Should Memories Make History?
The essays we’ve read in Letting Go? have each described some type of historical exhibit in which the public is either encouraged to interact with the exhibit, or has provided the information for the exhibit themselves. And while each exhibit differs in the way its information is presented, an issue addressed by each of the essay’s authors was how they would determine what information is the most “interesting and substantive” and how to make that information easily accessible to their audience.
As we’ve continued to discuss the struggles facing those concerned with constructing and presenting history, the question that I’ve found most poignant, and most difficult to answer, is the same question raised in many of Letting Go?’s essays: Is there a difference between history and memory, and how do we decided if it’s important enough to preserve?
It’s easy to determine what’s important to individuals. If anyone wanted to know what’s important to me, all they’d have to do is visit my Facebook page. Our Facebook profiles are small-scale exhibits about ourselves which we curate deliberately, determining what information to share and with whom. We’re able to edit our posts and delete them if our friends don’t react or respond to them in the way we’d hoped. After seeing a few of the pictures someone posts, reading a few of their statuses, and seeing what kinds of articles and videos their friends post to their wall, it’s easy to establish what types of things an individual values. But are an individual’s memories of their weekend in Vegas with friends or about their turbulent love life worthy of preserving in a historical exhibit for posterity? And should editing historical exhibits be as easy as choosing to delete an un-liked status? No.
Let Facebook have the drunken selfies and cat memes. What an actual historical exhibit needs to determine is not what’s important to individuals, but what is relevant to communities and to people in general. Establishing importance among a community may be much more difficult than establishing importance among individuals because the interest of a community probably lies more in more broad concepts or events than in specific things or highly focused topics. For example, while many individuals may be interested in firefighting strategies and equipment, an exhibit about firefighters may not draw much attention, whereas an exhibit about September 11th, an event that continues to affect all Americans alive today, and would likely contain information about firefighting, would probably draw a much larger and more varied audience. The exhibit described in Benjamin Filene’s Make Yourself at Home – Welcoming Voices in Open House: If These Walls Could Talk was a success because it appealed to the people of the Twin Cities’ interest in a shared past, but allowed visitors choose which areas of the exhibit they wanted to interact with. By appealing to a more general audience, an exhibit can gain attention. If people are interested in the general topic, an exhibit can then engage various groups of people with more specific interests in a range of sub-sections of the exhibit.
But still, how do we determine whose information, whose memories, whose history should be presented in any given exhibit? The events of September 11th, 2001 altered my life by affecting the way I perceive of the world around me, notions of safety, and how certain events affect certain groups of people. But should the memories of a thirteen year old girl with no connection to any of the direct victims be included in an exhibit about September 11th? Probably not. For any given exhibit, the curator needs to make a decision about what they want their audience to gain from their interaction with the exhibit, and whose memories will allow a general audience to gain the most. As we learned from Dr. Von Scheliha, not all memories are reliable, and even though he wants his audience to get an accurate idea of what life in a Soviet gulag was like, there were some accounts he felt it would be irresponsible to use in his representation, forcing him to rely more heavily on some people’s memories than others.
Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a difference between memories and history. However, I do believe that certain memories should be prioritized. The memories of specific people are much more relevant than others in relation to specific events. Because of this, I feel that the curators of cityofmemory.org (and other similarly crowd-sourced exhibits) have the right to delete some stories while drawing attention to others because they want their audience to gain a varied perspective of New York without being subjected to distasteful or offensive stories. It is up to their audience to determine whether the featured stories are of importance to them, and if they’re not, search the site for ones that are, and if they don’t exist, submit their own. While the curator of any given exhibit should have the responsibility of determining what type of memories and whose memories should constitute the history they present, I believe that we as individuals have the responsibility and the right to interact with and question the information with which we are presented to make our own determinations about history and what’s relevant.
Filene, Benjamin. “Make Yourself at Home – Welcoming Voices in Open House: If These Walls Could Talk.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011. Print.
Zeitlin, Steve. “Where Are the Best Stories? Where Is My Story? Participation and Curation in a New Media Age.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011. Print.