An Intimate Past?

A debate has been taking place among historians for many years about the nature of the past and perceptions of it, both by historians and by the larger public. Some have insisted that it is, and I find this term both compelling and confusing in equal parts, “a foreign country” because of its strangeness to those of the modern era.

Such a characterization gets to the heart of the periodic news stories we have all seen about the inability of students to place the American Revolution in the correct century and to name the the first president of the United States. In response, we typically bemoan the future and the kids that will lead us into it only to return to our football games on television without doing much of anything more.

But is history such a “foreign country,” or are we just more entranced with a consciousness of the past that is more about collective memory of close and local events than about the overarching national narrative? Collective memory is a powerful force for any person and group. Through linkages with such memory we identify and define and connect ourselves. I have seen, as have others, an intensely personal relationship with history among Americans. Far from Americans being disengaged from history, as has been routinely thought because of their detachment from national themes, many people seem to have supplanted interest in these broader themes to the history of family and locale.

This is borne out by my own experience as a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and I see this concern for local and personal history expressed by visitors routinely at the museum. The National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world, and it certainly seems that an important part of its attraction is the result of the immediacy of the subject that it interprets. Repeatedly, visitors come looking for an artifact to which they, or a member of their family or a friend, had a personal connection. Often this is something from military service or even a commercial air transport once flown on and remembered with a certain fondness for the discomfort of the trip.

Steve Lubar, who curated the “America on the Move” exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington made the same point by observing that for all of the exhibit’s otherwise spectacular features, the majority of visitors only really pondered its later parts where their personal memory allowed them to connect to the artifacts and story in a deeply personal and idiosyncratic manner. He noted that of the 15 sections of this exhibit, most people breezed through the first 12, and mostly stopped for extended periods in sections more recent in time and with artifacts, such as the Chicago elevated rail car or a used car showroom from 1949 or a traffic jam with numerous recent vintage and quite cherry automobiles to which they had a relationship.

Dik Daso, a curator who worked on “The Price of Freedom” exhibit about U.S. military history also at the National Museum of American History, similarly remarked on the popularity of the Vietnam War section of the exhibit as veterans attending the exhibit’s opening ignored most of the artifacts and gathered around a large map of Vietnam and shared their experiences with one another. Their stories, furthermore, were highly personal; interlinking spheres of memory to find common ground in an unlikely setting. Like politics, to paraphrase Tip O’Neill, all history seems to be local.

The connections between sweeping national historical narratives and the intimate and personal experiences of those who encounter them seem critical to fostering a broader historical awareness. This is a challenge that affects confined presentations of the past. For example, what links the adventurous story of the Apollo Moon landings of the 1960s and early 1970s to the people of the present? As time passes this experience has faded in memory. Fewer than half of the world’s population was alive when those flights to the Moon took place, and while they were stunning achievements requiring heroic actions to make real they yielded little in our world that is tangibly linked to that bygone era. The technologies that made them possible have been scrapped or superceded. The science, for all of the knowledge that results, has not impacted many lives on Earth. Even the political climate that spawned the Moon landings—the Cold War—is long gone and largely ignored by the current generation. Making strong connections between the Moon landings and current society will be critical to the success of any exhibition on this subject; could this be done through personal, intimate history rather than grand national narratives?

This begs the question, how do teachers of history relate larger themes in the American past to the intimate interests of those who must understand and hopefully use it? This is critical to the education of the next generation of Americans, but it is also important for the lifelong non-classroom learning that every individual is involved in. What might museums, historic sites, television documentaries, written histories, and related efforts do to help focus interest and enhance the diffusion of greater understanding? At least some of those answers revolve around the closer linkage of national and world history with personal and local concerns. How to accomplish this most expeditiously, of course, presents a challenge not without difficulties. But it is noble task, and I applaud those who undertake it. What do you think?

This entry was posted in Apollo, History, Personal, Politics, Science, Space and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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