Mar. 25, 2007

A Funtional Analysis for Oral History

Although she often claims that her thoughts are a disorganized, unpublished mess, Diana Dicklich actually is rather consistent at coming up with brilliant insights during class. When we were discussing the importance of inclusively when planning and presenting an exhibit, Diana mentioned the idea of creating a functional analysis for collecting oral histories. After learning more about oral history this weekend, Kelly and Molly might inform me on Monday that it is very normal to come up with a broad plan before conducting an interview for historical purposes; nevertheless, because I think this is a neat idea and because by butchering her original idea I might spur Diana into blogging action, I would still like to explore this idea of a functional analysis for oral history.

Archivists, who all seem to be inundated with acquisitions that need to be appraised, arranged, and described, carry out functional analyses to determine what stays in the archive and what goes in the circular file. To be very brief, an archivist performs a functional analysis by understanding what activities are most important to a creator’s job; the archivist then keeps only the documents that are the result of these activities.

The idea of carrying out a functional analysis with oral interviews is an interesting one because it assumes that the interview has specific uses beyond what the interviewer is looking for. When I was interviewing 3M researchers as a part of my contribution to the Invention to Innovation exhibit, I was interested specifically in how particular inventions were conceptualized, constructed, and used; though the interviews do contain a good deal of information about the history of the inventions in which I was interested, the interview might be of little use to an engineer or a chemist interest in the same invention. Likewise, a person interested in the interviewees’ respective roles at 3M might find the interview wanting as well. A functional analysis of either the interviewee or subject of discussion might have been an effective way to shape a more useful primary source of information. Although a system of macro-appraisal for oral history might not answer all the questions future historians might ask, such an approach could provide a greater level of consistency in terms of what sorts of information were preserved.

Monuments We Can Argue Over

On February 15th, the Globe and Mail Online reported that Estonia’s parliament voted in favour of removing a monument that commemorated soldiers from the former Soviet Union who died during the Second World War. Although the article generated over seventy comments from online readers concerning whether the Soviet Union played a beneficial or detrimental role in Estonia, not one person questioned the idea that a memorial could be torn down.

Amid accusations that this moves represents an assault on fallen soldiers, Estonia’s foreign minister has responded by arguing that since the memorial is not located in a war cemetery, it is a political monument rather than a monument that helps to remember the deaths of soldiers. The decision to remove the monument is also framed as an assertion of Estonian independence from interference in its domestic affairs, but again it is assumed that memorials are not permanent fixtures.

Does this mean that memorials are of our time? Museum exhibits and permanent collections undergo periodic updating, buildings are re-claimed for alternate uses, and even historical plaques, which are written to last generations, have in some cases been re-written in order to more accurately represent marginalized parties. Memorials, exhibits, and plaques all have the power to educate people about the past, and public historians should be vigilant in ensuring that accurate and balanced information is being conveyed to the viewer. It stands to reason then that a monument can be changed to include up-to-date information; however, the Estonian government is removing this monument as a political gesture and in so doing is depriving its citizens of an opportunity to reclaim and commemorate a challenging part of Estonia’s history.

I wonder what will go in the space where this monument stood. Will the government install a plaque commemorating how removing the Soviet monument served to affirm Estonian independence? Though I have little knowledge of Russian-Estonian relations and was unable to imagine an equivalent situation with which I could empathize, I believe it would be better for Estonia to leave the monument where it stands. Instead of removing the memorial, it could be re-dedicated to commemorate the violence that is experienced by both aggressors and victims during war. In this way, Soviet soldiers could continue to be honoured and Estonians could commemorate their occupation by and subsequent independence from the former Soviet Union.
Like all forums where historical discussions occur, memorials represent a space to argue, discuss, shout, coax, appeal, and move towards a consensus about our history.

Mar. 13, 2007

World's Worst Interview

Is it possible to be your best by acting your worst?

The Public History students are busy searching out and securing internships in our field for the summer, and this week we are talking about selling ourselves to employers and granting bodies. World’s Worst is a game where players take turns coming up with and acting out the most awful scenarios possible. Since most of us will need to be interviewed before getting hired or our internship, this game is going to help us become the best interviewee by getting out in the open all the things that could go wrong if we did not play this hilarious game.

The object of World’s Worst Interview is two-fold: to continuously have individuals standing up and providing examples of bad things that an interviewee could say or do in an interview, and to brainstorm a list of examples that can be de-briefed afterwards.

Participants start by sitting in a circle. When somebody has an idea, she or he stands up, quickly acts out the scenario (no explanations allowed!), and sits back down so that another person can stand up. The facilitator should try to let the game go on long enough to create a good list of bad examples but keep it short enough so that people still want to play for longer. (This is a critical trick about running any activity: Always leave’em wanting more!) Afterwards, participants can look at the list of examples that would not get a job candidate hired and as a group come up with positive actions that would help a job candidate look his best or her best.

A good round of World’s Worst Interview and the subsequent debriefing will probably take at least 45 minutes, but hopefully this activity will help participants to come away with some effective interview tips and to feel a little less nervous about that first encounter with a future employer.

Yah Hoo!

Mar. 7, 2007

Historical Cinema that Succeed

The Last King of Scotland is a compelling film that tells a story of Idi Amin Dada’s regime in Uganda in the 1970s, while also speaking to the political and social conditions still faced by some countries in Africa today. The film has won numerous awards in the past two months, particularly for Forrest Whitaker’s portrayal of Amin, and consequently will likely be seen by millions of viewers. Because I knew nothing about Idi Amin before seeing The Last King of Scotland, when I returned home from watching the film I was eager to learn about the real story of Idi Amin. I expected there to be certain discrepancies and omissions in the film compared to Amin’s real life; however, it was an unexpected surprise to learn that supporting actor James McAvoy plays a character that never existed in real life and was merely based on certain advisors surrounding Amin during his regime.

In spite of my surprise, I have to consider my experience with The Last King of Scotland successful in a historical sense because the film made me want to go home and learn more about Uganda’s past. Although Wikipedia was the first information source I consulted, I discovered that the official movie website also had a (sparse) timeline and (limited) interpretation to expand on (or broadly sketch out?) the story of Amin’s regime; the filmmakers anticipated that movie-goers would be interested to learn more about this man’s time in Uganda! (If only they had more information! Perhaps we can hope the DVD's special features will relate more of the history!)

Historians and theorists continue to debate how the past should be portrayed and interpreted in film, but as a public historian I think that one standard by which films should be judged is their ability to make people curious about the past. If a historical film, be it a documentary or a Hollywood-produced blockbuster, raises no questions and leaves the audience believing that the film is the be-all-and-end-all on that particular subject, then it has, to a certain degree, failed. The five-minute feature or the 12-disc DVD box collection that makes people run to their library or computer thinking “That can’t be right!” or “I wonder what else there is to this story?” is a success because it gets people thinking critically. If somebody films a movie or writes a letter to argue for an alternative interpretation of that history, so much the better!

Anybody who decides to make a living in the field of history probably thinks that History is an important subject for one reason or another. As members of a discipline that teaches critical thinking skills, historians should be as interested in introducing these skills to others as they are in sharing information about the past. A more discerning audience can only compel formal historians to put out more well-argued and well-presented history.

Mar. 6, 2007

The Power Flower

As the Public History class considers the problems associated with discussing the history of different ethnic groups, it might be helpful to think about where we are situated in our society. The purpose of the Power Flower is to help individuals identify whether they are part of the majority of their community or in the minority in order to be sensitive to others with less power in that community.

Each participant needs a Power Flower exercise sheet, which can be found on the Zhaba Facilitator Collective website or from the book Educating for a Change. The group first takes time to fill in each of the small, inner petals of the flower by describing themselves according to each category (ex. Social Class: middle class, working class, etc.; Religion: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc.). Since some information is of a more personal nature, it is important to let participants know that they do not need to share their answers with the rest of the group; this is an activity to help individuals become conscious of their own place in different power hierarchies.

Once everybody has completed their inner petals, the group comes back together and discusses who makes up the majority for each category. The answers go into the outer petals. How many categories can each individual place themselves in the majority?

To bring the activity back to a Public History context, the group might afterwards discuss the influence of power hierarchies on the public history field. How could an individual’s background affect the choice of a an exhibit’s topic or how the information is presented? What could a curator do to ensure that different groups are presented in a fair and inclusive manner?

Although in the Litigious Age, public historians need to ensure that the rights and freedoms of others are not trampled on in museum exhibits, it’s also just a plain shame to hurt somebody else’s feelings because you never considered their point of view. The Power Flower is a useful way to anticipate some potential trouble spots in an exhibit that could anger or offend visitors. Furthermore, this activity should make people more aware of some of the biases that caused the ROM so much trouble in 1990 with the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit.


Mar. 4, 2007

Please Touch, Pick Up, Use, Press, and Pass Around

Three weeks ago I visited Museum London for the official opening of Invention to Innovation, the exhibit this year’s Public History class put together. All of our hard work paid off! As I mentioned in a previous post, the Public History crew needed to be a little more intentional, and in the last week before our contribution to the exhibit was due, we pulled it off! We came to a consensus on our big idea, narrative, and structure, which definitely created a more unified exhibit of which I think we are all pretty proud.

As I walked through the different rooms of the exhibit, I have to admit that I didn’t read all of the text. I was too busy looking at the cool stuff that we were presenting! There are some really great pieces that have a lot of intricate working parts, such as old type-writers, a roller organ, and a massive linotype machine. A plethora of items have buttons to be pressed, cranks to be turned, and levers to be pulled; however, next to most of these artifacts are signs asking the visitor to please not touch. Reluctantly, I demonstrated self-restraint and obeyed the signs.

During the operational life of the artifacts, these items sat in offices, factories, or living rooms where they were touched and used by their operators. In a museum though, the artifacts are cut off from that human interaction, and the visitor loses an opportunity to interact with the past. Did an operator need to be strong to pull a particular lever? How hard was to get clear reception on that radio? The ability to use an item on display would help visitors to relate with individuals in the past who had to use a phonograph or Balopticon slide projector. Perhaps it might be better to have signs saying “Please use with care in order to allow others to learn from our artifacts as well.”

I know… the signs say “Please do not touch” because artifacts are often delicate. If the items are damaged, future visitors will not be able to have the same experience… But what if the items on display could be broken without the consequence of forever losing a piece of our past? Replicas are already a ubiquitous part of many museums: dinosaur fossils, parts of dioramas, the costumes historical actors wear, and even entire open-air museums are replicas that are designed to help visitors interact with and understand the past! If an object looks, feels, and works the same way as an authentic artifact, it can have a much bigger educational impact by being used than the actual artifact that sits protected in a glass case.

In addition to the educational value that using replica items at a museum would have, museum gift stores could also sell replicas as another source of revenue, thus capitalizing on a market interested in items with an antique look.

For now, it is important to obey the “Please do not touch” signs; however, when you come to the Invention to Innovation exhibit, think about how you might learn about the past differently if you could reach out and touch it.