Animating History

Hazel Carby’s Forward to Silencing the Past puts forth a pithy summary of Trouillot’s thinking: “What history is matters less to Trouillot than how history works.” This seems profound. It strikes me that most people who are invested in history (including historians, activists, and public humanists) do seek to better establish what history “is.” They (and we) work to “correct the historical record,” pluralize histories, raise counternarratives, and recenter people written out of dominant historical accounts. In other words, what generally emerges from efforts to challenge the power imbued in history is more history.

Trouillot has no illusions about how the public generally understands history (he points out that whatever scholars do, most people will continue to get their “history” from the movies). He also raises the point that people hoping to contribute “new knowledge” must always contend with “the power embedded in previous understandings.” (56) Giving his own account of the Haitian Revolution as an example, he notes that he “bowed to some rules, inherited from a history of uneven power, to ensure the accessibility of my narrative.”

I firmly stand by the importance of new histories, and the need to struggle within the terms, institutions, and mediums set forth by previous history-makers. I believe, for example, that the changes in United States historiography since women and scholars of color have populated the discipline have genuinely transformed the academy, as well as the students who move through it.

But I wonder, if we experiment with the premise that what history is matters less than “how history works,” what alternatives emerge? How does it change the way we teach, or curate, or make art if the aim is to treat history not as a subject, but as an actor?

Disneyfying the Past

While reading Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and Nora’s “Between Memory and History”, I was reminded of a poignant moment I had in an undergraduate history course about modern international crimes. Like these readings, we were discussing memory versus history and the possession and appropriation of memory. Breaking from his scripted lecture, the professor, spontaneously and indignantly, brought up the Salem Witch Museum in Salem, MA. While at first seemingly irrelevant, he went on to explain that he was a Quaker and that his multiple great-grandmother had been accused of being a witch and was burnt at the stake. He therefore found the ‘Disneyfied’ Salem Witch Museum to be repellant and trivialized his ancestor’s pain.
In that moment, I understood, more than I would over the entirety of the course, the difference between memory and history, as posed by Nora. To me, the Salem witch trials was an unfortunate moment in American history (amongst many others), but was surveyed with a horrified, yet detached ‘otherness’; what Trouillot describes as seeing the past as fixed (147-148). Yet, to my professor, this moment in time was not merely another moment, but was one that had been shared through his family’s collective memory, a trauma passed down through generations. Being able to see this history through his eyes made it authentic in that his memory was, what Trouillot explains, the “vital connection to the present” (143). In this respect, Nora’s interpretation of memory as “a perceptually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present” (8) is what Trouillot calls “historical authenticity” (148). To not silence the past we must address honestly the past’s repercussions in the present. Like the Salem Witch Museum, the slavery themed Disneyland would have trivialized the past, not because of possible inaccuracies, but because it would not have addressed the implications of slavery in the present day.

The Newseum as Lieux de Mémoire

Image of News History Gallery at Newseum. The side of the timeline that is shown begins in 1455. There are glass cases on either side of the timeline filled with additional artifacts.

In reflecting on Nora and Trouillot’s accountings of the production of history and memory, I was strongly reminded of the News History Gallery at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the site of my undergraduate anthropology* thesis research.

Called a “museum unto itself”, the News History Gallery is laid out in a linear, chronological pattern, centered on a timeline displaying 500 years of historic newspapers and magazines, starting in 1455. The narrative provided by this display offers a view of how the form and content of news has changed over time, while also illustrating major world events over time. The display upholds the idea that news is a direct translation of the world; if we were there to witness the events, we would have noticed the same things as the reporter.

The News History Gallery offers a contrast to the linear march through history suggested by the physical timeline by interspersing touch screens throughout the display. These touch screens allow visitors to jump around in time, to consider how news was presented at different points in history. This interplay between different notions of time calls to mind Trouillot: “Time here is not mere chronological continuity. It is the range of disjointed moments, practices, and symbols that thread the historical relations between events and narrative.” (146)

At the end of the timeline, a label referencing Marshall McLuhan reads, “In the 21st century, the medium and the messenger often are considered as newsworthy as traditional news.” In other places, the Newseum defines news as the constantly new: “Every day the world comes to you: we call it the news. Prints and pictures, sights and sounds, reports that tell you what’s new, what’s news?” (Newseum Orientation Film, visited 14 September 2012). The Newseum functions to memorialize the news, which on the one hand feels like extreme absurdity, but on the other hand could be read as the height of lieux de mémoire: “Lieux de mémoire have no referent in reality; or rather, they are their own referent: pure, exclusively self-referential signs” (Nora 23).

*Side note: I was excited to learn that Trouillot was an anthropologist and was curious how this affected his interpretations and how the book would have been different if he were an historian.

The Public as Participant or Decision Maker?

 

PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRICK WITTY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Regardless of the discipline or sector (humanities, science, art, etc.), connecting “the public” to cultural content is determined by how “the public” is perceived or acknowledged.  Are they participants or decision-makers in relation to cultural institutions?

I believe cultural institutions can better engage communities with their content and programs, if they embrace “the public” as both decision-maker and participant. By doing so, “the public” has a voice and connection with the institution that recognizes them as a “partner” – rather than a “visitor” or “patron”.  This is certainly the case when the content is related to the experiences and heritage of a community – such as the Civil Rights Movement, American Slavery, the Jewish Holocaust or Native American history. As decision-makers, communities within “the public” can dictate how their culture, contributions to society, and experiences should be expressed in museums and cultural organizations.  In this role, “the public” contributes to the shaping of the content within these organizations.  On the other hand, “the public” as participant, is an audience member, who gives the cultural institution full authority to shape the content and its interpretation.  A great example of this public “dual role” is the founding of the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington D. C.

According to Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, including the American public in the founding of the museum, involved more than just seeking financial donations.  In a recent CBS News interview, he stated that “80 percent of the museum’s artifacts were donated by ordinary people who pulled them out of their basements, their attics or their churches.” [1] Dr. Bunch and others also traveled throughout the country during the planning stages of the museum and held community meetings listening to the interests of the people. [2] This type of participation, I believe, creates a sense of ownership for “the public” because they were, in some regard, included in the decision-making process for establishing the museum.

I recently visited the NMAAHC – and it is an amazing accomplishment!  The museum was filled to capacity with people beaming with pride, and many being turned away at the entrance.  In fact, I was unable to see the entire museum during my visit, due to overwhelming lines at the various galleries and exhibits.  One of particular interest to me, The Slavery and Freedom gallery, had the longest line and a 45-minute wait to enter.  To say that the American public is engaged with the NMAAHC is an understatement.  It was obvious to me that the participants had a connection to the space that can only be attributed to the fact that they were involved as decision-makers in creating its content.

Engaging communities as participant and decision-maker creates a better experience for both the public and our cultural institutions – because in many cases they are one and the same.

 

 

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-dream-come-true/

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/03/AR2009090303511.html

The Lieux de Mémoire of Aztlán

“Representation proceeds by strategic highlighting, selecting samples and multiplying examples. Ours is an intensely retinal and powerfully televisual memory.”
Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire

As I learned about les lieux de mémoire in the Nora reading, I thought of the transformation of the sites of collective memory of Chicanx culture over time. In Los Angeles, there are certainly many Chicanx sites that meet the criteria of being “material, symbolic, and functional” (19): Self-Help Graphics comes to mind, as does the former Sixth Street Bridge.

Piers of the Sixth Street Bridge.

It’s interesting to think of these sites of collective memory as always shifting, as our understanding of the past, the present, and our selves change. These days, popular Chicanx lieux de mémoire include: Selena Quintanilla, tacos, Saltillo blankets, pan dulce, and 1940s pachuco outfits. Pan dulce existed in the 1970s; why did it only recently become a popular motif? I think the answer to that lies in the “principle of double identity that enables us to map, within the indefinite multiplicity of sites, a hierarchy, a set of limits, a repertoire of ranges” (20).

Pan dulce.

Nora references “the cult of the dead” as a “broad category of the genre” (20): this is fascinating, given the commodification of calacas, marigolds, and other symbols associated with the Day of the Dead in the 2000s. Formerly a tradition observed mainly by indigenous people in certain parts of Mexico, it had become popular in the US. In the fall of 2016, MAC released a Selena Quintanilla-themed line of makeup, 21 years after her death. While she was always beloved among Mexican-Americans, she experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 2000s among Latinxs and non-Latinxs alike.

Marigolds.

While Nora seems averse to “dominant and dominated lieux de mémoire” (23) imposed on from on high, I wonder what he would have to say about these sites when they are co-opted?

Works Cited

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.” Representations, no. 26, 1989, pp. 7–24, www.jstor.org/stable/2928520

Thanks, Pierre Nora, for explaining my crippling self-doubt

Oh, man. If Pierre Nora was getting all hot and bothered over too much documentation in 1989, he wouldn’t even be able to survive today. He’d see the outline of the Twitter logo and spontaneously combust. It’s funny I think, and refreshing to remember that everyone catastrophizes their present situation – even historians professing to call for a more circumspect recording of history apart from mere memory. It’s ironic that Nora should find his reality so exceptional in the scope of history (or remembrance as the case may be). Everyone’s history is the most important one when they’re living it.

While the whole essay was thought-provoking in some way or other, I was drawn most to the idea of our anxiety over our own changing identity and subsequent compulsion to document everything. Like if we cannot capture the moment, it never happened. The substitution of documentation for lived experience is an interesting phenomenon, something I ponder every time I draft a resume or cover letter. Perhaps the schism Nora describes between recorded history and personal memory is the root of Imposter Syndrome – or mine at least. Our (or is it just me?) memory of doing busywork for days on end outweighs the programs we coordinated, the exhibits we curated, the initiatives we started, the grants we got. When it’s all on a resume it feels foreign, like a lie, because the intermittent accomplishments seem so much grander than the boring, unimpressive, day-to-day activities. But they happened, they were documented, we did them. Thank god we don’t have to log our hours of staring off into space waiting for it to be lunch time on a resume, amiright?

Is Public Art Really for Everybody?

In Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently, Hilde Hein begins her introduction with a memory of Jean-Claude and Christo’s Gates project, a set of orange ‘gates’ placed along pathways in Central Park.  She remembers the gates fondly, speaking of them as “an unexpected antidote to September 11, 2001” (which is a pretty bold claim) and arguing that “there is no doubt that [the work] is public” (page 1).  Is it really though? Is a work of art really public just because it is physically accessible to average people?

Gates installed in Central Park

I have a different memory of the gates. When I visited as a high school senior living in Queens I remember wondering “who cares about these gates?” and “what do these gates have to do with anything?” I left pretty quickly and went to The Met, where I could find artworks that I could actually understand. The gates, though physically accessible to New Yorkers who walked the paths of Central Park, were nonetheless inaccessible to many residents who saw the project as esoteric and lacking in relevance.

Herein lies a problem with much of Public Art. Hein claims that Public Art has, “descended from the pedestal that separates art from the public” but in reality, it has served to move “the pedestal” from inside the Museum outside to the park or the plaza (page 17).  Projects such as Gates and Untitled (Lamp/Bear), which is currently on view at Brown, reflect the tastes of the art insiders and elites rather than those of publics who are served. Is an artwork “for the public” if members of the public have no voice?

Untitled (Lamp/Bear) by Urs Fischer

To me, murals are more successful and meaningful works of public art because they often reflect the input and the interests of community members, something which is lacking in many works of public sculpture.  Murals are often commissioned by community groups and local business owners and are sometimes created by children and community members.

A man sits in front of a mural depicting Hip-Hop artist Ol’ Dirty Bastard

How can we ensure that works of Public Art truly public?

 

 

 

Where Should Public Discussions Take Place?

How do we, as public humanists and interpreters, help create space for public discussion and debate in museums rather than simply a public space to view private works? Where should these discussions take place: in the galleries, in creating the work, or even in the governance of the museum?

I found Hilde Hein’s chapter “Public Art” History and Meaning” particularly useful to think through the distinctions between art in a public place and public art. While a visitor to a public museum could come and leave without interacting with anyone, a person engaged in a public art work is compelled “to refine communication skills” by interacting with other visitors and the artist (Hein 55). The artist cannot loose sight of the visitor, as a grouping of the public is needed to create the work. Hein points to recent public art as examples of “replac[ing] answers with questions” and “mak[ing] room for doubt,” lessons from which traditional museums can learn (76). For Hein, the public interacts with the materials and concepts, though the artist probably retains the authority on the initial idea.

Bandelli has a more radical method to bring the public into the museum. While Hein focuses on the public’s role in interacting with established programming, Bandelli advocates for public input in museum decisions. I imagine this would include choosing which exhibits are displayed and perhaps helping to curate some of the work. How does the meaning of the public change as individuals are invited into the decision making process? Are they still members of the public once they have inside status and information or does their role change in some way? I’m interested to further consider how Bandelli and Hein’s views intersect, differ, and play out in various museum settings.

A Dialogue Between Public and Institutional Ways of Knowing

Reading over the Bandelli article about governance in science centers, I was struck by the call to “expose the epistemological basis of museum exhibitions and programs to the public” (93) and to create opportunities for “dialogue about the societal aspects of current science,” a dialogue which “has the potential to impact the very nature of the epistemological process of the museum” (94). Dialogue calls to mind our discussions about discourse last week and how discourse forms a public. Yet, I’m not sure if this dialogue could impact the existing epistemology of the museum. It seems like the terms of engagement are already set and the public just contributes rather than enacting a fundamental shift.

In Bandelli’s sense, the public feels like a fixed group of people. For example, he writes, “For science centers, sharing the decision-making process with the public and building the necessary mutual trust cannot be achieved without a better understanding of who the public is that will engage in this process” (98). This makes it sound like science centers can know who exactly their public is and then engage with them with that knowledge in mind. But shouldn’t the public always be shifting and changing? Shouldn’t the public decide what constitutes them?

This is a very abstract view, though, and I agree with Bandelli that perhaps the best way to go about knowing the public is to have deep connections with a subset of the population or what he calls “small groups of ‘engaged citizens’ – those who are committed to discuss and participate in the dialogue about science and society” (101). These groups are representatives of a larger public, not quite the science professionals, but a kind of expert. What is unclear though is if these groups of engaged citizens already agree with the epistemology of the science center or if they are able to enact a different worldview. Would a dialogue between this group and the science center lead to a shift in the way science centers operate? Are we as public humanists part of this group of engaged citizens? Or are we the institutional voice? Or do we exist somewhere else in the dialogue or outside of it?

On Critical Public Design

“The new public art is local and vernacular. Obsessively ordinary, it may be vulgar, irreverent, and even repulsive. It is suspicious of beauty as aesthetic affectation, a false friend, culturally relative, and maybe a distraction.”

Hilde Hein, Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently

As I read through Public Art, I wondered if it would not be useful to make a distinction between public art and public design, rather than between critical public art and (uncritical?) public art. Hein begins her chapter on “Innovation in Public Art” with an epigraph by Krzysztof Wodiczko that defines critical public art as “an engagement in strategic challenges to the city structures and mediums that mediate our everyday perception of the world: an engagement through aesthetic-critical interruptions…” (96). I spent part of the chapter wondering whether uncritical, aesthetically-minded public art serves a function and came to the conclusion that I think it does (namely, beautifying public spaces) and rather than consider it a lesser a form of art, it might be more useful to think of it as something else.

A planter on Cesar Chavez Avenue in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. 

Of course, my use of the word design might imply that the primary distinction between design and art is a focus on making things beautiful. I don’t mean to be reductive, as there are certainly critical designers and there is critical design. Hein points out that is difficult to be an effective social practice artist: “To rally a public, artists must therefore analyze it carefully, and this is a task for which few are prepared…Striving toward engagement, artists risk appearing both crudely hectoring and cynically opportunist, their symbolic interventions indistinguishable from the manipulations of the commercial marketplace.” (101)

But beauty does serve an important role in our public spaces. It makes our communities pleasant places to live. Rather than downplay the significance of beauty, perhaps it is better to simultaneously promulgate it and interrogate it: to say that we like beautiful public spaces and also acknowledge that the practice of beautifying public spaces is, philosophically, uncomfortably close to broken ideas like “urban renewal,” and broken windows theory, for that matter.

Hein writes that “Rejecting the passivity promoted by conventional aesthetic and critical theory that pertains to private art, we may revert to an earlier claim that art is transformative: it can change your life…Not content with merely affecting subjective experience, contemporary public art aims to change the world through multitudes of public events” (110). I would argue that, by questioning as it beautifies, critical public design could change the world just as well.

A crosswalk on Pike Street in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington.

Works Cited

Hein, Hilde. Public Art : Thinking Museums Differently. Blue Ridge Summit, US: AltaMira Press, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 14 February 2017.