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the pastime of past time

bryan andrachuk's public history blog

Last Build Date: Thu, 08 Mar 2018 19:38:01 +0000


What I've Been Doing

Mon, 06 Aug 2007 13:52:00 +0000

A few people have asked me what exactly I do at History Television. A fair enough and quite normal question to ask. I ask people all the time what they do when at work.Here's a quick breakdown: the other people (the actual employees) at History give me projects to work on. I work on them, then they give me more.I also do lots of other things.We all clear now?Alright. All kidding aside, I get to, as I said before, watch films and tv shows. It's called "screening" in the film and television industry, and when one receives an advance copy of a show or film, that's called a screener. I've been watching screeners for a series called Crime Stories. Since it's a History Television original series, we ("we" is more a "they", since I am only an intern, and don't really have a whole lot of say in what happens) actually have a lot of input into how the episodes turn out. Not total control, mind you, but editorial and producer-type input. So the production company will go through many stages for each show, from the idea stage, to the scripts, to the screeners.There may be multiple versions of the script, which are submitted to us, and we read them and give them back for revision. Same for the screeners. The company will submit what is called a "rough cut," which is exactly as it sounds: a rough version of what they envision for the final show. The narrator in the rough cut is likely just someone who works in the studio, there may be footage missing, and the music and sound effects are likely not finalized. Next is the "fine cut," the last step before the show is complete. Again, we'll watch the screeners just as we read the scripts, and submit to the production company what we'd like to see changed, where the story is weak, what needs tweaking, etc.For Crime Stories, I've been watching the rough cuts and marking down all the scenes with grisly violence. Each cut, rough or fine, or anything else I watch, really, for that matter, has a time code right on the screen. Here's a screen shot with a time code from Deadwood, my favourite show on History (the third and, unfortunately, final season airs on History, beginning in September):So every time someone is shot, or stabbed, or there are scenes or oral descriptions of violence, I mark down the time, along with a brief description of what is on screen. Its to make sure we are okay to air the episode during daytime television. We wouldn't want any children watching someone lying in a pool of blood, or seeing a re-enactment of Richard Ramirez (a very sick, sick individual) knifing someone.I've also been working on a project where I check out what's going on on other networks. A bit of seeing what the neighbours are up to, so to speak. I can't say much else about it. It's top secret.But I would like to share a show with everyone I came across that I think is absolutely hilarious. It's called Flight of the Conchords. It grew out of a stand-up act. Check out this video on YouTube. The two Kiwi blokes who are the stars of the show have some of the driest humour I've ever heard.[...]


Fri, 20 Jul 2007 18:11:00 +0000

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Alliance Atlantis' final staff party last week. I was expecting a smallish affair, but was blown away when I walked in the door. There were (I was told) some 600-odd people there. Which, upon reflection, really shouldn't have come as a surprise, since Alliance Atlantis is a pretty darn large company.And that makes the fact that it was the last such party all the more sad. It only dawned on me on the day of the party that, by January 1st 2008 at the latest, Alliance Atlantis will cease to exist. Many of the more than 600 employees have no idea what the future holds for them. Kind of like me. So I felt even more like part of the group that night, the fear and trepidation about the future gripping more than just me.I've been thinking a lot about what I'll do come September, when I'm no longer a paying member of the academic community. Where does an historian fit into the film and television industry? Does an historian have any place in this industry?WAAAYYY back in the late 1980s (remember those days, when the neon we wore was matched in tackiness only by the size of women's bangs?), the American Historical Review dedicated an entire issue to this very topic. There are some useful points made by some of the contributors, such as the need for historians to understand how a motion picture actually, practically comes into existence. This back door entry into the film and tv industry is likely going to be the best way for me to have an impact as an historian.The ethics of public history notwithstanding, a lot of historians look down on works produced and aired on History Television and the like. Part of the disdain, I believe, lies in a perverted sense of the medium in which I now operate. Historians are not, generally, trained to study moving pictures the way they are the written word. The two are very different, yet many continue to apply the same standards and rules to both, which is where things break down.Perhaps, if I can keep my own standards up, and constantly remember what it is that I think is important in history, and if I work diligently in whatever aspect of the industry I find myself, I'll be able to make decisions that have a positive impact on the public and it's perception and favour for history. That's all I really want to do: make people interested in what happened before today. To do that, the history I create can't be like a chore for those I try to engage. Much of the criticism I've heard - and felt - leveled at history over the years is that it's boring. Which is why I called this blog The Pastime of Past Time; I think history should, and can, be fun, not taxing to the spirit.I was speaking with Michael Kot, the Director of Original Production at History, about where film and history intersect. One thing he reiterated - and that I've heard almost constantly at History when talking about the production side of the business - is the importance that story plays in everything we do. Having a strong story will draw people in. If people are entertained, they'll keep watching. And maybe, just maybe, we can trick them into learning something. For me, all history (that is, the product of someone's work, not the past as it happened) is about is telling stories, anyway.I listened to a great podcast this week that mentioned how the things that stay in our brains are the things we focus on and spend more time doing. And it makes sense that people are going to spend more time watching a film or television show they enjoy, rather than one they don't. And since probably 99% of people who tune in to movies and television do so for entertainment first, and education second (if at all, myself included), they're not going to watch something that doesn't entertain them.Rather than try to get people to change the reasons why they watch history programming, I think the people working at, for, and with History have it right. They're attempting to make and choose shows that fit in with peoples' expectations, without sacrificing thei[...]

Can I Carve the Turkey?

Thu, 05 Jul 2007 01:44:00 +0000

I noted in my last post that I’m interning at History Television three days a week for the next three months. One challenge I’m already facing is shifting my mindset from history to one focused on television; I am fairly certain that the “television” outweighs the “history” in History Television.I do not mean that as a sleight; it’s just a statement of fact. History Television is a specialty television channel whose content centres around history. In spite of its name, the medium sometimes has priority, not the content, at least as far as historians are concerned. And especially since History Television is but one channel in the Alliance Atlantis constellation (which was recently purchased by CanWest Global).There are people and executives within the organization who, no doubt – and I don’t blame them – are less concerned about historical accuracy than might be the average historian; what they want is to see the right kind of Nielsen ratings. I am not saying that they have no concern for accuracy, but that theirs is of a different nature than most historians. This is just a practical matter, not unlike a museum’s need to get people through its front door (more on this in a future post).Moreover, as Robert Rosenstone argues in Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past, moving image media requires of the viewer an entirely different form of reading than written media. If we take it that film must follow the same standards as the written word for its historical accuracy, we are sorely mistaken, and greatly neglecting wonderful opportunities to present the past.Film (and when I say film, I mean moving pictures, so television here applies) as history has its own rules and codes and ways of telling about the past that mark it as unique from the written word. I watched a screener with two colleagues here at History Television the other day, and it dawned on me that I need to brush up on my visual reading skills. I'm not terrible at reading film, but I'm not the best I can be, either. I am aware, however, and fully acknowledge that it takes some skill to be able to "read" visual media.Over the course of my university education (both in and outside the classroom), I acquired the skills necessary to be able to read the written word. Only rarely was I ever made - or challenged, for that matter - to read visual media. So now, wanting to enter the working world as a public historian working with visual media, I find it necessary to develop these skills that my education sorely neglected. Which is a damn shame for a historian, since, as Rosenstone notes, "the visual media have become arguably the chief carrier of historical messages in our culture."All of this, of course, is not a preface to an argument that says history programming is boring, or that the history presented on History Television is inaccurate. As a matter of fact, in my first week, I re-watched two excellent Canadian historical documentaries: The Bomber’s Dream, by Barry Stevens, and Fatherland, by Manfred Becker (Oh yeah, did I mention that I was paid to watch them? How great is that?). Both of the documentaries – as is the case with all histories – are tainted by some lack of objectivity, amongst other faults. But more so than that, the documentaries (and other television shows I watched) are entertaining, informative, and compelling stories and histories.Back to my original point.I think, then, that I need to find a way to reconcile my academic history training with the media in which I plan to work. Taking Rosenstone's point that most of the public gains most of their historical knowledge from visual media, I think it is of utmost importance that historians be involved in the creative processes behind historical films and television (and programming of specialty history channels).My goal, then, is to try to learn as much as I possibly can about the film and television industries, with the eventual goal of finding employment in those fields in such a way as to [...]

History Television: Week One

Fri, 08 Jun 2007 21:05:00 +0000

I started my internship at History Television this week. Pretty damn cool. It's the most laid back (professional) work atmosphere in which I have ever been employed.The internship is only three days a week, and I’ll have to commute for about two hours every day, all told, on the subway and train. So, I have a lot of sitting to do, trapped in locomotives.Thus, to wile away my time, I’ve set myself the lofty goal of doing some readings. Because I’m working in film and television, but coming at it from a public history viewpoint, the major theme of my reading list is film / television and public history.For anyone else interested, I am including my reading list here. It’s a compilation (though incomplete, I know) of works I think are pertinent to the subject matter. If I were doing a dissertation on this subject, I think I'd submit this, with other supplementary works, as my proposed reading list. If you know of any other readings I could - or should - add, please let me know.I have no grandiose illusions of getting through this body of literature. But merely compiling it has been a helpful exercise in seeing what's out there on this topic. And besides, even if I could read fast enough to get through this list over the course of my internship, I doubt I would; there are other things I want to read this summer too, you know? I mean, let’s be honest: it’s not as if I am writing a dissertation or anything. Which, by way of tribute, is, sort of, where the idea for posting this reading list came from.1. Allen, Gene, et al. “’Canadian History in Film’: A Roundtable Discussion.” Canadian Historical Review 82:2 (June 2001): 331-346.2. “An Interview with Steven M. Gillon, Host of the History Channel's History or Hollywood.” Film & History September 2000 (30:2): 60-62.3. Barta, Tony, ed. Screening the Past: Film and the Representation of History. Westport: Praeger, 1998.4. Bercuson, David J. and S.F. Wise, eds. The Valour and the Horror Revisited. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994.5. Carnes, Mark C., ed. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1995.6. CHR Forum: “Canadian History in Film. Excerpts from a Roundtable Session on Canadian History in Film, University of Alberta, 2001.” Canadian Historical Review 82:2 (June 2001): 331-346.7. Cohen, Barri. “Senate Hearings: The Valour and The Horror.” Point of View 21 (Spring 1993): 16-19.8. Collins, Anne. “The Valour and the Uproar: The Battle over the Valour and the Horror.” Saturday Night (May 1993): 44-49, 72-76.9. Collins, Peter C. Hollywood As Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983.10. Cook, Pam. Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2005.11. Davis, Natalie Z. “’Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead’: Film and the Challenge of Authenticity.” Yale Review 76:4 (September 1987): 457-82.12. Davis, Natalie Z. “Movie or Monograph? A Historian/Filmmaker's Perspective.” Public Historian 25:3 (Summer 2003): 45-9.13. Druick, Zoe. “’Non-Theatrical Dreams with Dreams of Theatrical’: Paradoxes of a Canadian Semi-Documentary Film Noir.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 12:2 (Fall 2003): 46-63.14. Druick, Zoe. “’Ambiguous Identities’ and the Representation of Everyday Life: Notes Toward a New History of Production Policies at the National Film Board of Canada.” Canadian Issues 20 (1998): 125-137.15. Edgerton, David. “Television as Historian: An Introduction.” Film & History 30:1 (March 2000): 7-12.16. Edgerton, David. “Television as Historian, Part 2: Reframing the Pat from Inside the TV Environment.” Film & History 30:2 (September 2000): 5-6.17. Ferro, Marc. Cinema and History, trans. Naomi Greene. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.18. Forsyth, Scott. “The Failures of Nationalism and Documentary: Grierson and Gouzenko.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 1 (1991): [...]

My Digital History Internship

Thu, 31 May 2007 15:15:00 +0000

As I noted in my last post, I am currently working with Bill Turkel on a digital history internship. I'm using MIT's Exhibit software to create a website that documents street name changes in London. The idea came out of a major paper I wrote last term on the same topic.

My website is going to be a very simple, interactive site providing information about street name changes such as: the original name, the new (not always current) name, the date of the name change, who initiated the change (was it a private citizen, a corporation, or the municipal council?), the bylaw that changed the name, and, where possible, I may opt to include a little social history behind the name change.

The last component is a sticky part for me. The reasons why people wanted to change the names of their streets in London was what I examined in my term paper. Luckily, in the paper, I could limit my focus to the number of streets for which I could find evidence. I found eight. Eight, for a website-creating internship of this nature, was, to play on a hackneyed old television show name, not enough. Bill told me I should aim for 20-30, just to make the website interesting.

Finding the social history behind the eight street name changes required a whole lot of digging, hair-pulling, and frustratingly long hours in libraries. That's history work, for you, though. I suppose.

I didn't have enough time to do an equivalent amount of research for the additional 12-22 streets. Nor do I believe that the information I would need is even available.

Surprising as it may seem, why someone wants a street name changed from one name to another is not always a requirement of street name changes in London. And often, the name changes occurred because of an annexation (there have been 17 in London between 1826 and 1993), where duplication of street names poses a potential for communication error with the 9-1-1 system. Think about it: if a call for a fire truck goes to the wrong Elm Street, the repercussions could be deadly. Literally.

What all this means is that the social history on my website will likely not exist (except, perhaps, in those eight cases where I already have it). Which is fine.

It's fine because, while I was not engaging in the kind of historical work most historians crave, developing London Streets Renamed (the website's tentative title, coined by Bill) has been a useful learning tool for me, both in using code (HTML, JavaScript, and JSON), and in understanding the difficulty in conveying useful, interesting information to the public in a format other than a written document.

So now I've a couple more tools to add to my public history tool belt.

**A short post-script: You'll have noticed, no doubt, that I did not provide a link to the website. It doesn't yet exist, but once it does, I'll post a link.

To Be Continued

Wed, 30 May 2007 19:32:00 +0000

I'm taking this blog on a slightly different tack from now on. Since I'm no longer being graded on the frequency and content of my blogging, I have a little more leeway in what I can write. What this greater freedom will mean, I cannot say.

Plus, it's not as though I was all too limited before.

I can say, though, that in spite of the approaching end to my studies, I plan to continue blogging about public history, using the blog format as a tool of reflective practice.

So, for the next few months, in conjunction with the final stage of my M.A., I'll be blogging about things in the orbits of my internships.

The first internship I'm doing is a digital history project with Bill Turkel at the University of Western Ontario (wait for the blog post about this one soon).

The second, starting June 4th, is with History Television. I have a slim idea of what I'll be doing there, but rest assured, blogopeople, I shall keep you...posted(?).

My proclamations about change may end up being imperceptible. Maybe I'll start cussing, just to shake things up a little.

Public History Controversy: An Obligation?

Fri, 18 May 2007 18:22:00 +0000

An interesting idea was brought to the fore in our public history class on March 7th. It was suggested (by whom I cannot remember) that when faced with two or more choices, people inevitably choose the easiest of the options. The example given was the choice between curating two museum exhibits: one that deals with a touchy issue, such as the racialized colonization of African peoples (as in the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit displayed at the ROM in the very early 1990s) or a less politically-charged dinosaur exhibit. The assumption is that the latter would be the choice of most people.I question this assumption. Is it true that people always choose the easy route? I know from personal experience (or rather, from my wife telling me) that I often choose to do things the hard way. So I don’t buy the argument that humans are, by default, lazy (which is what this argument implies).I do wonder, though, if people working in public realms like museums must, for pragmatic reasons, choose less difficult subject matter. Actually, we as a class know of a at least one example of this. We visited a local London museum (which will go unnamed) earlier this year. The curator told us that there are certain artefacts in that museum’s collection that s/he will never display because s/he is certain that such an exhibition will result in a politically-charged headache for her/him and her/his institution, as well as for the larger body to which the museum is attached.So yes, public historians do sometimes take the easier choice when confronted with controversial issues.But that sucks, doesn’t it? I mean, these people have the opportunity – some might even say the responsibility – to engage the public in important debates. Someone else in that March 7th class also suggested that we as public historians exist for the very purpose of poking the sleeping giant. Good point. Yet, in our short tenure as fledgling public historians we have already witnessed at least one such a figure who balks at this opportunity.I do not want to back down from making meaningful change in the world. I admit, however, that it scares me. I mean, what if I mess up and end up a Jeanne Cannizzo, or better yet, given my career objectives, the McKenna Brothers? But if I end up a demon in the public’s eyes, I may, as Prof. MacEachern kept trying to get us to argue throughout the year, be more successful than my counterparts who are not so scandalous. After all, if I get people talking about the subject I present, doesn’t that make my public history venture a success?Look at Jack Granatstein. He’s practically created an art form of making outlandish claims in the press, more often than not sparking the ire of the public, often to the benefit of society. I think, and this is pure speculation, that Dr. Granatstein says some of the things he does to produce the exact opposite effect of what it is he appears to be claiming. Take for example his assertion that the Canadian War Museum could solve its financial woes by selling Hitler’s car. It made a lot of people upset, and caused quite a stir in the media.This is exactly my point: he got peoples’ attention, and their butts (and minds) followed, right up the steps and through the front doors of the museum, of which he was the director. And who knows, since what he was trying to do was raise money for the ailing museum, he may have prompted some people, who may otherwise not have, to donate to the museum.I am not suggesting that everyone adopt this approach. But controversy can sometimes be the best thing for you. And me. And your neighbour. Even if we can’t see it right away.[...]

The Digital Shadow

Tue, 01 May 2007 16:28:00 +0000

Last term in our course on Digital History, I believe I got the reputation of being the anti-digital crank. I even wrote a blog post in my own defence.

In the 24 February Globe & Mail of this year, in an article on our society’s increasing individual isolation, author Erin Anderssen refers to what is called a “digital shadow.” A digital shadow includes, among other things, “a camera phone [that] makes it possible to document that rush-hour fender-bender or to record a farewell to your loved ones if you’re trapped in an avalanche”[1].

I could add a few other things to this list, but suffice it to say that this idea is both novel, and old, to me. I've thought of it before, but I always considered it more of a leash than a shadow. But I like the shadow metaphor better. It's darker, perhaps more looming.

And ominous.

[1]: Erin Anderssen quoting John Pliniussen, The Globe and Mail, 24 February 2007, F6.

Canadian History Podcasts?

Tue, 01 May 2007 15:44:00 +0000

A few months ago, I decided to drop my guard against all things digital. Well, not all things. But a good number of them. One of the digital technologies I have since embraced is podcasting.Podcasts, for those unfamiliar with the term, are sort of like digital radio programs you can listen to on a computer or mobile audio player. (With the introduction of video to the world of portable music players, some podcasts have also taken to offering visual complements to their audio files, but I will not delve into that realm in this post.)In a December blog post, Joel Ralph, a graduate of the UWO’s Public History Program (in which I am currently enrolled), wrote about history podcasts. I, too, had been thinking about that topic all last semester. Ever since enrolling in Digital History, I’ve searched – and found quite a few – podcasts suited to my liking. Unfortunately, though, not one of the podcasts I regularly listen to are about history (My interest in history tends to focus on Canadian content. If I were to broaden my scope, I am certain that I’d find many more podcasts that deal with history. Joel even mentioned a few in his blog).One organization that is, I believe, really making quite a lot of headway in podcasting is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I first stumbled upon a podcast called All in the Mind, hosted by Natasha Mitchell. Actually, just like Alan Cross’s The Ongoing History of New Music podcast, All in the Mind is really a radio show that is also available in podcast format. One of the reasons I like All in the Mind is that I am constantly educated and entertained. Scouring the ABC podcast site, I found some other very interesting podcasts, not the least of which were two history podcasts, Verbatim and Hindsight.Compared to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Aussies have us licked. There are probably 40 or 50 podcasts on the ABC website, compared with only 27 at the CBC.The CBC conducted a survey in December 2005 about who downloads their podcasts, and how and when those people listen. Unfortunately – for people interested in history – the results are not promising. As the summary of the survey notes, “When asked what kind of content Canadians want from CBC Radio podcasts, the overwhelming response was for national news, current affairs and music.”Again, I should point out that all of the podcasts on both sites are really radio shows put into podcast format. And seeing as the ABC and CBC are already equipped with the technology, the people, the budgets, and their respective brand names, the appeal to potential listeners is likely greater than for some schmo producing podcasts out of his two-bedroom flat in London, Ontario (I toyed with the idea of making some of my own history podcasts to fill the void in content I mentioned earlier. Its on hold for now.).Browsing the web for Canadian history podcasts, I, too, like Joel, did a Google search for “history + podcast” and received these results:One interesting thing that appears is that two of the first ten results are military history podcasts. Not surprising really, considering that, in my view, many people practicing history outside the academic realm tend to like – and therefore engage with – military history. Just walk into a large bookstore like Chapters or Indigo, and look at the history books. More likely than not, the portion allotted to military history will be as large or larger than the entire remaining history section.Note, however, that there are over 63 million hits on that Google search. 63 MILLION! Well, there is no way there are 63 million history podcasts out there. So, utilizing the skills I acquired in my digital history class this term, I played with my search a little. This time I tried “’history podcast,’” with quotation marks around the phrase, and no addition sy[...]

Another Google First

Tue, 27 Mar 2007 20:33:00 +0000



I can only imagine the sirens and whooping going on down at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway.

The hissy fits happening around the world must be horrendous.

What happens when a googol of people are disappointed with Google? Does the world dissolve into a black hole? Does time as we know it stand still?

Or do we simply move on, acknowledging with relish the chinks in our gods' armour?

Personal Histories: What Use?

Fri, 02 Mar 2007 16:57:00 +0000

I read the Globe & Mail yesterday. I try to read the paper, any paper, whenever I can, but find it difficult with all the reading I have for school. Regardless, the back page of the Globe's front section, or rather, the "Facts & Arguments" section, contains an article by Chana Thau called "The Tale of a Lifetime." [1] It is about the growth of personal histories and historians and the (arguable) importance of that specific branch of history.Thau herself is a personal historian (the author of two biographies), and thinks that personal histories are important and worthwhile. I like her use of Mark Twain's claim that "There was never yet an uninteresting life...Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy."The key in what Twain said, though, lies in audience and presentation. I can agree that history is life, and life is interesting. And the everyday things that make up a life are ever so important. But do these personal stories really matter?Of course they matter. Especially for those whose stories they are. And, as I will get to in a moment, they will matter to future historians.First, though, it comes as no surprise to me that the demographic group who make up the majority of personal historians ("The demographics are interesting. Most of us [at the 12th annual conference of the Association of Personal Historians] were in our fifties, sixties and seventies") are of the same generation who grew up in the heyday of social history [2], where the small story is paramount.Beginning in the 1960s, many historians (though certainly not all; see Jack Granatstein for a stellar Canadian example) in western societies turned their backs on "big" histories that focus on "white men in suits," histories about politicians and other powerful figures. Instead, social historians often sought (and still seek) to uncover some aspect of the past via a relative unknown, some dark corner of history that was previously ignored. Women's history does this to great effect, as do other histories of marginalized or otherwise ignored groups or individuals.So personal historians are doing what they do as a logical extension of what their history teachers no doubt told them. If the story of a relatively unknown nineteenth century Ukrainian-Canadian Manitoba housewife is important to know and understand, it follows that the personal historians' own stories, and the stories of their families do - and should - matter. As Carling points out, however, history is often only interesting to us when we can see its connection to our own lives. So while I agree that it is all well and good for personal historians to keep doing what they are doing, don't - and I do not think for a second that they do - expect me to read, or want to read, anyone's personal history.I liken personal histories (personal historians, it seems, are just biographers with a new name) to the oil paintings that once hung (perhaps still hang?) in the houses of wealthy élites depicting their family heritage ("Here is great-great grandfather Jeremy, Earl of Haffordshire"; "Here we see my great uncle Bertram, Archduke of Brandenburg").That these personal historians are themselves the legatees of the social historians who so despised big political histories, then - the histories of great men and their great accomplishments - is to my mind a funny paradox. Because to me, personal historians engage in the very same kind of history as the wealthy people of the past: they paint pictures of themselves, often in a flattering light, so that their families and others may look upon them in the future and remember their greatness.The idea of personal history is inherently selfish (and I mean that in the most favourable way possible). As Thau points out in the conclusion to her article, by writing [...]

A Comedic History Break

Tue, 27 Feb 2007 16:10:00 +0000

This comic from Pearls Before Swine captures exactly how I often feel about history and its aficionados:


I fell off my chair when I read this. Really. Right off.

Have you ever experienced the horror of telling someone a historical nugget that, to you, is intensely interesting, only to look at the receiver of your tale and see a thick, clear glaze over their eyes? It seems to happen to me almost every time I open my mouth.

To the historian, be they amateur or professional, tidbits of history like the one in the comic above can seem like the blood of everyday life. To others, though, they may (read: most likely) are irrelevant and dull. Part of the reason why I enrolled in the Public History program at Western was an idealistic bent of mine that wants to improve upon history-telling of the sort depicted in Pearls Before Swine.

I do not think that history has to be boring, but I admit that it often is. I have no prescription for how to change this. All I can say is that I know interesting history when I see (or hear, or read, or listen to) it, but that what is interesting to me may be lifeless to another.

I didn't mean for this post to be intellectual at all; I just wanted to share the comic. Then I got thinking about it and dug a little hole from which I cannot seem to extricate myself. So instead of trying to climb out, I'll dig deeper and request that anyone with an interest in history think before they next speak about a history topic. You may be doing more harm than good.

Public History: In Need of an Attitude Adjustment

Wed, 21 Feb 2007 22:15:00 +0000

As part of the University of Western Ontario’s Public History Program, we students must complete an internship over the four-month summer term (May-August). To help us find our internships, and clarify some questions, we had three guest speakers come to our class last month. Two are museum professionals, while the other works in the private sector as an historical consultant.It was a great experience, and I, for one, learned a lot from the speakers. I take issue, however, with two ideas our guests presented.The first is the negligible credibility of practicing history. One guest suggested that to be able to practice history as a career is a privilege. Fair enough, I suppose. But the same can be said for many other jobs, so this assertion really doesn’t carry much weight with me.My real contention with the claim, though, came when the speaker suggested that it is a privilege to practice history because 150 years ago, doing history was only the purview of wealthy élite men.Now, don’t get me wrong; I am all for looking to the past to understand the present, but that, to me, smacks of living in the past. Sure, only rich men wrote history in the nineteenth century and before, but today’s world is much, much different. Today, history is about more than just élites, and therefore can justifiably be practiced, I think, by people of all demographic backgrounds. That is a bit of a simplistic argument, I know. But to suggest that we should feel privileged today because 150 years ago only the privileged did what we do is simply irrational.My second complaint with the guest speakers relates to the first, and has to do with compensation within the public history field, a topic about which I wrote in a previous post. Connected with the notion that we are privileged if we practice history in the public realm is the idea that we therefore ought not to be paid well for it. The payment, so goes this line of thinking, is in the very fact that we get to practice history.What a complete crock. Historians – and public historians, especially – add worth to their communities by providing understanding and culture. That makes us valuable, wouldn’t you say? As Molly recently wrote, “Historians have a skill set just like anyone else. Other professionals are able to lay ideology aside and get on with saving the world.” And those professionals are, more often than not, handsomely paid for the use of their skill set. While Molly would like to see a world in which we historians offer our services to those in need, I think we need to service ourselves before we can help others.Well, that was rude, Bryan. A little too blunt, don’t you think?Yes, yes. You’re right, Bryan. My point is that engineers and medecins who offer their services with little thought for themselves can afford to do so because the training they receive and skills they possess have value, whether real or perceived. Thus, their full-time careers provide them with sufficient remuneration so as to be able to afford to offer themselves up for free at other times.No historian would, I believe, compare what we offer to the public with saving a life. Nonetheless, until historians start to see the real worth in what we bring to the public, or until we can convince the public that what we offer them is of value, we will continue to starve and our institutions will continue to suffer.[...]

A Public's View of Public History

Wed, 21 Feb 2007 21:29:00 +0000

Reading through the Introduction to Fanshawe Pioneer Village's 40th Anniversary Commemorative booklet, I was struck by the simplicity of the following sentence:

"The Village offers a glimpse into the past through costumed volunteers, who re-enact the chores, pastimes and occupations of the late-19th and early-20th centuries in an authentic period setting."


Over the last four years I have heard or read the phrase "a glimpse into the past" countless times at other museums, living history sites, in books and movies, and on television and websites. Most of us, in fact, have probably heard it more than we know. It is a refrain so ubiquitous in (Canadian) popular history as to border on cliché. But never before did that specific arrangement of words hit me the way they did today.

It made me realize that I am jaded in my view of history (some might replace jaded with "educated," or"enlightened." Sure.). I remember recognizing - at some point in my undergraduate career - that my degree in history was eroding the innocent notion of history I had held for most of my life. What was replacing it was an understanding that the past was by no means as real or as tangible as I thought.

This "glimpse of the past" realization, however, was important because it will change my approach to how I present history to the public. I realize now how it is I used to think of history, which, I assume, is also how many people without academic training in historical thought might also view it (for the record, and in spite of the snootiness of this point of view, I think they do). Many people must arrive at places like Fanshawe Pioneer Village truly believing that they are visiting the past, or at least witnessing what the past looked like. Not as though they have traveled back in time, mind you, but that the people they are seeing in the present are thinking and acting in the exact ways that people in the past did. This realization is important because it gives me a clearer understanding of the expectations of the visitor / viewer / consumer of public history.

As public historians, is it our job to inform the public that no, you are not actually seeing the past, stupid, that the past is gone, never to return? Or should we aid in the suspension of disbelief necessary to further the public's engagement with some sort of semblance of the past? To take the former approach is to adopt a more academic view than the public may care to hear. But to take the latter is to fail on some level in educating the public about the past.

Maybe we should do both. Hopefully we do both. Perhaps the success of a blend of the two depends on the medium or form the "glimpse into the past" takes; I have no answer for that. I do know this, though: like Kevin, I am hungry.

Adam Gopnik on Museums

Mon, 29 Jan 2007 21:07:00 +0000

I love it when parts of my life - especially my academic life - intersect. I know other history students have had similar experiences to me, experiences in which the subject matter of one class overlaps with another. I cannot say why, but it brings me incredible pleasure to have this happen.

In both my public history class last term, and in my class on museology this term, we tackled the history of the museum. And we talked about it from a variety of points of view.

So when I heard on the CBC that Adam Gopnik would be speaking on the history and role of museums, I was, well, elated. I set my alarm clock to go off ten minutes before the program started so that I could get myself set up with pen and paper to take notes, and place a bowl of red grapes beside me (Weird, eh? You really didn't need to know that. I am trying to give you a picture. Relax).

I sat down to listen and write. Unfortunately, Gopnik is a great thinker and orator.

Sorry. I mean that it is fortunate for us to have intellectuals like Adam Gopnik out there, thinking and talking. It is unfortunate, however, that my pen cannot keep up with the great ideas he spewed forth at his talk.

On the plus side, however, the CBC’s website tells me that the talk will be available on podcast soon, so I will revisit it then. But for now, I am going to include just a few of my brief notes on what Gopnik said. I am not going to elaborate. I just want them to sit there for you (and me!) to contemplate:

The Mindful Museum. His vision of what the new museum will be.

Like Molly, he wants rid of the audio guide.

Museum as metaphor. A central arena of sociability. A central meeting place.

Adam Gopnik brings to the public what I learn in the academic world.

Museum as mall. A museum that has been drained of all of its old function.

My brother called me during the talk (another factor in my inability to keep up with Gopnik's talk). He lives in Toronto, where Gopnik's talk was recorded (at the ROM). I was doubly (twos seem to be a theme for this post, don’t you think) pleased when he told me that, firstly, he tried to go to the talk, and secondly, that he could not because it was sold out. "Packed," in his words.

I was happy he tried to go to the talk because, well, he is my brother, and the talk was on a topic close to my life. I was also glad when he told me it was sold out, because that means that many people care about museums and public history.

Of course, many of those in attendance at the Gopnik talk were probably there simply because it was a Gopnik talk; they most likely would have gone regardless of the subject matter. Nevertheless, those same people were exposed to a public intellectual expounding upon a public history subject. That means more people are thinking (and hopefully talking) about history.

Good news, I'd say. At least for us public historians.

Film, anyone?

Fri, 12 Jan 2007 15:08:00 +0000

This is a call out to the blogosphere for some help. I need some recommendations for films. For two of my classes this term I have the pleasure of writing an assignment on a film. For one course, I need to review a historical documentary. For the other, the film has to have something to do with museums.

I like film (it is one field that I might enter following the completion of my Master's), and therefore want to watch some quality films for this project.

So, any suggestions?

I should, I suppose, qualify "quality." By this term, and it is completely subjective, I mean a thoughtful, insightful, entertaining, amusing, or otherwise intelligent film. Its A Wonderful Life, is an example. Night at the Museum, is not. The Five Obstructions is a good documentary, whereas some might argue that The Valour and the Horror (don't miss all three parts), is not. American Psycho, on the other hand, is a great film, but Speed isn't.

Speaking of American Psycho, I always thought Christian Bale reminded me of someone, and a recent news item clarified it for me. My fiancée disagrees (in part, I know, because she loves this guy), but I think Christian Bale and David Beckham could be brothers.


Am I way off?

The Sun Also Rises on Public History

Sat, 06 Jan 2007 06:08:00 +0000

This may be a shameful plug, but one that I will perform nonetheless.

Agre-avating Ecology

Tue, 19 Dec 2006 02:54:00 +0000

I took an immediately dislike to the first reading for the week of 10 October for my course in digital history. It is a chapter written by Philip E. Agre entitled, Designing Genres for New Media: Social, Economic and Political Contexts.The first aspect of the article that irked me was, I must admit, that Agre proposed a vision of the future that was in stark contrast – in fact almost the exact opposite – to what I envision. In class that week, I put forth the argument that by using technology and representations of things real, as often occurs on museum websites, we are, in essence, eliminating the physical world, putting in its place a world made up of images with less depth than the objects they replace. I didn’t exactly say all of that, but I sure was thinking it.The second aspect of Agre’s chapter that bothered me was his use of the word “ecology” to describe the environment in which he feels people will find themselves in the future. Specifically, Agre writes: “Everybody's daily life will include a whole ecology of media.”I investigated the etymology of the word “ecology,” using two online sources, wikipedia and (Before continuing, I should state, for Agre’s benefit, that wikipedia was not even an idea when Agre wrote his piece in 1995, and had only just launched in May of that same year).Wikipedia’s entry defines ecology as “the scientific study of the distribution and abundance of living organisms and how the distribution and abundance are affected by interactions between the organisms and their environment.” brought up nine different entries for “ecology.” Seven of those entries are relevant, and each of those seven had at least two definitions for the term.Summarily, the first relates to the branch of biology within which ecology generally falls. The second term, I believe, is that which more easily applies to Agre’s use of the term, yet is still somewhat troublesome (The point of this exercise will eventually become clear, I promise). The second (or third, as it applies) definition provided in most of the results presents “ecology” as a branch of, or relating to sociology; that is, how humans interact with their physical and social environments. Some of the results also label this definition “human ecology.”Now, some may argue that I am merely squibbling over details, but my distaste for Agre’s argument lies in how he applied the term ecology to mean the interaction and relationship between technologies, not organisms.The wikipedia entry and all the results specify that “ecology” is an organic term. An “ecology of media” is, therefore, impossible. Unless Agre meant to infer upon these particular media an organic nature they, thus far, do not possess. Perhaps Agre, at the time of writing, felt that these media would have sufficient levels of artificial intelligence to be able to label them organic.Granted, Agre wrote this chapter over ten years ago, and I am sure that if written today, much of his argument would change given the reality he would see around him. Nevertheless, it was a reading assigned in my class in the year 2006, and therefore must have some resonance in the digital community.And that was just the first paragraph.[...]

Digital Books

Mon, 18 Dec 2006 22:34:00 +0000

In his paper, “The Bookless Future: What the Internet is Doing to Scholarship,” David Bell paints a scary picture of the future when he predicts that books will soon follow in the footsteps of their now nearly-deceased relative, the card catalogue.

Digitization and online access, he tells us, is already underway for

“every issue ever printed of the New York Times; tens of thousands of classic and not-so-classic works of literature; a large majority of the books published in English before 1800; a million pages' worth of French Revolutionary pamphlets and newspapers; every issue of virtually every major American newspaper and magazine going back a decade or more; every page of most major American academic journals going back half a century; most major encyclopedias and dictionaries; all the major works of Western painters and sculptors. And much more is coming.” DAB

He also points out the bookless society’s strongest asset:

“Making vast libraries of learning available at no cost to anyone with an Internet connection is surely more important than preserving the rarefied pleasures of physical research libraries for those lucky or privileged enough to have easy access to them.” DAB

Before reading Bell’s paper, I would certainly have counted myself amongst those who, like “Writers such as Nicholson Baker… are likely to greet this much larger change with despairing howls of anger.” DAB.

While not quite fully reformed, I am more convinced of the value of e-books. I will not go out and by an e-book reader any time soon, but neither will I turn my nose up at the efforts of those who seek to enable more people more access to more books. Perhaps instead of trying to gentrify myself, I will instead applaud – and thank – those who are helping me reach new intellectual heights.

Photography, Shmotography (Part Three)

Mon, 18 Dec 2006 21:52:00 +0000

In two (count ‘em: one, two) previous posts, I wrote about the decline of the story through our society’s increasing reliance on images.In my work on the public history class’ Museum London exhibit (plug-plug, wink-wink, Jeremy), questions like “did people want to document their lives for the same reasons that we do today?,” or “has the desire to record events changed over time?” popped into my head frequently. As I always try to do with my students, this thinking led me to the present day. This thinking prompted me to question why it is that we, today, want to document our lives so heavily. As I wrote in my museum text, cameras are everywhere. Everywhere!I hesitate to think that the ubiquity of the camera is because we are a completely narcissistic society, but sometimes I have to wonder. I am not harping on the fact that we document everything (not yet, anyway), just wondering from where it stems.I concur that photography, in the words of Nancy Martha West, “functions as its own language, with its own codes, rhetoric, agency, and reading practices separate from those of written language.” [1]I also concur with West when she states that in spite of the language of photography that has evolved over the years, photography cannot adequately document our lives enough to supplant our memories. West posits that Kodak advertising in the early decades of the twentieth century planted the idea in the minds of the public that their memories were in danger of escaping them, and that Kodak was there to save the day. Thus, people began to rely on photographs and photography as a means of documenting the past. This practice, argues West, is partially to blame for the resultant erosion of the practice of telling stories through words.While photography rose in prominence after the advent of the camera, writing, speaking, and telling stories as means of communicating our stories did not all of a sudden disappear from the landscape. After all, I am writing this blog. My point is that the ability to tell stories, and the skills involved in telling those stories has, in many cases, been largely superceded by the preference to tell stories through pictures. And I am just as guilty of this as the next person.When I used to visit my grandmother before she passed away, I always made her pull out her family photo album. Whenever I return from a trip somewhere, or if visiting with people I have not seen in some time, I refer to pictures. I even have a flickr account (don’t judge me!), where people can go to see what pictures I think are interesting or worthy of publishing. When my fiancée and I were first getting together, one way we tried to tell each other our life stories was by flipping through our photo albums and picture boxes, a practice that many people, I am sure, also do.The thing is, when I interact with people and show them my pictures, or ask them to show me theirs, I always make sure to try to tell or get the story behind each picture. Every time I was at my grandmother’s house, I made sure to get at least one story out of her that I had not ever heard before. Sometimes I got the same story, but with a new twist, which was okay. It’s not that she was without her wits, but that talking about a particular person or event, in different ways and at different times, aroused different thoughts for her, as it does for me, and I suppose for you, too, dear reader. That just demonstrates the flexibility of memory.But you cannot get that from pictures; you can only get the same picture, ti[...]

My Anti-Technology Stance

Mon, 18 Dec 2006 21:06:00 +0000

I think it is time I did a little house cleaning.I won’t lie: artificial intelligence scares the pants off me. I am worried, however, that because my classmates in digital history are all too aware of this fact, it distorts their understanding of how I really feel.In that class, I came out, it seems, with a new fear or criticism of the digital world every week. I believe that in the minds of my classmates and professor, I became somewhat of a fear-monger, the equivalent of those prophetic people depicted throughout the 1980s with long, straggly beards, torn clothing, and sandwich boards telling anyone and everyone who would listen that “The End Is Near!”Well, I want to clear this up.I am not that guy.Okay, maybe a little bit. I am growing a beard. So what?As I explained in one of our classes, my fear of technology stems from the first time I watched Terminator, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I recognized in that film the possibility of such a world, a world in which computers have taken over, and humans no longer exist.Other things have influenced me along the way, too. The Matrix is a good one. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, too. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984 are a couple of books I read in my formative years that deeply affected me.But those are just the most popular and familiar of all media influences on my fragile psyche. Millions of other people have also seen those films, and yet they have not adopted my worldview.People who know me might also point out that I have a tendency to have somewhat irrational fears. I have watched one horror film my entire life. It gave me nightmares for seven years. Hence, it is the only horror film I will probably ever watch. Ever. And I am a grown adult. I cannot separate that fiction from reality. (As an aside, and what is worse, is that in fetching the link to the Internet Movie Database for that one horror film, I noticed that it falls under the genre of “comedy” before it falls under “horror.” How embarrassing.)But I digress.Despite all these fears, I have, I believe, embraced technology to a great extent. By no means am I a computer wizard, but I do know my way around a computer fairly well. Sometimes I feel I am hypocritical for doing so. Sometimes I think I am just lazy. But most of the time I realize exactly what Bill Turkel has been telling us from day one: if we are to control the increasingly convergent paths our lives and technology take, and if humanists are to take a seat at the table in determining where that path is heading, we need to understand technology. We need to understand humans, too, but that is an understanding well on its way.I do not want computers to run the earth, but I recognize that technology is here to stay. Therefore, we need to understand it in order to prevent scenarios like Terminator from occurring (I know, I know. It’s just a movie).I like the humanities because, like all of you reading this blog, I am human. And I like humans. I think that digital technologies have the power and ability to help people. Whatever we do with digital technologies ought to, in my mind, be guided by what is good for the universe, and consequently, humans. To that end, I really like a quote from one of our readings by Jaron Lanier:“The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.[...]

A Query for Public History

Mon, 18 Dec 2006 20:01:00 +0000

To all public historians: who is our audience?A simple question, not so simple to answer. I was thinking about who the public is in “public history.” Of course, that public is me. But I do not think that I am the typical public history consumer. After all, by virtue of the fact that I am enrolled in a Master’s program in Public History, I think I can safely make the argument that I have a greater interest in the public presentation of history than at least 90% of the population.I think rigorously applied methodologies to discovering audience demographics have merit. The thing is, they also require time and resources, neither of which are available to me at this moment. What I need right now are some blog posts about public history.Thus, I am not able – or willing – to take a highly scientific approach to figuring out who the public in my public history is. Or what they want to hear, see, read, learn, deduce, ignore, refute, contemplate, or any other such thing that history can make you do.So my question becomes: if I am not the average, then, who do I think is? And how can I access that public to find out what interests them?The simplest answer that occurred to me in this regard was that the public to whom I want to get my history out to are people like my family and friends. What is even better about my drawing this conclusion, convenient as it is, is that I have access to them.Moreover, being a public historian, I do not want to write only for an academic audience. I am pursuing a Master’s in public history because I want to engage with the public. So, the public, not just my professors, classmates, former professors, and other academics, ought to be reading this blog. I want to hear from the people for whom public history is created.I still want to hear from my colleagues and mentors, of course. I would not be here were it not for them. They provide valuable and rich insights that I need. I also, however, would not be where I am (London, Ontario, at the University of Western Ontario, in the History Department, Public History stream) without the people in my social circles.Which brings us back to my family and friends. I’m not afraid to admit that what I do in every part of my life I do, to some degree, to impress the people around me. I don’t mean impress them like one might try to impress a Monarch (or professor). I mean impress them in the sense that all the hassle and trouble I have caused them over the years has been worth it. I want to show the people around me that I made something out of the morass (thanks, Alan) that is myself.Wow. This is getting way too personal.My idea is to encourage those I know and love to read my blog more and give me feedback on what I have written.For fear that it will bore them to death (because of the subject matter), I have thus far been reluctant to tell too many people about my blog. Generally speaking, I want to avoid making the people around me uncomfortable. You know that feeling of discomfort when someone makes you something, or cooks you something, or gives you something, and it sucks, but they are right there asking you how much you like it? Are you familiar with that uncomfortable feeling? I don’t wish that upon anyone, least of all my loved ones.But as history has taught me, sometimes uncomfortable is the best thing we can ask for. The (watch out for the cliché) truth hurts. So I have decided that I need to face up to the truth. Unfortunately (actually, I don’t [...]

Photography, Shmotography (Part Two)

Mon, 18 Dec 2006 04:45:00 +0000

In a previous post, I lamented what I see as the loss of stories and storytelling. Their surrogate, I argued, is fast becoming the image, specifically the photograph. I would like to state that I am not advocating a complete disregard of the photograph, as I have a collection of my own that I cherish very deeply. Some might say that if we did not have photographs, there is much of the past that would be forgotten. Photo-journalists talk of “documenting” the atrocities of war and hardship the world over. Those, among others, are valuable uses of photography.Nor do I think that the story is on a short rope.It is when we expect to be able to tell a whole story just by looking at a picture that I believe we lose something of the past. The cliché, “a picture tells a thousand words,” is a crock if we take it to mean that it can tell the whole story. I fear that if we use pictures and images as the only means of telling our stories (through things like flickr and YouTube), the real depth of the world may slip away from us.In the CBC interview I mentioned in my past post, Jennifer Baichwal discussed some issues surrounding photography that resonate with a discussion we had in one of our Public History classes regarding memory. She says that photography is artificial in some senses, especially in the way that it is a suspension of reality representing a specific moment. She equates still and moving images with laziness in memory. Her fear is that people are not living in the moment, not focusing on what it is they are doing. Instead, we worry about documenting the moment for future reference and use.I agree with her. I think that in some ways we are too caught up in things like documentation to be able to stop and enjoy the moment, or even reflect on the moment.But for historians, including public historians, this documentation is often seen as a goldmine, a real wealth of information. The problem with this view, however, is that rather than being able to tell our stories about the past, and relating events and moments to ourselves and others, we rely on the picture to tell those thousand words. Are we losing our ability to tell stories?Now, some may argue that it is better to at least have a glimpse – a window, if you will – into a moment in the past, than nothing at all. And I think I agree. But I waver. And this is why.A number of years ago, I did a tour of Australia with the band in I was in. On one particular night, my closest friend (and bandmate) and I sat outside Flinders University in Adelaide on a clear, sparkling night. The university is on a high elevation, so we could see for kilometres. We could even see the footy pitch where we had spent the previous day soaked to the skin watching the most amazing spectacle of sport I have ever witnessed. We sat out on that hill and talked for quite a while. It was a glorious, dazzling evening. We were young. We were about to play a gig. We were full of vim and vigour. I turned to Darryl (my bandmate), and said, “Man. This is beautiful. I wish we had a camera.”He responded with something that has stuck with me ever since. He told me that that moment, that glorious view, could not be captured in a picture. It was better encapsulated in our minds. There was no way that a picture would ever relate how the two of us felt at that moment. This was a new idea to me, and it struck me with such profundity that I think it burned itself onto the rear int[...]

My eyes! My poor, ruined eyes!

Fri, 15 Dec 2006 03:27:00 +0000

I have been staring at microfilm for five hours a day for the past week. You could also say that I have been staring at poorly reproduced copies of original documents for the past week.

I do not like it.

I know what it is I need from the films, but I am forced to scan, however briefly, each document contained on each of the sixteen rolls I have on loan from Library and Archives Canada.

I do not like doing this.

I like what I am learning. That is not the problem. The thing is, I’ve found myself thinking, everyday, numerous times, “There has got to be a better way to do this. This is horrible.”

Sometimes I scan the film at a quick clip. I do this because it is more efficient. Looking at the microfilm while it is whizzing past produces in me, however, an unpleasant side-effect: it makes me dizzy, creating nausea.

I hate this.

Recalling all those wonderful digital history readings and discussions from this past term, I want to think that I could just skip to the highlighted spots on the microfilm that are specific to my topic.

But I can’t.

I know that this digging through archival material is supposed to be part of the fun of being a historian. But I recall a certain device called the “internet” (ever heard of it?) coming up in our class discussions quite frequently. I also recall hearing that on the internet - and within other digital realms - you can “search” for terms, with results specific to that search appearing for you, on a sort of binary silver platter.

That, to me, sounds like fun. And fast. One turd of a lot faster than my current searching. Instead of a week spent scanning thousands of sheets of miniatures of old documents, I would only have to spend - at most - a day gathering what I need. And that would allow me to devote one heck of a lot more time to thinking about my topic. And isn't thinking the real point of writing a research paper in history?


Photography, Shmotography (Part One)

Tue, 28 Nov 2006 15:03:00 +0000

In researching and crafting the text for my artefacts for our class exhibit on inventions and innovations in London, I have been thinking about why people feel the need to document their lives. The items I am working on are a Ciné-Kodak Model B movie camera, and a Bell & Howell Filmo Ciné Projector (both dating from about 1925). One area that I have been thinking about, and that I did not get to address in the exhibit work, is the effect that photography and filmmaking has on our ability to tell our stories. So, I decided to think about that here.Some people will argue that photography and filmmaking are nothing if not the stories of our lives. I disagree. I think that images (both still and moving) are quite often poor substitutes for the stories they attempt to relate.According to documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, photographs are false pathways to memory. Real memory, as I heard on CBCs The Current for November 16, 2006, is created in the mind. While photos can trigger memories, they are not the memories themselves (My classmate, Molly, wrote a great blog about something quite similar to this). Yet, we increasingly rely on photography and other images (like films) to document the past, rather than using our brains to hold those memories.Images have a valuable place in our world, to be sure. My fear is the potential erosion of our memories – and collective memory – that comes along with our reliance upon them. While images are valuable for those who were not present to be able to get some sense of the past, are they really a substitute for the real memory? (I suppose you could ask me what “real memory” is, and I would have to concede that that is a fair question, and I do not have the answer for it. What I mean, in this case, by real memory, is the memory of the past contained within our heads).I think a personal example will demonstrate the fallibility of photographs as windows into the past, and how little information you can actually ascertain from a photograph. And hey, I fully expect a retort from anyone who has studied photography and what can be gleaned from pictures. I think that part of the reason I feel the way I do is because I am ignorant of some of the finer details involved in picture-viewing. But I still think I have a solid argument here.So, I am going to present you, the reader, with two pictures. One of myself, and one of my fiancée, Donna:So, what do you get from these pictures? What can they possibly tell you? I’ll give you a minute.Okay, that’s long enough. So, what did you come up with?What you would not – and could not possibly – get from the pictures is what led us to end up in the situation in which we were taking pictures of ourselves, and crying with laughter at the results.Did you understand from the pictures that we were in a computer store in London, Ontario? Did you know that we were there because the hard drive on my computer had decided to die that day, and that it was tearing me apart? That I was pretty close to having a breakdown?Or did you get that while I was trying to haggle with the store clerk about getting a new drive, Donna, that angel, had walked up to a computer and seen a ghastly picture on its screen, only to realize, to her horror and amusement, that it was an image of herself?It is important to this story that you remember that I was having a terrible, rotten, no good, very bad day.Do[...]