Thursday, March 27, 2008

History, Democracy & the Human Experience

Why is history important? In what ways is it useful? As a public historian and museum professional, I ask these questions constantly. History is often so poorly taught in our schools that whole generations of Americans grow up thinking it is inconsequential. These same citizens later make value judgements regarding education policy, exacerbating the problem. According to a new study commissioned by Common Core, teenagers know less about history than they did 20 years ago. This is in large part due to the poisonous influence of the ill-conceived and much-despised No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The best critical analysis of NCLB I have read is this speech by past Bank Street president Dr. Augusta Kappner (be warned, the link is a PDF).


The study of history often brings a sense of familiarity, sometimes eerily so. History can demonstrate the consequences of policy decisions - the effects of both strong leadership in times of need and horrifying repression of cultural groups. We gain courage, understanding and compassion from history as we are reminded of the human experience. The lessons found in one's own country of origin are especially useful, because the effects of local and national history can be felt everyday, by every citizen. We need only look to Senator Obama's recent speech to know the truth of that. While some were undoubtedly surprised by this speech, I have been in the center of the storm and know the truth of it. I spent 8 years as a public historian and educator at a plantation museum in the South. I have heard it all.

It is important to learn the whole of history - the good, the bad and the ugly - because it is through understanding the bigger picture that we can find meaning in our own experiences. Patriotism is not believing that everything America does is right and true; patriotism is taking responsibility for your country, both the past and the present, and striving to make it live up to its ideals. It is only by knowing how far we have come that we can draw inspiration for the hard work ahead. By studying the heroic, yet complicated leadership of the past, we can recognize it's equivalent in the present. We are living history and our stories will be studied (one hopes) by future generations. The past is the present is the future.

It is unfortunate that many historic sites have yet to truly realize why history is important. The National Trust Historic Sites weblog touches on this with two recent posts on attendance and relevance . Too often we are mired in the details of "period accurate" room settings, costumes and impressions. We endlessly debate minutiae (can you believe they let their tour guides wear tennis shoes with those costumes?), and yet completely miss the point of why this immersive experience is helpful. Verisimilitude is helpful because it provides context for history; it helps people to understand that humans lived in this environment, with this set of experiences; they shaped and were shaped by these specific cultural norms and issues. You cannot separate a person from their influences, and museums do best when they complete the picture of history by showing those influences clearly. While I could write a book on how we get it wrong, I prefer to list all of the ways we get it right, to inspire all of us to do better and to be better.

The PAPER CLIPS Project at Whitewell Middle School in Whitewell, TN

The most exciting thing about this project was the ways in which lessons of the Holocaust changed an entire community's perception of cultural diversity. This truly exemplifies the promise of history. The link above is to the website for the documentary, which I highly recommend.


I've visited this museum several times and it truly illustrates the power of place, and is perhaps the best current example of how to effectively immerse visitors in history. You can feel the immigrant experience. The staff here are masters in the art of connecting the past with the present as fully participating members of the present surrounding community. They foster discussions of American immigration policy within the context of where we have been and where we are going. LESTM is also a founding member of the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience.


Facing History and Ourselves is not exactly a museum, although it does have traveling exhibits. It is more involved in working with teachers in history classrooms. It adeptly combines history with the human experience and works globally. You can read about their mission and values here.


This is an oral history organization with an understanding that the present becomes the past. They collect stories of average Americans to be placed in the Library of Congress and used for study by future historians. These recordings reflect the state of Americans today and record some truly historic moments like the stories of September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina. These stories are fascinating not only for their historical importance, but also for the window they provide into the human experience - relationships, struggles and triumphs. Anyone can record a story, usually friends and family go together and interview one another. There are several traveling stations; you can see the city schedule on their website.


In particular, I find two PBS programs to be fascinating examples of how to make history interesting and personal, and also how our myths of history can sometimes be as important to us as our truths. History Detectives shows the powerful connection between objects and history, and African American Lives explores the convergence of genealogy, science and history.

As you make history every day, what can you learn about the connection between past and present?
How can we collectively come to value the study of history in a way that is meaningful?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Totally R.A.D.

I have a confession to make, I have been attending self-defense classes. Now, I realize these programs can be useful and I certainly don't want to give the impression that they are not worthwhile for many women. Lets just say that the idea of these things has never been "my thing". I am not a joiner (shock!) and I am not one to enjoy making a fool of myself in public. In fact, I am still somewhat haunted by a very particular "learning exercise" I participated in at Bank Street. Needless to say this class was not my idea. I even said no, many times.

But....something else you may or may not know about me is that I can be easily swayed by friends or people claiming to want to be my friend. So when several of my co-workers came back from the first class and told me it was "life changing" this did nothing. When they said, "we talked about you last night and said you have to do this class with us" I was totally swayed. I am a sucker for that you like me, you really like me moment. This and the pledge I made right here on my blog to be more socially active and involved. So I blame you.

It's also true that I work in scary downtown Baltimore where we all anxiously watch the interactive homicide map generously displayed daily on Baltimore Sun. I commute on mass transit, sometimes lovingly referred to as the "crime rail" and yes, I have seen an empty crack vial on said train. So, really it might not be such a bad idea.

The class is twice a week for 6 weeks and we learn all sorts of moves. The final voluntary test is to break out of a room wearing a large amount of protective gear. Or so the pictures in the photocopied 1990's manual and here lead us to believe. I am not allowed to show anyone said moves because you never know on whom you will need to use them. So don't ask, buster. We have already learned how to stand so we mean business if a stranger tries to talk to us. This I was tempted to use at the pet store on Sunday when a strange woman tried to tell me all about her cats. But, I don' t think I was really in danger.

Let's never speak of this again.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Local Food

Organic Turnips, originally uploaded by iLoveButter.

So I have finished the book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. If you don't know about this book, click on the link to visit the website. Barbara Kingsolver and her family spent a year trying to eat locally and ethically and the book track the who, what and why of it. It was really inspiring and very worth it. I know I will be begging people to read it. Especially interesting are the agricultural essays by Steven L. Hopp outlining just how crazy our food system is. I kept thinking also about the numerous articles I have read over the years connecting processed foods with all sorts of ailments. Not to mention the number of things found in our meat supply and as a by-product, our water supply. It's scary. It also re-enforced my decision to stop eating meat because the mainstream meat supply is dangerous. Every time there is another story about tainted meat (like the one last month) I am thankful I gave it up. I am also thankful we made the decision to only purchase cage-free eggs several years ago. I have been less vigilant about where my milk products come from and this book has definitely taught me to be more careful about that.

Here is the thing: purchasing or growing local fruits and vegetables gets much more complicated in every day life. First, I live in an apartment, in a city, with no ground of my own. Add to that the fact that I kill every plant I try to grow, especially if I start it from seed. The only plants I seem to keep alive are those I have in my office. For some reason I pay more attention to them at work. Do you think I can grow a vegetable garden in my office? Would anyone notice? So, I have decided, I will try to do as much as I am comfortable with and not get too rigid. I think I can grow some herbs and maybe some tomatoes in planters on my patio. Not enough to live but enough to make a small difference. We also discovered a food co-op near our home and are planning to purchase a share. 24 weeks of fresh produce grown at Cromwell Valley.

I will also get off my lazy butt and actually visit the local farmers markets. There are several around, Waverly, Towson and Baltimore. As for the book's suggestion of buying seasonally in bulk and canning for winter, this is probably not going to happen. I don't really want to spend all of my free time pretending to be Laura Ingalls Wilder no matter how much I did want to as a child.

Adding to this is the fact that Miss Gimp needs some new food and has been forced to participate in our new plans. Since before we got her, poor Mr. Boo was forced to eat prescription food from the vet so Miss Gimp had to eat it too since they always shared their food. Well, the massive bag we bought in December is finally almost gone and we have been researching new brands of cat food. While I have never tried to force my vegetarian beliefs on my pets, after reading this book I have been re-thinking the complicit purchase of pet food with factory farm meat. So, we have discovered Pet Promise. Now, Miss Gimp is quite picky when it comes to food so I hope she likes it, if not we continue the research.

All of this is very funny when you consider the fact that I was once in charge of a historic garden at my last job, not by my own request you can be sure. I was, however, interested in the research on historic plant seeds and planning the garden to be historically correct. I was less interested in actual gardening. That I pawned off on a series of revolving staff. I did plan the yearly public program based around the historic harvest where I actually (gasp!) cooked over an open fire and churned butter. I have been thinking about this garden and this event a lot while reading the book and am kicking myself over the missed opportunity to connect past and present in a meaningful way. The garden could have represented more than just a quaint glimpse into the past. It could have fostered neighborhood discussions about where our food comes from and debated which system is better for families, economies and the environment.

In other news. a late Valentine's Day update: we successfully survived a handmade Valentine's Day in our new tradition. Mark emailed me a funny valentine and cooked an excellent fancy meal from our favorite cookbook, the Candle Cafe. I made a paper heart card and a felt robot valentine for him. I also posted on my flickr a picture of us from 1995 which may even be the first pic of us together ever, in celebration of V-day, the anniversary of our first date. Was going to blog about it on V-day but had a little wine and Mark correctly convinced me not to drink and blog. Could have been disastrous.