols, an unavoidable phenomenon. As political and social power changes hands the meaning of symbols will morph as well. “New symbols will have to be constructed…and old ones will have to be invested with new meaning. (Bodnar, p 114)” In our time of political disunity and increasing numbers of divergent communities we will see if the need for political symbols of unity are truly necessary or if personal commemoration and memory can act as a force of solidarity for our nation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


With regime change comes monument change. Monuments are public reminders of the ideals and attributes the party in power wishes their citizens to embody. So changing regimes often need to erect new and demolish old forms of public remembrance, in effect, to legitimize their position and to discredit the old. Less often, atrocious events are encapsulated in stone so they might not be repeated. Sanford Levinson details this phenomenon in Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies.
After reading Levinson’s book, the title seemed much more poignant then I realized. Even today to signify something as permanent we say it is “written in stone.” But being written in stone does not always make something immortal. Engraved monuments are defaced, rewritten, and infused with different symbolism. Increasing enfranchisement of minorities and significant numbers of political transitions throughout Eastern Europe fuel this phenomenon. Levinson’s early example of the Liberty Monument in New Orleans is very telling. Erected following the violent ousting of the legal government of “carpetbaggers,” the structure memorializes the deaths of the racist White League involved in the “battle.” Obviously, and sadly, reflecting the majority opinion of the city. Left unmentioned were the police officers trying to do their jobs and the largely black militia members that were slain. During the New Deal, since public memory of the event had diminished, New Orleans proceeded to mount two plaques describing the event. Again, they were depressingly sympathetic to the bigoted and illegal “revolution.” As the black minority gained political and economic power they were able to contest the offensive monument. The plaques, written in stone, were obliterated and the entire monument was moved to a less commemorative location. This episode raises several questions: Should the monument remain as recognition of former regimes? Or remain as a reminder of how far society has progressed in race relations? Or should it be destroyed and removed from public memory? Or, finally, relocated to a museum making it a historical artifact of our nation’s, often troubled, past? These questions seem to probe our social makeup as a nation.
In an attempt to answer these questions Levinson focuses on Europe and the U.S. Radical regime change in Hungary, for example, often equates total destruction of previous commemoration. Shifting political power in a stable country and its relation to public memorials is more difficult to reconcile. The extensive commemoration of the Confederacy in the U. S. South is such a case and detailed thoroughly in the latter half of Written in Stone. Debates over the cause of secession also contrinute. Was it for states rights or for slavery? Many statues and monuments are said to honor the individual bravery of soldiers that fought for the Confederate cause. But do their disreputable actions, killing for the promulgation of a brutal institution, justify such a commemoration? Levinson promotes telling both sides of the story. Offsetting Austin’s commemoration to Jefferson Davis by honoring black peoples’ involvement in the Civil War and their contributions to the state since that time. But, Levinson points out, controversy may erupt over boiling down an entire people’s history to a few painful moments in time.
Unlike most people Levinson seems to encourage little molestation of controversial monuments. Not reinterpreting monuments actually promotes questions about them. One may be inspired to research a subject more if you are not told how to feel about it on a plaque. Many of the examples used portray events that are now reprehensible; it is necessary to remember them as to never repeat them. Leaving dark reminders out in the public prevent them from fading into our collective amnesia.
We reside in a free and democratic society where there are shifts in ideological makeup. Political power has been more equally dispersed, often called political correctness. However it may more appropriately called political awareness. What was once Custer’s Last Stand is now taught as the Battle of Little Bighorn. Was it an attempted massacre or a battle? Only personal reflection and discussion can satisfy this quandary for each of us, as individuals. We are left to realize our own responses to these public icons, while reminded that there can be no public agreement on public images in either a stable polity or a state in upheaval.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The collection of stories found in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, edited by Antoinette Burton, attempts to peel back some of the fallacies associated with archives and the knowledge contained therein, for both the public and academicians themselves. This sweeping book covers an amazing variety of assumptions and situations involved with record keeping institutions and how their records are used. A commonly understated fact in the historians work is that “…our work is often shaped by archival conditions outside of our control.” (Ghosh p 27) Those that are employed in archives shape history by how much they approve of a project and therefore are willing to invest themselves into assisting the researcher. Durba Ghosh and Craig Robertson both faced archivist disapproval making their research difficult if not impossible, because archives are sanctuaries where only the anointed are allowed to enter. Despite how much we might think to the contrary, archives divulge their knowledge grudgingly, the right credentials, ethnicity, economic background, or even just project can make the difference between success and failure. We must always remember an archive is created for a specific purpose and agenda, just as the documents housed there do. As Ann Curthoys found for colonial advisors’ records in Australia, due to the fact that “…no governor actively sought information in those areas they would rather not know about…” (Curthoys p 364) As difficult as it is to admit, archives influence history by what is deemed worthy of keeping, who is allowed to view the records, and whether or not they are considered “legitimate.”
This anthology really opened my eyes to the influence archives have over history. I feel like I have faced disdain from archivists when attempting to do research as an undergrad. Because of my inexperience and hesitancy to enter this “vault,” having to face two different “gatekeepers” at the Florida State Archives, it seemed the archivist were determined I find my information in the State Library, despite my assurances of having search there initially. Research assistants therefore seem to have an inordinate amount of control over who has access to their records. I was also intrigued by the thought of, what is an archive? Keith Windschuttle’s disregard for oral tradition is amazing, revealing the Western bias for the “power of the written word.” Despite the fact the earliest historians, the founders of our craft, used the medium of orally transmitted information almost exclusively.
While at times seeming a little dense and academician Archive Stories is a breakthrough collection about the cornerstone of the history discipline. Not only are historical texts interpreted from primary sources but primary sources are but an interpretation of the past themselves. The fact some records remain and others don’t is selective process consigning some information to the dustbin of history. Not only that, but the keepers of those records and how the records are kept reveal intrinsic biases in the institutions. I feel this is an important read for the young historian to always question - interpretations, sources, and institutions - and the elastic nature of what we call history.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Historic Preservation

Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historical Identity compares the history of and current practices involved with the preservation movement in the United States and Great Britain. Diane Barthel examines the elitist roots of the British movement, aimed at preserving a bucolic past that never was and the American movement which has been more inclusive and starting from the grassroots, however, frequently motivated by profit. She also examines a few different genres of preserved structures and how they are adapted and reused today. One such is Industrial preservation, keeping safe buildings and tools that fueled the Industrial Revolution. This preserves the labor and ingenuity of many people’s ancestors. Industry is also a place to look for social and economic change. This is a difficult tightrope to walk though, industry tended to be foul, dirty, and brutal, things many tourists are not looking for. Another arena of discussion was the push for preserving war related materials and sites. On some levels it is obvious why military sites should be preserved, the sacrifice given by soldiers should be commemorated, even if for no other reason than to convince others to make the same sacrifice when the time comes. But just like industrial sites there are difficult political and social issues involved. Who’s idea of the war is correct? How much of the noise and bloodshed should be revealed? How does one portray pain and death on a massive scale to school children? (some of the most frequent visitors to these sites) Barthel also looked at religious preservation in what is largely a secular world. Surprisingly, many of these movements to preserve churches or other religious structures are done for purely secular means, often in the name of the community and to the objections of the religious. Finally, she examines what she calls Heritage Machines, how history is commodified, distorted, and sold back to the public. This book examines the preservation movement in all of its facets, including what it has been, is, and can aspire to.
I appreciated the fact Barthel examined many of the sides involved in the preservation movement, questioning many of the motivations involved with preserving, for instance how often money motivates preserving or destruction. Also the discussions of authenticity. What makes something authentic? Is it the location of the events? Original structures be damned. The building itself? Who cares if it is thousands of miles from where it should be. Also, how far should re-enactments be taken? If one accurately portrays the past, tourists will most likely be scared away having expected a peaceful, calm, happy past, “Disney-fied” like so many people in the world are. However by not going all the way, re-enactments are lying, not revealing the past as it was. So they are doing a disservice to the history they are bringing to life. Unfortunately, the past has become big business, the almighty dollar rules and accuracy and authenticity will suffer for it.