The casual radio listener cannot avoid the chart topping hit “Some Nights” by the band Fun. As with their other recent hit, “We Are Young,” Fun. produces upbeat tempos and soaring harmonies that belie darker lyrics about the emptiness and purposelessness of life. By applying the postmodern undertones of “Some Nights” to a music video dominated by Civil War imagery, Fun. meaningfully reflects and contributes to popular memory of the Civil War.
When Kristin wrote recently about the troubles of working with living donors, I could not help but relate her woes to my own summertime job experience. This summer I have worked as the Oral History Intern at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City where I have had the privilege of engaging a whole other type of living donor: the oral history interviewee.
In October, the Tenement Museum will debut a new exhibit entitled Shop Life. This basement exhibit explores the history of business culture at the landmarked 97 Orchard Street tenement. One of my goals is to strengthen the Museum’s oral history collection with information about other neighborhood shops and storefronts, past and present. These interviews might someday serve as the foundations for a Shop Life neighborhood walking tour to accompany the new tenement exhibit.
Lower East Side tenements
To collect oral histories, I rely on the theory and methodology taught in our graduate course Oral History at Loyola University Chicago. We delved into the intricacies of interview technique, transcription methodology, and the ethical implications of exploiting interview sources for our own academic and professional gains. Now that I am in the field doing this work for myself, I realize one topic, preceding all the rest, remained largely unaddressed: How do you even get someone to sit down with you for an interview?
It’s 95 degrees and about 75% relative humidity. I’m hunched over a box of documents in the un-air-conditioned attic of a former US Senator who now lives in Chicago. As I flip through hundreds of file folders, I remove all financial records and anything that says “FEC.” To the left, my boss stands and hands folders one-by-one to the Senator, who reviews every document-be it a lawsuit or a Christmas card- and tells a brief story before approving it for donation or discarding it. 30-odd large boxes surround us, brimming with files and papers yet to be sorted. After 4 stuffy hours, we’ve made it through 1/10 of the material. Does anyone have a bucket of ice water I can borrow?
After some rehydration and reflection on this archival materials pick-up I recently accompanied my boss on, I realized how the experience can be used to examine some of the benefits, pitfalls, and other issues archival professionals face when dealing with living donors.
Living donors can be an amazing resource for archivists- and indirectly for historians. Donors can answer questions and provide context for their collections through storytelling or other verbal and written communication. Interaction with donors also gives the archivist an idea of the donor’s personality, which could lead to insights when arranging and describing a collection. Such knowledge can also be shared with users to provide deeper context for their research.
Of course, the politics of working with a living donor can be difficult too. Some donors make demands for control of the arrangement and description of their collections. Some donors ask for materials back after they have been legally signed over to a repository through a deed of gift. Headaches, to be sure. But to me, the most interesting aspect of a living donor is the desire that often manifests for one to edit-or in some cases censor- one’s own legacy. We all want to look good in the history books, right? When donors are alive, they can decide what not to include in their own record. And in the name of shared authority, this is unquestionable. But it makes for an incomplete historical record.
It also raises questions about who has the right to dictate a legacy. Should an individual alone decide how he or she is remembered? Does that right fall to those who were most affected or closest to the individual? What about outsiders or third-parties (including but not limited to Public Historians) who can come in with a supposedly unbiased approach? Of course in the case of archives, it is less about memory and more about creating and preserving a complete and accurate historical record. A gap in context created by the omission of one document could shape historical interpretation for centuries.
Of course, legacy maintenance is nothing new. Court historians have flattered their monarchs to keep their jobs (and sometimes their heads). Corporate lackeys have shredded papers to escape prosecution but also to erase histories of corruption in their companies. Because all primary resources are biased in some way, archival professionals must recognize the importance of working with living donors to document recent history and to ensure the most robust historical record possible.
Rachel Lewis and Rachel Boyle share the same first name and many courses at Loyola University Chicago. Rarely do they share the same perspective on historical topics. In this installment, the Rachels provide two distinct reviews of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as a work of cinematic public history.
“History prefers legends to men” – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that I have very limited knowledge of vampire mythology. I am still unclear about how to kill a vampire. Do you shoot them in the heart with a silver bullet? Cut off their head? Nervously bite your lip until they succumb to your wiles? Judging from the way Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter treats the historical record, I suspect the film plays fast and loose with the rules of vampire hunting as well. Therefore, I will not be evaluating Abraham Lincoln in terms of adherence to the rules of vampirology or historical accuracy. I am most interested in dissecting the internal logic of this film and the implications for the public’s memory of Abraham Lincoln and nineteenth century United States history.
The June 2012 issue of Public History News begins with an interview of James A. Banner, historian and author of the new book Being a Historian. Banner believes that the work of historians includes a moral obligation to society. He states:
“we … have a moral obligation to struggle to understand the past as the past actually was. … [W]e also have an obligation to present at least some of our knowledge to our fellow citizens in ways that they can understand it, apply it… .”
Banner’s comments are especially resonant for public historians. I have been contemplating the different ways that public historians can fulfill that obligation, while still respecting the needs of the public. Continue reading “Commemoration & the Public Historian”
Periodically, a Lakefront Historian contributor surveys recent public history-related news that emerges on the Internet. In this installment of “Around the Web,” Rachel Boyle highlights new columns, blogs, and posts that exemplify public history online. She also anticipates the opening of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Follow The Lakefront Historian on Twitter (@LakefrontHist) for news updates as they happen.