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.
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By Andrew Deci

PART TWO

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

Interpretation and Bias in Public Memory, Part One

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

By Andrew Deci

PART ONE

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.

I’ve divided the essay into two portions; come back tomorrow for more ramblings on interpretation, bias, and public memory.

Each value-stricken generation has a different (or at least changing) interpretation of history, the monuments erected to history, and of how history should be thought of in the future. Although organized groups that erect monuments have a message they want conveyed, each audience member interprets that message in a different way.

Take for instance the World War I memorial in Massachusetts discussed in the book Sense of History. After World War I, the city of Orange sought a way to memorialize its sons who went off to the Great War. Many wanted the standard “triumphant arch” popular during that era that symbolized victory (and as a symbol of loyalty and patriotism). The veterans wished to have a “living memorial” installed, whereby the city would get a beneficial venue and memorialize their efforts in Europe. Eventually, the American Legion installed a cannon and a boulder that memorialized the dead and honored the pursuits of the veterans. As generations changed and American values shifted from honoring the war to learning from the war, another faction wanted to memorialize the war in a different way. Pacifists wanted a memorial that would teach the horrors of war to future generations. Eventually raising the money, they installed a monument depicting a soldier talking to a child; a symbolic monument.

As years progressed, this monument (and more importantly the square upon which it sat) took on different messages. Originally, the square and monument were created to honor the dead and proclaim victory – during the 1970s the monument stood for the horrors of war and war resistance. Residents protested the Vietnam War with the monument in the background.

So what does the monument ultimately convey? Certainly there is no right answer; just as artists do not control the meaning of the artwork, neither do the erectors of monuments. The audience’s interpretation controls the meaning and as generations change, the messages monuments deliver to us also change.

The Victorian Era produced a large number of memorials and set the framework for our modern memorialization efforts. Caught in a liminal stage in American history, the American Victorians were an ‘enlightened,’ resource-laden population that looked to the past in a very nostalgic way. In addition, the Victorians used their control of history as a tool in fending-off coming threats from abroad.

Different from other generations, the Victorians held large quantities of resources – the new industrial era had fueled the growth of an elite class with massive amounts of money. This class enjoyed philanthropy, giving away their money as a tool for establishing how wealthy they were. Nostalgia for ‘how thing were back then’ gave way to a more academic view of history – and for the preservation of sites and the building of monuments. In particular, the Victorian Age struck America at a key time: the Civil War was far-gone enough for it to be remembered as a somewhat happy experience based on valor and honor, but not so far out that personal memory was still apparent.

Take a Preservation Vacation

Preservation in Pink January 2010

Going somewhere or do you just want to go somewhere? A handful of articles in the latest PiP Newsletter mention great places to visit.

Visit Hildene in Manchester, Vermont with Meghan Bezio (page 12)

Visit Oklahoma City with Maria Gissendanner (page 4)

Travel to Maine with Andrew Deci (page 5)

or take an amazing preservation service trip with Jamie Donahoe and Adventures in Preservation (page 14)

Have fun!