What Would You Save? Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity

From the playbill…

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity is set during a war that has lasted one hundred years and devastated the entire world. Yet, three women from opposite ends of the conflict still manage to find common threads of humanity through the majesty of a painting. The idea that a beautiful work of art could transcend what seem to be insurmountable boundaries seems like it could have been ripped from today’s headlines and leaves the mind swirling long after the show has ended.

Despite its long title, this play was meant for me.


In nine words, the title captures not only the imperatives of oral and intangible history of telling untold stories, but also with the final word — humanity— a dose of reality about what is at stake. I’ve written about my feelings about dystopian narratives, especially as they force us to take stock of the world while acknowledging its fragility.

Continue reading “What Would You Save? Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”

1785 Forever

1785Does preserving old places–and the memories they represent–matter? Do the individual and collective memories embodied in old places help people have better lives?

Tom Mayes, a colleague of mine who is spending six months in Rome as a recipient of the 2013 Rome Prize, asks these questions in his latest post investigating “Why Old Places Matter.”

As I’ve read his series it has brought back my own thoughts on memory and memorializing–where stone structures on a battlefield or ever-living trees bear witness to the past. At this intersection of memory-place-monument these objects of remembrance serve as a physical manifestation and encapsulation of a collective connection to the past.

Old places provide a tangible reminder that something happened–that humans stood in this exact spot and did something. That we interacted, enacted change, or fought for a cause.

They are questions that I am also thinking about as I prepare for my last day at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue, the soon to be former headquarters of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Continue reading “1785 Forever”

Diary. Letter. Novel. Movie. Hologram. History.

This essay contains spoilers for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

There is a moment in the second half of Cloud Atlas when physicist Isaac Sachs posits a few theories on the nature of the past.

“Exposition: the workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic. The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave. Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction-in short, belief-grows ever “truer.” The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.”

This is nothing revelatory to those of us who work in the public history field–memory is fickle, the objects we interpret can only tell a fraction of the story and for every oral history produced a recognition of perspective is taken into account. In graduate school we spent days talking about authenticity trying to determine what exactly is the nature of historical truth. Continue reading “Diary. Letter. Novel. Movie. Hologram. History.”

From Mountains to Stones…and Hope

Memory. Symbolism. Knowledge.

It isn’t so often that an opportunity presents itself…an opportunity to gaze upon something that few others have yet to see.

Of course I was by no means the first, the only, and after August 28th I certainly won’t be one of the few–but yesterday I had an opportunity to see the memorial to Martin Luther King prior to dedication.

The tour, made possible by the DC chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, was an hour long journey through the memorial’s creation — which began with a discussion by a group of brothers from Alpha Phi Alpha (the first African American fraternity) about inclusion, and that the lack of recognition of African American contributions to the American story in DC was why African American’s did not come to the National Mall.  After the origin story our guide walked us through design and development–explaining how an international jury of 11 judged 900 projects from 52 countries and brought them down to less than twenty in 3 days…and then to one.

With this Faith….

During the tour we walked through the process of meaning. Who was this for? Why is it being built? Where should we build it? Despite the initial conversation, this memorial is not meant only for African Americans. The foundation sees it as an international monument to a man who advocated for peace across the globe.

Symbolism.  As our guide,  Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr. (executive architect), walked us though the Foundation’s intent he also described the path of choosing a sculptor (Master Lei) based on artistic merit, to the quotations (each one following along the themes of love, justice, democracy, and hope) that will edge along the site each revealing a man, though imperfect personally, that saw beyond civil rights to human rights.

The memorial sits along the tidal basin juxtaposed between Jefferson and Lincoln. While the connections between this historical lineage are obvious, it is clear that the memorial is speaking to the individual–emphasizing, as King did time and again that each of us have the potential to ask/demand change. Day or night his face on the largest free standing granite statue serves as a mechanism to encourage and remind visitors of the struggle:

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

This is the memorial. Stepping through a narrow passage between two natural rock formations-despair, and coming around to see the relief of Martin Luther King with his message of hope. An image intense in its realism, right down to the veins on his hands.

On Memorials and Meaning:

There are realities to consider when building a memorial on the National Mall. In a post  9/11 world stopping cars from running aground are just as important as determining the symbolism of cherry blossoms that come alive, every year, around the time of MLK’s assassination.  Details matter and I couldn’t help wondering, as we walked around the space, of what meaning visitors will derive from the memorial. Will they sense the work of the architects, historians, the King family? Will they sense all the hands and hearts and minds that brought it to this existence?

Will they see, as I do (and despite this not being a civil rights memorial), the influence of Gandhi and the knowledge that without the work of King and the courageous acts of ordinary people who took a stand during sit ins and freedom rides that my life would have been drastically different.

What meaning will they gain from the visit? The Foundation and all of the others involved in the project have thought long and hard about the message they want to convey, however meaning, like many other elements of the past, are derived from the individual. It is that meaning which will determines the legacy of Martin Luther King and tell us if this memorial will enable that message to withstand the test of time.


Why no pictures? While I did take some there was a request to not post the image online. I will try to post them following the dedication on August 28. In the meantime you can see them on the monument site.  Check out this article about the memorial in the Washington Post.

Pursuing Pensacola: Final Thoughts

Wordle Map of the NCPH 2011 Conference by Cathy Stanton

In the last week I’ve written a bunch of blog posts about Pensacola….

NCPH 2011: Shared Authority, Creating a Commons–Another Day at THAT Camp
NCPH 2011: A Public History “Spring” Break (blog.preservationnation.org)
History that is Difficult to Do (NCPH Conference Blog)
Preservation Roundup: Public History Edition (Part 1)
Preservation Roundup: Public History Edition (Part 2)

…and this one is the last. As always NCPH brought with it a meeting of minds, and a reminder of why I love history so much. The commitment and passion that comes with this yearly gathering forces me to look at how I work, and how I see the past with different tools and audiences. Often, I leave with a lot of great ideas, without enough time to bring them to fruition–and I would love for this year to be different. Specifically, I am excited about the next five years and what the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (which started this morning with shots being fired at Fort Sumter) will mean for the growth of historical discourse and memory in this country. How can we look to and learn from other commemorations to make sure that this volatile and game-changing period of America’s past is understood to  its full measure?

It’s an exciting time for public history–and I am proud and exhilarated to be a part of it.

Food. Food. Food.

What would a blog post about my travels be without a conversation about food. While I did eat at various places in the Historic Pensacola Village, there are three that I wanted to highlight

Dolce in Historic Pensacola Village: I really should only have to type out the following words–home made ice cream. With chocolate flavored with beer, or vanilla with fig each of the flavors at this store were great to eat. Especially in the lovely spring weather. The fact that it is located inside one of the Village’s restored homes makes it even better.

Five Sisters Blues Cafe: The marquee at the left may give you an idea of what the ambiance of this cafe was like. With live blues music, and perfect fried chicken and macaroni I was left in a puddle of southern home cooking goodness. I ate far too much for my own good, but would tell you that even if you eat until you can’t eat any more, you must try the mashed potatoes.

Nacho Daddies: I know the name is slightly ridiculous, but I loved the pineapple-mango salsa on my vegetarian/chicken tacos. It’s a great, independent fast food place with an excellent vibe. The sopapilla‘s were flaky and sweet and complimented the light nature of the tacos.

Everyone ate ate at least one Fried Green Tomatoes while in Florida. Yum!


Spark 11: Giving Creativity a Jump Start

After the inspiration what do you see?
Some writing, and magic or a dancing bee–
But it all starts with a nudge or a lark
That’s right, sometimes its all about Spark!

So in the last post I mentioned Spark! an organization that encourages artists of all kinds to inspire others. It’s a quick ten day process. First two artists are paired up and then exchange an old piece of work that serves as the others inspiration. After ten days a new item is produced based on that “inspiration piece”.

I was paired up with a photographer, and her inspiration piece was a fantastic image of an old barn that seemed to have a story all its own. The written piece I gave her was a brief section of my National Novel Writing Month project called The Remnant.

Today we posted the results of the project–and I figured I would show, once again, what comes after the inspiration.

Old Barn & It Has A Face

Meriosis and The Remnant/Transgression

I am working on two new posts for the next few weeks one that talks about The King’s Speech (and that ever revolving door of Real vs. Reel) and the other reflects on two recent episodes of This American Life.

Get in Touch With Your Soulfull Self

I know for New Years I said I would try to go to a new exhibit every month — exhibitions that are off my well beaten path.

Ah the best laid plans.

In January my plans to visit the Udvar Hazy Center in Chantilly were thwarted by weather, but I’ll figure out a way to get there for “January” sometime in February/March. For this month I attended a co-worker’s poetry/written word event at Old Town Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory. The assignment (which was partly a SPARK! event) was to look at an exhibition Mixing Bowl: Immigration & Diversity in America and produce a piece that reflected the inspiration. The pieces that were performed were evocative and full of incredible imagery and emotion invoking personal stories of familiar pasts.

One story spoke of a boy at Ellis Island learning about his family’s history–a history that was his by adoption rather than birth; another of of a woman traveling to gain a glimpse of her grandmother.  There was a piece that looked at today’s immigration stories, of becoming a permanent resident, of crawling your way up into the American Dream–and one more that looked from the outside in–from the lens of a DMV worker. All immigrant experiences, just in different times–and different places.

The inspiration came from the art that surrounded us. One piece was filled with butterflies fluttering beyond the canvas, along the walls and floors, obscuring and revealing text; while another was like a still from a movie–a man, dressed in a white shirt and black pants gazing quietly out amidst a subdued cocktail party. The largest installation included three hanging sheets upon which was projected the quiet silhouettes of figures embracing in farewell (or hello!). Then there was the view from what may have been a detention cell made entirely out of tape, and the doll–crying pearls of tears.

Art begets Art. Poetry begets Poetry.  One begets the other. Each told the story of immigration, of our Mixing Bowl from a different perspective. One through visceral visuals, the other through expressive expressions in the form of words. All stories that come from real people from yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Mixing Bowl will run until February 27, 2011 in the Target Gallery at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA (which is one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2011 Dozen Distinctive Destinations).

Note: I will be participating in the next iteration of “SPARK!,” and will be getting in touch (as one of my co-workers friends described it) with my soulfull self.

On Historic Trees and Bearing Witness

On August 23, after standing tall for many years, a tree fell. Under normal circumstances it would be only of note to the occupants living beneath it. They would worry about repair, and fixing the damage, and about hauling away the excess wood for fire-wood to be recycled for some other common purposes. Not this tree.

“Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs,” she wrote on Feb. 23, 1944. “From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind.”

I’ve talked before about Anne Frank, and how her words made an impact on me when I was just a young girl, and continues to do so today. These are her words. This is her tree.

During my last year of graduate school I wrote these words about historic trees and American identity:

American’s connect to history through museums, artifacts owned by presidents, everyday objects, and even popular movies. Part of this experience involves the acknowledgment of the past through monuments and memorials—from simple plaques to great marble pillars often with physical inscriptions denoting a person or site as historic. In particular, there is one unusual monument to the American past—historic trees—which serve to connect the public to the past. These trees can be found intertwined with the natural landscape of a battlefield, a botanical garden, or lining the streets of a growing nation—and when threatened, their importance as identifying markers of the American experience comes to the forefront. They evoke the memory of famous men (and women), battles, and stood at attention as George Washington summoned his troops. Although these trees are not the singular in their role as monuments and memorials to the past, the shadows they cast when threatened and celebrated reflects an American expression of local and national identity—one deeply rooted in the surrounding historical landscape.

My research involved looking at newspaper clippings, mostly eulogies, on lost trees from the early 20th century, though I did include narratives on some present day discussions on historic trees– one of which was the infamous Connecticut Charter Oak. When it died after a great storm in 1856, the New York Times remarked how “proudly it stood, and when tottering with age and reduced to a mere shell of a few inches, by the steady inroads of time itself, it still clung with fondness to the loved spot on which it had witnessed the decay and downfall of many of its associates…” But this tree lived on–through seedlings, furniture, carvings from wood, a monument, pictorial representations on envelopes and, more recently, the Connecticut state quarter.  The linkages between the Connecticut Charter Oak, and the identity of the state solidified its importance to a pre-revolution period in history. (In short, when Britain decided to create the Dominion of New England in 1687, the colony fought back, hiding its charter within the mighty oak).

Witness Tree at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park (Source: Linda Neylon)
Witness Tree at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park (Source: Linda Neylon)

A more recent battle, and one that is perhaps a more fitting comparison to Anne’s magnificent chestnut, involves the Gettysburg Witness trees. A few years ago, some believed that some of the original trees form the Civil War would be torn down–they were not. However most of the language against the supposed destruction spoke of “bearing witness,” or “seeing things that no man alive had seen.”

The same applies for the tree we lost today. For some, as is depicted in the comments for this MSNBC.com article, the tree is a footnote, unimportant and lacking in meaning. For others it is filled with resonance–of a life lost too young, of a people forever changed. With the death of Miep Gies, there really is no human alive who knew and witnessed the lives of those families hiding in the attic. This tree, which inhaled and exhaled, was, in effect, the last living witness to their trials.

These arboreal monuments are all that is left of the past and so will always continue to be revered, honored, and lamented–not just in death, but also for the memories of the past that they invoke.

Robert Frost

Where my imaginary line
Bends square in woods, an iron spine
And pile of real rocks have been founded
And off this corner in the wild
Where these are driven in and piled,
One tree, by being deeply wounded,
Has been impressed as Witness Tree
And made commit to memory
My proof of being not unbounded.
Thus truth’s established and born out,
Though circumstanced with dark and doubt—
Though by a world of doubt surrounded.
The Moodie Forester

Source of quotation: The Diary of Anne Frank, via Washington Post.com article here. To see two other representations of the Charter Oak click here and here.

For the Love of the Game

Invictus Movie Poster
Movie Poster for Invictus with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon

Happy New Year!

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the movies lately. I’ve seen a sports movie set in post-apartheid South Africa, a Hindi movie that made me laugh, a film about loneliness in the so-called friendly skies, and stepped into a fantastical 3D world that provided much food for thought. So, for the next two weeks I’m going to look at these movies and try to pinpoint what they say about winners, finding your passion and epic, fantastic narratives that are really masks for the colonial past.

I know floating out there is the common adage that “history is written by the winners.” Which is true, to some extent. Winners are the one’s who seemingly get to dictate the terms for the narrative, those who survive to describe the victorious battles and the defeat of their foes on their own terms. In effect provide their interpretation for the events that brought them success.

Winning also brings forth a certain amount of pride, and in the case of sports team, a sense of identity with those the team represents. Over the holiday I saw the movie Invictus, which narrates the presidency of Nelson Mandela through his work to bring the South African rugby team (the Springboks) to victory in the 1995 World Cup. While I think Mandela’s role and his relationship with the Springbok’s has been dramatized for the film, his years long relationship with Captian Francois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon in the film) has not. Mandela’s hope was that this team could heal a nation trying to move past the legacy of Apartheid, and to bring unity between black and white South Africans.

I was thinking about this later in the week when my sister and I attended my first ever NFL game at FedEx Field in Washington, DC. As had become the norm this year the home team—the Redskins, were defeated by the Dallas Cowboys. But amidst the maroon and gold I could see that this team, like many in the NFL stirs such strong emotions in those who have been long time fans. We all know how loud and proud fans of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees are—and that many stick by their teams in the good years and the bad—or more often than not, just during the good years. What is it about winning that makes the bond of local identity stronger? Does losing cause some erosion of faith in the city, making it a less enticing place to live and work?

Nelson Mandela and Springbok's captian Francois Pienaar in 1995
Nelson Mandela and Springbok's Captain Froncois Pienaar in 1995 after the Rugby World Cup.

In terms of looking to the past, if the movie is to be believed fully, Mandela saw the Springbok’s as an opportunity, a way to give both black and white in South Africa something to look forward to, a symbol that there was something both sides had in common. What does this say about the larger narrative—including things like the Olympics or other World Cup events where athletes are specifically chosen to represent their country at worldwide tournaments?  Are sports-as-unifiers merely temporary panacea’s to larger issues? Do they actually heal wounds, or just a temporary band-aid that keeps slipping open?

Below is the poem that Nelson Mandela held onto while he was being held in prison.

William Ernest Henley

OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


Civil War cannon and luminaries at Antietam Battlefield by Keith Snyder

This post can also be found on the PreservationNation.org Blog.

I know that Thanksgiving is normally when the holiday lights go up twinkling, bright and cheery. They give you that warm wintry feeling that many associate with both the commercial and religious aspects of the season. However, those lights always remind me that the first week of December is near—and with it the annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination.  On this day, thousands of people drive through the National Park grounds to view the luminaries, one for every single solider who was killed, wounded, or missing on September 17, 1862 — 23,110 in total.

My first experience walking this hallowed ground was in 2000. As a senior in high school I helped to set up the white bags with candles, working with rope to outline a perfect gird. I can’t remember how many I lay down, but I do know what happened at dusk, when each candle sprang to life. From every angle the candles stood at attention, with honor in perfect lines. I guess you can say that they danced, the peaceful glow of the beams a far cry from the violence of those 12 hours–the bloodiest in the entire Civil War.

It has been nine years since I attended the ceremony, but I still spend that first weekend looking for articles, pictures and testimonials. This year I will be in Sharpsburg, Maryland with 20,000 others ready to look out over the field of lights and remember.

The Annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination will take place this year on December 5, 2009 (rain/snow date December 12). More information can be found on the Antietam National Battlefield website.

Illumination is only one way that we remember the past, just as Antietam is not the only battlefield or site that remembers the fallen in this manner. I’d like to hear about some others, so please comment and share.