Constructing a Public Historical Narrative

Rather than creating a Bryn Mawr public history project, I am looking to an existing history project in Berlin.

“Vom Reichstag zum Bundestag”

Constructing a Public Historical Narrative for Reunified Germany

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Looking to theories of film, history, spectacle, and architectural design, I hope to examine the space for film consumption in Berlin’s new government district as part of the political rhetoric of democracy as the inherently superior form of governing put forth by the German government. Berlin is a city rich with monuments—old and new— often ones that are mostly abstract and relying heavily on the power of metaphor. The buildings across the river from the Reichstag are prime examples of this type of new monument. Though these buildings are new, they serve similar functions as their older counterparts. Both old and new monuments for government districts use the power of spectacle to enhance a sense of national pride and unity. Government monuments also serve to root themselves within certain historical narratives.

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People watching the projections from the steps to the Spree. The Reichstag can be seen behind them.

The film and light show in Berlin’s government district functions to support a type of national pride and tell the correct version of German political history. This particular film focuses on the history of the Reichstag building from the late 19th century to today. The show uses old strategies of spectacle and collective-making and new technologies of film, light displays, and sound on modern architecture to give it a fresh feel and distance itself from historical uses of the same space in Berlin.

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There are two main components that I would like to study: (1) the permanent aspects of the constructed space (the memorial, the buildings, and the steps) and (2) the temporary ones (light and film projections).

More info on the projections and the buildings:

Marie Lüders Haus in the daytime. Memorial below

Marie Lüders Haus in the daytime. Memorial below

Since 2012, from the end of June until the celebrations on German Unity Day on October 3rd there is a light show and film projected onto the Marie-Elisabeth Lüders House in Berlin along the Spree River tracing the story of the Reichstag building from the late 19th century to today. The film projected is titled “Dem deutschen Volke — Eine parlamentarische Spurensuche. Vom Reichstag zum Bundestag,” which can be translated as “For the German people – Tracing the Parliament. From Reichstag to Bundestag.” The film is created by the government and is in German with English and German subtitles, indicating that the film is also for a non-German speaking, probably tourist audience.

Paul-Löbe-Haus (left) and Reichstag (right)

Paul-Löbe-Haus (left) and Reichstag (right)

The Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders House, completed in 2003, with the Federal Chancellory and Paul-Löbe-House form part of “Federal Row” designed as an architectural symbol of German unity. A bridge across the Spree connects the Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders House and Paul-Löbe-House, each on either side of the former wall, symbolizing the connection between East and West Berlin and also connecting the past to the present with the naming of the buildings. Below the Lüders House there is a memorial to the Berlin Wall.

Here is a Map of Government District to get a better sense of the space.

Picture of me celebrating 25 years of German Unity with another American friend, Coca-Cola

Picture of me celebrating 25 years of German Unity with a fellow American, Coca-Cola

Fred Wilson and Montage

The work of Fred Wilson seems to me like the three-dimensional equivalent to Eisenstein’s theories of montage. Montage, according to Eisenstein, is the juxtaposition of two or more images that are in conflict. One type of montage is idea-associative montage, in which two shots clashed together give way to another meaning, focused on an individual person or object. The conflict of the shots gives meaning. Though these two methods of creating meaning from clashing objects are similar, the point at which they diverse is not merely spatial.

Kenneth Haltman states “the longer and harder one looks, the better one sees; the better one sees, the subtler the connections one finds oneself able to make” (Haltman 5). The ability to look closely and look back is what makes Wilson’s work so successful in reexamining artifacts. Michael Baxandall, who is mentioned in Haltman’s essay, once wrote, “what I want to lay emphasis on is that the viewer, moving about the space between object and label, is highly active. He is not a passive subject for instruction.” This is what Wilson’s work and any successful museum does is make the viewer an active participant in the narrative being constructed. Haltman labels the actions of the viewer “intellectual detective work” in which we “see articulation and deduce patterns of use; we see interaction and deduce relationship; we see expression and deduce reception” (Haltman 5). In Mining the Museum this detective work comes from the juxtaposition of historical objects which make us reconsider what their purpose was and is today.

Haltman also allows us to consider the feeling of polarities as a metaphor. Wilson realizes this idea in his work as does Eisenstein in his use of montage. Wilson also speaks to polarities making for more complex understanding in this video on beauty and ugliness.

Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Winking at History

But a critique of this mode of history-on-Twitter is actually the opposite of elitist schoolmarmery. By posting the same types of photographs over and over and omitting context and links, these accounts are robbing readers of the joy of the historical rabbit hole—and they’re taking a dim, condescending view of the public’s appetite for complexity and breadth of interest.”

-Rebecca Onion, “Snapshots of History

While I understand Onion’s concern, this is why so many of the historical pictures on twitter are of subjects that are already famous and studied. There is already a fair amount written about Jimi Hendrix, Barrack Obama, Marilyn Monroe, and their other famous counterparts. It then makes the potential searching that people could do easier than if there was a photo posted of a non-famous person or event.

I just watched the 1997 film Titanic again (for a class) this week. Something that I hadn’t been fully aware of the previous times I watched the film was the art that Rose has with her on the ship. She picks up a Picasso and remarks, “They’re fascinating. It’s like being inside a dream or something. There’s truth but no logic” to which her fiancé Cal replies “Something Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing.” The lines are no doubt idiotic sounding and serve the purpose of making Cal sound like a moron. But they also reflect a larger trend in movies “winking at” history. I use this word because there is never any complexity (which Onion calls for) and usually little accuracy in their depiction. It is a simple flash of a famous historical person, object, or event that serves to make the audience smile or laugh. In the Titanic example, the featured Picasso painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, was never on the Titanic and is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Many movies play with these types of historical “winks” such as Forrest Gump (which Onion names) and more recently Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Their purpose is not to complicate prior constructed historical narratives around a topic or artifact nor is it to even portray the basic history accurately. While I share Onion’s concern for public historical education, I think it is only a problem when this watered down version of history, without the potential to enjoy the dive into “the historical rabbit hole” is the only version people are receiving. There is a potential to follow @historyinpics, watch Forrest Gump, see Hamilton, and read The Vault blog. I don’t feel there needs to be one proper way to consume history.

To address my own bias, I love movies like Midnight in Paris. If I participated in Twitter, I would no doubt follow things like @historyinpics. I like feeling like I have an inside look into characters in history, who are often talked about and depicted in such a polished way. Like reading a tabloid’s “Stars—They’re Just like Us!” section, it feels nice to see pictures of historical icons differently and that make the topic or person more relatable. It feels even more magical than a tabloid actually, because not only are these people famous, they are also usually dead. This is why I don’t find these movies or Twitter accounts altogether problematic. They play with history and make it fun and approachable in a way that public historians who are tied more strictly to the facts cannot. When watching Titanic, I opened up my laptop and started doing research on the details of the Titanic’s sinking, about Picasso’s works aboard the ship, which led me to other historical inaccuracies the movie portrays. These depictions of history obviously do not help to bring to light the stories of average people, as a public historian showing artifacts from archives can do. However, it does make already famous histories more accessible and might encourage the curious layperson to seek out more information on the topic.

Space, Love, and Racism

Bill Bryans from Oklahoma State University expressed my concerns exactly about the renaming of Thomas in his reflections on the potential renaming of Murray Hall on his campus:

I believe using the question of Murray’s name on the building offers the opportunity for discussing just what has been the history of race and prejudice both in Oklahoma and on the campus.  Such a discussion, it seems to me will generate greater understanding and reconciliation going forward than simply removing his name.

Having spaces on campus that openly contradict the rosy historical narrative of steady progression that the other makers of campus history (PR/communications and marketing offices, diversity office, development, alumni affairs, etc.) construct is important. This is not the outward message of the school, but a story for those in the school to understand and make sense of. In some ways it would be false to remove the traces of racism that exist. Rather than remove the aspects of racism that exist, it would be meaningful to have all students at some point in their careers at their college (perhaps orientation, but maybe later) participate in a program like “Black at Bryn Mawr” or “Black and Blue” to understand fully the institution that they identify with. Complicating your understanding is a sometimes-difficult process when you attach so much love and affinity for campus spaces.

I think particularly of the description given by Elizabeth ’37 of space on Mount Holyoke’s Campus:

I have always been crazy about the reading room. As you know it’s a replica of Westminster Hall in London, on a somewhat smaller scale. . . . I was thrilled when I was given a carrel. Honor students were allowed to have carrels in the stacks. I loved it because it made me feel like a scholar (283).

Thinking back on Helen Horowitz and Alma Mater it is clear that these spaces are designed with particular ideas about what it means to be academic. Because these spaces are made to turn us into scholars and therefore empower us, it is difficult to simultaneously understand them as representing racism, bigotry, and inequality for others.

This is why I am attracted to the idea of creating a layered map, drawn from historical perspectives and also contemporary students’ understandings of campus spaces. Each layer can serve as different interpretations of the same space. I was quite impressed by the way Erin Bernard handled this in her maps. I think maps are most often seen as truth (and thus objective) whether they are topographical maps, political maps, or transportation maps, though clearly they never can be without bias. Having a map with multiple perspectives calls into question the “official” map and allows for more voices than just those in power to be heard.  There can be interpretations of spaces as fostering love and community but also racism and hate.

Wall Text and Objects

In reading “Making Meaning from Things in History Museums” I found myself questioning a lot of the statements made about history museums. For instance, Schiavo citing Conn states, “Museums—some of them anyway—may not need objects anymore, but without objects we may miss the delights and surprises that come with looking.” I think many history museums actually find the objects in their collection central to the work that they do. Perhaps the objects do not drive the stated mission of the museum, but they often drive the work of the curators and general staff of the museums. Often, exhibitions or programs are designed because the museum staff has great pride in a particular item in the collection that they want to showcase to the public.

I did appreciate in this article the discussion of wall text. Last year, I worked to design an exhibition at Bryn Mawr. The majority of time spent in this class was writing and editing wall texts. I agree with this article that reading ideas on a wall is not as exciting as visually understanding concepts through object interaction, as an “object wall” facilitates (Schiavo 51). In my class, I was often the only one arguing for little (or no) wall text. I think that usually it is the case that those who love the research surrounding the objects assume that putting that research on the wall is best. They do not believe that without the “lengthy labels with didactic lessons” there is actually more room for meaning making. I think the audience is there at the museum for the objects, not really for the lengthy content. They can get that anywhere now with technology. The objects are what make the museum special. We are visual creatures who would rather be shown something than told it.

Images of Activism and the Reality

Reading the “Minutes of the Black Studies Curriculum Committee 05/08/1969” made me reflect on concepts of 1960s and 1970s college student activism that I held. I think for many students in college now, this period of time seemed like the golden age or the beginning of student activism. The way that we look to these activists of the past is evident in the references that we make in planning our campus activism and also in the way that we dress and conduct ourselves. I think in many ways, student activists today try to emulate the activists of this period. I think this idolization comes from the books and films we see of this period. The first sentence of Ibram H. Rogers The Black Campus Movement begins:  “Fists balled and raised, black berets, head wraps, swaying Afros, sunglasses, black leather jackets, army fatigue coats, dashikis, African garb, with Curtis Mayfield singing “We’re a Winner” in the background, shouting from fuming lips and posters in the foreground…” (Rogers 1) This is an example of the portrait of student activism created that adds to the mythology and the reverence that we give to student activists from the 60s and 70s. When current students look to these historical examples broadly and try to emulate them, they can feel that they are falling short of what their examples did and their commitment.

When current students looking to make changes on campus look solely to the results of students organizing, for example around the concern for a Black Studies concentration and minor, it is easy to assume that this work all happened with grand heroism. The students made demands and eventually with lots of work those demands were met. Reading the minutes gives a fuller and much more relatable view of student activism than what is normally portrayed. The minutes could have come from a meeting that happened last week. The same struggles of trying to have a conversation with those holding different personal interests in that conversation existed. Creating a plan for action seemed as difficult in this conversation as it was in a planning meeting I was a part of yesterday (about a different concern). This reading helped to break down the illusion of perfect grace in historical student activism. Making these documents available on the Internet is helpful for student activists today looking to historical examples. It is helpful to understand that many of the struggles are the same. Additionally, the format of the timeline helps to highlight how long these movements take and the not always so heroic and graceful looking means by which change happens.

How to Consume a Memorial

“It’s like Berlin. You see the devastation”

Poster of Friedrich Seidenstücker photograph. Reichstag, Berlin 1946.

Poster of Friedrich Seidenstücker photograph. Reichstag, Berlin 1948.

This comment by Joel Shapiro referring to his proposal that the World Trade Center site to Berlin in the decades after World War II struck me as odd. Berlin, in its current state, is full of very constructed, very planned new monuments and memorials. Perhaps because of the destruction that served as memorial in the decades after the war, Berlin is a prime example of a city deep in “memorial mania.” From memorials for the Berlin Wall and its victims, to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to memorials of Soviet prison camps, Berlin keeps building new memorials and expanding existing ones. And these sites generate so much revenue. People come to Berlin to see these sites. However, in order to charge people money to remember, you need to build something. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is free, but has a museum that charges for various services, such as translation. The Hohenschönhausen memorial to political persecution in the GDR charges admission. Aside from direct revenue from visitors to the memorials, the city profits from tourists travelling to these various points of memorial. This begs the question: what is the purpose of a memorial, especially a memorial as large in scale as these? What should a memorial do to us, as the viewing public? How should we interact with the memorial? Should there be any money exchanged from public to memorial at all? Does your relationship to a memorial change when part of it is monetized?

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe Berlin

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

People will pay to process the memorializing. The World Trade Center Memorial itself is free, but an adult ticket to the museum is $24. I visited the memorial in the spring of 2011 and the museum had not yet opened. Growing up outside of Manhattan, there were kids in my school that lost family members on 9/11. It was one of the most upsetting things to see people taking selfies in front of the reflecting pools. I came with an understanding that there was a very particular way to experience a memorial: to be somber, quiet, and reflective. Even if you had no connection to the people or moment being memorialized, you respected the space in that way, because other people around you might be connected. However, for other people around me at the memorial, it was like any other tourist attraction: something fun and interesting to pose with and then move on quickly to the next spot. The emotional disconnect that I felt between myself and the rest of the public was so intense. Rather than being a space of collective mourning or remembrance, it was a space of individualized consumption. Perhaps I think (or still think) too highly of public spaces of memorial. Maybe for most people, memorials are something to take a picture of, tell your friends you saw it, and move on. Is this because of the public? Or are we consuming memorials this way because the design of them guides us to do so? Or are we consuming memorials because we are paying to see them, directly or indirectly through transportation costs?

Selfie at Reflecting Pool 9/11 Memorial

Selfie at Reflecting Pool
9/11 Memorial

My experience at the World Trade Center Memorial influenced my decision not to go to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. Instead, I stayed in Krakow. While wandering around the city, I came across a giant billboard with a smiling woman in front of the Auschwitz camp. It was advertising an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow titled “Poland – Israel – Germany: The Experience of Auschwitz.” This was exactly what I feared most about visiting the Auschwitz Memorial: being part of a collective having an entirely different emotional experience from me. I asked my friend when he returned to Krakow from the Auschwitz Memorial if he saw people taking pictures like the smiling woman. He said that he did and that it added a strange other layer to the experience of remembering to understand how others were engaging with the space. With all of this money spent on memorials, they still do not encourage public remembrance. Most are instead public art projects, like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the 9/11 Memorial in New York. Therefore, they should be listed as such and other spaces should be given for public memorials.

Poland – Israel – Germany: The Experience of Auschwitz MOCAK Exhibit Ad

Poland – Israel – Germany: The Experience of Auschwitz
MOCAK Exhibit Ad

Science and Race

I am struck by a word that Craig Steven Wilder uses in the prologue to describe Henry Watson Jr. in Ebony & Ivy: “embodies” (Wilder 8). Wilder states that Watson’s career “embodies themes in the history of American colleges” (Wilder 8). Given our examination of archives and their focus on personal narrative, this presents an important framework. I wonder about the research process and deciding on one story that fits the themes covered in the book. Wilder begins his presentation of the relationships between American universities and race and slavery with a personal narrative of one man. I think this is a typical tactic for books of a similar nature to try to get the reader interested in a topic that is not in their academic field. To integrate detailed human experience into a survey of this topic is effective in allowing readers to connect with a specific person rather than trying to make them take on the whole topic, which a book geared towards fellow academics might do in its introduction.

I enjoyed the chapter about the colonial roots of racial science. As Wilder states, “Race did not come from science and theology; it came to science and theology” (Wilder 182). Racial ideas are instead an integral part of empire building and are incorporated into scientific and theological ideas to give them legitimacy. Reading this chapter, I was reminded of a time of scientific research, which I had forgotten: a time when science had to adhere to religious understanding. In this case, race and complexion needed to be explained given the existence of Adam and Eve (Wilder 187). Though the Enlightenment and the expansion of reason were at play, there was still a strong religious center in society. At the time when scientific theories of racial superiority were developing, they too had to fit within the religious mythology of the time. I have been fascinated by tales of racial origins which often are part-science, part-mythology. I am especially interested in how they take root and when they become “fact” for a society. As Wilder explains, American colleges cemented the validity of these “truths” about human difference (Wilder 193).

Bryn Mawr and the Seven Sisters differ from many of the institutions that Wilder discusses because the former were established after the abolition of slavery in the U.S. However, many of the same ideas about race, intelligence and education are present in both histories. As Wilder points out, “people of color came to campus only as servants and objects” (Wilder 3). Like Bryn Mawr in its earlier history, students did not see people of color as anything other than servants and objects and so scientific reasons for racial difference that were taught could paint people of color as incapable of intelligence.

The Bubble is Political

Dean Spade in the beginning of his talk listed questions that I think are essential when reflecting on your privileged place in an institution of higher education.

  • Who gets to be here?
  • What do you learn when you are here?
  • What are they training you to do?
  • Who does the institution choose to serve?

He follows by stating that those are all deeply political questions. It is one of the great myths that education is and should be apolitical. I appreciated that he directly addressed this point. Education is part of the political system. Established places of higher learning are looked to for examples of how the world outside should operate. When women’s colleges choose to exclude trans people, it sets an example for the same kind of discrimination to exist and becomes standard outside. The metaphor that is common especially in liberal arts colleges is that of the “bubble.” This term becomes problematic not only because it implies that the experience inside is comfortable for all, but also because it implies that the decisions of the “bubble” do not influence the world outside.

The stated purpose of most learning institutions is to prepare students to “succeed” in the world as it is today. Usually this is paired with holding up the often unjust norms of the government and the society. Bryn Mawr’s website lists the mission of the college to be “to provide a rigorous education and to encourage the pursuit of knowledge as preparation for life and work.” This addresses the question that Dean Spade posed about what they are training us to do. The mission statement closes with a particularly political message: “The academic and co-curricular experiences fostered by Bryn Mawr…encourage students to be responsible citizens who provide service to and leadership for an increasingly interdependent world.” What is a responsible citizen? Does the Board of Trustees from December 1998 who approved this mission have complete authority on what makes a responsible citizen? What does training to be a responsible citizen look like in the eyes of the trustees—the group that has the most power in the college to work for or against change? The greatest problem in regards to trans inclusion in the mission statement is the following sentence:

“Bryn Mawr teaches and values critical, creative and independent habits of thought and expression in an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum for women and in coeducational graduate programs in arts and sciences and social work and social research.”

Though recently we as students changed the Self-Government Association Constitution to use gender inclusive language, the outward facing mission of the college still uses language to enforce that the undergraduate curriculum is for women. I would guess that the mission statement page of the Bryn Mawr website probably receives more traffic from non-Bryn Mawr community members than the SGA Blog. Therefore, though the internal Bryn Mawr community is moving toward gender inclusivity, the image of the college is not and as Dean Spade points out, the image that we present to the world outside matters.

Even though there are many people working hard toward more trans inclusion for Bryn Mawr, the image presented to the public is very much still geared towards women. When looking at the Bryn Mawr Admissions page for statements on requirements for application regarding gender, these are the first words on the page:

“Who will you become?  Bryn Mawr women go on to successful careers and fulfilling lives along their unique journeys of growth and exploration.”

The marketed image of Bryn Mawr is very much one of empowered women who were assigned female at birth. A history of successful women is what attracts many applicants to Bryn Mawr and so parts of the community have difficulty adjusting that image to be more inclusive.

Websites Referenced

SGA Constitution:

Bryn Mawr Mission Statement:

Bryn Mawr Admissions:

Materials and Organization

I am increasingly interesting in the categories in which materials and information are placed and how those categories are ordered.   In browsing the Wikipedia pages for Bryn Mawr College and for Hilda Worthington Smith, they section headings in both entries were interesting to me. The Bryn Mawr College page was more striking because I have some awareness of Bryn Mawr and the image of the college that is put out to the general public. The Tri-College Consortium is mentioned in the second paragraph of the introduction, though the Quaker Consortium and Penn are put only in the section “Organization.” This is an accurate representation of the connection, or lack thereof, that the college has with Penn, but how would this have shown through in the resources that we put together for this entry? This is perhaps evidence of what Phillips and McDevitt-Parks describe as “open authority.” Wikipedia, they state, allows for dialogue between experts and the public in the digital world where everyone is a curator. I also found it interesting that “Sustainability” received its own section, because it seems as if this is not a major part of the college, but the Wikipedia contributors felt that it was significant enough for its section. These clickable titles carry meaning for the reader, so in creating a Wikipedia entry one must be careful about how information is divided.

The other label that I am interested in is “miscellaneous.” In the Rita Rubenstein Collection on the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry, there were many items that were put into categories such as “Miscellaneous Student Writings,” “Student Interviews and Miscellaneous Biographica Materials,” “Faculty Interviews and Miscellaneous Material,” and a section titled simply “Miscellaneous Material.”   In regards to the organization of resources this does not seem effective but I wonder if anyone has considered an alternative for archiving and arranging materials.