Relevance and Authority
Relevance and Authority
I admit it! I have put off the drafting of this piece for quite some time, the reason being that answering or even thinking about the question, “what is ‘history,’ and where does it stand compared to individual and collective ‘memory’?” is a daunting proposition. One can tell from my use of quotation-punctuation—around history and memory—that my feelings about the topic are fuzzy at best, and not in the good way. The first part of the question, “what is history?” is the more easily, in my opinion, answered bit. History is the written (in this day and age I think this must change to “recorded, written or otherwise”) record of what has happened—to use the widely accepted short definition.
Phew! Glad we got that out of the way, but wait, who wrote/recorded it? And what sort of “happening” requires/deserves recording? This is the problem. I don’t believe it is possible to answer either part of the question at hand without pondering both. So here we are, trying to decide exactly what “history” is, and whether or not that differs from individual/collective memory. I think the answer is more easily explored when the question is phrased: “why history?” After all, we need to understand the purpose of this “history” thing before we can decide what, then, appropriately constitutes it.
I think it would be hard to argue against the assumption that the purpose of “history” is to learn about what has happened on our planet, so we may understand how those happenings have/are influenced/influencing us today. And, “history’s” other reasonable purpose, to preserve the valuable knowledge, ideas, materials, cultures, artifacts, etc… of the past—to much the same end as the first “purpose” states. Using these assumptions about the purpose of “history” we can finally move closer to answering our initial questions.
History is the recorded account of what has happened, that provides us insights, understandings, or at least a glimpse at how those happenings influence or are important to us today.
The “us” in the above definition of history is quite vague, and it is meant to be. To me the “us” can refer to any group, culture, demographic, etc… Obviously not every “history” is going to carry the same relevance to every group of people. For instance, the 470 Hopkins Street exhibit we read about in Benjamin Filene’s, “Make Yourself at Home,” might be an interesting history to an American, even more interesting to an American with fairly recent Immigrant heritage, and completely irrelevant to, say, a rural tribesman from Mongolia (Filene 138). This brings us to the topic of relevance.
On to part two! Perhaps the bigger part of the question: how does history relate to, or differ from individual and collective memory. Here I believe the differentiation can be made on the topic of relevance. I feel that a real history, opposed to a memory, must be relevant and relatable to more than one individual or small group. This differentiation hinges, as we decided earlier, on the purpose of histories; unless the record can provide insight or understanding into how things were and how it relates to where we are today for a large part of a public, the record must be considered a memory.
One can see this differentiation being made clearly in a project called City of memory, as we read about in Steve Zeitlin’s, “Where Are the Best Stories, Where is My Story” (Zeitlin’s, 34). This online project allows individual users to impose memories of New York onto a map of the city. The contributions range from historically relevant, to personal anecdotes. The historically relevant, those relate to the larger public—as deemed by the site’s administrators, contributions are curated and built upon and connected to other “posts.” Through this process we see the ideas I’ve laid out here at work, separating memories from histories based on relevance to a larger public. Apart from the differentiation/determination of relevance, no small thing, we are confronted with another major issue: curatorship and authority.
If histories and memories are to be separated, who does the separating? Who gets to decided what is relevant and what is not. This is perhaps the most controversial topic relating to this discussion. Personally I feel that while the traditional authorities (academics, governments, other large institutions) do/should hold a great deal of sway, more consideration should be given to smaller groups in terms of who decides what is and is not history. After all, at times these institutions provide, what I will call, “overly curated” histories. A prime, if not cliché, example of this phenomenon is the version of the American Thanksgiving many of us were presented with as children. I will spare a long discussion of the topic and simply call it a historical/curatorial travesty. Many of us have since learned a more accurate history of the event in question, from smaller less main-stream sources.
It would seem that “overly curated” histories often result from a split interest. This split interest is often divided between historical accuracy and what could be called the interest of “public relations.” In an ideal history presents the objective, accurate, and factual record of events, at times however, as in the case above, this results in a negative light being shed on a certain party. When this is the case “authorities” often become perpetrators of “overly curated” histories.
Ultimately a think a balance must be struck. A fragmented and individualized crowd-sourced version of any given history is not ideal, nor is an “overly curated” and narrow version—as the example above clearly demonstrates. I think it is important that authority is shared between larger institutions and the collective memories—histories—of relevant parties. I’m not sure that this solution to the issue will be easily reached, but a more connected world and increasingly interested public certainly has an impact. As we saw in our readings about the aforementioned projects, there are historians, institutions, and curators out there who are making an effort to bridge the gap between history and memory, and move toward a shared authority.
Filene, B. (2011). Make Yourself At Home– Welcoming Voices in Open House: If These Walls Could Talk.Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. in Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (eds.),Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, pp. 138-155. Philadelphia, PA: Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. ISBN 978-0-9834803-0-3
Zeitlin, S. (2011). 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. in Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (eds.),Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, pp. 138-155. Philadelphia, PA: Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. ISBN 978-0-9834803-0-3