Thursday, September 30, 2010

History on the menu

I spent the first part of this summer in North Yorkshire leading the University of South Carolina’s England Field School. In the early evening while we gathered in the TV room waiting for dinner to be prepared, I valiantly argued that East Enders was the best thing on the BBC – a downright cultural phenomenon that they should appreciate. The students decidedly disagreed. They favored Great British Menu, a reality cooking show where regional chefs competed, course by course, with the ultimate winner cooking for Prince Charles and 100 guests.

Although sulking a bit about the students’ choice, I slowly got hooked on GBM. What intrigued me about the show was its sponsorship by the National Trust, a charitable organization founded in 1895to preserve “places of historic interest for the benefit of the nation.” The competing chefs were each assigned to a National Trust property, and they had to draw inspiration for their food from the gardens and surrounding area.

This move into sponsoring a reality cooking show actually fits nicely with the National Trust’s ongoing campaign to support a local foods movement. NT has developed a food policy that guides the procurement of food sold at the restaurants and tearooms at NT properties. Capitalizing on the beautiful gardens at many of the NT estates, they market the working gardens that provide tasty snacks for visitors.

Indeed, the description in the NT guidebook of the restaurant and garden at Clumber Park was so intriguing, that my friend and I decided to visit one Saturday. The day was perfect. With beautiful sunny weather, we strolled through the gardens, visited the small exhibit rooms, and enjoyed a three-course lunch in the courtyard restaurant.

The meal was delicious – and I urge US parks and museums to consider hosting “real” restaurants instead of mass-produced institutional fare. But everywhere I turned, the message “Eat Local” was hammered home to the point it became the dominant topic of conversation.

Granted, my companion and I are not average visitors. As museum professionals with rather strong backgrounds in foodways, we always visit such sites with a critical eye. Sometimes those critiques come at oblique angles.

For example, Clumber Park has a great exhibit on WWII and the home front. Clumber Park happened to be a huge munitions store as well as the testing ground for war machinery. I applaud NT for creating an exhibit that goes beyond the typical country home or garden variety. How does this connect with Great British Menu? The connection comes with the juxtaposition of the exhibit on the WWII decontamination facilities next door to the tearoom. Did any other guests look at the munitions map of the estate and question the quality of the water supply? I’d be much more reassured about the National Trust’s campaign against bottled water if I were guaranteed that the local water source was not contaminated with lead.

I’m not against historic sites as being places of advocacy, nor am I against the local foods movement (did I mention how good the restaurant was!), but I encourage curators to continue to back up their positions with honest scholarship. It is great advertising to claim the walled garden provides the food for the restaurant, but one look at the chalkboard of what’s in season proves that the property is not self-sufficient.

Do an exhibit on the challenges of the local food movement--both the current trend and its historical base. How self-sufficient were these grand homes? How many acres of farmland were necessary to supply an aristocratic meal? Or a corollary question: what did the diet look like seasonally? I suspect that if visitors had to choose between a historically accurate meal and one sourced today, there would be no competition.
Challenge visitors to think about the lasting effects of war. Do the decontamination facilities and buried munitions pose any health problems with regard to the water supply or the food grown on the estate? If so, explain how National Trust has mitigated the contamination. If not, explain the science so people aren’t worried about what might be buried in their own backyards.

It would only take a few more text panels or a 30 second plug on Great British Menu, to turn a public relations campaign into a learning opportunity.

~ Allison Marsh

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Artifact of the Road Not Taken

The National Museum of American History is home to all sorts of presidential artifacts. From Warren Harding’s silk pajamas to the gavel used in Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial to the ornate inkstand Abraham Lincoln dipped his pen into when signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the material culture of the American presidency is preserved, exhibited and interpreted. Last year, the museum added to its collection one of the solar panels that had graced the White House roof during the Carter administration. In doing so, it joined the Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, which also houses one of the president’s panels.

When Carter first had the solar panels installed on the roof of the White House staff eating area in 1979, they represented “Solar America,” just one strategy among many to educate Americans about the energy crisis and to instigate a national effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuel through a combination of individual changes and national legislation. From wearing a cardigan sweater during a speech on energy policy to exhorting the virtues of self-sacrifice, Carter wanted to underscore the fact that change often begins at home. Putting in the solar panels on the White House was his way of demonstrating this.

It was also an object lesson on the choices available to the nation. Carter declared, “A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people-harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

The 32 solar panels came down off the White House roof in 1986. In 1991, their new home became the cafeteria roof at Maine’s Unity College, which exercised its commitment to sustainability by putting up twelve of the panels, where they were in operation until 2005; after that point they remained on the roof but were not operational. In 2007, Swiss artists Christina Hemauer and Roman Keller, with cooperation from Jimmy Carter, made a documentary about the panels, entitled, appropriately enough, “The Road Not Taken.” They took two panels from a storage facility at Unity and traveled and delivered them, in a van powered by biodiesel, to the Museum of American History and the Carter Library, examining the history of Carter’s energy efforts along the way. The Museum of American History added its panel to the White House collection, while the Carter museum made its acquisition part of a permanent display on the former president’s energy initiatives.

While 2002 saw 167 solar energy panels installed on White House grounds, courtesy of the National Park Service, no American president has made a personal commitment to using renewable energy sources at the White House since the Carter Administration. Last week, environmentalist, educator and writer Bill McKibben and three Unity College students sought to change that. They delivered one of Unity’s solar panels to the White House with a request that Obama install it as a symbolic resolution to address climate change and address energy issues despite the Senate filibuster of the energy bill.

McKibben and his crew wanted to bring home the fact that President can make a difference by doing small things. As McKibben pointed out in a recent article, “That’s what we kept telling reporters as they turned out along the route: if the Obamas will put solar panels back on the White House roof, or on the lawn, or anywhere else where people can see them, it will help get the message across--the same way that seed sales climbed 30% across the country in the year after Michelle planted her garden.”

Disappointed by their lukewarm reception and the White House’s refusal to accept the solar panel, McKibben and the Unity students nonetheless acknowledged another lesson from history as they carted the panel away. Yes, Obama entered the White House with a message that was remarkably similar to Carter’s speeches of the ‘70s--emphasizing national unity, sacrifice and a spirit of creativity coupled with responsibility as our best bet for licking the nation’s problems. Americans responded to Carter by electing Reagan. With seven weeks until a midterm election that sees a surprising number of candidates declaring that there is no such thing as climate change, they did not want to give the pundits and adversaries of President Obama any more ammunition.

Me, I think Obama should erect that solar panel, call it living history, and be proud of it.

~ Margo Shea

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Should everything have a history button?

On Wikipedia, Cultural Patrimony, and Historiography: This particular book—or rather, set of books—is every edit made to a single Wikipedia article, The Iraq War, during the five years between the article’s inception in December 2004 and November 2009, a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages.

It amounts to twelve volumes: the size of a single old-style encyclopaedia. It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead”.

This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.

James Bridle's printed and bound Wikipedia article the Iraq War, with edits, is a fantastic visualization of how Wikipedia works when covering a contentious and ongoing topic. "For the first time in history, we’re building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information," Bridle enthuses. "Everything should have a history button."

I have mixed feelings. Whatever the opinions of academics like myself, the cultural importance of Wikipedia is only growing. I think it is fair to say that it has become the first stop for basic factual information for most people in our culture--college undergraduates, journalists, professionals in all kinds of fields, and (rumor has it) even a few history professors. There is no use fighting it anymore. At the same time I suspect the genesis of Wikipedia articles is fairly mysterious to most users. Brindle's row of bound volumes illustrates the mutability of Wikipedia. It is shifting sand.

What Brindle doesn't do is offer any analysis of the forces that went into the 12,000 edits of the Iraq War article. It would be interesting to see someone mine the data. Are there spikes in the editing activity, and do they coincide with breaking events? Can the users be divided into categories or factions, and how do the factions seek to control the narrative? What has the role of the moderators been in shaping the article? This article points to some interesting possibilities for such research. As one of the commenters over at MetaFilter wrote, "I guess that's the difference between 'making an art project' and 'writing a book.'"

Bridle's talk which accompanied the project is available online, as are the slides. His blog,, featuring "literature, technology and book futurism" is wonderfully thoughtful and interesting.

~ Larry Cebula
Cross-posted from Northwest History

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Voices from the Grave

Quite by accident while researching freeware backup solutions, I stumbled upon a web site that did not back up my systems, but instead tried to convince me to back up my “vital digital property.” Legacy Locker, which has been around since Spring 2009, sells services to protect families in the unfortunate but inevitable event(s) of “loss, death, or disability.” Basically, for a small fee of $30 per year, they will store passwords to your online accounts. (I immediately think of my super important Facebook page and the millions stored in my off–grid PayPal bank account.)

The brainchild of Jeremy Toeman, Legacy Locker begs your serious consideration as an online service filling a legitimate, contemporary need. "I have young children that can't read yet,” Toeman enthusiastically reveals. More importantly, “One day my blog will have meaning to them in the same way you find an old photo of your grandfather and wonder what the story was.” With measured testimonials from news organizations (Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! News), Legacy Locker postures for position in a market already saturated with personal e-solutions for [fill-in-the-blank].

The visuals of the Legacy Locker landing site are tidy but pedestrian, a formulaic web delivery to help the target audience feel comfortable with the untidy topic of death. The page has a carefully structured layout and calming baby blue palette. Prominently featured is a white, middle class, heteronormative family, back dropped by a pseudo-Craftsman suburban split level. (What world am I living in? Not this world!)

Legacy Locker exemplifies the kind of niche entrepreneurial opportunities modern digital culture has created for hobby archivists. Capitalizing on the momentum of personal digital archiving, these often trivial markets target consumers interested in creating a personal narrative of themselves: children and anniversaries, accomplishments, careers, memories and memorials, lots and lots of pictures, and...passwords.

At what point does archiving of digital minutiae, the minutiae of the minutiae, become a ridiculous exercise in self-absorption? MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter (and OMG, Tweet-a-Watt) are among the better known venues. The fascinating sociological cult of self is exhibited by a near frantic mania to preserve our own legacies, an eagerness to establish social relevancy via real time scripting of our story, the preemptive writing of tomorrow’s history.

Archival functions are a system of preservation. Within historiography, digital archiving of objects and documents has the broad mission of ensuring preservation of materials for access by current and future generations. Archivists, like everyone else, have particularities of standpoint—education, generation, nationality, race, gender, sexuality, politics, geography—which shape perspectives concerning appraisal and retention. These inherent biases complicate the measurement of value, those objects important enough to be documented. There is obvious and significant difference between the professional and hobby archivist, and value-of-self creates opportunities for passionate, explorative discourse.

“On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” Nietzsche’s canonical essay, speaks to the unanswerable questions of historical ownership and relevancy: "The fact that life does need the service of history must be as clearly grasped as that an excess of history hurts it... History is necessary to the living man in three ways: In relation to his action and struggle, his conservatism and reverence, his suffering and his desire for deliverance." Nietzsche discusses at length the painful fear of irrelevancy humans impose upon themselves: "The fiercest battle is fought round the demand for greatness to be eternal... For they wish but one thing: to live at any cost". Perhaps, through archiving the self, we hope to “balance the ledger of life,” and through calculated e-conservation efforts we will successfully establish eternal personal mandate. We will have succeeded in defining our historical selves and will have attempted to preserve (our)selves for others who we hope encounter our dutiful archival efforts.

Technology is growing at an exponentially fantastic speed. The archive grows in unison. But do my loved ones really need a web service to help them cope with my LinkedIn account when I “pass?” At the risk of exposing myself as trapped in the same tar pit as my ancestors, I seriously think they do not. My survivors can find the crayon drawings from first grade in a box in the garage, clearly labeled. The legal papers are filed with the attorney, copies in the desk. Passwords? For the time being, I’ll continue to use a freeware password application. The super secret code to that is on the Post-It under the keyboard. See you on the other side. We’ll look at pictures of our grandfathers.

~ Anne Gehr