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Monday, March 29, 2010

How to Train your Historically Minded Movie Goer

Don't you hate going to the movies with those people who pick at the movie until it is dead? There are the people who read the book and then saw the movie, and then complain about how much the movie is unlike the book, even if it was a really good movie. Then, of course, there is taking an historian to any movie. It is there mission to find the flaws in the history, and even if the story is really good and really moving dismiss the whole thing as a-historical.

I am one of these people. Well, not really. Actually sometimes I am alarmed as an historian how many historical inaccuracies I miss. But I think it sort of depends how you approach your criticisms. If you are out to be disappointed, you might be. If you are willing to dismiss the whole because of some details, then the movie probably wasn't going to appeal to you anyway. But sometimes its fun. It's like the people who sit down to their favourite films to find all the continuity errors. It's fun to know things. For many historians, it can be fun to find the historical flaws. My colleague Catherine Caughell has recently put up several blog posts about historical fiction novels. I take much the same approach to historically minded films; they were always some of my favourites, and by getting me interested, they prompted me to learn more. I grew up on Westerns, period pieces, and war movies, and always watched any version of Robin Hood I could get my hands on.

So, as a student of the Medieval Norse and Public History I turn now to the recent Dreamworks picture How to Train your Dragon, not because I expected it to be historical, nor because I would have wanted it to be, but because it is interesting to think about the reasons the filmmakers chose to utilize certain aspects of the history. Don't worry, I know it has dragons in it, I know it is fantasy for children. Still ...

Also, slight spoiler alert for people who read on.

It is easy to see why all the Vikings in the village wear horned hats. That is the clearest identifier of Viking. I mean, even Hagar the Horrible wears a horned hat. In the film Hiccup's father gives him a horned helmet, which essentially means he has achieved 'Vikingness.' The trouble is, despite its clear identification with Vikings, there is no evidence that 'Vikings' ever wore anything like it. That being said, we would no doubt be disappointed if the Vikings did not have horned helmets. The filmmakers chose that symbol because it conveys a lot of information about who we imagine these people are, tapping into a popular conception we already have, without the film having to explain it.

The use of runes was a nice touch. And because the characters were speaking English you could actually sort of see the characters making the correct English sounds. Look at 'Night Fury' especially when it is written down. The thing about runes though is that they are characters that have a lot of straight lines for the specific reason that that makes them easier to carve. There is not much evidence of writing in books the way we understand it. There are a few codexes written in runes, though the concept of writing in this way really comes after the introduction of Christianity, not during the time of Thor or Odin, which it is suggested is the time of this movie. The sagas are written down using Latin letters, and not until Christianity has been established in Scandinavia for a century or two. But you can see why the filmmakers chose to do it this way. The idea of a secret and personal knowledge that Hiccup discovers for himself would be conveyed through a book. We understand the nature of a manual, or textbook, and that is easy to relate to, especially for children who are supposed to learn things this way. It is understandable that the students who are trying to learn about dragons would learn in this way. The use of runes makes the book other, and kind of exciting, communicating again that idea of 'Vikingness.'

The whole movie is peppered with some Scandinavian-isms. When Hiccup brings his dragon some fish he mentions that amongst them there is some Icelandic cod. Why not, as they way that they speak is modern, so their frame of reference for fish names may as well be modern. Stoick, Hiccups father, routinely uses THor and Odin as an expletive, just like one would say oh God. This certainly adds to the character, though the film shies away from any statement about religion, as you would expect of a children's film. The village itself is composed of a combination of individual houses, and great halls, representing many Scandinavian villages and none at the same time. But a house is understandable to a modern audience, a place to come home after school. And a great hall can be rather magnificent looking, and might as well be used as a gathering place, so even if it is not a place that after spending the day they fold up the tables and chairs at night and sleep, it is an important part of this larger concept of village.

But of course, there are dragons ... and an arena, and a great number of other monsters. So don't worry, I don't take myself overly seriously. But what we do have here is a selective use of poplar conceptions of an historical period that have been used strategically to create a foreign yet familiar aesthetic in which this fantastic story can take place. I feel that the filmmakers have done this well. It also really helps that it is a really good story with very interesting characters and a very visually pleasing movie.

All in all, I really liked it. And of course, any excuse I can get to 'geek out' and annoy people with my knowledge in a movie theatre, all the better.

And of course, the movie is based on a book.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I'm not very good at math ... that's why I like history

My colleague Jordan Goldstein wrote a blog post earlier this year about how Canadians often define themselves in terms of how they are different from their American colleagues. How groups view themselves is a common theme in Public History, because if historians want to know what kind of image of history we can present to the public, and what kind of images the public will except, we should understand first how a culture sees itself. There are the positive identifiers, the thing that a group is and does, but there are also the negative identifiers, what the group is not or doesn't do that others might. In the case of Canadians, that seems to be Americans more so than any other group that we have decided we are not (mostly because the case is not always that obvious).

My colleague Braden Murray made the observation much earlier in the year that many of the conversations had by Grad students in the History department eventually turn into a discussion of Canadian identity. Partly that is because most of us are Canadian historians, and even more so because we all come from different areas of both Canada and the United States. This was especially true at the beginning when we were first meeting each other, and when we were first trying to explain how we were a cohesive group to our American colleague (sorry Sara). But maybe that is one of the positive identifiers of the group known as History grad students, a desire to define our shared cultural heritage.

What also makes us a group, however, is our negative identifiers. Mostly, I find that for Grad students in history, and probably in many other Arts programs as well, the group that we define ourselves against is Math. It is a suitable excuse, when you get a simple math problem wrong, to say that I am a history major. Marking especially is always described in relation to the math department. The argument is that in Math you can get 100% because it is either right or wrong, but in History it is more subjective. You can't get 100%, but the likelihood of getting less than 60% is also greatly minimized. It seems everything that we are is best understood in relationship to Math. In many ways this is a fallacy, particularly for the economic historians, but it is an easy means of self-identification. I my personal experience I wasn't bad at math, but it was the only class that made me physically squirm in my chair. And my path through University has been chosen in a way where I can take the least amount of math possible ... since I am, after all, a history major.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Thrilling, yet disturbing, discoveries in the library.

If you have seen other entries from my blog, you will have seen this image before:

I am using it in my paper that I am writing for the Mapping Medievalism Seminar in the Visual Arts Department. Also, because it represents early American scholarship on the topic of the Norse in America, I thought it should be included in the exhibit that the seminar is putting on in September.

It is a lecture that was given in the late 1830s, almost corresponding with the World Fair in Chicago. It was written and delivered by Asahel Davies. This version is actually the 16th edition, and was published in 1846.

When looking through the libraries catalogue I came upon this title, though I didn't actually see the date. I thought it would be perfect. When I came to realize that it was actually a copy from the first half of the nineteenth century, and that I was going to be allowed to take it out of the library, I was surprised, excited, and a little disturbed.

When I brought it up to circulation the librarian gave me a sideways glance. I don't think anyone has checked this out in at least ten years, and he was clearly not quite certain it should go out. He couldn't really say no. I said to him 'I can't believe I can take this.' He said 'yeah ...' in a trail-y sort of a way, and furrowed his brow.

Don't worry, I took very good care of it. At least I tried to, I very carefully took a picture of the front of the pamphlet, which may have crossed the line librarian-wise, but I think that was okay.

Of course, amongst people who have worked with artifacts, or who are budding librarians, historians or archivists, I have got a very consistent reaction of 'they let you take that out of the library,' to which I usually respond, 'I know, right!' It is now in the hands of Prof. Brush of the Visual Arts department. The thing was, I didn't want to actually return it because I wanted it for our exhibit. I was pretty sure that once it gets back into the hands of librarians it may become locked into the vaults of the archives; accessible, but not available to take home, or handled without the proper supervision. Not at all convenient for my purposes.

In the end, this is the paradox that most librarians, museum experts, and historians find themselves in: we want the artifacts to be properly cared for, and protected ... but not until we have had a go at them.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

My First Attempts at Label Writing

For the Seminar 'Mapping Medievalism at the Canadian Frontier' I have been looking at several texts which I think should be included in the Exhibit at the end of the Seminar. I have included here the images I took of the four texts I chose, and the four labels that I wrote. As you may have been able to deduce from my short writing for the public piece I am not very good at condensing my ideas. I found the label writing to be particularly hard. Here is the first draft of these four labels, I welcome any feedback.

Asahel Davis

Antiquities of America, The First Inhabitants of Central America, and the Discovery of New England, By the Northmen, Five Hundred Years Before Columbus, with Important Additions, 1846

And is it not a laudable curiosity that leads one to ascertain what white men first trod regions in which the modest wild flower wasted its sweetness on the desert air?

This is the sixteenth edition of this lecture to be printed, showing the work’s immense popularity. The first printings were in 1838-39. At the time that this lecture was circulating the tales of the Norse voyages were only starting to be brought to the attention of the scholarly community in America.

Davis relies on the work of The Royal Society of Antiquarians, who produced the Antiquitates Americanae in Danish in 1837. That was the first time the Vinland sagas, the sagas about Norse landings in Greenland and North America, had been translated and printed for the public. Davis argues, based on the content of the sagas, that the history of the Norsemen in this continent should be made a part of the larger scholarly understanding of the Antiquities of America.

Megan Arnott MA Public History 2010

Collection of the D.B. Weldon Library
The University of Western Ontario

Farley Mowat

Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America, 1965

Farley Mowat is among the great literary nation builders of Canada. His focus is the Canadian North, and the relationship of Canadians to the land, and with each other within the context of the land. His use of the medieval European connection in reconstructing the Canadian North is given weight because of the clout Mowat has as a Canadian author.

The Norse voyages to Canada is a theme that is repeated in many of his works, including The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966), ‘The Iron Men’ in The Snow Walker (1975), and in The Farfarers: Before the Norse (1998). The latter and this work are both scholarly texts that discuss European arrival in Canada in the context of evidence and anthropology.

There is a conflict that occurs when Mowat tries to reconstruct the Norse landings in the context of Canadian history. The existence of an ancient, almost mythical European presence helps to naturalize the existence of Europeans in Canada. However, the Norse were not themselves native to the land, so their arrival can be seen as part of the trend of later European imperialism. This is a conflict that is not resolved.

Megan Arnott MA Public History 2010

Collection of the D.B. Weldon Library
The University of Western Ontario

Marie A. Brown Shipley

The Icelandic Discoverers of America or Honor to Whom Honor is Due, 1887

In the nineteenth century, and before the discovery of the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, there were many texts written defending the idea that the Norse were here before Christopher Columbus. Some were very scholarly examinations of the sagas and the science of sailing. Some were also emotional pleas to include the Norsemen in the national myth. This is strictly the latter.

Marie Shipley’s work relies heavily on the scholarship of others to establish the truth of the sagas. Most of the text is allotted to how the Catholic Church and Spain are the root of all evil in modern American life, and how if we accept Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America we are accepting the overlordship and tyranny of the Catholic Church through Spain.

On the front cover, the quote from Bayard Taylor,
From shores where Thorfinn set thy banner/ Their latest children seek thee now,
accompanied by an image of a banner with an eagle on it, is supposed to both show how Americans are directly the inheritors of the Norse and provoke them to restore the Norse to their place of glory. This will in turn restore glory and freedom to the American people.

Megan Arnott MA Public History 2010

Collection of the D.B. Weldon Library
The University of Western Ontario

Robert McGhee

Canada Rediscovered, 1991

Robert McGhee plays on the word ‘discovery,’ because the Europeans, of course, did not ‘discover’ Canada. This is why Canada is ‘rediscovered.’

McGhee places the arrival of different waves of migration to North America into a global context of settlement. He also discusses our own perceptions of Canada’s ‘discovery.’ It is significant that this work was published in 1991, one year before the five hundredth anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of Christopher Columbus.

The helmet, though not an artefact found on Canadian soil, was chosen for the cover because it represents the Old Norse culture. The Norse are the first Europeans archaeologists can prove were here, completing McGhee’s circle of the globe by man. The Norsemen challenge the position of Columbus in the public’s imagination as the first European to arrive in North America. Therefore, in the year when the public expects to see Columbus, the Norsemen have been represented on purpose to make audiences re-evaluate their perception of the ‘discovery’ of Canada.

Megan Arnott MA Public History 2010

Collection of the D.B. Weldon Library
The University of Western Ontario

The Vinland Loop

I am stuck in something I like to call the Vinland Loop.

I have noticed in our history program that many people's particular historical interests have emerged. I think I can safely give myself the nickname of Viking Girl. It does seem a little ingenuous to give yourself your own nickname, but I am going to go for it.

Vinland is a fascinating topic. Sagas and literature give you just enough to tantalize you with the prospect of locating it in North America, but stop short of allowing you to ever prove that you have found the location. Not only that, Vikings and the Norse are a very exciting, somewhat romantic topic.

It gives us so many things to talk about, discuss and debate, that so much has been written about it. It continues to pose academic problems, not least of which is when we realize we are clearly so interested in who were the first Europeans to arrive here, and what that means for us as a people.

As I have said before, Vinland and the Viking presence in, well, Canada really, is one of the reasons I decided to specialize in Vikings; they covered so much that I was interested in, including Medieval History and Canadian History.

But I find myself in a Vinland loop. I am interested in Vikings in part because of Vinland (the decision to study certain aspects of history is usually some sort of personal connection) so I write about it or do projects about it. It is easy to see how so much nationalistic and romantic literature is written about it. And then when I try to think about what I know that will be relevant for Canadians, I am drawn back to Vinland. While I study generally, as a subject, Vikings, I keep writing about Vinland and doing projects about Vinland because it is what will be interesting to the public I am hoping to represent. They too are most likely to be drawn in by showing them their personal connection.

It's not a problem really. The very obvious solution would be, don't. I certainly don't find it to be a problem. But it does appear that I am working very hard to pigeon hole myself into one particular subject, though I do have wide interests.

So in summary, look out for more about Vinland from me in the future. I am sure it is forthcoming.

IED: Updates

Many things have evolved about the project that I am working on for Interactive Exhibit Design. I am still on the map idea, and because I am caught in 'the Vinland loop' (more on that later) I am still looking at mapping perceived Medieval Norse landings in what we now consider to be North America.

However, the project has morphed into two separate projects. The first is still the website, where my intention is to be ever-adding, so as to be as comprehensive as possible. I have actually progressed to the main page, and have a model that I am now adding the information to in HTML. To make it more professional I may have to look more at Java and XML, though I have to admit to being most comfortable in HTML.

The second part of my project has stemmed from the first. I wanted a group to be able to interact with my design. To do this, I at first thought I would just provide a touch platform for the website. This is still possible, as I am still working on the website. However, I am beginning to design a separate project, which will use a combination of Processing and an Arduino, which will also be a map of North America, and the Northern Atlantic Regions.

At first I was wondering if there was anyway that I could design a surface, where moving an item across that surface would result in a cursor moving in a corresponding way across the computer screen. Unlike a mouse, the top left corner of the board would also be the top left corner of the screen. The idea would be that I could have a physical map, and as you moved an object (I was imagining a Viking Ship) across the map it would also move across the map online. While this is in many ways theoretically possible, I have abandoned it because it is certainly outside of my capabilities.

My next idea was to build a mouse in the shape of a Viking Ship, and then use that to interact with the website. Again, while it is possible, and has not been entirely abandoned as a possibility, this in many ways is not challenging enough, because the most likely methodology would involve my buying wireless mouse parts and then superimposing artistic elements on the top to make it look like a Viking Ship. There are more complex ways to do this, of course, and I may yet look into this.

Where I have settled is to create a project which will convey rather simple information. On the computer I will design a program which can show you some basic locations on a map related to Norse landings in North America. Then I will create a map out of something like foam board, and possibly using the large size sign printer. In that map I will embed a series of switches in certain locations, so that when you press the switch, or in some way complete the circuit, the program will show you information about the place which you have just located.

This will be separate from the website that I am working on, because the website can have a lot more information about not only significant sites, but also about the sites that historians have interpreted as having significance for one reason or another. I hope, by Apr. 7th, to have something substantial to show in both these projects.

Funny or does Drunk History

Funny or Die is a website that is affiliated with HBO. They do sketch comedy and collect funny videos. They are similar in nature to other websites like College Humor, but they use rather big name comedy stars. While browsing I came across something called Drunk History, which has, at the moment, 6 short sketches in total. They were created by Derek Waters, and they deal with early American history. The premise is that someone, I presume Derek Waters, gets his friends drunk and then has them discuss an historical event. Then he takes that tape and has actors act out the historical event as narrated by the drunk friend.

Is it inaccurate? I'm sure it is, though I have to admit I am not as familiar with American History. Are people going to think that these are accurate portrayals of these events? Lets face it, probably. But at the same time, these are supposedly famous historical events, at least according to the website. They certainly involve the most famous figures,including Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and other 'founding fathers.' It is implied that many people will know something, correct or incorrect, about this subject already.

Regardless of the perceived accuracy of the sketches, the videos discuss history in a way that is appealing to people who have absolutely no interest in history, and they are not devoid of historical relevance.

I think they are hilarious, though I am sure not everyone agrees. From a Public History perspective I think it is rather an ingenious way to make history appealing to a different audience. From a comedic perspective, I think it is hilarious because you make something mundane ridiculous, and you draw on the shared experience of trying to explain something important when you are drunk. In this way it is funnier to use history, than say, to have your drunk friends rehash their favourite books or movies.

This one is my favourite, though the Benjamin Franklin ones are also hilarious, if also probably the most off-based historically.