Monday, December 1, 2008

Analysis of this week’s readings:
This week’s readings all address some general themes regarding digital media and history. All the articles discuss the advantages and beneficial aspects of digital media, but also mentions alongside it the challenges historians face when utilizing the web, and other digital arenas. One of the benefits of this new digital age is the increase in the ability to make history accessible, engaging, and collaborative.

History and the Second Decade of the Web:
Cohen’s article clearly discusses the benefits and concerns regarding history and the web. He sees the web as making history more accessible, more engaging, and a new way to facilitate learning. He saw the internet as a way to facilitate and allow for greater collaboration, for instance between historians, between historians and subjects, or between institutions. Although I still have some difficulty accepting web sources as historical sources, I must say that I agree with Cohen in that they do make excellent supplements to the more traditional historical sources.

The Future of Preserving the Past:
One of the most interesting aspects of his earlier article was the discussion of using the web as a way to collect the past. For this reason I really enjoyed his second article which focused on this idea of acquiring the past in addition to presenting history through the web. Although some serious issues with this form of collecting exist such as provenance, and acquisition policies, I must say that the benefits certainly outweigh these concerns. This is a great way to utilize historical sources, and a great way to make the past, and more importantly the subject of history, more accessible.

History and the Web, from the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries:
Brown also continues with this theme of utilizing the web to facilitate learning, or as he coins it, “active learning.” Although this is not stated in the previous Cohen articles, I believe that Cohen puts forth a very similar message. Brown’s general them or idea was that this new digital form poses a few challenges for historians, but at the same time when used properly the web can be very beneficial in terms of teaching and engaging with history. I thought that all the links that Brown included in his article really enhanced the reading, and in a way, it provided a nice means of additional support regarding the proper use of the web. (And how neat was that Barnum Museum recreation?)

Sidenote: For a survey course on American history after 1940 my textbook actually came with the “Who Built America?” Part II electronic book, or supplement. And it actually is pretty neat. It has musical clips on it, propaganda shorts, speeches, radio broadcasts, all sorts of fun stuff, much like the first volume discussed in Brown’s article. It acted as a wonderful supplement to the textbook, full of primary source material (which are often limited to the sidebars in textbooks, if included at all).

Monday, November 24, 2008

Analysis of this week's readings:

This week's readings all look at the general theme of how film confronts and interprets the past, the relationship between cinema and history, and how film treats history. These three articles all deal with our understanding of the past, and the history, and how to present that history through film. They describe film as bringing history to the public, and thus, shaping their understanding of the past. Davis, Rose and Corley and Toplin all discuss the idea of film and engagement: whether it is engaging history through film, the historian engaging with the film, or in terms of the film engaging with the public.

Movie or Monograph? A Historian/Filmmaker's Perspective

Davis' article drew on her work as a historical consultant. It highlighted film's ability to reach a crowd that otherwise would not know or show interest in historical subjects. This is something I saw repeated in the other articles as well. However, this article als addressed the issue of putting entertainment before the historical accuracy of the film. As a consultant, she had no final say in the historical accuracy of the film.

A Trademark Approach to the Past: Ken Burns, the Historical Profession, and Assessing Popular Presentations of the Past

This article looks at the impact of historical films and documentaries on presenting the past. Rose and Corley looked specifically at Ken Burns and his range of documentaries. One of the more interesting discussions of this article was Burns' lack of controversy. He tends to stay away from unpleasantries and the brutalities. I see him more as an entertainer after reading this. Anyway who shies away from presenting the whole picture, who places their focus on the audience as opposed to presenting the story truthfully and accurately, is an entertainer in my opinion. Doing this, in a way, creates a distorted interpretation of the past.

Cinematic History: Where Do We Go from Here?

This last article addresses ways in which to engage history. Toplin discusses the challenges historians face when presenting the past through film. In this article, Toplin also discusses film's opportunity to expose viewers to the lives, thoughts, and actions of the people of the past. There are opportunities for historians' greater engagement with film. One discussion I found particularly interesting was presenting the past so as to say something about the present. It kind of reminded me of our readings on commemoration.


I think if these authors looked at Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study they would be shocked to find that people really do not trust the history portrayed through film and cinema. It received an average ranking of 5 out of 10 in terms of trustworthiness. I think that film has a long way to go in terms of gaining trust as a historical source, because before anything else, film is entertainment.

On an even more personal note, I for one cannot enjoy historical films. For instance, Amazing Grace, which has one of my favorite actors in it OF ALL TIME (Ioan Gruffudd, of the Horatio Hornblower series) I just could not enjoy. Why? All because of some silly detail about William Pitt that was just blatantly wrong, not to mention complete inaccuracies regarding social aspects of British life. Regardless, until film places historical accuracy before entertainment and gaining revenue many people will have a difficult time taking what they say to be true.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Analysis: Touch and Go: A Memoir and A Shared Authorit: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History

This week’s readings both, in a way, highlight some of the concrete themes of this course: Terkel looks at making history personal through his practice of oral history, whereas Frisch examines the idea of shared authority and collaboration among the public and historians. Both, in a less obvious manner, emphasize the construction of history from the bottom-up. And, much like Presence of the Past, they illustrate that history is generated from biographical memory and from personal history and past.

Studs Terkel’s memoir was the more entertaining reading, filled with tangents and obscure references to a day long passed – what’s not to like. (It reminded me of watching Golden Girls and not exactly following the political or social commentary of the time, but loving it all the same.)

What is clearly important to Terkel is the history, or more importantly the story, of people, regardless of status. It seems that Terkel was more interested in the story of the ordinary person. His book includes glimpses into his lifelong work – oral histories and interviews of people often overlooked, but whom he considered just as important to our collective memory and national story. Terkel's individual experiences and personal stories trace and intertwines with a larger narrative of major historical events of the past century, such as the Depression, the rise of major political and cultural figures, elections, the struggles of the past, McCarthyism, wars, and so on.

Terkel’s memoir is the ramblings of a man who has spoken with men and women, both ordinary and extraordinary, who effortlessly weaves the events of his past into our lives, as well as the lives of others long passed. Having read the Good War in a previous class I can appreciate the style of Terkel’s work. Where often he is criticized for not including his questions in the transcript of interviews, it allows the reader an uninterrupted and unobstructed view into their memories and past experiences – much like Studs accomplishes in his memoir.

Michael Frisch gathers a collection of his book reviews, essays, and case studies to drive home an examination of oral history and public history and explores several issues surrounding them. Although I appreciate the wide range of writings, I had a hard time finding the cohesion between them all. At times, it made his message a bit muddled. Although I think his headnotes and introductions did help in establishing a sense of relation.

On the other hand, I enjoyed his presentation through the several different types of articles and reviews. Each of which highlight the importance of sharing authority, as well as criticizing and illustrating some of the challenges present in both fields. I personally found the case studies to be the most interesting. It was nice to have a break in rhythm every now and then. Then again, I do enjoy history education, which is what that first case study looks at in great detail.

These two books, again, introduce this idea of, well, shared authority. It discusses the theme of collaboration, joint ownership, an underlying theme of this course that began on day one with our first readings. These books, especially Frisch’s, also highlight several other relevant themes – collective memory, official history versus vernacular history, which has the authority, and the belief that history is personal.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Analysis: Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century

John Bodnar focuses on the creation of public commemoration and memory in America through the nation’s construction and into the twentieth century.

Bodnar’s prologue on the Vietnam Memorial illustrates several of the major themes that carry throughout the book: the plurality of public memory and commemoration. It is meant to symbolize loyalty and patriotism, national and social unity, order and civic duty. But more importantly public memory is a result of attempts to settle what he terms “official” and “vernacular” intentions.

Remaking America highlighted several areas of commemorative conflict throughout the twentieth century, and across the country. He compared Cleveland and Indianapolis in one chapter, discussed the roles of ethnic communities in rural and urban cities when establishing public memory, addressed commemoration in the Midwestern states, as well as commemoration on a national scale as represented in his discussion of the National Park Service and the national bicentennial celebration. Bodnar discussed local, regional, state, and national stories of commemoration and public memory.

Bodnar examined commemorative efforts throughout the country, and through a variety of events, actions, and celebrations: parades, holidays, monuments, re-enactments, world fairs, centennials, and so on. He discussed how the control over the commemorative events shift over time, from vernacular to official, official to vernacular, as well as how public memory shifts over time. Although, it was clear that Bodnar believed that the official story, of leaders and supporters of the nation-state, often overshadowed, or maintained dominance over the vernacular.

Overall, Bodnar looked at public memory and remembrance in multivocal or pluralistic societies. He did an excellent job at portraying attempts to shape the memory of the past to solidify and strengthen a view or belief of the present. In other words, attempts to shape the past often have intentions and interests that lie in the present. He backed his assertions with several great examples, and he followed these examples over time. I think he utilized not only a good portion of history in order to support his statements, but he also covered a nice portion of the country as well.

The book ends pondering what will become of our public memory now that the Cold War is at an end, and conservatism has minimized state power. How will public memory change? It would be interesting to see what John Bodnar has to say about public memory now…more than 15 years after this book’s publication. It would be nice to see an afterword. There have been some pretty significant memorials over the past few years: September 11th memorial plans and the WWII memorial to name just a couple.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Analysis: Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies

Sanford Levinson portrays the importance of public monuments in a wide range of different societies. This book centers on the purpose of monuments - whether they have ideological purposes, political purposes, or are meant to label something as important to our national or collective memory. By commemorating or memorializing something we are, in effect, legitimizing their memory.

Levinson discusses the importance of public spaces, not limiting himself to statues or memorials, but also discussing flags, stamps, street names, holidays, and so on. Nor did Levinson limit himself to the United States. He put monuments into a global context – looking at Hungary, Zimbabwe, St. Petersburg (or Leningrad), Moscow, and so on. I think this really added to Levinson’s analysis of how we commemorate our past – exploring a wide variety of aspects regarding commemoration and memorial.

More than that, this book is also raising the question of what we do with these monuments in societies that are constantly changing - different nationalities are gaining greater political hold, or changes within a multicultural society, or the country faces regime changes. The question is, do we leave these monuments of the past in what should be neutral public spaces, or do we adjust them to fit the current political state, do we remove them from the public’s view, transfer them to museums (where the statute is safely separated from the present and placed in the past) or in some cases, do we destroy them?

I think Levinson’s discussion of what to do with these monuments is by far the most interesting. He gives several options at the conclusion of his essay, nine in fact. And I have to say, the idea of a “managed contention site” caught my attention. If public history sites, such as museums, are taking on the mission to become forums and sites to initiate social dialogue, then these museums are great places to house these monuments and take on the role of these “managed contention sites.” Let’s start a discussion on racism, or the role of slavery in the South. I cannot think of a better place to discuss this then a history museum. Why not put some of these controversial monuments there?

In my opinion, these statues, or monuments, represent our history. Often times, they represent an unfortunate time in our history – perhaps they highlight ideals that we no longer hold belief in. However, I agree with Levinson (who agreed with the following statement): “You have to tell history, warts and all” (Levinson, 103). These monuments represent what our country once deemed worthy of our remembrance. Maybe they do not belong outside capitol buildings, or on major thoroughfares, but they absolutely belong.

(On a side note, I thought Levinson’s occupation as a constitutional lawyer added a really interesting dimension to his discussion on the rights to display the confederate flag above capitol buildings versus the rights of a private citizen to display the confederate flag, or confederate battle flag. Although, I must admit, his discussion of the confederate flag seemed a bit tedious at times.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Analysis - Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History

I really enjoyed reading this compilation of articles regarding the archive experiences of several different people, including professional historians. At first it came as sort of a surprise to think of an archive (an institution meant to make history accessible) as limiting history. To be honest, it really forced me to think about the archive as an interpreter of history. If an archivist, or the powers that be, do not deem (or in this case, interpret) a document as having archival or enduring value they do not accession or acquire it. And therefore, it is not preserved in the archive or made available to the public. So, in a way, the archive interprets what is of historical importance. The archive is limited by what an archivist deems to be of enduring value and of historical import or significance.

The American Association of Museums believes an archive is a museum. And like other museums, the archive can misinterpret and misrepresent history. The archive can have its own agenda; can be manipulated by political pressure, as well as a slew of other things. I was a bit shocked by this. I was certainly shocked to read about the State Archives of South Africa. An archive is meant to preserve records, right? Not destroy them. Talk about misrepresenting history.

One important theme I noticed throughout the articles was the ability of the archive to present a national narrative, national identity, or a collective history. Archives project a national identity, what the country views as their true, shared story. And in a way, it seems as though the archive is capable of controlling what the public is exposed to, which narrative they will portray, and even who has access to it. Just on a small sidenote, it broke my heart to read the difficulty one person had trying to see a collection of information regarding passports. I thought that an archive existed to make that sort of knowledge accessible and available. Guess I was wrong?

I really enjoyed the articles dealing with archives in an entirely different sense than strictly a repository of documents. The archive can be so much more: a person as their own archive of memories, or a novel, or even the world wide web (heaven help us). By doing this it is almost asking what is history, what do we consider to be history?

I think Burton did an excellent job of taking these different articles, all about similar yet very different archive experiences or stories, and putting them together in a clear discussion about the variety, defense, and treatment of historical knowledge. I really find it hard to think negatively of a collection that got me to think more than I ever thought I would about archives, but I did have one problem with the collection. I would have LOVED to see an article by an archivist, or someone directly involved with an archive. For some reason I think that would have been a great archive story to have in addition to all these other great stories.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Analysis - Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historical Identity

This book examines the progression of historic preservation in both the United States and Britain. Through a comparison of the preservation in both countries Barthel addresses the issues and development regarding preservation in these two countries.

The book outlines the motivation for preservation, a brief history of the progression of preservation in the US and Britain, as well as some of the differences between the two countries. Barthel also examines the different interpretations of history and who has been doing the interpreting and preserving (such as the major capitalists and industrialists, women, or concerned community members, the bottom-up approach of the US and the top-down approach in Britain). She also discusses the ideologies behind preservation, the preservation efforts in regards to memorializing wars, and the role historic preservation plays in consumer-driven countries, globalized societies, as well as in societies that have a growing leisure role. Another issue discussed is the authenticity of interpretations, and the balance between entertainment and education. It is clear that Barthel covers several facets of the preservation movement as well as several of the issues they face.

One of the more important aspects of historic preservation that Barthel stresses (and one that I found particularly interesting) is the role it plays in society, the role society plays in preservation and how this affects society's collective memory. Barthel argues that historic preservation is a means by which a society can come together, embrace their diversity and plurality, and yet, through preservation, attempt to create a collective memory and establish their own historical identity. She emphasizes everyone's involvement in creating and establishing our own interpretation of history, and it seems that this idea is repeated throughout her book. Everyone, in her opinion, has a say in this "tangible" history.

Overall I thought Barthel did a good job of presenting a wide range of issues. However, one problem I had with this book was how outdated it seemed at times. In terms of how this book could be improved, I would suggest adding an afterword. I noticed that the book was published in 1996, and since then there have been some pretty significant changes in the field of historic preservation. For instance, the chapter discussing utopia and the perfect communities that manifest themselves in living history sites (or as Barthel calls it "staged symbolic communities") mentioned Colonial Williamsburg and the lack of conflict. Since this book was published there has been a significant effort to include a slave narrative into the living history interpretation. For example, the mid 1990s saw an introduction of a controversial slave market in Colonial Williamsburg. This is just one instance where these historic sites and communities have made an effort to incorporate more historically accurate events and happenings in their exhibitions and interpretations.