Confronting Historical Silences

What most moved me about Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” exhibit was the way in which he confronted historical silences. Often, historians deal with lost, absent, and suppressed histories with a sense of defeatism: How can we reconstruct what isn’t there? How can we represent what we don’t know? Wilson confronted these silences and reframed their representation in a more positive light.

The opening display of Wilson’s exhibition was a “Truth” award, presented to an advertising company in the early 1900s, bracketed by six pedestals. To the right of the award, three pedestals held famous figures: Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Andrew Jackson. To the left, three pedestals stood empty, each with placards for Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. This very obviously and dramatically confronts the silencing of African-American contributions in the historical record. (One does wonder, especially in light of Erika Doss’ book, Memorial Mania, Mason B. Williams’ article, The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble, and the UNC Unsung Founders Memorial, how representative any of those busts would be. Further, one wonders if they would even be well-received. Even so, the display is striking and gets to the point.)

Following this demoralizing presentation of just how much is historically silenced, Wilson then uses the resources made available to him by the Maryland Historical Society’s archive and collection. He juxtaposed items he found there in order to tell a story: cigar shop representations of “Indians” stare at period photographs of Native Americans, highlighting the disparity between them. A white child’s elaborate dollhouse depicts scenes of slave rebellions. Slave manacles sit among a lavish silver service. Slave-crafted items, such as a basket and vase, are displayed alongside items crafted by freed slaves in an American colony in Africa. Even with what was lost and suppressed, Wilson shows that the story can be framed by what remains and teased out.

Further, the final display of Benjamin Banneker’s astounding astronomical journal, crafted by an African-American born free, shows that, while he may have been lost in the larger scheme of history (as depicted by the empty pedestal), his legacy lives on buried in the archives, waiting to be found. Through these exhibits, both juxtaposed and explicit, Wilson shows that even the lost, absent, and suppressed stories can be given a voice once again. They just need to be found or properly framed. No, the whole story, a representation in its entirety, will not be found. That is the case with all histories. Those that have been silenced, however, are more subject to that loss than most.

For whom does it exist?

As I was reading Mining the Museum: An Installation Confronting History by Lisa G. Corrin, I was constantly thinking in the back of my mind “Who does this belong to?” The idea of property has been a prevalent thought of mine through out this class, but I think this article really made me push this idea into the forefront of my mind. I think the role of curator for a museum exhibit relies a lot on thinking for whom does the exhibit exist. A lot of exhibits are intended to make the audience feel/react to something, so creating how would the curator be able to anticipate the audience, and present the material in such a way that was the best point of access for people to learn, is something that is very prevalent.


The actual workings of an institution seem to me to be very vast and intricate- navigating the space between a community and outreach always seems to be. However, I thought it was very cool that Corrin spent a lot of time on the actual development of an exhibit. I thought her included square box of questions that were posted in the elevator was a really neat compilation of questions that I myself was thinking as I was envisioning the installation.

Archives and Community Building

Something that has stuck with me from Memorial Mania was the idea that public art has a civic responsibility. I think that the same is true of public history, that it has a sense of stewardship, purpose, and service. I saw this in the Take Back the Archive mission statement, when they write that their purpose is to “establish a national model for college and university communities wishing to memorialize, historicize, interpret, confront, and end sexual violence on campus.” It’s clear that there is a specific purpose to this history, and the archive project is aware of its power to shape their community. The archive does not exist in a vacuum, but it can shape identities and actions.

It also seems that Rebecca Onion, in her article about a lot of history on Twitter, is saying that public history should offer connections. Onion takes issue with the fact that the pictures don’t include links and context. This to me means that history needs to be connected to a narrative in order to be of service to people or to a community. That’s why it’s important for Onion to curate a timeline, and that’s one of the reasons why in the Throwback Column for the college news I try to bring together several different articles from different times. What’s difficult is the urge to use the language of cause and effect, but I think that all you can do is present pieces of history and maybe have some questions, and let people make their own connections. I agree with Onion though that history can’t exist in a vacuum.

Clickbait History

The issues raised this week are really interesting to me and I think they encapsulate a lot of our discussions this semester.  I went to the history alum panel last week and one of them was a Park Ranger. She talked about having essentially two minutes to make an intervention and teach a visitor about American history.  She said that her goal as a result was to just spark interest in a facet of American history not commonly taught in American public schools.

I was reminded of this comment while doing the readings for this week’s class in that most of the history I encounter on the internet has all the qualities of a clickbait article–something catchy and sensational with little substance that will attract interest.  I started thinking about it and realized that in many ways, this approach isn’t that different from most other approaches to history that we’ve studied and discussed this semester.  History and the stories that we tell do not exist in a vacuum and as a result, they have to be marketed and made accessible for our audiences.

What the BMC alum-now Park Ranger is doing every day with history, what Rebecca Onion does, and what happens with grant-writing all have the same basis in making history pertinent and interesting to the public (whoever that is).  The difference is that they don’t stop after hooking their audience and do offer substantive, historical work.  While I agree that the internet does have a habit of decontextualizing and taking things out of context, that isn’t really that different from how non-historians treat interesting historical facts, pictures, or artifacts.  As a result, blaming the internet for this decontextualization isn’t necessarily very helpful.  It is instead a symptom of a wider, more pervasive problem with how history is viewed.  I think that its great that there are people like Rebecca Onion and public archives online like that can be more legitimate resources that can intervene and help introduce people to cool history and to the historian’s craft.

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.

Documentaries, Tweets, and Watered-Down History

In her article for Slate on the issues surrounding Twitter’s “history pic” accounts, Rebecca Onion argues that their lack of provided context and narrow choice of subject matter reflect “a dim, condescending view of the public’s appetite for complexity and breadth of interest.” While I am not on Twitter and had not heard of these particular accounts, I was immediately drawn to this quote, as it describes how I have often felt concerning recent historical documentaries.

I watch (or rather, used to watch) documentaries frequently, and have noticed over the past couple of years that much of their content seems to have been watered down. Very little detail is given on the history itself, with much of the air time spent repeating the same questions over and over (Why did these people build this? How on earth did they do it without modern technology?), rather than actually trying to answer these questions. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. One documentary I saw became noticeably less vague when it came time to discuss eunuchs and concubines. After sitting through an unpleasantly in-depth description of the castration process, I couldn’t help but feel like the program highlighted only what the public would find shocking, rather than present a well-rounded, informative survey of the subject at hand. Aside from where these topics were concerned, the actual facts contained in the hour-and-a-half-long program could be condensed into about 15 minutes. But as Onion points out, this lack of insightful content “seems designed to provoke a feeling of familiarity: an ‘I know what this is!’ rather than an ‘I wonder what this is about?’” Rather than teach viewers about how complex past societies could be, such documentaries seem to do the very opposite. By spending half of their time slot marveling at monuments instead of conveying real information about them, they enforce an already widespread stereotype – namely, that it is unusual and strange that “primitive” people of the past were able to build such monuments. Such shows may be entertaining, but when they are broadcast on channels that purport to take history seriously, they become an insult to viewers’ intelligence.

Adding more substance to history-based forms of entertainment, whether these be documentaries or tweets, would far from “take the fun out” of them. On the contrary, it would help viewers to discover how fun it can be to learn about real history.

The Vault and UVA

Sure, I try as hard as I can to write about the way each document fits into its period of origin, but the Internet is a relentless decontextualizer.” –Rebecca Onion

I really enjoyed the diversity of readings this week but was particularly connected to Rebecca Onion’s piece and the Take Back The Archives project. Rebecca Onion was able to explain the icky feeling I find myself having when I see de-contextualized memes about “history” on social media. Her work with the Vault reminds me of “Stuff You Missed In History Class” podcast by Tracy Wilson and Holly Frey. I listen to this podcast weekly and both of the producers do a great job of fully contextualizing the tiny glimpses of history that are not in the common narrative. But Onion to me has a much harder job with her online Vault, she has to figure out how to deal with comments, both trolls and genuinely interested readers. I think her reordering of the vault represents another example of how hard it is to plan for public history. Public history is built to be more interactive and reactive to public discourse. I thought that the quote below was really impressive:

“Maybe I’m wrong about this! Let me know. Likewise, if you know of documents from other countries, or from ancient or contemporary history, that you think would work in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out.

One criticism/question I had was about the actual text of the individual blog posts. I appreciate her dedication to contextualization but wonder why there is no commentary on the clear difficulty and controversy of the contents of this particular piece. Maybe I am being too hard on her? Is this because Onion feels that her only role is to present the document and leaves the problematizing to the reader? She recognizes the serious nature of the post and claims herself to be an expert on African American history. I feel like this could be an opportunity to delve deeper into the content of the advice and position the suggestions as something to be problematized.

I may be the only person who noticed this but I was also surprised her blog content appears before the picture. She makes it very clear that she doesn’t want things to be presented out of context but this positioning makes it seem like her writing is the primary part of this project. Is it?

* * *

In regards to the Take Back the Archive project. I don’t know if it is just my computer but I can’t find any of the actual archives online. I clicked “The Archive” and tried to open it in a new tab but was unsuccessful. If this is not just me, I hope our guest speaker can show or tell us more about the actual content of the project. As a survivor of on campus sexual assault myself the Rolling Stone article and it’s aftermath was very personal to me. When the controversy arose and the story was put into question I was heartbroken. Initially reading the article I hadn’t found myself questioning her story. I was sad about the circumstances but never surprised about the behavior of men at UVA. It was almost identical to things I have seen in real life at Temple and Villanova and these on campus dynamics were part of the reason I chose to go back to a women’s college to complete my degree. I am really looking forward to hearing Purdom Linblad expand on the experience and process undertaken to complete this very important project. 

When looking for the content of the archive I stumbled upon the Scholars Lab host site. It called into question for me how likely it is that this project can be duplicated on other campuses. Bottom line, UVA has a lot of money dedicated to this kind of project. Scholars Lab has been around since 2008. They have a larger commitment to digital access being a central element to education. I wonder how much of a factor this was in the initiation of Take Back The Archive. I hope we can learn more from both Rebecca and Purdom and I am really excited to hear more about their unique projects and style of archiving.

The Potential of Sampling for Historical Research

While reading “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” by Roy Rosenzweig, I was surprised that many historians wouldn’t want to preserve all of the materials of the digital era because, since historians are used to working with a scarcity of sources, such an abundance of sources seems overwhelming.  While reading the article, I was fascinated by the different methods of preservation of digital materials available and eager to learn more about how digital records could be preserved.  To me, preserving more materials automatically seemed better, because even if not everything is relevant at least then you have everything available to decide what is relevant.  However, I’ve never been trained in historical research methodologies and I didn’t realize, until reading this article, that historians are expected to look at every source available on a topic instead of using sampling techniques.  As a sociology major, I’ve been trained to use different sampling techniques as part of different research methodologies and to interrogate the benefits and limits of each sampling technique.  While I suppose that sampling can never be as complete as using every available source, sociologists are used to working from an abundance of resources, since oftentimes we study groups of people who are still alive and therefore are rarely able to talk to every member of a group.  Sampling works for the discipline of sociology because sociologists assume that, given an adequate sample size in relation to the population of the group being studied, the diversity of views and experiences of a group will be represented.  Would historians feel comfortable making the same assumption–that views and experiences are repetitive enough within certain groups that sampling is a more than adequate way of portraying a group or event without being overwhelmed by information?  Or is the discipline of history more concerned with studying the lives and interactions of individuals–embedded in social context of course, but still focused on different people’s actions and impacts–and therefore wouldn’t buy into sociology’s tendency to view people in the aggregate?

I also wonder if some historians engage in forms of sampling already, without labeling it as such.  I’m thinking, for example, of Erin Bernard’s Philadelphia Public History Truck.  When she goes into communities, she makes an effort to talk to as many people from as many groups as possible, but I can’t imagine that she talks to every person in a community, and I don’t think that’s her goal.  Instead, she seeks to capture the experiences of different groups in a community by interviewing and sharing individual stories that espouse those experiences and viewpoints.  That’s pretty much what I’m doing for my sociology thesis interviews–not talking to every member of the group, but interviewing enough diversity of members that different experiences based on social locations are represented.  I wonder what, if any, sampling methodologies Erin uses when deciding who to interview?  I imagine her process would fall, at least partly, under what sociologists would call snowball sampling–having people you’ve already interviewed refer you to future people to interview.  I know that her historical research process is different from historians working solely with archival records, but I think that sampling–not necessarily in a strictly sociological way, but having historians develop their own sampling techniques that fit their research approaches while still reducing the amount of potentially repetitive sources they have to go through–has a lot of potential to help historians deal with the problems of abundance without sacrificing record preservation.

Past, Present, Future

Roy Rosenzweig’s “Scarcity or Abundance: Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” reminded me of the article on archival silences that we read several months ago by Rodney G.S. Carter. Like Carter, Rosenzweig is concerned about the way that archives create silences, and he advocates passionately for historians and archives to rethink their methods in order to “avoid a future of of record scarcity” (738). Although his argument is specifically tied to born-digital records, the theme of his article are ones that keep reappearing throughout this semester. He is worried about making history more relevant, more complete, and allowing multiple voices to be heard.

What I found most surprising about Rosenzweig’s article is that the changes he’s suggesting don’t seem like they should be radical. Even the most conservative archivist could probably agree that government records should be kept, even if those records were never found in print media. Rosenzweig isn’t questioning the basic principles of the type of information that should be archived, but he is looking at the way that those materials have changed and are changing, and that those changes necessitate and fundamental change in archival methods.

In doing do, Rozenzweig is being fairly radical. And his push for major changes can allow for more complete and complex archival records for the next generations of historians to use. Like many authors we’ve read this semesters, Rosenzweig doesn’t believe that history is a project of the past. For him, it’s ongoing, and the consequences of the way we deal with it will impact the present and the future as well.