Finding Relevance

Just a heads up:
Today is November 20. Due to unforeseen circumstances I am sadly 10k words behind on my National Novel Writing Month challenge. This is going to be a fun ten days!

Below is the text of a blog posting that went up today on the PreservationNation Blog. You can read it there. Or just scroll down.

Coffeehouses, Storytelling, and Relevance

This could be the story of Starbucks, Saxby’s, or Caribou Coffee. This could be the story of hundreds of independent coffee houses that dot the American landscape. Almost 240 years ago, a Williamsburg wigmaker named Richard Charlton opened up a coffeehouse. A few feet from the capitol building; this coffeehouse served as a space where colonists would gather to talk, socialize, debate, and gossip.

However, in 1776, amidst revolutionary turmoil, that coffeehouse became the scene of a clash between the tyranny of the stamp act and revolutionary fever. Today, Colonial Williamsburg (CW) is reopening the coffeehouse to the public, and like much of the interpretation it will tell a familiar piece of the larger story about American independence. I read about this yesterday in the Washington Post in an article that talks about how CW’s shift to active storytelling is a part of their broader plan to make history relevant.

This, I suppose, is the watchword for the historical profession: We are always trying to find ways of maintaining relevance, finding relevance, or being relevant. It is a battle that we have been fighting for a long time—and one linked to the mass media craze, where entertainment comes in the form of cell phone applications and video games. We are constantly afraid that those we want to educate, to inform, will pass us by without the right presentation, the right hook. We are afraid that the children of tomorrow won’t recognize how we got the Declaration of Independence, or why we fought in World War II—and instead be consumed by the latest in the world of pop culture. That one day, history may become irrelevant.

But isn’t that what doing history is all about? Making those connections to the present and acknowledging that with every generation relevance shifts according to what is that generation sees in the mirror? That meaning, and acknowledgment of that meaning is integral to the broader need for identity ?

Those of us who listened to Donovan Rykema’s speech at the National Preservation Conference know that this is something that historic preservationists deal with regularly. While some of us may agree or disagree with Rypkema, relevance hovers just above the horizon. Maybe finding relevance is not so much a watchword or a fire bell in the night for the historical profession but our modus operendi and is something we should all be proud of.

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