Putting The “I” in “History”
Today’s youth, in thinking about the fundamentals of history and its importance, will most often correlate history to the indulgence of facts, dates, and the memorization of people, places, and times. While this is, at its core, one of the main aims of a historical knowledge, this ideology commits a great error in that it dehumanizes the sentiment of the people and events being studied. Ultimately, this lack of connection to the past will bring about the immortal question, “why should I care?” One might say, “So John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I don’t see why that should matter to me now, a denizen of 2014.”
As a digital and public humanist, the ability to converge both the past and the present in a way that is accessible and easy to relate to in a humanistic sense becomes a prime objective. In relaying information, be it via a simple article or caption, to even a large-scale exhibit, it is important for the humanist to understand the difference between the history that has largely shaped the world we live in today, with the history that populates and more immediately affects individual and communal memory.
Immersion and interactivity within exhibits and portrayals of history are key elements to bridging this gap. In the Open House: If These Walls Could Talk exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, visitors were treated to an exhibit which, on the outset looked merely like a commonplace house floor-plan, filled to the brim with a collective memory of family, togetherness, and anecdotal history that only echoes the history going on in a grand scale around them. The text Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, gives great praise to this project, saying “the project set out to tell the stories of ordinary people in ways that represented them as actors in history” (Filene 139). The materials in the exhibit all display the pieces and artifacts found within the home, and one one level, they do give a small taste of the historical fashion trends that led to the choices for the furniture. However, the biggest piece drawn from this exhibit is its stress on the history that made up the individual and communal people. In participating with the shared storytelling, the visitor sees firsthand the ways in which global history and memory affects that which is closer to the spectator. This way, there is a self in history, and this makes the experience of learning and cooperating with history itself much more satisfactory.
However, that being said, there is always a fear of “too much self.” Studying the past and the peoples involved through an egocentric lens is also an immense fallacy in thinking, and it dehumanizes the topics discusses just as much, if not more, as an objective and factual lens would. While, in a perfect world, egocentrism and appreciation for the objective separation that exists between the self and the past would culminate into new ways of exploring history that prioritized the safety and preservation of historical material. However, the world is not like this, and an extremely vital question of authority comes into play.
Take, for example, the National Museum Selfie Day took place nation-wide on January 22nd, 2014 (Oswald). On this day, as a means of encouraging visitor turnout and appreciation for historical exhibits, guests were invited to take pictures of themselves alongside certain applicable exhibits and share them online for the entire world to see. While this publicity stunt was surely successful, catering to the selfie culture that presides over most social networking sites, it was also severely damaged from the beginning. Taking selfies in front of artwork and historical materials is not only self-centered, but completely detrimental to the goal of a museum itself. When visiting a museum, and taking in all the information, emotional references and experiences, it should never be the user of the material that leaves an imprint on the museum. Instead, it should be the museum or exhibit that leaves an impact on the visitor.
Vaglia, Nicola. 2014. Photograph. TIME, Milan. Web. 1 Apr 2014.
The image above is a disastrous result of a visitor attempting to put themselves onto a piece of objective history; literally. Though thankfully the statue was only a replica, with the real one in Munich, the visitor who made the attempt of taking a picture of themselves nested upon the statue further proves the statement made earlier (ABC News). Though history and the exhibitions of historical material can make great strides in connecting to the user’s sentiments of connectedness, family, and community to shape an individual experience, the same thing cannot be said of a visitor trying to take control of the displays through picture-taking centered on the self.
The question of authority is key to displaying works or an exhibit with pride and grace. In short, the amount of control that museum officials such as curators and staff should be equally shared with that of the visitor. The Open House: If These Walls Could Talk is a great example of a balance struck between visitor and official authorial identity. The ability to enthrall a visitor without bombarding them with facts about global history is also key, and it illuminates a very important theme in sharing communal and individual identity and memory.
ABC News. “Selfie-Taking Student Breaks Statue’s Leg.”ABC News. ABC News Network, 20 Mar 2014. Web. 1 Apr 2014. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2014/03/selfie-taking-student-breaks-statues-leg/>.
Filene, Benjamin. “Make Yourself at Home – Welcoming Voices in Open House: If These Walls Could Talk.” Trans. Array Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011. 138-155. Print.
Oswald, Emily. “Museum selfies: Participatory genius or sign of our self-centered times?.” Public History Commons. National Council on Public History, 19 Mar 2014. Web. 1 Apr 2014. <http://publichistorycommons.org/museum-selfies/>.