Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Speaking Up for Heritage

Earlier this week someone asked me why I first became interested in archives and what I like about my job.  I responded with my fairly standard response about my background in public history and how I really like that my place of employment focuses on engaging communities through archival material and placing an emphasis on sharing and education.

The follow-up question to this initial probe is what got me thinking.  The person asked how my personal emphasis on public engagement might influence by views on the recent Library and Archives Canada (LAC) code of conduct fiasco (see here and here for some background on the recent controversy) and the general perception that archives operate as gatekeepers.  My response was predictably focused on the need for balance of accessibility, protection of personal/organization privacy and free speech. 

I use twitter and this blog to talk about a variety of  public history focused topics.  Many of these topics are inspired by or indirectly related to work I'm doing.  Similarly, a lot of my more formal writing and conference presentations have been based on the projects I've been fortunate enough to work on as an employee or volunteer. I can't imagine not being able use these digital and physical spaces of collaboration, sharing, and  expression. 

Countless groups of people have been marginalized by official histories, their stories left out of archival records, and their voices silenced in historical narratives.  History projects of all shapes and sizes have the potential to help marginalized groups have their stories told.  New historical narratives can be created that include a myriad of voices and perspectives.  Silencing the caretakers of historical records can have the impact of silencing the historical records themselves.  Education, outreach, and promotion of new scholarship are essential to making history accessible.

If you haven't already heard it last week Jian Ghomehi's opening essay on Q focused on the LAC code of conduct and he hit the nail right on the head, "...the management of information and memory and artifact is a vocation and maybe a passion that extends naturally beyond their confines of their work day to their communities, their families, to schools..."  History isn't confined to neat little boxes and discussions of history shouldn't be limited to what is arbitrarily deemed acceptable.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fear of Losinig Our Past

A speaker I heard recently spoke about FLOP as a concept which shapes our lives, identifies, and conceptions of history.  The popularity of the FLOP acronym is debatable. But the concept behind the acronym is an interesting one and closely relates to constructions of the past.  Fear of Losing Our Past (FLOP) can impact what is saved, how things are remembered, commemoration, and history generally.

On a personal history level, fear and an overwhelming desire to preserve family history and personally important historical moments can contribute to nostalgia and myth making. I'm inclined to say that fear of losing the past can result in people acting like pack-rats or hoarders.  This hoarding might root from a fear that something important is going to be forgotten or that you can't throw something out because it will result in the destruction of the past. Most archivists and heritage professionals will attest to the fact that it's not practical to keep everything and not everything is worth keeping.

More importantly, the idea of FLOP brought to mind the idea of how historical narratives are created.  Our conception of history isn't perfect.  Memory is fallible and often what we know of the past is limited by what has been saved and what sources are available.  National histories, heroic battles, and heart warming local history moments are all written, constructed, and created by somebody.  Good histories are balanced and look at the past from multiple vantage points. But, how history is presented can change and interpretations of the past are not enshrined in stone.  Just look at how the discipline of social history has developed and many narratives have moved away from the once standard history of great white men.

Does the average museum visitor or average consumer of popular history realize the process that goes into presenting the past for consumption?  I hope so, but I'm not so sure.  Even if the museum exhibit or book is factual and well rounded, it is impossible to present every historical detail in any work.  Historical narratives are made through selection and by selection's very nature things are left out.  No matter how accurate record keeping and oral history accounts are, our conceptions of the past are often imperfect and how we view the past is constantly evolving.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Project of Heart: Hands on History

Comparable to the (official denial) trade value in progress sewing actions I wrote about last week, Project of Heart is a commemoration project which combines an artistic activity with history education.  Project of Heart aims to educate Canadians about the lasting impact of the Indian Residential School system.  The project places an emphasis remembering those students who passed away while at Residential School.

Participants in Project of Heart learn about Residential Schools and are then asked to decorate a small wooden title to represent the death of one child at Residential School.  The education component of Project of Heart focuses on learning through oral history and experiential learning.  Residential Schools Survivors are invited by school and community groups to tell their personal experiences, and give voice to language and traditions that were suppressed by Residential Schools.  The Project of Heart website also offers a great list of educational resources and discussion questions for those facilitating education activities.

Project of Heart also requests that each group focus on a specific Residential School.  Focusing on a particular school and on the students who attended that specific school held make the topic more tangible and less abstract.  The name of the school studied is written on the back of each title decorated by participants.

The artistic activity of the project, decorating a small wooden tile using sharpie markers, emphasizes creating something to remember and commemorate a child who died at Residential School.  Allowing students to express what they have learned through a creative medium makes this project appealing to many educators and the hands on component helps make the history lesson increasingly memorable. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Names and Family History

Last week NPR and CBC played a number of a stories focusing on feminism, the life of working women, and women's right.  Many of these stories were linked to the fact that Friday March 8th was International Women's Day.  The abundance of discussion relating to feminism and women's rights cause me to think about the history behind family names and the impact name taking another last name can have upon family and personal history.

A lot of family history is tangled up in a last name.  Family names can connect you to a genealogy, a cultural identity and to a general sense of family.  Granted the patrilineal nature of family names in Western culture connect individual to a specific type of family history, a history connected by the males of the family. 

Other than the personal impact of changing your name (eg. being identified as belonging to a different family group) name changes can also have a significant impact on historical records and digital footprints. In the case of historical records if  a complete set of birth records, marriage certificates and death records are not available it can be difficult to gain a complete picture of life prior to marriage.

Family names used pre-marriage have a tendency to drop off the face of the earth in certain types of records, photographs, legal documents following marriage, personal correspondence, etc.  Genealogy is typically far easier if you are attempting to follow a family line of males than females. In older records where married women were identified by their husband's name (Mrs. Robert Scott instead of Sally Scott) finding out information about personal identity becomes even more challenged. 

What about in today's abundance of digital records?  What happens to your digital footprint when you change your name?  I suppose it depends on the type of digital record.  It's possible to change your facebook profile, twitter account, and google profile to reflect a name change.  You can easily include both last names in these instances.  However, digital records which you didn't create typically can't be altered.  For example that news article that mentions your work isn't going to be altered to reflect your new name.  And what if your new last name is overly common? Would you be better off continuing your digital identity with your less common pre-name change last name?

I'm don't have a definitive answer. A lot depends on personal preference and what's important to you as an individual.  Changing your name can have impacts well beyond how your write your signature.  Adopting another person's family name can impact your sense of family identity, digital identity, and family history.  On the other hand, a name is just one of many things that make up an individual's identity.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Interactive Canadian History: Sewing Responses to the Past

This week the archive I work at hosted a sewing action as part of the (official denial) trade value in progress project.   This project engages people in discussion and reflection relating to reconciliation, truth telling, and Canada's history of colonialism and Residential Schools.  This interactive art project stimulates discussion about Canada's history while allowing participants to engage in a tactile activity.

The work initiated by Leah Dector and curated by Jamie Isaac, features a 12x14 feet composite of Hudson Bay blankets sewn together, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2009 statement that "we also have no history of Colonialism" sewn at the center of the blankets.

At exhibitions and public showings of the work, the general public is invited to write down their responses to the piece in an accompanying book.  These responses are then taken to sewing actions, where participants can choose any response and hand-sew it onto the blanket.

The interactive component of this project means that the visual appearance of the Hudson Bay blankets are constantly evolving based on what participants decide to sew into the blanket. The project reflects the thoughts and decisions of the sewing participants and the visitors who wrote down their responses to the work.  The interactive component of this project resonated with me in  terms of educational programming and public history. 

The individuals who participated in the sewing action this week talked a lot about history based topics while sewing their chosen words into the blanket.  Much of the discussion revolved around Residential Schools, land rights, the history of the Hudson Bay Company, the continued marginalization of Indigenous people, and a variety of other historically informed topics.

The sewing action actively engaged participants in an interactive art project, Canadian history and engaging discussions about Indigenous rights in Canada.  Learning in a less structured environment combined with a tactile activity has the potential to be much more memorable than a traditional lecture about Canadian history or presentation about the Hudson Bay Company.  It's great to see creative projects engaging people with the past.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Places of Conversation

This week my work is hosting a number of visiting artists and scholars who specialize in work relating to apology, denial, reconciliation, and Indigenous issues more broadly.  It's been great to have the opportunity to listen to and talk with individuals who are passionate about their work and who approach historical and contemporary issues in creative ways.

Many of the events being held this week focus on the interaction of students with established practitioners and professionals.  For example, one event involved a print making class having the opportunity to speak with artists who have experience working with historical sources, addressing difficult topics, and Indigenous art practice. The students had the opportunity to participate in discussion in a relaxed, informal environment and interact with people who are well known in their respective artistic fields. 

This event reminded me of the importance of spaces which facilitate open discussion and the joy of having many points of view in one room. In this instance the discussion was help in an archival space and part of the discussion focused on the ethics behind using archival material in artistic, research and curatorial practice. I like the idea of archives being places of conversation, places of educational development and safe spaces for new and established scholars to interact.

Seeing a well known scholar or artist speak at a conference is one thing.  As a young scholar or student asking a question during the presentation might be intimidating, as might approaching the speaker without an introduction.  Having opportunities for students to interact with established professionals in a low pressure environment can be a huge boon in terms of networking, confidence building, and professional growth.

I also think it's important for academic institutions to open their doors to people outside of the academy.  Some of the visiting scholars this week are from other universities, but some also have their own studio practices or focus on community based work.  Broad community engagement and remembering that there is a big world outside of your own institution (academic or otherwise) have the potential to open new avenues of collaboration.

What type of spaces do you think best encourage conversation amongst new and established professionals? 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Mapping the World: Perspective, Artistry, and Map Making

My most recent post, "Mapping the World: Perspective, Artistry, and Map Making" can be seen over on the Active History site.  The post looks at the role art has played in the creation of maps and the evolution of map making in a digital age.