Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Savior of History?

Recently on the “Hoarders” program (the Learning Channel), one man with an overflowing stash called himself a “savior of history.” His description made me stop and think about the commitment of collecting.

Exhibit, National Museum of the American Indian

Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, the American Pickers from Antique Archeology (the History Channel), regularly encounter Folks Who Just Can’t Let Go of Stuff. Maybe the Pickers’ determination to find treasures in the most daunting of places is far more normal than the determination of owners they meet to pack every nook and cranny.

Just how much psychic distance separates those who compulsively hoard everything from coffee can lids to collectibles amidst dirt and disorganization, from professionals who collect for profit or as a public trust? Taking care of objects is inherent to the latter community.

Curators and conservators study and protect objects; interpreters and re-enactors make and demonstrate their use. Collectors seek what they desire, while educators teach about objects’ meanings. All persist in the hope of preserving history or at least some of its fragments. Within families, sharing of memorabilia these days can represent a virtual collecting process through online photo galleries and social media.

Yet there may be a connecting link between those souls who can’t help surrounding themselves with things to extreme levels (sometimes up to the ceiling!), and those who gather with greater–and more socially acceptable–purpose. It may be the same very human urge to anchor our notions of reality in material things for the memories they contain and the value we attach to them.

Take away those memories and values – what we may call provenance – and an object is open to interpretation as junk or treasure.  But when we least expect it, history really can be saved.  Here’s a pending example. An alert Yale curator may have found an unknown painting by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) in museum storage, and he has spent five years documenting his evidence:


From a Bird’s Eye View, or Not

History has many entry points. For years, museums and living history sites focused on bringing visitors into direct contact with people, places, and things. The Milliner’s Shop at Colonial Williamsburg for years has offered a unique threshold experience for visitors, orienting them to 18th century fashion as art and business.

Milliner's Shop, Colonial Williamsburg

Yet, virtual experiences have taken hold of 21st century public history, and they also offer armchair visitors and classrooms intriguing views of historical sites.  Colonial Williamsburg and other history based organizations increasingly are bringing virtual visitors to their sites.

Keep an eye out for more media sources like The Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s bird’s-eye view of Richmond, Virginia’s many historic sites at treetop level, with accompanying photos and descriptions of Richmond’s Civil War past. (One note on this interactive map: You’ll need to install Google Earth to use it.)

Other content-rich websites await you. The Virginia Tourism Commission has Virtual Virginia, with 360-degree video views of listed museums and history/heritage sites. Virtual Jamestown presents primary source documents, images, and engaging inter-actives on the Jamestown colony in its digital research and teaching site. The Virginia Historical Society has extensive online information about its current exhibits, complete with curators’ blogs.

All these resources enrich today’s public history, complementing on-site visits and  providing fresh perspectives as we look at our past. There is undeniable magic in the face-to-face encounters of living history, and web resources extend their reach.

What You See is What You Get

In The Beholding Eye, D.W. Meinig wrote, a landscape is “composed of not only what lies before our eyes, but what lies within our heads.”

Colonial Williamsburg garden

This observation goes hand in hand with art historian David Lubin’s belief that  there is no such thing as an “innocent eye.” In other words, we bring our personal history and individual realities to scenic experiences.

What do people see in a museum environment or living history site? How do they relate to their surroundings, particularly before signage or interpretation enter in?

Landscapes are portals.  They can allow the viewer to respond intuitively, as a first stage in learning.

Surrender Field, Yorktown

A row of surrendered weapons on a battlefield may affect us differently than rows of garden plants, and engender much different questions as a response. If people visually filter through their hopes, fears, and beliefs as Meinig implies, understanding how they construct reality may be key to how they absorb information. 

Maybe educators and interpreters need to first ask, “What do you see?” before we direct someone’s gaze. In doing so, we—and they—may learn much more.

Living History

There are all kinds of ways to humanize history. For all of our educated, earnest efforts to reach people of all ages and interests, nothing matches the draw of living things in capturing people’s attention.

Taking to the streets

Walking through Colonial Williamsburg is a case in point.  On any day, sheep, horses, oxen and yes, even feline interpreters are there to add another dimension to the experience.

Automatically, we connect to the animals and plants at historic sites;  they bring life to the people, places, and things of the past.  Maybe it’s because most of us instantly relate to them.  It doesn’t require a college degree to recognize a sheep or horse as just that, although the intricacies of rare breeds and animal husbandry are far more complex and valuable.

There may be another reason why animals make a living history museum inviting.

Animals, like artifacts, don’t have an interpretive agenda. They just are.

As we multi-task through that walk down the street, Animals remind us that  people can still slow down,  relax and absorb history on a different level.

Visitors are typically bombarded by sensory stimuli and multiple interpretations.  As interpreters and educators, we work hard to transmit what we know about the past and  to make it relevant. And it’s not easy.

A century or longer ago, people were prepared to listen. Consider the attention span of those listening to radio as a major form of home entertainment before television took over.

In 2007, an advertising agency created five-second spots for the Dairy Farmers of Canada, after determining that their teen-aged target audience could probably focus that long on a commercial. Who knows what the test results would be now?

I like to think we can learn something positive from real living history encounters. Maybe the key is striving for similar human connections at museums and in classrooms.  Bill Nye put it this way in History of the United States:

History is but the record of the public and official acts of human beings.  It is our object, therefore, to humanize our history and deal with people past and present; people who ate and possibly drank; people who were born, flourished and died; not grave tragedians, posing perpetually for their photographs.


(Special thanks to Jan and his companion, who parted ways amiably before this picture was taken)


Thinking about History

Eric Foner’s quote challenges us to think of history as a two-way process.  The past and the future are tightly joined; one cannot change without the other.

In Colonial Williamsburg

Here in tidewater Virginia as elsewhere, people view the past on many levels. Some see it as knowledge workers, some as descendants of Virginians from centuries past, some as visitors with varying degrees of interest.  We are influenced by a global community in viewing the past.  Our views of history clearly mirror the culture we live in, and for many people history is irrelevant.

For me, however, history matters.  History connects us  to who we were, who we are, and who we are likely to become as a people.  Education drives that metamorphosis.  It is how we socialize  and culturally assimilate  members of society.

History and education continually inform each other:  That perspective is the basis for this blog.  Through it, I hope to explore the “how and why” of Virginia history as it is interpreted in different education environments, as a running commentary on those interpretations.