Thursday, April 10, 2008

Plenary session with Andrew Ferguson

Public Plenary: Andrew Ferguson, author of Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America

(Scroll down for a full video posting of Ferguson's talk.)

Having not realized this session started at 7:30 instead of 8:00, I unfortunately was only able to sit in on the last portion of the plenary. However, some poignant points were addressed: such as the important role great historical figures have on the presentation of history to the public and how to present history to the public. The first point was captured wonderfully with his example of a visitor laying a flower on Lincoln’s tomb. The man was from the former Czechoslovakia who learned of Lincoln as a child and then spent time in a concentration camp during WWII where a vision of Lincoln came to him stating “All men are created equal…” and that he just needed to remember this and he knew if he did, he would be all right. His visit to Lincoln’s grave was a thank you for this vision for it gave him the strength needed to survive. The history of this one man, Lincoln, impacted another man so greatly, he felt he owed a thank you to him in person. Which then brings up the second point, how to interpret these extraordinary people to the public in an effective way. Ferguson pointed out that most of history taught today focuses around movements and not the specific people behind them and felt that “history as presented to the public has to give itself over to the dramatic, the incident filled…that hooks people”. This now gets into the possible idea of Disnefying history-making the experience just as important as the message-a topic of many discussions in public history and museums for some time. So I pose the question can less be more-or is more really more? And how do you effectively evaluate the difference?


Kevin M. Bartoy said...

I was a bit disturbed by Ferguson's negative attitude towards histories of movements or groups rather than individuals.

I think that there is a middle ground that is needed here. There are definitely "great" individuals who had a great impact on history, but by and large, history is a process directed by many, primarily "anonymous" or "average" individuals.

It is important that we do not disempower the present by creating histories that make it seem as if only "great" men and women create history. I believe that we make history every day.

It does not take a Lincoln to change the course of history. And, without the many movements and people that surrounded and supported him, there may have never been a Lincoln for historians to write about.

Jay M. Price said...

I couldn't help but be somewhat amused by his comments about trend-based history being out of favor with the general public. There is, truth be told, an aspect to this. Many of the people I meet who are intersted in history tend to see it as a branch of what I call "leadership studies"--you study great figures to get a sense of how to handle situations. A very ancient understanding of history, but not always relevant. I do think the personal is important. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wrote in _God's Debris_ that most academics are boring because we like ideas whereas most people are really interested in other people. That said, I think the personal, not the great is the issue here. The slave narratives of individual slaves from the Hermitage were just as powerful as anything from Jackson.

Kevin M. Bartoy said...

I totally agree. It needs that aspect of the personal to really draw people in and allow the to identify with the past.

One of the great contradictions of archaeology is the fact that we are able to tell the stories of "those without history" but at the same time we are usually forced to talk in generalities about communities.

I often find this a problem.

It is much easier for visitors to a place like The Hermitage to identify with the Jackson Family when they can read their letters, diaries, etc. versus trying to identify with the enslaved community writ large through their material culture.

It is a hurdle. Definitely not insurmountable. I suppose I consider my primary challenge.