Map of Tenderness.  Dreaming Objects.  First Letter.  Whisper.

What images do these words and phrases evoke for you?  And why have I chosen them, seemingly out of the blue?

Museum of VancouverThey’re the titles of some of the pieces on display in the Museum of Vancouver’s Art of Craft exhibit, which launched last week, and I had the good fortune to attend its opening party last Wednesday night with a friend.

Even though I often bemoan the fact that I can’t quite grasp modern art – especially pieces that reflect elusive minimalism (read: geometric shapes on large, white canvases) – I’m always in awe of the creative spirit that seeps through artistic works of the imagination.

The MOV’s Art of Craft exhibit was no exception: it inspired wonder, reflection, amazement, and, yes, perplexity.  (Modern art seems, at times, to be a very unsettling question mark – a beautiful one, of course, but nevertheless a question mark.)

Elegantly laid out, the exhibition leads the viewer through three different galleries.  The first is entitled Unity & Diversity.  It showcases a wide range of Canadian handiworks recently on display at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale in Korea.  The second is called By Hand.  It features pieces from BC and the Yukon, and explores the artists’ creative processes.  The third represents Craft from the Republic of Korea, and provides the visitor with a glimpse into Korea’s tradition of craftmaking and the directions it is taking.

Although all of the galleries contained unique and thought-provoking pieces, I think I lingered the longest in the first one on Unity & Diversity, perhaps because I was most intrigued by the ideas presented in its opening panel.  Printed in large font to the left of the smaller, introductory text were the words of art critic and curator, Rachel Gotlieb.  It read as follows:

The absence of a national style for craft may be a good thing for current makers because there is no domineering aesthetic or style to overcome.

The introductory text to Unity & Diversity, into which the above quote is also incorporated, expresses the idea that it is the diverse imaginations and talents of our artists that define Canadian craftmaking, that there is “no such thing as a specifically ‘Canadian’ type of craft.”  This seems to be an upbeat, modern approach to a more general – and age-old – lament: that Canada has no national culture to speak of that is uniquely her own.

Rather than bemoan the lack of a dominant aesthetic, the curators of Unity & Diversity stress the strength – and, ironically, unity – that results from the “rich layers of difference” from which Canadian craftmaking is woven.  And Gotlieb’s words are a reminder of a positive side that I had not considered before: that the lack of a national style frees up the artist to explore what is on his or her heart – free from the constraint of having to conform to a dominant tradition and free from the impulse to purposely react against it because it is the status quo.

This introductory panel was beautifully written – and the rest of the text throughout the different galleries was too.  I’m certain the authors revised countless drafts to get it just right – a balance of scholarly research and audience-friendly language.

Dreaming ObjectsIt’s just a pity that very few people, at least the ones I observed, stopped long enough to read it.  Many simply threw a perfunctory glance in its direction before walking on eagerly to see the actual pieces. 

Granted, the design and layout might have had something to do with this.  Rendered in white on a beige background, the text tastefully – but also unfortunately – blended into the neutral backdrop.  Moreover, the panel was placed in a rather narrow part of the entrance to the first gallery, with most of the craft pieces visible only when you turned a corner past the panel.  Both the narrow space (not so conducive to reflective pausing & reading on a crowded evening) and the enticing corner (very conducive to suspense: what lies around it?) likely sealed the fate of the opening text panel, however well written…

All of this reminds me of what my Digital History professor had emphasized when we were designing our virtual exhibit on William Harvey last year: that text panels should be the last option when communicating a message because, well, people don’t really like to read in an exhibit setting…they’d much rather interact with the things on display; at the very least, they’d much rather observe them directly without text getting in the way.

I think I’m going to experience museums quite differently now since completing my degree…

This week’s Public History readings examine the relationship between history and the environment. Both Rebecca Conard’s and David Glassberg’s articles mention a key idea that environmental historians take for granted: that there is nothing natural about “nature”, nothing inevitable about the way that physical landscapes have evolved over time. The presupposed dichotomy between the urban and the “wild”, between human beings, on the one hand, and the “natural” environment, on the other, is not so clear cut at all. Rather, as Glassberg and Conard show, individuals, communities, organizations, and governments have played an important (if at times unnoticed or unemphasized) role in shaping the physical landscape. [1]

Both authors point out how the environment has often reflected the heavy hand of human agency in order to make it conform to certain ideas about desirable landscapes. Their discussions of national parks, in particular, suggest that what a landscape does not show is just as important – or even more so – than what it does show. Speaking of national parks in the western United States, Glassberg writes that “the landscapes tourists encountered in these parts, seemingly inhabited only by elk and buffalo, would not have existed if the native peoples had not first been defeated and removed to reservations, and the wildlife populations carefully managed to encourage picturesque megafauna and discourage pesky wolves.” [2] Similarly, Conard mentions how the desire of the US National Park Service to present parks as “pristine” and “uninhabited” spaces were influenced by ideas about the “romantic wilderness”; such an approach to national parks meant that visitors would not see that “these landscapes were ‘uninhabited’ only because U.S. Indian removal policies either had killed the former inhabitants or had relocated them to reservations” [3].

What’s missing from the physical landscape, then, is as instructive as what is apparent to the naked eye. How to convey a landscape’s significance and complexity to a general (and often uninformed) audience, in terms of its cultivated image as well as the absence or removal of elements of its historical development, remains an important task for the public historian. It’s a task that, as Conard strongly suggests, would benefit from discussion and collaboration among those who are intimately involved in preserving and presenting the history of the environment: historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land managers. [4]

In essence, Glassberg’s and Conard’s articles remind me that the landscape is also a source of historical information. It can be “read” as a historical text for insights into the changing values of a community, region, or nation over time. “Landscapes,” as Glassberg writes, “are not simply an arrangement of natural features, they are a language through which humans communicate with one another.” [5] Of course, as the author shows, this language is a complex one, reflecting conflicting interpretations and understandings of the environment. These conflicts also raise important questions about how one conception of the landscape comes to dominate others (and thus to shape its preservation and development in specific ways), requiring us to ask, as Glassberg does, “whose side won out and why?” [6]

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[1] Rebecca Conard, “Spading Common Ground” in Public History and the Environment, edited by Ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino, (Florida: Krieger, 2004) 3-22. David Glassberg, “Interpreting Landscapes,” in ibid., 23-36.

[2] Glassberg, 25.

[3] Conard, 6.

[4] Ibid., 4-5, 8.

[5] Glassberg, 29.

[6] Ibid.

When I was studying history as an undergraduate student, I was particularly fascinated by discussions about historiography. Perhaps it was the influence of my English Lit background, but I tended to do close readings of historical accounts, approaching them almost as literary texts that reflected much about the assumptions and attitudes, biases and values of the writer. It was therefore interesting to be asked in certain history classes to analyse the works of historians not primarily for what they revealed about the past, but for what insights they provided about the particular way of doing history that was “in vogue” at the time.

Over the course of this year, I’ve seen how the idea of the present’s imposition on the past is as applicable to public history as it is to traditional, scholarly history. History in the public realm is certainly as much (or perhaps even more) about the present — that is, the “present” of whoever is, or was, writing the history, composing the plaque text, or curating the exhibit, for instance — as it is about the past.

Museums, for example, as Helen Knibb’s article, “ ‘Present but not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections,” suggests, do not necessarily present information, in the context of women’s history, about the actual lives and experiences of women from a particular time period. Instead, the artifacts may reveal more about the preoccupations and personal tastes of curators, or about the collecting or donating impulses of those whose items are on display. With regards to the latter, Knibb suggests that women may have simply donated items they thought were important from the standpoint of the museum or of society, rather than in relation to their own experiences. She raises the interesting question of whether “museum collections tell us more about how women collect than how they lived their lives.” [1] Knibb’s article reminds me that museums themselves are constructed sites that are very much influenced by contemporary concerns.

The idea that public history is as much about the time period of the people presenting the history as it is about the history being presented is, I’m sure, hardly startling. But it does remind me of the need which underlies the rationale for these blogs – the need for self-reflexivity. As history students, my peers and I have been trained to read historical accounts critically, with an eye open to its constructed nature, to the ways in which the account reflects the biases of the historian and the preoccupations of his or her time. As public history practitioners, we will have to direct that critical gaze inwards, to assess how our own assumptions and biases are shaping the histories we will help to produce. Moreover, we will also have to negotiate our way through the assumptions and biases of others, who, in the collaborative realm of public history, will also have a stake – sometimes a very substantial one – in the history-making process. Given how contentious history in the public realm can be, not only the need for critical self-reflection but also the ability to practice what Rebecca Conard has called the “art of mediation” [2] are crucial requirements for the practicing public historian.

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[1] Helen Knibb, “‘Present But Not Visible’: Searching For Women’s History in Museum Collections,” Gender & History 6 (1994): 355, 361-362. The quote is from page 362.

[2] Rebecca Conard, “Facepaint History in the Season of Introspection,” The Public Historian 25, no. 4 (2003): 16. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/.

I like words. I like their abundance. Their variety. The different nuances that they contain. I like how a word like “melancholy,” for example, has a slightly different flavour than “forlorn,” or how the word “myth” conveys something deeper – more emotional, more enduring, more fluid – than its neutral variant, “story.”

Now, most of my Public History peers would probably say that I don’t just like words – I like polysyllabic words. I’ll be the first to admit that long-ish and rather atypical words have a tendency to come to me, unbidden, and that I have an equal tendency to utter them aloud, without thinking. This penchant for the polysyllabic has sometimes even gotten me into trouble, won me unintended notoriety among my peers. 😉

As someone studying in the field of Public History, I realize that I have to think especially carefully about the words that I use, not only because using the “wrong” word can alienate a general audience but also because choosing the “right” word involves weighing various needs, such as those of the client and of the audience, as well as my own for precise language and “good” history. So, while I might immediately prefer the word “auspicious” over “lucky” or feel that “appropriated” explains a situation more clearly than “took,” I’m learning to pause and reconsider the effects of my instinctive word choices, and I’m learning to negotiate the sometimes conflicting needs and desires that exist at the micro-level of diction.

What I didn’t expect was to have to consider the machine as an audience as well. And yet that is what Dan Cohen’s blog post has drawn to my attention. In “When Machines are the Audience,” Cohen suggests that the age of machine-readable text means that we’ll need to write a little differently – or at least with the awareness that what we write can be more, or less, visible in a digital environment depending on the words that we use. The implication is that because text can be read by machines and mined using keyword searches, it is better to use precise and even unique terms or tags in related documents, so that the writing can be more easily searched, grouped, or retrieved. Cohen mentions, for example, how coming up with a unique string of words to identify related history websites can facilitate the process of narrowing searches to these sites only, so that relevant research information can be found. He also cites the example of a legitimate, history-related email being marked as spam, because of its unfortunate use of certain words that are high on the list of favorites for spammers. [1]

Looking over the words I used in a recent email to a friend, I’ll confess that terms ranging from “usurp” and “misnomer” to “vignette” and “quadratic” (yes, as in the quadratic equation) made their way in. (You are probably feeling some pity for my friend right now.) However, I’m consoled, and slightly amused, by the fact that what stands out as atypical word usage is precisely what spam filters ignore. At least, in this area, my penchant for the polysyllabic – for what’s seen as the atypical – has some redemptive purpose. 🙂
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[1] Daniel J. Cohen, “When Machines are the Audience,” Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog, http://www.dancohen.org/blog/posts/when_machines_are_the_audience.