Monday, December 1, 2008

Cohen and Brown

In this week’s articles we explore the influence of digitizing and history. The pros, the cons, the novel factor of it all are explored. Both Cohen and Brown agree that the Digital medium is an important aspect of history for the public because it provides an opening for those who already utilize the digital world. The digital history world opens up new doors and pathways for a new generation to explore the world of history.
Cohen’s two articles are unique and important because they show the up and the down side of digital history. Whereas a book or a paper can be long lasting and preserved, a cd, dvd or other digital medium can wear and tear much easier. One of the major difficulties that surprised me was the issue of how much information the Digital libraries allow in. Since space isn’t as much of an issue in the digital world, they are able to accept more items no matter their relevance or importance. The fragility of the digital world is surprising as well; one scratch one “oops I dropped it” can lose information forever. The importance of this almost becomes to not rely explicitly on one medium but perhaps to preserve the digital and the physical.
In Cohen’s other article, “History and the Second Decade of the Web”, Cohen takes a more optimistic approach to the digital medium and approaches it as an opportunity to engage in discussion among the populace. One of the truly interesting aspects of this article is that Cohen makes the point that digital libraries allow for a broader view of a subject. Since one can incorporate more items on a cd it allows for a better vision of the topic. While not completely downgrading the usefulness of books, Cohen does make the case that digital history has a future in the world of history.
Brown also focuses on the importance of this new medium as well. He refers to it as “active learning”. While a challenge for historians (as is what we learned in the Hollywood readings last week), it has a potential to be a highly successful tool when utilized properly. While a book accompanying a movie might not have a great response, a CD-ROM following a book can be highly useful and almost extremely necessary to engage the new generation of digital students.
These readings this week showed a new medium that once again challenges historians to think beyond the paper and into the minds and homes of the population. It is truly interesting to see how the way historical works change must change with the people they are attempting to reach. Within this digital world it is necessary to bring history to the mediums that the people are interested in.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hollywood and History

In this week’s readings we see different perspectives on cinema and history. Through reading these articles, the main question that appeared to me is how does academic history play in the world of Hollywood? It is interesting to see these author’s perspectives on the importance of historical accuracy and of reaching the general public. Davis believes that perhaps a film should always have a corresponding book, whereas Corley and Rose believe that films such as documentaries should be held to historical accuracy, and Toplin believes that historical films are just another Hollywood genre.
Toplin explores the challenges that history in film creates. Movies such as Schinder’s List and The Patriot are often noted as being those discussed in this genre. The most interesting piece of advice that Toplin offers is to professional historians on page 83 of his article. He warns professionals to not turn away from these mainstream movies because then public discussion of these histories will be left to the unprofessional. This brings up an interesting point that while historians may not always be pleased with Hollywood, it is important for them to remain active in these blockbuster films because if historians turn away, where will history go? It’s bad enough that today we hear critiques of American students not knowing their U.S. history, but what would happen if filmmakers suddenly had complete artistic license?
Toplin also focuses on how historians can use film to elevate their own understandings of history. He states that so much can be learned from studying the production of a film; from its history to the production process. Does this make filmmaking historical? Not necessarily, but it does say something about a type of historical product present in our society.
Davis explores how historians and filmmakers differ and are similar in their history telling. Through looking at the story of Martin Guerre and the film created about it, Davis finds that while some historical inaccuracy is warranted based on budget or for dramatic appeal, she believes there should be a corresponding historical book to pick up the missed pieces left from film production. While this is an interesting idea and I do believe that some people would read these books, it is a stretch to say just how effective this book would be to the public. As we see with recent movies such as the Twilight novel, people view a movie, want to know more and go read a book about it. Often disappointments appear when things in the film have been altered from the truth or the text. Together these two may work well together, but would it reach the general public?
Finally, Rose and Corley focus their argument on the work of Ken Burns and his work Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In this article, the authors hold Burns accountable for historical inaccuracies because he calls them documentaries. They claim that he creates a one-sided heroism view of these two women and converts historical fact to his narrative style. He has carved out a nice place in the film industry; he has been awarded several honors for his work and is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. But the authors claim that this all comes at a cost, and they offer the solution that perhaps history should be included with the new social historian approach included and that perhaps even these works should be held accountable for their sources.
All of these articles argue the issue of film and history. I can remember my undergraduate advisor getting so angry at movies such as Disney’s Pocahontas and Forrest Gump because o their historical inaccuracies. In part, I must agree with this perspective. Generations are raised believing a view of history that is wrong; they never go beyond what one person’s view says. Yet, these films do have their benefit in that they do bring history to the people. How many people go on to read more after seeing these films? How many people do these films reach? I almost have to agree with Toplin in the importance of historians remaining involved in this new extension of the field. While it does present new challenges, it reaches a public that increasingly wants to learn with a dramatic flair in 2 hours more than it wants to sit down and read a book.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Terkel and Frisch Review

This week’s readings were from two very different authors and writing styles. Michael Frisch’s A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History and Studs Terkel’s Touch and Go: A Memoir both cover the topic of oral history. Both cover the topic thoroughly and effectively but with different styles. Studs Terkel took a more personal approach, while Michael Frisch read like a textbook. Through the differences on central theme emerges focusing on oral history and the audience it should and does reach. Public history and oral history are meant to tell a story and make it accessible to the public, and both authors discuss how they have experienced this throughout their careers.
Studs Terkel begins by randomly discussing events at the beginning of his life. The initial approach seems scattered and it took me awhile to understand his purpose and direction. Eventually around chapter five it became clear that Terkel’s intention was to show the lives of people. Through his work with oral history, Terkel strove to show what the subject felt was important, what the person thought was influential to the time and to their lives. Through this method amazing stories and information emerged that were influential to the future historians and to the people telling the story. The truly interesting aspect of oral history that emerges through Terkel’s work is the understanding of the need to be remembered. We all don’t want to be forgotten, we want our stories to have meaning and thus our lives. Terkel’s memoir shows this need and desire. Through the stories of his own life, come the stories of many.
A Shared Authority by Michael Frisch connects back to the work of Studs Terkel and then expands further. While Frisch’s writing style was harder to connect with, it still has its value. Frisch explores events and subjects throughout his career. He too discusses the importance of the audience and often goes back to the same subject as a previous read. The need for historians to work with the public and how it all plays out in this sphere is portrayed here. He explains how this relationship exists even within the field of oral history. I liked how in Frisch’s work we get to connect back to Terkel’s work through his work Hard Times. Frisch and Terkel come to the conclusion that oral history is important because it is the truth as known by those that lived it, even if some of that information is false, it still has value. Frisch offers a unique perspective of balance between history and oral history and their interconnectedness.
Overall, these two works combined offer a perspective on oral history that shows the value of even false information as long as it is in the correct historical framework. While Terkel’s may have been an easier read and entertainingly written, Frisch offers a different style on a similar message. Both books were good introductions into the field of oral history, even if one did take more concentration to read through.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Remaking America

Patriotism, memory, commemoration. These words all participate within a public arena at times, and are exploited and utilized by many different people and groups. The author John Bodnar has written Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century to explore this exact arena. In one of his opening sentences he describes the purpose of his book to be, “the creation of public memory in commemorative activities celebrating America’s past and the dramatic exchange of interests that are involved in such exercises…” (13) Throughout the chapters of this book, Bodnar explores the changes within public memory in America’s history. He focuses on the utilization of different groups and powers to change public memory through commemoration activities. Bodnar begins by looking at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. He then moves onto discussing the changes in public memory according to the American Revolution.
Throughout his research and his writing, Bodnar exposes how vernacular memory and official memory are linked and how they are separated. He explains the differences and the way to the two affect each other. Vernacular memory is that memory which is attached at the local level. It is often attached to local events and emotions. Official memory is that which is propagated by the nation-state. Throughout this book, Bodnar directs the reader to his conclusion that often the cultural elite, the powerful, and the merchants control the public memory. He also shows how the government eventually found its way into the vernacular memory as ties weakened. The need to maintain the status quo and structure within society pushed the government into taking over commemoration and pageantry.
Within ethnic memory, Bodnar shows how the need to show patriotism often overtook the need to maintain a vernacular ethnic history. The Irish professionals within the American-Irish Historical Society are used as an example of how ethnic groups tried to show patriotism to link their ethnicities to the American Revolution. It is interesting to note that many ethnic groups used their ethnicity’s links to the American Revolution to legitimate their history and their place in the U.S.
Bodnar shows how symbols can change at times as well, such as that of George Washington and the American Revolution. Throughout this book it becomes clear the importance of the American Revolution to the U.S. and to its own understanding of public memory and commemoration. The pre-eminence of national identity over others becomes clear through his examples and use of the park service’s pageantry.
Overall, this book is effective at showing how public memory is shaped by the powerful and held onto tightly by the officials. While his writing at times is dry and methodical, he does express his point well through examples. He admits in the preface that he comes from a social history background and only came across this topic through research into political expressions of patriotism. He began by looking at the small world and found the big world in charge.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Peter the Great Monument

On page 16- 17, Levinson discusses the "grandiose, $20 million, 150-foot nautical bronze statue of Peter the Great". Well here it is, and it is truly not well-liked by many Muscovites and was actually supposed to be a gift to the U.S. from a Russian artist of Christopher Columbus. Yet, the U.S. turned it down, so they unscrewed the head and screwed on a Peter the Great head. As the article said too the irony is that Peter the Great created St. Petersburg because he despised Moscow. So, the irony of a nautcal monument of Peter the Great placed in a virtually land-locked city that he hated is not lost on the residents, and actually is viewed as disrespectul to many of them. The power of a monument.

Written in Stone Analysis

Sanford Levinson approaches the topic of Public History from the point of view of national identity through monuments and other public spaces. This book has proven to be an extremely interesting read. Levinson discusses the central theme of how those with political power within any society choose to organize public space to convey specific messages. One of the truly interesting aspects of this book is that it does not just focus simply on political reasons, but also ideological factors such as the Confederate flag. Levinson covers a broad base of public spaces that are influenced by politics and the history surrounding them.
In the beginning, Levinson focuses on the controversies present in Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe is known as being a tumultuous region, and is an excellent place to start with this discussion. As Levinson notes, the Bolsheviks were well known for this action. They were also well known for erecting hundreds of monuments depicting Lenin and Stalin throughout the Soviet Union (as Levinson describes in his explanation of Prague’s statue to Lenin). The surprising part to me was when Levinson notes on page 14 that after the fall of communism, even some strong anti-communists were ambivalent to the destruction of these symbols of the Soviet Union.
Beginning with the severe transitions in Eastern Europe opens the door to a global perspective on the topic. The movement to the conversation of the South brings it all back home. I especially liked that Levinson admits that it is slightly a personal reason that he focused on that area on page 31. It makes him appear to be honest and more trustworthy. I appreciated that he took his argument globally and then brought it back home, because it shows how the issue over public space is universal.
Levinson also expands on his point by including other aspects of public space, such as street names. He opens the subject to incorporate some aspects of public space that some may not commonly think of. The weight of a street name is expressed throughout his book, and surprisingly it is more complex than one might think. The name of a street in Germany or in San Francisco faces the same difficulties in the process. It really makes one begin to look around even Tallahassee and wonder how streets got their names.
Levinson’s approach to writing is unique in that he doesn’t use chapters. His book is one continuous process, in essay format. In some instances this may seem tedious but Levinson makes it work successfully. Also, the usage of photos is important because it shows the way historical figures are depicted. Overall this book approaches the issue of public space effectively. I really liked the perspective he took on the subject and how he described the situation from a relatable situation, the South, and the global view.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Archive Stories

In this week’s readings in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, a collection of essays are presented in order to show how the past works in the present, how archives interact with state matters, and how sometimes archives can become a contact zone. Through research and studies of archives around the world from a wide selection of authors, Antoinette Burton brings together these issues. It quickly becomes clear the amount of issues that archives face; whether it be from outside sources such as government regimes or from simply how to incorporate a sensitive issue such as the Soweto uprising. One of the most interesting themes of this book is that it shows how history can change and how often times objectivity is lost in history due to outside pressures.

One clear example of outside pressure comes from the essay by Jeff Sahadeo called, “Without the Past There is no Future”: Archives, History, and Authority in Uzbekistan.” In the creation of a central archive after the fall of Soviet rule in the area, it shows the need to reconcile two different histories and how access can be denied and utilized. Therefore these archives clearly become a contact zone within the country. In a country that has been forced to constantly change not only its culture but its understanding of the past, it becomes obvious why a sign that reads, “without the past, there is no future” would be necessary in such a central archive.

Throughout this collection it is shown the importance of archives in national identity, in continuing and exploring history, and how controlled they can be down to even who has the right to look at their materials. This book is an important tool in understanding the significance of archives in today’s societies. The use of essays allows the reader to understand that this is a global topic and breaks up what could become a monotonous essay. Also the division of the book into three distinct sections allows Burton to arrange the essays she has included into her three arguments. This book was informative and well researched, as well it helped to broaden my own understanding of just how many trials archives face around the world.

One of the things that truly struck me, and I am not even sure the author intended this to be a point, but how divided a collection can become in the archive system. This became apparent in the essay on the Peal archives in New Zealand. Mr. Peal collated documents and resources pertaining to the Polynesian society in the late 1800s. Today his works are scattered throughout larger collections: the main Polynesian Society Collection, the library section, and the “further records” section. I guess I just never realized how a collection, largely donated, would become split between different areas. It seems to make the work of an archivist a little bit more difficult when one considers that even taking care of one collection can span several different areas and centers.