Interpretation and Bias in Public Memory, Part Two

A pair of posts shared by Andrew Deci, which can also be read on his personal website.

By Andrew Deci


NOTE: The following post is an excerpt/compilation of excerpts from an essay I prepared for class at the University of Mary Washington. The class, “Public Memory” was a senior seminar which explored interpretation of history and how preservation interacts with that interpretation. It was perhaps my favorite class in college. The readings were focused on two books, Sense of History by David Glassberg and New History in an Old Museum by Richard Handler and Eric Gable.

This is the second and final half of my ramblings on bias, interpretation, and public memory in America. See part one here.

Perhaps one of the most controversial of interpretations in recent history has been the display and exhibit related to the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution. It was controversial because it presented a history that many considered to not honor the valor of WWII and the ‘patriotic’ choice of dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

As originally planned, the exhibition of the Enola Gay was to present not only the plane itself, but a context of information discussing the reasons that the bomb was going to be dropped; the saving of American lives and resources and the avoidance of a ground conflict in Japan. In addition to this background information, the exhibition was also to present the aftermath of the dropping of the bomb; the incineration of innocent civilians and the new knowledge of nuclear power.

Veterans groups were not happy with the presentation of the aftermath. They saw the decision as being a way for Americans to preserve the American way of life; not as a ‘horrific’ option chosen by a ‘bad people.’ Many of the exhibit designers (the others) wanted to present both sides – exposing the fact that the Enola Gay did more than just end the war, it ended lives. The orthodoxy defined this as being an unpatriotic stance, especially because the Smithsonian is a formal presentation of American history, on behalf of the American government.

In general, the controversies surrounding the exhibition of the Enola Gay revolved around the interpretation of the dropping of the bomb, patriotism, and ‘unpatriotic actions.’ The patriotic orthodoxy ultimately controls the national history and notion of revisionism.

Our national history is controlled in two main forums, the formal academic and cultural centers of our nation, and the informal memories of our own minds. We, as individuals, keep a rolling history of what we have experienced and the stories of the past that we have gotten from past generations (either directly through stories or indirectly as primary source documents).

Often times it is easier for us to remember the good times, the good choices, and forget about the bad times, and the bad choices. The formal, academic preservation of history acknowledges this personal bias and often tries to represent the bad choices and the bad times within our history. A celebratory history is one in which we can revel in the things that we have done well and acknowledge our predecessors as good people. The orthodoxy would certainly present a claim that any intention by an individual or institution to represent the past outside of this narrow framework is unpatriotic and revisionist.

Besides this tight political control on how national history should be remembered, there is friction between ‘normal citizens’ and the ‘cultural elite.’ We, as individuals, may hold disdain for a group of academic elites pressing upon us a way of thinking and a view of our own history.

Until the public realizes that history is not always a wonderful occasion, that new evidence may present past ‘good actions’ as ‘bad actions,’ and that the academic world of history is not trying to apologize for past actions, there will always be tension between a national, celebratory history and a real history.

While discussing the Enola Gay controversy in class, I stumbled on to a comparison that I have grown especially fond of – the museum as newspaper, and bias as editorial control. I like to use this comparison as an easy way of explaining the (often) unknown bias in museums.

Just as newspapers are controlled by a group of individuals that make decisions, have opinions, and present their stories to the public, museums also are controlled by a group of people with ideologies, have opinions and present their exhibits to the public. Exhibits are forums in which a group of people represent a historic time period, theme, or person in order to inform the public. News stories try to teach the public about an event, person, or place that has done something or that is doing something. Editorial control within newspapers and museums are similarly held by a small group of individuals; ultimately final decisions are made by a leader, editor, or curator.

Especially in the last half-decade, political scientists have been examining the role of media in politics and bias in the

5 thoughts on “Interpretation and Bias in Public Memory, Part Two

  1. kvlandau says:

    Thanks for the interesting set of posts! Two comments:

    1- I’ve recently gotten into literature on nationalism. A number of concepts apply here I think, and maybe you’d find them interesting or have already read them. Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities” – basically that ‘patriotism’ or ‘nationalism’ isn’t real, but an inferred sense of community or solidarity. Nationalism is inherently political, and certainly relates to Gramsci’s version of hegemony and how a nationalist hegemony might be constructed, consented and maintained. Also, Raymond Williams contributed the concepts of “selective” history and invented traditions. I guess the argument here would be that “tight political control” of what’s represented and how in museums is typical: assembling some kind of ‘complete’ history is impossible, obviously. So it gets interesting when one considers what is represented or displayed in a museum, and equally important, what is not. Who decides? What is the current political economy governing that decision? The British Museum for example is itself a statement of nationalism (in its agenda to be universal) and a pastiche of Britain’s colonial encounters. Iran a few days ago cut off all ties with the BM because it would not loan (nevermind give!) an object pertaining to Iranian national heritage to Iran — who made that decision? I think that characterizing actions as either “bad” or “good” is less a statement about the inherent nature of the action itself (colored also by religious and moral values) than about the context in which it is labeled as such, which you say. More than that though, actions, objects or processes may be “good”, “bad”, or wholly unimportant depending on where, when and how they are situated in the present. These meanings may shift, completely reverse, morph into something else through time AND PLACE – they are always contested. It might also be useful to think of two different kinds of history: historicity A (‘real’ complete history of things that happened) and historicity B (constructed history, how we remember it, piecemeal, partial). These were delineated by some guy with a French last name that starts with a T who I can’t remember. Recognize though, that historicity A is an ideal, it doesn’t actually exist, and in my opinion, becomes subsumed by historicity B. “History” is then just a bunch of amalgamated historicity Bs and is always, definitionally, biased, subjective, interpretive, etc. I’ll stop here…

    2- Do preservationists consider themselves ‘scientists’? Or rather, is their work ‘scientific’? Just wondering. If so, I have a few other comments.

  2. Andrew says:


    The relationship that you’ve drawn between curatorship and nationalism is absolutely on par. Though not completely the point of my post, it’s an important element to consider when deciding what to preserve, for what reasons, and how to interpret what is preserved.

    Nationalism is an extrapolation of ‘community’–we gather together as beings with those that we share things with. Whether those shared things are place (a location, town, county, COUNTRY), family, ethnicity, background, race, gender, politics, religion, etc., they bind us. If we want to be included in the community we will modify our views, be selective about our backgrounds, participate in a tradition, or remember a memory in the same way. In this way I agree with Anderson and believe that nationalism isn’t necessarily overt–it can happen unknowingly.

    I do not disagree with the statement that “Historicity A” is an unachievable ideal. We cannot escape opinion and organizational policy–our only hope is to minimize its impact on what we curate or decide to preserve. The process that preservationists use–including evaluating significance–is an attempt to minimize opinion and bias, but it is not a fail safe measure. We have bias in identification of structures and sites, policy measures that prohibit or encourage identification, among others.

    You ask the question “Do preservationists consider themselves ’scientists’? Or rather, is their work ’scientific’?” I can’t respond for the entirety of the community (everyone, please chime in) but I can tell you my position. We are not scientists, but we should try to apply the scientific method to our work. We need to be regular in application and testing, and confirm our results over and over.

    Unfortunately, the only true way of avoiding bias in preservation is to be non-selective about preservation; which, in itself is a unattainable goal. The ideal would be to preserve everything–without regard to its significance–and either interpret all possible ways or not at all.

    Bleh. It’s kind of disheartening to think that I can’t be as objective as I want to be.

  3. kvlandau says:

    Sorry for the delayed response! Thanks for writing back.

    Is country just community writ large? That is, is nationalism an extension of ‘community’ feelings? I don’t know, but I think there must be some qualitative (not just scalar) differences here. At least archaeologically, sense of community is intertwined with actually seeing the same people day in and out. There’s something to be said for everyday interaction, the mutual construction of ‘practices’. Though I suppose electronic media somewhat ameliorate the need for such daily face-to-face interaction, sense of community has some real, lived aspects to it whereas nationalist sentiments are more ideological.

    Also you said this: “The process that preservationists use–including evaluating significance–is an attempt to minimize opinion and bias, but it is not a fail safe measure.” The intent to “evaluate significance” is really interesting, and also, obviously, extremely relevant to archaeology. I guess I just want to point out that “significance” is a social construction just like any other, and affects and is affected by individual, community, national and international concerns of the present. Today’s neoliberal capitalism run amuck has instigated nostalgia for some idealized past; it seems like the institutionalization and training of students in ‘historic preservation’ is a very real consequence of the global political economy. As well as national, community and individual level concerns.

    I have read almost zero about the development and theoretical framework of histpres (and understand that it is equal parts theory and practice), but I just don’t see the discipline (or its disciples) having recognized this. Reflexivity is lacking. Or is it? I’d love to hear more.

    Noted about histpres and science. Cool.

  4. kvlandau says:

    Okay, I had one more comment but needed to run to class before.

    On objectivity. Well, the whole Cartesian subject/object, nature/nurture, male/female, right/left, etc. set of dichotomies was a foundational topic in one of my classes last quarter, so I will try to summarize here. Maybe it’ll be interesting or maybe it’s just hot air. My question on historic pres and science also gets at this a bit.

    The problem with objectivity is that it’s an ideal – unattainable. It’s historicity A. While we may try to be as objective or “scientific” as possible, objectivity does not exist, inherently. I think the very idea of the possibility of being unbiased is a leftover from the Enlightenment. The hard sciences think they have achieved total objectivity and expound on “proof” and “laws”. The humanities know that everything is a construct. And the social sciences mire these constructs in the material world (archaeology) or actual events (economics, polisci) or social interactions (cultural anthro, sociology).

    I think the social sciences, after the 1980s, have come to the realization that the world isn’t knowable through the scientific method. More than that, it is impossible to even characterize fully, or correctly. Here I’m thinking about some of the first ethnographies. If I were a phenomenologist I’d say you’d need to collate interviews with every living person to arrive at an understanding of some question or issue. Even then, it’s not objective, it’s just …total. I’m getting off topic, but the point I wanted to make is that there is STILL value judgment for not being scientific or ‘objective’. You are disheartened!!

    The problem with this is 1) that it’s impossible to be objective (which is an either/or, not a degree or spectrum), and so 2) the pursuit of objectivity remains a salient research orientation. Objectivity is not possible and even if it were, where would that get us? Truth? The point is that we need to accept subjective-ness and MOVE ON — there are more interesting queries to ponder. My interpretation of some Maya architectural configuration will be biased. Okay, great. But in what ways? How? Or better, how would my interpretation be in line with or resistant to present-day politics? OR, how could I incorporate present-day politics into an archaeological project so that it is not irrelevant? So that I can assist the people with whom I work in more lasting ways than a field season’s salary?

    I guess histpres doesn’t have the same issues as archaeology – and Kate’s recent posts explain how/why preservation is important and increases quality of life – but the pursuit of objectivity and your (and historically) feelings of inadequacy are unnecessary. We are all inevitably biased. The more interesting question is how we deal with that.

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