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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Scholasticism, Cynicism and the Optimist: I like Christmas!

Everybody relax, I know it is not that time yet. But I did feel the time has come, and I have a confession to make. This is very hard for me to say. I like Christmas. Yes, yes I do. I love the lights, and the food and the baking and the shopping and the wrapping and the festival spirit around it. I particularly love the Rankin and Bass clay-mation specials that come on every year.

But I am not (very) naive, or stupid. I am aware that the holidays are a hard time for most, because it is a lot of pressure put on people, and they feel their losses more keenly, or they are disgusted by the commercialism, or they simply hate the politics of gift giving. Not only that, the great hullabaloo made over Christmas often seems threatening to those who don't celebrate it.

So I feel guilty about loving it. And I do, I love the whole season. Apparently I was supposed to grow out of it. Apparently I shouldn't want to send my friends christmas cards, first because it is hokey, and second because it will only make those receiving them feel more undue pressure.

I would call myself a silver-lining person. I am always happy with a plan b, and I can always see the good, or joy in the things I am doing. This is very annoying to some of my more cynical friends.

I am so silver-lining that I see the absolute need for a cynical approach. The need for direct criticism is important for pointing out injustices, for fighting to make things better, and for questioning the intentions of authority. And the cynical approach is the norm in academia, as it should be, because you question motivations in texts and analyze biases. This is all very important.

However, today in museology we talked about Blockbuster exhibits. Throughout the class we talked about the compromises a museum has to make to put on a Blockbuster and the oftentimes minimal reward that the museum gets out of it. I wanted so badly to defend the Blockbuster but found myself mostly without a proper argument. Some of the critics of the Blockbuster exhibit said one of the problems was that it conveyed an improper sense of history and culture, and that it appealed to the lowest common denominator (which is a whole other set of issues). I also have to admit that some of my favourite exhibitions have been about movie artifacts, because I am a movie buff. I remember going to the Lord of the Rings Exhibition in Toronto and going through twice with my friend because there were not that many people there that day.

And I think this is some of the problem that I find in the scholastic community. As a proper discerning, intelligent adult and historian I am not supposed to like the Blockbuster; nor am I supposed to like big budget hollywood films, cheesy pop music, anything made by Disney, historical films that are blatantly flawed, any movie that was based on a book, gangster rap, Dan Brown, Harry Potter, any type of consumerism, or really anything that has become popular. The problem is I like all these things.

Perhaps because of who I associate with and my connection to universities I often feel I am drowning in cynicism. However they keep making these things that I like (though it helps when you like most things). Somehow my likes and dislikes are connected in part to the popular zeitgeist; all new products are directed at me as the typical consumer.

I am not trying to say that people should like all those things, or that counter culture is a bad thing. The problem instead that I have is trying to define for myself some intellectual space; being okay with herd mentality, and trying to tease out the good that people derive from these popular movements, as opposed to just seeing the pitfalls and the bad. What need is it in them, and in me, that these popular trends satisfy? How can I be intelligent and like these things. Can my like for them be more than just my guilty pleasures? Why can't I have fun at, and maybe even look forward to, Christmas?

(Photo Above, my sister and I enjoying Christmas last year)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Short Blog

Despite the best of intentions, and all that I have read about an ever diminishing public attention span, and my own predilection for reading shorter blogs, I have a very hard time writing a short blog in which I say anything meaningful.
Case and point.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Marvel Comics and their Responsibility to History

I am not well-versed in the Marvel Comic Universe. I am not un-versed per se, but I do not follow the story arcs, nor do I actually read the comics. Well, many of the comics; I get frustrated when they don't give me a conclusion so I don't start. But my father and I do bond over superheroes, as there is nothing I like better than a good superhero movie.

I, for what may be obvious reasons (see my profile), have a particular interest in Thor. At the moment they are trying to make a movie for nearly every Marvel hero. Even I know that they have to make a Thor movie before they can make the Avengers movie, because you can't have the Avengers without Thor.

What I find particularly interesting is that the movie has absolutely no obligation to the original Norse legends. Nope, instead it has obligations to the ever evolving comic strip and character as it was created by Stan Lee. I found this quote on Wikipedia: "[H]ow do you make someone stronger than the strongest person? It finally came to me: Don't make him human — make him a god. I decided readers were already pretty familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. It might be fun to delve into the old Norse legends.... Besides, I pictured Norse gods looking like Vikings of old, with the flowing beards, horned helmets, and battle clubs." [1] The television shows Hercules and Xena Warrior Princess almost had more obligations to the original history/literature because they were (very) loosely based on an original source. This is based on an even looser intermediary.

Nor would I really want the producers to get bogged down in the original mythology. None of the other Marvel heroes have this particular problem (that I can think of), and you are more likely to make historians and literary theorists upset if you try for original Thor and miss. Hard core comic book fans are going to be a tough enough audience to appease.

But a couple of interesting things about the original Stan Lee Thor (I don't know about his later incarnations); he does look a bit like a star in a Wagnerian opera, so kudos there, but that is really far from anything actually Old Norse. They do hit on some key points, like Heimdal, Odin, the Bifrost bridge and certainly Loki, but beyond that it is entirely the imagination of the prolific and thoroughly entertaining forces of Marvel.

However, some points about original Thor which make us all too willing to accept any of his incarnations in popular culture, save for a few places, like the portrait painted in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the image of Thor is fluid and seems to have been different depending on the region. For instance, some areas seem to have had Thor as the primary deity, and others Odin, but our sources for this are flimsy. And because our sources are flimsy no historian/literary theorist would attempt a definitive Thor.

But because I am also engaged lately in trying to understand how the public perceives our history, most of me knows that the general populace is entirely aware that The Mighty Thor is another Stan Lee creation, loosely based on an Ancient Myth. The other part of me knows that for a great portion of that populace this will be their only exposure to that particular myth.

So I don't really know if the Marvel franchise should consider reviewing its responsibility to history as they make this movie; I've sort of landed on no, as it is not necessarily better for the myth, and because in the end it is faithfulness to the comic that counts. But that will have consequences.

And, since I do read a wee bit, what prompted this was I came across this comic. It is in the Marvel Comics Essential Thor, Vol. 1. When I came across it, trying to think about this instance in regards to the movie that they are making, and in reference to the original Norse history and mythology, was making my head hurt. Needless to say it is slightly veiled in irony.
Sorry for the poor quality, and the need for excessive zooming.

[1]Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (Fireside, 2002; ISBN 0-684-87305-2), by Lee and George Mair}

Friday, October 9, 2009

My Very Best Museum Story: The Tale of Five-Sided Bastion Man

I worked for Huronia Historical Parks for four summers. The first two were during High School, and I worked at Discovery Harbour, a post 1812 British Naval Base. The second two years were during my first years of University and I worked at Saint Marie among the Hurons, which is a re-creation of the Jesuit Missionary Camp that was there from 1639-1649. Both topics tend to evoke emotion in a lot of people. At Discovery Harbour I once had a visitor who had been in the navy his whole life, and who claimed that his family had been in the navy at least since the time of Lord Nelson. At Saint Marie among the Hurons you get some even more interesting visitors, especially with the religious overtones of the site. During my two years there I developed quite a repertoire of stories. The people who had been working there for twenty years had even better ones, enough to fill a really interesting books. However, while I was there we had one visitor, whose story tops any that I had ever heard. When the story broke information came from a variety of sources, and the resulting tale comes from a collaboration of eye witness accounts and examination by several employees of the physical evidence left behind. This is the legend of five-sided bastion man.

At the end of every day at Saint Marie Among the Hurons each section of the site is closed down one at a time. First you close down the North courtyard, making sure all the visitors are out of the buildings and that all fires, particularly that in the cookhouse and blacksmith shop (different story) are put out. You close all the windows and doors and all the interpreters move into the South Courtyard where the process is repeated. Then you move through the Church and shut that down, and finally through to the Longhouse, where the employees in that area are usually chasing out a few scragglers. Everyone moves to the exit, but at least one person has to run down to the end of the site to the non-Christian longhouse and five-sided bastion, a place that doesn't ever have interpreters, just to make sure there are no visitors there.

The five-sided bastion is mirrored at the North End with another bastion, acknowledging that while the site was a mission, it was also a bit of a fortress, as the French had found themselves players in the war between the Hurons and the Iroquois. In the five-sided bastion there is really not much, mostly because it is not interpreted and is frankly less interesting than most of the other buildings. The bastions look out over the wooden palisade, and you can climb the stairs to the North Bastion, but the five sided bastion's stairs are blocked off with a piece of wood, again, mostly because the interpreters are not usually stationed in or near this building. The piece of wood clearly says, you are not supposed to go up here, but for someone who is determined to do so it won't really do that much to stop them. As we found out.

On the particular night in question the person who went to check the five-sided bastion, when they found out what had happened, swore that they could hear noises coming from upstairs. They say that they actually thought about checking, but then decided that that would be ridiculous. They are actually really glad now that they didn't.

The next morning when we all came in we could tell that something was definitely happening. The Team Leaders and more experienced members of staff had been called in fairly early, and had been all over the site all morning. We were all fairly confused, and certainly curious, but when we went out on to the site most of us went to go see the evidence that hadn't been cleared away yet, and by lunchtime we had all heard the story.

A man, we are not exactly sure how he got in, had been living on top of the five-sided bastion for at least two days. When the staff members went to investigate they commented that that was one of the creepier experiences of their life. Five-sided bastion man had made a clear bed, which he had been sleeping in, but all around the top of the bastion were tiny birch bark crosses, and there were also several bible pages laid out. On the night in question he decided to leave his makeshift home and venture out through the site. One of the first things he must have done was venture into the longhouse, where we keep some axes behind some of the reproduction artefacts. He then proceeded to cut his way into the Church, and this is a real church, containing the grave site of St. Jean de Brebeuf, visited by the pope. But it is made entirely of wood, and is designed to be something half way between a European style building and a longhouse. There he pulled out the first aid kit, as we were told later it was pretty evident that he had walked from his home in Toronto to Midland. Then he relit the fire in the church (which meant it was a close call that the whole thing didn't burn down) and seems to have torn pages from the bibles that were there and thrown them in the fire. We later deduced that the passages were concerning the Apocalypse.

From there he made his way into the South Courtyard, where he broke into one of the buildings to get a better axe and chopped some wood for us. From there he took the axe to the main visitor centre and tried to hack his way into one of the theatres. That door had to be replaced. This is about the time that the security guard was alerted. He promptly phoned he police. I can't quite remember whether or not he ever actually made it into the building, but from there we went out the front, to the walking path that leads to the historic site (or away from it), which was where he was picked up by police.

And that is my all time best museum story.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Infinite Archive: Making me infinitely further behind

I am worried; not because I think that books are going to go by the wayside, not because I think that the internet is taking away our personal connections with the materials we study, and not because I think that the profession of historian is in peril. I am worried, quite frankly, that I am not going to cut it in the age of abundance. In last week's Digital History class I brought up that I was worried that the way I conduct research will no longer be sufficient for publication. That fear has gone nowhere. It is one thing to have longtime professors refute you because they have read that one crucial article you haven't, it is another to be subjected to wide scrutiny because everyone on the internet has read something that you haven't; that is just embarrassing.

How, in this 'Age of Abundance' does one possibly keep up with the scholarship. Not only are there a great number of websites being created all the time, but John Batelle points out that we are leaving unintentional traces on the internet which are additional sources of information. It is even too much with just the tenured professors having the ability to be instantly published. You usually have that buffer zone between presentation and print so that you as the researcher can catch up on the appropriate material. With even just the traditional historians publishing instantaneously I am just worried about keeping up to date.

And there is clearly an abundance of new historical sources being added to the internet continuously. Roy Rozensweig and Daniel J. Cohen recorded 32,959 history sites listed by Yahoo in their work Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web in 2005. In a separate article in 2003 Rosenzweig noted that "by February 2002, the Internet Archive (IA) had gathered a monumental collection of more than 100 terabytes of web data." However, it may be argued that the research that is proliferating on the internet may make it harder to keep up with the new opinions and scholarly discussions, but it may make the investigation of primary sources vastly easier. There is certainly more access to local archives from non-local locales. There is also less time searching through archival material for relevant references because the texts are more searchable. However, there is also no excuse for missing a reference anymore. Nor is it expected that the age of the archive is over, but that now we have the reference that allows us to perhaps approach archival work more effectively. And this does placate me somewhat.

And yet, that 100 terrabytes of information from 2002 refers to primary source material. While I don't have to go to the places I would otherwise have had to truck to, the internet, with its capacity to hold vast quantities of information, does present us with an overwhelming amount even of primary source material. For class, we read about one individual, Gordon Bell, who has made it his mission to digitize everything that he possibly can, creating an abundance also of primary source material. Now imagine you were going to do a thesis about Gordon Bell. How do we even start to approach that information.

But this is what is expected now of the historian. And despite the internet, historians will continue to publish books and print journal articles, at least for the foreseeable future. However, the internet is already a powerful tool containing access to all kinds of information. Professor Turkel aptly pointed out in our first Digital History class, if historians are not part of the process of making history accessible through the internet then it will be done by someone else and we will have no say.

Because there is this material on the web, and it is being consumed en masse, we have an obligation to be a presence on the internet if we too are to remain relevant. This will probably not help in my struggle to keep up to date. What we have less control over now are the sources that are available for public consumption. Without the lag time between thought and publication we now have no control over what is published, and less control than we did have over what people see as history. Some suggest that this 'democratization' of history is dangerous because if anyone can freely contribute to our global and national sense of 'history' then will it be scholarly, and will it try and consider its own biases, and how caught up in the romantic notion of heritage will it be. But how devoid is scholarly research of those elements. Perhaps it is good also to take the history making out of the hands of the elites, so to say, if they ever really had it.

About this I am not worried. No doubt the role of the historian is going to change as we compete with Bob's history website, but our value as researchers is unlikely to be forgotten, as long as we participate in the same medium as Bob does. Nor is it wrong that Bob should have a site reflecting his own interests, especially as he is not really threatening our job as historians. But as we are obliged to be present in the online community, if Bob's site should gain popularity we should be online to note that, and it should also be our duty to deliver the occasional evaluation of Bob's facts and fact finding techniques.

One of the solutions we posited in class to this overwhelming abundance was the increasing specialization of the historian, so that they might concentrate on a narrow strip of the available information and scholarship. However, the more likely solution is that I, along with the majority of my colleagues are going to have to change the way that we write history and think about history because we have more than just ourselves to compete with now. We will probably still write our history, one that rivals Bob's, but allow ourselves to build on our own research as we find out more, as opposed to waiting until we find out all before we write. I am not sure why I thought I was going to find out it all anyway, that seems like a rather lofty goal, but I was certainly going to try. Now I think I am going to try something else.

Toronto as Museum: Nuit Blanche

This weekend I had the pleasure of going to Nuit Blanche in Toronto. It was surprisingly warm and very comfortable to walk around all night. The cooperation of Mother Nature seemed a bit serendipitous as it had been raining all day. At about 1pm there had been a thunderstorm.

Most of the exhibits were outside. The most spectacular was the one at City Hall, where a four letter word, accompanied by loud sounds, lit up Queen St.

In my Public History courses we have talked a great deal about what constitutes a museum. Museums in Motion by Edward Porter Alexander and Mary Alexander talk in their introduction about the different criteria for a museum. They discuss the recent inclusion of institutions like Science Centres and Botanical Gardens into the category of 'museum.' Elaine Heumann Gurian in her article 'What is the Object of this Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums' points out that collections may not be the be-all-and-end-all of museums, that a museum is "a place that stores memories and presents and organizes meaning in some sensory form" (Reinventing the Museum, ed. Gail Anderson, p. 270). I would not, though perhaps the case could be made, go so far as to say that the city of Toronto is a museum, even though it tells the cultural stories of its inhabitants in many ways. That would be widening the definition so far as to make it meaningless. I think, however, the case could be made that on the night of Nuit Blanche the city tries to remake itself into an Art Gallery, and in many ways takes on the responsibilities of a typical museum, as well as some of the worth of one.

The city had to accommodate traffic flow. The nice weather made this an important part of the event for organizers as the streets and exhibits were crowded, especially before 2am. Some of the exhibits were harder to find, so they had volunteers stationed at key places where one would get lost, like the exit from the streetcar that took you from Union Station to Liberty Village. They also had to think of parking, all-night transportation, and all night facilities as well as other logistical aspects which would affect the comfort of the patrons. In addition, they tried to put the art exhibits in culturally meaningful areas, without spreading out the viewing regions too much. Accessibility was key but the art was a part of the city, and so the exhibit designers had to keep in mind their space and surroundings when planning their art exhibit. The city thus became part of the exhibit, just as the museum's space shapes the museum's displays.

The city's typical art and history institutions represented themselves well in this testament to Toronto art, though I didn't get a chance to see all of them. I did, however, visit the exhibit in Campbell House (there they had an exhibit of art by Joanna Strong, who paints pictures of rubber bands, but they were also doing some limited historical interpretation. While they could they had some of the rooms open, which they lit with candles. After that they still had the exhibits in the hallways available for viewing, which detailed some of Toronto/York's early social and political history; and they were serving mulled cider) as well as an exhibit in the AGO (which was an exhibit of Edward Steichen photographs which the institution was hosting anyway, they simply left it open for viewing during the evening). While these institutions are usually focal points in Toronto's vaguely defined culture scene, their exhibits were made more tangible parts of a more defined cultural whole. This can be seen by their inclusion in the program along with individual installations in places like Liberty Village and Exhibition Place.

Like a museum, the one night event definitely held to a theme, that of modern art; that may attract many and put many off, but it was a clear commitment to a strategy. There were many things I liked when I visited, and many things that, had they not been part of the event would not have caught my interest. However, by presenting them together the organizers took the opportunity to educate me and other patrons on the particular topic of art, especially art in Toronto. The organizers of Nuit Blanche have to deal with many of the same issues of representation, relevancy, and patron visitor comfort as museum employees, only they are working on a larger scale, though they only have to do it for one night.

I found it helpful to make this comparison because it gave me a new appreciation for the event. We wouldn't really call the city a museum because the coherent whole represented by Nuit Blanche is not a static thing, and exists only one day a year; but for that one day it operates very similarly to a museum. I very much enjoyed myself, but in some respects I felt bad. My favourite exhibit was definitely the Edward Steichen photographs and that was by no means unique to the event. But I guess my tastes run more towards the traditional exhibits than they do to modern art.