Thursday, November 13, 2008

Parading History Down Main Street

Unlike monuments, parades are ephemeral. However, as the group rightly identified, Bodnar argues these displays of history are pageants of power. As a collective, you nicely summarized the differences between vernacular and official constructs of memory and how the two interrelate. You also did a good job summarizing Bodnar’s analysis of how official memory appropriated aspects of vernacular throughout the early twentieth century. In doing so, ethnic memory became a part of public memory but in doing so lost some of its particularity. We know about religious dissenters not for their own story but how they fit into the larger narrative of progress so often told by our political leaders. One wonders whether in a post-1965 society that embraces multiculturalism and diversity in making our American nation whether we will see a new emphasis on vernacular memory.

Bodnar’s style is not conversational, hence making it in some ways a more difficult read. It is a good lesson on how to parse through an academic text. Read the introduction, conclusion, and the first chapter very carefully. The other chapters should follow the pattern and arguments set forth in these other places, allowing you more room to skim. At the end, reread the introduction or the conclusion if you are still having trouble. The secret art of reading is that we all reread. I was glad to see that all of you took on the challenge and attempted to cope with difficult material rather then giving up.

Stone, Marble, Bronze: Monumentalizing History

Do monuments foster discussion or does the public treat them like a temple? If government allows a private group to place a monument on public space, is government then sanctioning the beliefs of that marker? Can government discriminate which private groups can place markers in public spaces? As a group, you rightly gleaned that Levinson is concerned with the question of how public monuments legitimize particular stories of history. He examines the conflicts that occur when interpretations of history changes but the monument stays fixed. He also demonstrates how the history of monuments relates to the history of power. This is particularly clear from the Liberty Monument in New Orleans, where the victors of racism during Reconstruction are no longer viewed as the heroes of that period. As Brent stated, is this change in interpretation an expression of political correctness or political awareness? I think you might all be interested in following the recent controversy in Utah to see what the Supreme Court determines is the answer.

Archives are not Warehouses

Each of you identified the central problem articulated by this collection of essays: how do archives function in creating, shaping, and changing historical narratives. Quite clearly access to information is related to relationships of power, which is why so many of the scholars referenced Foucault. As a group, you rightly pointed out that these historians found their ability to examine events of history impacted (mostly negatively) by archivists limiting their access to primary sources. As the future archivists in the class noted, it would have been interesting to include a few archivists’ perspectives in this collection. How does preserving history impact decisions about access? This addresses a question Will raised. Is access to an archive a right or a privilege? Does it depend upon the expectations of the society within which the archives exist? For instance, was Robertson’s story more baffling since it occurred within the United States, a democratic nation that so often prides itself on providing freedom of information? In sum, as a group very nice job grappling with the fact that archives function as interpreters rather than warehouses.