The Individual vs. The General
Ever since I was a child, I loved going to museums and historical sites. I was probably considered a little weird, because I loved learning something new about the history of the place where we were or being able to read about experiences about the people there. One thing that I have always been fascinated with is the “every-day” experience by people who are just regular, ordinary people.
For example, my curiosity doesn’t sit with what George Washington did for our country with his other advisers. It runs to the idea of what a young girl my age had to go through to fulfill her normal routine for the day and what responsibilities she had to endure.
What did she have to wear? What did she think about each day? What were her worries? What were her desires? Did she want something more? Did she wonder about what the future would hold?
These questions are things that I imagine others think about as well, but the problem is that whenever you go to a museum, they only really focus on the “big picture” and don’t bother putting in more than a couple of sentences about the “every-day life” for people throughout history, unless they were a famous representative of that time. I suppose I don’t really blame the museum for not putting that in there, because if you’re there with a school group and you want to get through as much of the museum as possible with the time you have, you probably don’t want to spend your extra time learning about the smaller details.
But still, who’s to say that things like that aren’t important. Isn’t that what historians do, put themselves in the shoes of the people who lived through that time? Historians want to have that point of view of the individual because it helps them to better understand events that happened during that time, and it helps them to interpret these things better and maybe evens see these events differently.
So, if historians get to do that, why don’t we as visitors of the museum, get to experience it as well?
But then another issue gets raised when we are talking about how to get the information across to people. Now, I admit that when I’ve gone to museums in the past, I don’t want to read a long paragraph that takes up the entire wall next to a picture. One, because other people are trying to get through the museum and you can’t stand there all day, and two, you have to admit that if all you get to do is read information, it’s a waste that you’ve gone to a museum. You could have just picked up a book instead and get the exact same information out of it.
For example, when I was visiting my Aunt in Massachusetts, we drove a few hours to go to a Quaker farm. It was so interesting to be able to see the buildings that had been re-created (or still stood from those years ago, I don’t remember) and be able to see the people who were in-costume, dressed as Quakers (think “Heritage Hill” in Green Bay, same basic concept). We got a tour guide and they were able to show us around the place with the others in our group, telling us about how the people lived back then and we could ask questions about anything, and the tour guide would try to answer it.
This was a really cool experience because you can always read about history, but you rarely get to experience it first-hand. But you know the problem with this sort of history-making? It costs a lot of money.
First of all, it costs a lot of money to keep up the facility and pay the workers. It’s important that they pay close attention to every detail on the farm and make sure that nothing gets damaged or anything that needs repair would have to be done by a professional, so that would be expensive. Secondly, to even get into the Quaker farm was a hefty fee. If it weren’t for my Aunt, who has a 6-digit paying job, my dad would have never been able to afford to pay for five people to go there.
That’s the problem with interactive exhibits. Sure, they are really cool to go through, but of course they are going to cost extra. The reality is that a lot of everyday people don’t have that kind of extra money to spend on something like that. It’s like going to Disney World with your family, which already costs too much in my opinion, and then because it’s your daughter’s birthday, you plan to have a private meet and greet with every Disney princess. Of course that would be amazing, but you know how much extra that’s going to cost?
Another example that I’ve thought of personally, and which I’ve watched a movie on recently, is actually going to a historical place and being able to be in character yourself. This happened after I watched Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl and later Pride and Prejudice. With my curiosity gathered with the individual, I thought about how cool it would be to be able to go to a place where they act like they are living in that century, and where you can act yourself! The funny thing is that a few years later, I watched the movie Lost In Austen which is about a girl who is transferred back to the time of Jane Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice and has to try and survive there with her knowledge of the future while everyone else is still living in the 19th century.
Ironically, a few months ago I saw a movie titled Austenland where a woman is obsessed with the world of Jane Austen and spends her entire savings to go to this place in England where she is given a name and has to portray a person from the 19th century.
This is what I would love to do when I go to a museum: be able to dress up as an individual from that time and literally be able to interact with actors who are portraying people during that time. I got to experience something a little similar to that when I went to the Milwaukee Public Museum for their “Pirates!” exhibit. There were “pirates” who would talk about their adventures in their accents and would parade around singing “A Pirate’s Life For Me” with their shipmates, but the only unfortunate thing about that was that it was mostly made for the children who were visiting the museum, not adults who wanted to really experience it.
I think that there are a lot of things that you can do to make museums interactive, but the problem is funding, time, and quantity of necessary materials.
The reason why I spend so much time and thought on this is because today’s culture has a really hard time connecting with history and being interested enough to pay attention. Even though it’s worse from when I was younger, I remember when Henry Golde (who currently resides in Appleton), author of Ragdolls, came to our middle school to talk about his experience during the Holocaust. I was engrossed as he spoke in our little auditorium about how he as an 11-year-old boy had to hide in a pile of dead, naked bodies so that the soldiers wouldn’t find him. But as I looked around the room expecting others to be doing the same, I couldn’t help but feel really sorry for Mr. Golde as I watched my classmates talking with one another, falling asleep, or playing with their school supplies.
Even though I was in middle school, I couldn’t believe how rude and disrespectful everyone in my class was being, and it made me feel embarrassed and bad for the person who had agreed to come and speak to us about his horrible experience.
I feel like whenever a museum opens its doors, people aren’t going to appreciate what they have inside. But it’s up to us as well as the curators and historians at the museum to make things interactive and “fun” for the people who are visiting. I think by taking personal accounts and opinions of different age groups is how they would be able to really hear the voice of the visitors and be able to successfully see others react to history the way that they hope that they would.
A very good example of that is from one of our readings in Letting Go? and the idea of the “City of Memories” that was based in New York. A program that lets any, everyday person submit a story that links them to others around the state is something that I think is a really good idea. There is obviously a very large interest and cooperation from people on this project, and has sparked the minds of many people all around the state. Why is this project not being followed by every other state? I believe that this is the perfect way to bring the people together an for them to be able to feel a part of history in the making.
This is why I feel that the thought/opinion of the individual is important. The individual is what makes up a community, a nation, a country, the world. There is no generational similarity, because people are all raised in different homes and in different ways. They have different opinions and see the world differently, so what right do we have to say that there is a basic, stereotypical characteristic that we all share? I think that instead of focusing on the masses, we should focus on just one.
Person by person, one at a time, and experience by experience.