The Way We Do the Things We Do: Making History-Making VisibleHistorians in the News
tags: historians, academia, archives, writing
Benjamin Filene works at the North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, NC.
Sometimes being on unfamiliar ground leads to new perspectives on one’s home turf. Through a Fulbright fellowship, I spent this winter and spring exploring the public history scene in Finland. Toward the end, I was invited to Bergen, Norway, to give a keynote for the annual meeting of the Nordic Association for American Studies, whose conference theme was “Monuments.” I titled my talk “Etched in Stone vs. a Fluid Past: Monuments, Museums, and History-Making in Public.” My point that was that the Confederate monument wars in America have not only surfaced lurking racism but have shown that we history professionals have failed to convey to the public how history really works: that history-making is an act of interpretation and assembly—that these statues are not eternal statements, but historically contingent ones tied to power. How, I asked, can historians “pull back the curtain” and reveal the process of history-making in action? I shared some thoughts about how we might do so in scholarship, in the classroom, and in museums. But at the time, I worried it might all sound too theoretical or idealistic. Then I went on to Stockholm and saw striking examples of what I had in mind in three different museums!
Of the three, the Swedish History Museum most directly explores how museums construct the past. Its exhibition History Unfolds introduces the museum itself as a “Reality Machine,” one that creates history and reflects contemporary ideas of identity and power.
The exhibition then offers visitors tools and case studies for thinking about how that process of reality-formation works. For instance, it displays a helmet from 600 C.E. When the helmet was unearthed in the nineteenth century, its elongated form was used to bolster a theory of the racial distinctiveness of the Swedes. Then in 1915, the exhibition notes, artist Carl Larrson incorporated these helmets into a painting showing the sacrifice of a Swedish king at a mythical “heathen temple.” Larsson felt that the helmets “make us believe in the original nobility and greatness of our race.”
comments powered by Disqus
- A girl named Greta and the seriously sexist history of Time’s Person of the Year
- Poll: Majority of Democrats think Obama was better president than Washington
- Civil War Soldiers Used Hair Dye to Make Themselves Look Better in Pictures, Archaeologists Discover
- Monumental statue of black man defies Confederate monuments
- From Consensus To Deadlock: Is Impeachment Still A Check On Presidents?
- Black Scholars Respond to Dr. Lorgia García Peña Tenure Denial at Harvard
- Historians Kirsten Weld and Erik Baker Interviewed About Harvard Graduate Worker Strike in Chronicle of Higher Education
- Kate Shaw: Andrew Johnson Was Impeached for Being a Racist Demagogue
- Bullets That Killed John F. Kennedy Immortalized as Digital Replicas by Smithsonian
- 37 books for history lovers: 11 Historians Select Their Favorite Books of 2019