dan spock - in defense of nostalgia
Post on 15-Nov-2014
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In defense of nostalgiaDan Spock We all know what nostalgia is and why it must be greeted with deep skepticism by the historian. We think of nostalgia as the sentimental view of the past in which the good old days are seen through rose-tinted glasses. The nostalgic past is better than the present and this, we know, is a false and heretical thing. But the derivation of the word tells a more complicated story because nostalgia, it turns out, literally means homesickness. Ponder this. Five years ago we conducted a phone survey to test the level of awareness about the Minnesota History Center among habitual museum-goers in the Twin Cities. What we found was puzzling at first. As best we could tell, less than 17% of respondents had ever visited. Yet the perception of institutional favorability was exceedingly high. What people seemed to be telling us was, even though I dont really care to visit you, were glad youre there. Whats this all about? Ive come to the conclusion that we history museums have had a way of conceiving of ourselves that is completely different to how people relate to us emotionally and this disconnect is a potentially fatal detriment to the history museum enterprise. The traditional historical society is a parochial affair, more often than not dedicated to a particular state or city. Almost without exception it is the least visited museum in the city. Like the motto of the police department, the mission statement is a variant of To Protect and Serve. Protecting in this case entails preservation of evidence of the past. Serving presumes some level of public access and interpretation. Because of our traditions and their roots in the Enlightenment ideals favoring the higher faculties of reason, we are liable to see these core activities in strictly rational terms and to communicate outward in the same spirit. We make collections so they can be studied comparatively and dispassionately. Interpretation is couched as a kind of summary dissertation, based on the best scholarship a curator can muster. Theoretically, this is responsible history museum tradecraft and, if museum-goers have the grace to avail themselves of the wisdom imparted, they will be the better for it. But look at it for a moment from the perspective of the public. The past, such as they experience it, is a deeply personal and resonant place, a great well of feeling. It exists within the brittle framework of living memory and nourished by the tributaries of storytelling, bits of reading and the mass media. It is charged with nostalgia, not merely because people inherently desire a gloss on the past, but because the past exists as a stark reminder of the relentless passage of time, of losses, and grieving, of homesickness. As humans, time reminds us of our mortality as we reflect on the changes it brings. Time forever changes our loved ones, the places we call home, the things, the narratives, the spirit that defines who we sense ourselves to be in relationship to everybody around us. Nostalgia is bittersweet, neither entirely happy nor sad, but nearly everyone experiences it; indeed it humanizes us. If you think of the old historical society as a rickety source of comfort, a levee against the sense of things slipping away, then you can understand how that hoary emblem of history might hold some value to someone who never intends to visit it. Though you might be glad there a place for old stuff, the
presentation of it at the historical society strikes a person as arbitrary, almost indiscriminate. As Bob Dylan put it archly, museums are cemeteries, in this sense, cluttered memorials to the fading past. If you saw Night at the Museum 2, you no doubt were struck by the absurdity of the idea that retired exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History should go to their final resting place in storage at the Smithsonian. Tied up in this depiction, though it may be wildly inaccurate, is a real sentiment that museums exist in order to hang on to everything, whether the public sees it or not. Like it or not, this is our brand. If this werent bad enough, there are other reasons not to visit the old historical society. The problems center on the interpretation of collections and scholarship. As an analogy, I draw on my very brief career in journalism at my high school newspaper. A primary lesson for reporting imparted to us then was that we were not to bury the lead. This meant, that as we set about organizing the information in an article, we were supposed to lead with the information that was most interesting to the reading public, moving from there through a hierarchy of context-setting deeper layers. Yet, in too many museums history is represented through the collection nearly exclusively. While a historic site has certain inherent advantages of placeness, of imaginative time travel, of a complex of experiential variety, it has long been implicit that museums are the special preserve of the artifact. Yet, not all artifacts are created equal. To treat historical objects in the ways that art museums often doas things of self-evident beauty and meaninghas been counterproductive. A butter churn is not a Rembrandt and it is certainly a pillar of the history museums negative brand that we often look more like a flea market, a bazaar of dull brown things well patinated with a layer of dust, than something to get excited about. The trouble is people need to see these things in relationship to the lives of other human beings and too often this is either left out entirely, or shrouded in scholarship devoid of the human touch. History museums, by reasoning with people, rhetorically laying out a case for the thesis, and presenting exhaustive representative taxonomies of silver or butter churns, are talking past peoples feelings about the past, in effect, burying the lead. In newspaper writing, the lead might be the most current bit of information, but it just as often may be a note of human interest. The reporter then steps away from the particular to increasing levels of general background information. This craft has developed over centuries guided by a discipline enforced by the hard fact that the newspaper that loses touch with its readers is doomed in short order. Contrast this with academic history writing which very often starts and stays at a high level of generality. People are discussed as groups, as social classes, as races or ethnicities, as battle units, more rarely as individuals. In order to generalize authoritatively, one must often tamp down the irregular and atypical story details that make things interesting. Historians martial facts to support claims, set movements in social and political context, worry whether ones point of view is perceived and accepted. The audience, to the extent that the curator/historian has considered one, is a select group of peers, those on equal footing in terms of knowledge and expertise. History museums, pursuing this academic approach, are consequently indifferent to their primary allure, as touchstones for human interest and relevancy, triggers for memory and nostalgia. Perhaps even, in pursuing our trade with relentless logic, weve cauterized something in our own souls. Sure, we subscribe to the ideals of historic preservation, to take one example, for ostensibly rational reasons. But in
our hearts is an overriding sense of despair at the sight of the past carelessly obliterated. In so many instances, the logical choice is, in fact, to throw something out and replace it with the new. It is nostalgia that keeps the wrecking ball at bay. I think a case can be made that, when history museums harmonize with the natural desire to experience nostalgia in highly personalized ways, the more apt the public is to make that visit and engage. This is certainly one important conclusion Ive drawn from over a decade of visitor research. If the museum becomes more emphatically a place where one can find some powerful evocation of ones own past, it will more likely be seen as a relevant thing rather than as an ossuary. An effective history museum will anticipate how a person is liable to feel. It will accommodate the desire to express those feelings in the form of stories and social interactions. It will illuminate the static thing with the animating human motivation that, at the end of the day, makes that object worthy of attention.