Sunday, February 24, 2013

Week Seven: Archives and Records Management

I'm sorry, friends, this week I just don't have anything witty or interesting to talk about. The subject of this week's readings was Archivists and Records Managers. While I recognize the need for both professions, and am very grateful such people exist, and even know and love wonderful people in such positions, both are positions I think would make me die of boredom if I had to do those jobs. I was simply not cut out to do either. I'm not calling these professions boring. I'm just saying they hold no interest *for me,* much like many people claim the greatest sport in the world (baseball!) to be boring, when it's really not. They're unable to find baseball interesting, and likewise, I am entirely unable to find careers in archives or records management to be remotely interesting. So this post will be pragmatic and to-the-point, in the interest of filling my class requirement for a weekly blog post. ;-)

Essentially, records managers AND archivists are both very important within a corporation. A records manager is mostly interested in information pertinent to the future of the company, meaning some information gets kept, perhaps reformatted, and stored for future use, while other information is permanently destroyed. Which make perfect sense for the efficient workings of a company. Keeping a lot of unnecessary information would absolutely make no sense, and perhaps be too cumbersome for things to run smoothly.

Archivists, on the other hand, keep records and original documents of things which may be important, not so much to the company itself, but to researchers in the future. They keep things for posterity and for the purpose of future learning. While some records may be of no use to a company after a certain date, future researchers may want to look into a certain period of the company's past, in which case, certain obsolete records may be pieces of vital information. Conversely, an archivist may have no interest in preserving certain records that a records manager would keep, because they have no archival value.

Of course, as far as a company (or government agency, or university) is concerned, archivists are "extra" or "unnecessary," so many only have records managers, who may, or may not, be capable of  serving a dual role as a good archivist as well. But in order for records to be properly managed and archived, any business or other institution should have both a records manager and an archivist who can work together to fulfill the needs of both the company, and future researchers.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Week Six: Bare Ankles, Union Soldiers From Georgia, And Rachmaninoff On The Harpsichord

It was a cool, misty morning in March of 1999, and a 15 year old me and my mom were in Arlington, Virginia, visiting friends. We set off for a day at Mount Vernon, and I was beyond excited to see the home of George and Martha Washington. Though at the time, my main focus was undeniably music, history had always been a major interest of mine, and I couldn’t wait to see the home of this historical legend.

We arrived at the site, and my first memory is of being greeted by a costumed woman, speaking to us in 18th century language, and introducing herself as a house servant of the Washingtons.  (I think. I guess I should say, this was 14 years ago, so while I remember some things in extremely vivid detail, other things are a little fuzzy.) She gave us the usual background information about the Washingtons and the plantation, and life there. She never broke character that I remember, as she gave us a tour of the yard and buildings close to the house. At one point, she engaged the tourists, and I remember being amused and slightly (though only slightly) irked that she berated me for  wearing a skirt so short it showed my bare ankles (seriously, the skirt went alllll the way to my ankles, but did stop there), while ignoring all the other women in the group daring to sport extremely cropped hair or, even worse, pants! I was the only female there in a skirt, and thought I should at least get some credit for that, but I suppose the others there were better off because at least their pants covered their ankles? Yes, 14 years later, I do still think about and try to figure that one out. Lame, I know. 

I had never been to such a place before, where there were people like this woman. I was fascinated. I have a vivid imagination, and  spent much of my childhood imagining what it would be like to live in various time periods, so actually seeing someone talking to us, in costume, using correct 18th century grammar and vocabulary, as though she had stepped right out of the 1780s absolutely fascinated me.

Fast forward almost three years, to December of 2003, in a hotel dining room in Georgia, where 18 year old me sat with my parents and about 30 other people, listening to a costumed man in his Union blues talk about his experience on the battlefield during the Civil War. Even though the setting was entirely modern and lacked the period authenticity suggested by Mount Vernon, I was at least as riveted as I had been three years earlier, for multiple reasons. I had always been far more interested in the Civil War than the American Revolution, but also, I was fascinated by the fact that we were listening to someone in Georgia, play the part of a Union soldier. Even then, I was keenly aware of the irony here. Additionally, I have been a lifelong Union supporter (but that’s another story for another time), which added to my excitement and fascination.

This guy did break character, when he removed his cap. He answered a lot of questions, including those regarding his portrayal of a Union soldier in formerly (some might argue currently- also another conversation for another time) Confederate Georgia. If my memory serves me correctly (again, 11 years ago here), he was actually the several greats grandson of an actual Georgia boy who had gone North to fight for the Union, for reasons of conscience regarding the slave issue (I believe he was unwilling to fight for a country which held slaves). For obvious reasons, he remained in the North after the war, but I believe it was either his son or grandson which moved back to Georgia with his family. He said it was true- he didn’t get as many calls to appear as his Confederate colleagues, but often was called upon by people who were either ambivalent about sides in the war, or who were Confederate sympathizers but genuinely fascinated by the story of a Georgian who went to fight for the North.

The next summer, 19 year old me visited an old French fort and settlement in Nova Scotia. Like at Mount Vernon, there were many costumed people present. Unlike Mount Vernon, none of them gave any kind of first-person accounts. They spoke about and demonstrated the life of people in the fort, but never pretended they were the people. I enjoyed this very much as well, because we could ask questions about contrasting the modern day with life in an early-18th century French Nova Scotian settlement. I especially enjoyed speaking with the young man inside the main house who was playing the harpsichord. He was playing a Bach invention I was actually learning (though on the piano) at the time. When he finished, we talked about things like Baroque music, the differences between playing the harpsichord and the piano, and how funny he thought it was when he tried to play Beethoven, Chopin, or Rachmaninoff (the last of which was the most hilarious, according to him) on the harpsichord when no tourists were present. No, I didn’t get the first person experience, but it did get me thinking much more about the differences in the style and theory of the Baroque period, as well as the more primitive technology, producing a harpsichord rather than a piano, and what it must have been like for those alive during the transition period (for those of you who don’t know, the technique required for playing the piano is vastly different than that of playing the harpsichord- today we perform pieces on the piano originally written for harpsichord, and yes, the performance and interpretation is significantly different). Over-analyzer that I am, I literally thought about this for days. Actually, I still find myself really wanting to get ahold of a harpsichord and trying to play Joplin or Debussy on it, simply because of that conversation- which then inevitably always leads me back to thinking about the settlement and the reason it died: over-fishing. The bay on which it was located was filled with a certain kind of fish (I’m inclined to say cod, but I really don’t remember), and within 30 years, the bay went from being literally overpopulated with the fish to having them be nearly entirely wiped out in that location. Had that costumed harpsichordist not been there, I doubt I’d still think about my trip there in such detail.

This week’s readings were about performed historical interpretation. One reading was the first chapter of Joyce M. Thierer’s book, Telling History: A Manual for Performers and Presenters of First-Person Narratives. Thierer states that the result of good costumed historical interpretation is “active participation because an entertaining performance, a well-told story, inspires audience members to focus by appealing to diverse learning styles.” She also cites stories which say these presentations have emotional impact and creates long-lasting learning, which can be so significant to the observer, that it can be life-changing.  She also refers to it as “sneaky history,” meaning it is so much fun, even those who don’t like history enjoy costumed interpretation.

Of course, Thierer spent a lot of time talking about the various kinds of performed historical interpretation (spending much time saying re-enactors usually do things more for fun than scholarship, but serious re-enactors can be useful at times for certain programs and events). She talked about the pros and cons of each of the three kinds of experiences I talked about. Only having first-person interpreters who never break character can be awkward and uncomfortable for the visitors when they have questions about where certain things are. Having someone who breaks character can be confusing, if they don't make the transitions back and forth clear. Having people just in costume (she referred to them as "red shirts") can be interesting, but then the visitors miss out on the connection with a historical character that occurs with a good historical first-person interpreter. 

Personally, I enjoyed all of my experiences, and they all have stayed with me. I don't really have anything so fantastic to say with this post, but it was interesting to learn about the different kinds of costumed historical interpretation. I think the most important thing I took away from these readings is this: know what you have to work with. This includes everything: actors/interpreters, audience, costumes, settings, scripts, research materials, props, etc. Really take the time to figure out what is going to work best for your purposes. Failing to do this could end up doing more damage than anything else, and since history already gets such a bum rap anyway, correctly judging the situation is all the more important.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Week Five: In Which Mickey Mouse Decides To Play Historian…

I’m going to try and keep this post short and sweet, as I haven’t the time this week to wax verbose as I generally prefer to do. This week, the reading assignment focused around two essays from Mike Wallace’s Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory. I’m going to focus on one of them, “Disney’s America.”

As many Americans older than I am may remember, Disney was facing a financial crisis in the 1980s. For a while, it was uncertain whether the company would recover or fold. By the end of the 80s, they had succeeded in producing some new movies which were big hits, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Little Mermaid. Their brand was bouncing back, and my generation benefitted from it greatly. But Disney was also facing increased competition from other movie companies. In order to keep up, the company decided to launch a few new projects, including a theme park just outside of Paris, which struggled greatly, and registered hefty losses the first couple years, though it eventually became a profit-maker, and is still in operation, 20 years later. 

Because the theme park in France got off to such a rocky start, Disney decided to pursue a new project: Disney's America. Originally, it was supposed to be just outside of Washington, D.C. only five miles from the Manassas Battlefield. Of course, many people were concerned about the proximity of the park to the battlefield, worried that urban sprawl would threaten the battlefield's preservation as an important place in American history. This is definitely problematic for me- of course building any kind of large theme park or resort would threaten nearby areas, and a battlefield as important as Manassas should be protected. But for me, the park itself was the most problematic issue.

Originally, Disney claimed the park would contain various areas focusing on different parts of American history, including Native American culture and history, the Civil War, WWII, and Vietnam. Yes, I said Vietnam. Disney wanted to include the debacle that was Vietnam in a theme park. With rides. And games. Ehrm, I read that and actually said aloud, "What the heck, Disney? What the heck?!" Call me unreasonable, but I do have a problem including anything that's supposed to be accurate and thought-provoking on Vietnam, only to have it set up where people are on roller coasters minutes later. 

Of course, Disney quickly amended their original claim that the park's displays would be thought-provoking and accurate, saying, "The idea is to walk out of Disney's America with a smile on your face. It is going to be fun with a capital 'F'." Um. Wait a second, hold the phone. Are these people for realz? The theme park is going to include Vietnam, slavery and the underground railroad, the Civil War, Native American history...and yet somehow, these people are supposed to have as much fun exploring the horrors involved as in Disney World? I'm sorry, people. Not possible. If you're going to do that, back off the serious topics. In fact, just back off of history. 

The goal of presenting history should always be to provoke thought and increase knowledge. Sure, some things can still be fun and do those things. But to seek out "fun" while trying to educate about Vietnam and American slavery just seems so very wrong to me. Are we so addicted to "fun" that we must make all of life fun? Clearly, Disney did not end up building this theme park, and for that, I am grateful. It would have most likely severely trivialized history. Disney is not a learning company. It is an entertainment company. They specialize in drunk pirates, pixie dust, singing mermaids, and elephants that can fly. If Disney was to truly pull off a *good* site focusing on American history, and doing it accurately, it would have to realize that their profit margins on that site would probably be significantly lower than that of their other parks. They would also have to take special care to make sure that over time, they didn't "Disnefy" history. To do so would be a true atrocity.

One last observation I want to make. In the process of battling the public over the proposed site, Disney insulted historians. Wallace writes, "Adopting a populist stance, company publicists attacked opponents as 'landed gentry' foxhunters, or genteel 'no-growth proponents' who would turn the piedmont into an economic no-man's land and deprive working people of jobs." Disney included historians in this group, being painted as elitest and bourgeois. Nevermind that they're historians and might actually care to preserve the heritage that Disney seemed so eager to trivialize.
I like Disney, I really do. But Disney should stick to what it does best: fiction, fantasy, and animation. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Week Four: Hellfire and Brimstone...and Archie Bunker Too

This week's post actually nicely follows last week's. I was torn between two of our articles this week. Both would have made fabulous blog posts, but doing both together wouldn't have worked for what I'm wanting to say. Perhaps I'll come back and make another post on the other article later, but for now, I shall focus on the article, "The Unstifled Muse: The 'All in the Family' Exhibit and Popular Culture at the National Museum of American History," by Ellen Roney Hughes.

I'm quite used to kneejerk reactions by various people who swear that the election of a certain president is going to bring the end of America as we know it, or that God is going to visit his wrath upon us for allowing a show like NYPD Blue on television (remember that, my Evangelical friends?), or even just that focusing too much on "the arts" instead of being wholly dedicated to the three R's, history and science, will bring about a country that's run by imbeciles who can't even find a word in the dictionary. I was at once highly amused and incredulous as I read this article last night, about how the Smithsonian came to incorporate American popular history into the museum...starting with Archie Bunker's chair.

I've never seen All in the Family in my entire life, but I do remember being aware of it as a child. My mom would talk about Archie Bunker as a mean-spirited bigot who cared more about keeping everything as he liked it than he did about other people. My parents have always been very accepting of people coming from different social, racial, religious, etc. backgrounds. They have also always been very conservative about language and such. I assume it's this combination which caused them to paint All in the Family as a "bad" tv show. As a result, I wasn't entirely amazed by what I read about the resistance the Smithsonian experienced when first displaying certain items from the tv show. Add to that my awareness of the resistance many in academia have toward new interpretations or ideas showing up in their discipline, and nothing about the piece was too shocking.

Hughes, who worked for the Smithsonian, talked about how the All in the Family display was the first nod the Smithsonian gave to accepting pop culture history as a legitimate part of American history. The exhibit, which opened in 1978, drew a lot of criticism from historians who turned up their noses at the idea that television could be considered an actual part of American history. Of course, some were still struggling to accept social history at this point, so for them, extending that to include popular culture bordered on abominable.

So, what DOES American pop culture have to do with American history? It's a valid question. As Hughes points out, pop culture reflects life experiences, social and political dialogues, commonly held beliefs, and any issues considered important by a significant contingent of Americans. Of course, this is why I've been so big on incorporating music into the history classroom for so long. It's also why I made my US107 students write a history paper, using an American novel as a primary source. After all, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Wizard of Oz, and The Great Gatsby were once pop culture novels as well.They weren't always seen as classics.

All in the Family was significant in many ways. For one, it was the first sitcom to show a real family, meaning, one with problems that wasn't all happy sunshine and smiles and togetherness all the time. For another, it dealt with real issues of bigotry and liberalism; the show was one big dialogue about issues Americans were dealing with. I think about my favorite sitcoms: Who's the Boss?, Cosby, and more recently, How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM). High art? Eh, probably not. But not at all insignificant. As a kid, I identified with Rudy Huxtable, especialy as the youngest child with significantly older siblings, and parents old enough to be her grandparents. Rudy and I had similar rules we had to follow, and similar likes and dislikes. She was real. She was relatable. Now, I think about HIMYM, and how I relate to that cast of characters, especially Ted Mosby. He was this kid from Ohio who had this idea of how his life was going to unfold, and it just didn't happen. The ups and downs he experiences along the way to meeting his eventual wife and settling down are more or less relatable- at least in general...the specifics, not always! I think one reason sitcoms are so popular is not because they're inherently hilarious, nor because they're incredibly dramatic, nor because the screenwriting is the best since Shakespeare, but because sitcoms- to a very real degree- reflect real life. Don't get me wrong, I love Bones and Castle and Revolution and House and Smash, but not because they reflect real life. Sitcoms may not be as refined, but they're much more real, and as such they do absolutely deserve a place in museums and historical study.

I write this as I'm preparing to travel to Albuquerque in 10 days to present a paper on African American music during the Jim Crow era at a pop culture/cultural history conference. There are entire panels on such things as Dr. Who (3 whole sessions, to be specific), Harry Potter (I think 5 sessions), The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Gray, Star Wars, as well as more general topics, like horror movies, music, religion, etc. Why is it legitimate to study Dr. Who and Harry Potter as topics in history? Because any time a tv show or book series, or movie, or any other piece of "pop culture" creates such a large wave that it causes an entire subculture to arise, it is worthwhile to look at those things and query, "Why?" There's a reason Harry Potter became such a huge part of Western culture. The reason is not found solely within its pages, or the movies, or solely outside of the books in society. It's a combination of the content of the stories, and whatever was going on at the time to make them such a hit, and looking at them from a historian's perspective can shed a lot of light on the matter.

Pop culture history takes social history a step beyond what the common people said and did and who they overthrew. It looks at what they liked, what they created, what made them "tick." Pop culture, like fine art, often reflects the issues of the day. Unlike fine art, it cares more about resonating with the people than  making some huge statement.

I could close there, but I'm not going to. I have to move on to the hellfire and brimstone portion of the article because, well frankly, it's too good not to pass along. We live in a nation filled with sensationalists who love to freak out because Clark Gable used the word "damn" in a movie, and declare the nation is headed to Hell in a handbasket. What I love is that every single generation says the same thing about the next generation as the generation before said about them. As a historian, I get a front row seat to all of this. It's hilarious. No, really, it is! You haven't lived until you've heard one generation diss another in 18th century English. It's fantastic. But I digress. Not only were there those who objected to a display about a tv show at the Smithsonian, but there were also those who objected to the specific show. American opinion was mixed about All in the Family. It had a longish run, so obviously, people loved it, but there were plenty of others, like my parents, who didn't look so favorably on the show. They got their knickers all up in a knot because the Smithsonian- with taxpayer money, no less- installed an exhibit glorifying Archie Bunker and his foul mouth and bigoted ways. *excuse me while I snicker to myself*

The Smithsonian received a flood of letters, mostly complaining about aforementioned glorification of "evil." Some of them are just too good not to share. I have seen so many such reactions to different things by the people I know (both in my mainstream Evangelical experience, which continues today, and my years in Christian fundamentalism), so these probably struck me as a little funnier than they'd strike the average person.

"We want to protest putting Archie Bunker's chair in the Museum. His show is vulgar, constantly using four letter words. Just things that the American people can be proud of should be put there." Which eliminates anything accurate dealing with the reality of life for women, Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, and African Americans for, well, most of American history.

"What kind of American society raises a monument to bigotry, slobbiness, and a sneer at all decent American American values? The sad part is you are putting this alongside such memorials as the Spirit of St. Louis and other great achievements and seem to feel that it is in its proper place." I think the idea that an exhibit can display the significance of something without glorifying whatever was wrong about it is lost on most people, such as this person.

And my favorite quote, "I would never join the Smithsonian as long as you have an exhibit of Archie Bunker as part of American culture. Archie Bunker and Norman Lear are racist saboteurs and you are gullible nincompoops." I actually cannot read this one without both cracking a pretty amused smile, and marveling that somehow, this person managed to use the words "saboteurs" and "gullible" in the same sentence. No really, that takes talent! Of course, this person had just plainly misinterpreted All in the Family. Norman Lear (the show's producer) was actually not a racist. His point was to show Archie Bunker as a racist, in dialogue with his more progressive, Polish son-in-law. The idea was to help give voice to the struggles going on racially/ethnically/etc. in America at the time, not to glorify a racist.

Of course, there will always be older and more conservative generations saying our education is going to pot, or our morals are leading us all on a merry path to Hell and are going to invite the wrath of God on us all, but it is up to the younger generations to keep forging our new paths. All ideas were new at some point. There was a time when women were seen as having loose morals for exposing their ankles. Now, no one looks twice if a female exposes her knees, and no one (okay, well, no non-extremist) views that as immoral. There was a time when black people couldn't vote, and having equal rights with whites was seen as a sure way to bring about the degradation of America.

So what's my point? It's this: We shouldn't be afraid of blazing new paths because the old ones work fine or the older generations will be offended. We should move forward, because in most cases, we'll travel much further down the road of true progress than we will the road to Hell. Sure, caution is a good thing, and we should question the merits of our new exploits. But we should not hold back, for fear of certain criticism.