Monday, September 28, 2009

Another point

Funny how once you get onto a theme you start to see it everywhere. This morning I came across an article on the Globe and Mail website entitled, "A house becomes a museum of missed hopes" by Ian Brown. While this is just an excerpt of his book, in it Brown describes the challenges of being a parent of a child with a rare genetic disorder. He writes about keeping every object that he and his wife were given for their son, including toys, clothes and therapy tools. I thought his description of why they saved everything was very telling: he calls the collection "the archaeological history of our futile belief that this or that plaything would pull him out of his closed-off world, into our own more public space."

We collect and save for very different reasons, some more frivolous than others. But I think Brown's article is another example of how we use objects to sustain hope for what's ahead; they aren't just relics but items that potentially make it easier to cope with the daunting and uncertain future.

See Brown's article here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Collecting as a Means of Survival

I've recently been mulling over the issue of collections and collecting in our society. In part this is brought on by class discussions, including the role collections play within the material realm of the museum as well as that of the digital archive. In this entry I will attempt to sort out the jumble of thoughts that have been spinning round my head this week- thoughts that fly into my brain even when I least expect them to, like in the midst of watching a Polish documentary on a Saturday afternoon.

Last weekend I visited the London Museum of Archaeology and came across an interesting display. A collection of animal skulls sat within a glass case and above it was mounted an explanation of the artifacts as well as an interesting comment about collections as a whole. It explained that humans began collecting in earliest times as a means of survival. A store of food was a safety net in case the hunters and gatherers weren't so successful in ticking items off their grocery list that week.

It gave me something to think about, this idea of collecting as a means of survival. As I left the museum, I wondered if we were the same today. In this information age we are amassing a digital collection so vast and so public that it is nearly impossible to contain and quantify it. It is also, as we have discussed in our Digital History class, in danger of disappearing altogether. Are we in danger of binging on our ability to collect? Are we simply turning into hoarders who collect just because we can, and consume what we want while allowing the rest of our collection to decay into garbage? You'd like to think that the earliest humans ate everything they saved.

There's a psychological study here somewhere, and I'm sure someone has looked into the motivations behind our individual and collective need to possess and store. I do not pretend to be an expert here; what I am interested in exploring is how we as public historians can make sense of this pressing issue of the digital archive by perhaps understanding something about the role of collections to the human experience.

One important factor, I think, is the feeling of possession. To be able to own an object and say that it represents you or someone you love is an empowering experience. In the documentary Katyn the young soldier begs that an officer's personal effects be returned to his bereaved wife because to her they were treasured "relics." Her husband, or part of him at least, is immortalized through the meaning she gives to those pieces of his life that have remained. Similarly, in the film Amelie, the Parisian Nino collects abandoned pictures from photo booths, piecing them together in a large book and making meaning out of objects that others see as garbage. But as we discussed in our class last week, one person's refuse is another's treasure- or relic, or art project.

Ownership is comfort and empowerment, but at what point does the scale tip in the other direction and the possessor discovers that he or she has become the possessed? Collections give us meaning and identity but only so long as we remain in control. In A.S. Byatt's Possession (aptly titled for this blog entry) the academic Mortimer Cropper is so determined to obtain the material artifacts of a poet's life that he sacrifices his own professional integrity in his quest to do so. It is the act of collecting- the chase- that takes precedence over the value of the objects themselves. This, I think, is the danger we are facing in the digital age.

Is the internet turning into a tool for society's collective hunger to know more, have more at our fingertips? I think the London Museum of Archaeology's statement can still be applied here. There is a feeling of safety in the internet; that anything you need to know is there, just in case. It's the modern version of food storing to last the winter. The difference is that it is changing so quickly and accumulating so much information that we are struggling to keep up with it.

I am not suggesting here that the web is an evil swelling mass that is dwarfing our little spider of humanity- a spider overwhelmed at the structure it created. What I think is that meaning is necessary. The internet is a fantastic resource for the sharing of information, ideas, and culture across a global network. But it has become such a large collection that it is up to historians, archivists and librarians to collectively make meaning out of. Otherwise our collective histories are amassed and thrown out like last season's rotten harvest. We have to choose what to collect on the basis of what will be consumed; who will use this information and how it will be stored. As I mentioned earlier, it is not easy to decide what is trash and what is treasure, but it is necessary if we are going to be able to preserve everything. Let's possess the information rather than have it possess us, and be aware that our innate need to collect is both problematic as well as empowering in our relationship with the past.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The first post about the past

It is a Friday evening and I currently have a cold, but beginning this blog seems like a much better option than lying in bed with a box of tissues, feeling sorry for myself. At any rate, that is besides the point because this blog is not about my poor immune system or even the inane thoughts that pass through my head each day but about my year in the Public History program at the University of Western Ontario.

I used to keep a journal. Technically, I still do, but it spends more time collecting dust in my desk drawer now than it does as a confidante of my day-to-day thoughts. But blogging, I think, is going to be different for a few reasons. First of all, I'm writing on this specific subject rather than the fact that my cat used my bathtub as a litter box for the third time this week.

Secondly, people are going to be reading this (unless, of course, I am that boring, to which case I will revert back to said griping and self-pitying).

Much of my inspiration for this first entry comes from a book I just read- Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. While her blog focused on her attempt to cook all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking within a year, her book and the resulting movie is an interesting example of the intersection between history, social memory, and blogging. As Powell progresses through the book, she finds that her life is transformed by a woman that lived and worked in a world fifty years ago. Child becomes her companion and mentor, taking on life in a modern, New York kitchen and helping a young woman turn her life around. At the end of the book, Julie hears that Child commented negatively on her blog and is, naturally, a little disappointed. But after some reflection she writes that "maybe if I met that Julia I wouldn't even like her. But I liked the Julia in my head- the only one I really knew, after all- just fine." She and her husband even end the project with a visit to the Julia Child exhibition in Washington, DC.

As a new student of Public History I of course got excited that the final touch to the Julie/Julia project was a visit to a museum. But I think for many, museums and other heritage sites are places of tribute where we can attach something tangible to the feeling that history has inspired or changed us in some way. History had lived within Julie's kitchen and in visiting Julia Child's own, she was reaching back.

This, to me, is Public History: it does not necessarily need to be read, or listened to, or watched, but it does, I think, require an experience. A connection with the past that may be as unique as hearing the voice of Julia Child as you cook; as profound as standing at the Vimy Ridge memorial and tasting the mud and sweat and fear; as lighthearted as watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail and thinking, hey, I wonder if they have something with that witch scene...

You know this is where history happened and that you, somehow, have become a part of it and it you.