The Archaeology of “Degenerate Art”

Here’s a fascinating excavation (and exhibition) in Berlin that I somehow missed at the time and just came across– that speaks volumes about both the creators and the dumpers.  The artifacts here show that high cultural tastes are weapons of both domination and resistance– that the archaeology of modernity is as important as the archaeology of antiquity– and that used as a means of telling alternative stories, archaeology has the power (eventually) to expose the banality of even the most violent cultural purification programs.

A journalist looks at a sculpture that was discovered during archaeological excavations in central Berlin and is now on display in the New Museum in Berlin November 8, 2010. The sculpture entitled "A Likeness of the Actress Anni Mewes" by Edwin Scharff is one of 11 pieces of art that were found during archaeological excavations in Berlin and initially thought to be of ancient origin. Research revealed that the pieces were part of the 1937 travelling exhibition "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art): a collection of art the Nazis deemed un-German or Jewish and which they displayed in a manner that derided the works and their authors. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

From Der Spiegel Online November 8, 2010

Buried in a Bombed-Out Cellar

Nazi Degenerate Art Rediscovered in Berlin

By Charles Hawley

The works were thought to have been lost forever. Eleven sculptures, all of them shunned by the Nazis for being un-German, have been found during subway construction work in the heart of Berlin. But how did they get there?

An archeologist uncovers a bronze head by the artist Otto Freundlich in front of the Berlin city hall in August. The remains of the buildings on Königstrasse were simply bulldozed to make way for reconstruction. Photo: Landesdenkmalamt Berlin/ Manuel Escobedo

Digging new subway lines in Europe is no easy task. It’s not the excavating itself that is so problematic; modern machinery can bore through the earth with surprising speed these days. Rather, in places that have been inhabited for centuries, if not millennia, no one really knows what one will find. The delays for archeological research can be significant.

In Berlin, that hasn’t often been a problem. Aside from significant numbers of unexploded bombs dropped on the city during World War II and a few long-forgotten building foundations, construction tends to be relatively straightforward. The city, after all, spent the vast majority of its 770 year history as a regional backwater.

This autumn, however, an extension to Berlin’s U-5 subway line means the city can gloat over a world-class delay of its own. Workers in the initial phases of building a subway stop in front of the Berlin city hall stumbled across remains of the city’s original city hall, built in 1290. Archeologists were ecstatic.

On Monday, however, Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit announced a new series of finds that has generated even greater enthusiasm. In digs carried out throughout this year, archeologists have unearthed 11 sculptures thought to have been lost forever — valuable works of art that disappeared during World War II after having been included on the Nazis’ list of degenerate art. Most of them have now been identified and have been put on display in Berlin’s Neues Museum.

‘A Minor Miracle’

“We hadn’t expected this confrontation with this period of time, with these samples of degenerate art — it is a minor miracle,” Wowereit said at a press conference on Monday. “It is unique.”

The finds were made among the ruins of Königstrasse (King Street), a formerly bustling street in the heart of prewar Berlin. Allied bombs decimated the quarter, however, and much of the rubble was simply buried after the war to make room for reconstruction. Much of the archeological work currently under way consists of sifting through the rubble that remains in the intact cellars of the structures that once lined the street.

In early January, workers discovered a small bronze bust in the shovel of a front loader that was cleaning out one of those cellars.

“We thought it was a one-off,” said Matthias Wemhoff, director of the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin and a member of the archeology team looking into the finds. “It wasn’t immediately clear that it was linked to degenerate art.”

Soon, however, more artworks were discovered — all sculptures, all from early 20th century artists and all bearing clear indications of having been fire-damaged. Only at the end of September did it become clear that all of the art pieces — by such artists as Otto Freundlich, Naom Slutzky and Marg Moll, among others — were on the list of artworks branded as undesirable by the Nazis. All were thought to have been lost forever.

For the rest of this amazing story, click here.

For a slideshow of the recovered artworks, click here.

The Nazi leadership and their sneering cultural advisors visit the 1937 exhibition.

A Facelift for Auschwitz

Ironically this is precisely the same challenge facing almost every site of memory– sad or happy, triumphant or tragic.  The effort to make time and deterioration stand still, without considering the ever-changing context for the preserved site makes the actual place more and more “antique” and less and less resonant with the present.

There are no easy answers for the role of heritage in contemporary society, except perhaps to wonder about the ways that traditional physical forms of “world heritage attractions” may tend to museum-ize, routinize, and perhaps even trivialize what need to be powerful memories– even after all the original rememberers are gone.

Tourists at Auschwitz I, August 2004. Photo: Lars De Jaegher, Ename Center

Latest news from    December 17, 2010

Germany Announced It will Give $80 Million in the Next Year to Fix Auschwitz Memorial

By Monika Scislowska, Associated Press

WARSAW, POLAND (AP).- Germany pledged Wednesday to pay euro60 million ($80 million) over the next year into a fund for Auschwitz-Birkenau to preserve the barracks, gas chambers and other evidence of Nazi crimes at the former death camp, some of which are deteriorating to the point of collapse.

Germany is the largest of several countries contributing to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Fund, which was set up in 2009 to gather money to maintain the 472-acre expanse made up of the original camp, Auschwitz, the nearby satellite camp of Birkenau. The camp was operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.

More than 1 million people, mostly Jews, died in the camp’s gas chambers or through forced labor, disease or starvation.

“Germany acknowledges its historic responsibility to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and to pass it on to future generations,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is synonymous with the crimes of the Nazis. Today’s memorial recalls these crimes.”

Museum director Piotr Cywinski first issued a worldwide appeal for help in 2008, saying that euro120 million was needed to repair the memorial site, which stands as one of the most powerful symbols of the Holocaust.

The barracks, gas chambers and other buildings are in need of urgent repair, having been worn down by the ravages of time and the pressure of more than 1 million visitors a year…

For full story, click here.

Earlier essay on the issues from the New York Sun    January 10, 2007

Restoration or Preservation?


By John Moretti

Is Auschwitz a tourist attraction to be updated with the times, or a solemn burial ground to be left untouched? An international debate has focused on this question ever since the new director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Piotr Cywinski, announced plans to renovate and remodel parts of the infamous death camp.

Controversy surrounding Mr. Cywinski’s proposal was sparked by an article in Ha’aretz, following his visit in October to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The article described a “beautification” of Auschwitz.

“I think they got the impression I was going to turn it into a kind of Disneyland,” Mr. Cywinski said. “I will not alter anything, only the exhibition.”

Worries swirled among some former prisoners that the historical integrity of the place would be compromised, and historians posed the question: If you replace even one piece of rusted barbed wire, can the site still be called authentic?

“There are some people who say you should put salt in the earth, so nothing will grow,” the incoming chairman of the International Task Force on Holocaust Education and also the director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, David Marwell, said. “But if you’re going to let people in, you have to make the site accessible.”

Mr. Cywinski, 34, inherited a delicate task when he was installed as director over the summer to prepare for the museum’s first-ever facelift as it approaches its 60th anniversary this coming July. His plans to redesign exhibits that focus on prisoner life, housed in the original Auschwitz camp, and to continue structural upgrades to the crematoria in Birkenau — the massive and sprawling camp three kilometers away, where most of Auschwitz’s prisoners were put to death — were approved in December by the International Auschwitz Council, a group composed of politicians, historians, and Holocaust survivors. Since then, the director has been circling the globe, building support and elaborating on the project.

Like any other museum curator and guardian of a historical artifact, Mr. Cywinski needs to please a number of diverse interests, and regularly fends off charges of revisionism. This balancing act is especially challenging because Auschwitz is one of the most soul-stirring shrines in the world.

“It is a place upon which the entire world is focused,” Mr. Cywinski said during the holiday break, immediately after returning to Poland from Washington, D.C., where he spelled out details of his plans at the United States Holocaust Memorial. “The job requires taking into account a lot of perspectives, but I must prepare for future generations.”

For full story, click here.

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If the medium = message, does the form of the heritage site = the memory?

What is it about Color and Memory?

In our 24/7 video and internet world, we have come to associate color with immediacy.  The content of the images may be irrelevant or insignificant but their colors nevertheless signify a sense of NOW.  Indeed the boundary between past and present– photographically at least– is the use of color.  The distancing of black and white photography from the present is what gives “pastness” its seemingly frozen character.     But in recent years, caches of precociously vivid color photographs have come to light.  There is a luminous, surprising quality about them– letting us into a world that still seems to be unfolding, that still seems unfinished and alive.  

NOT in black and white: American soldiers marched through a southern English coastal town, en route to board landing ships for the invasion of France, circa late May or early Jun 1944. U.S. National Archives.

Is this a temporary sensation?  Is it merely the novelty of seeing color in place of black and white that tricks us into believing that the image is more lifelike and alive?  It’s uncanny that even photos from less iconic and earthshaking settings possess the same character– a kind of luminosity that seems to have the uncanny ability to resurrect long-dead people and the beauty of their world.   

An Armenian woman in national costume poses for Prokudin-Gorskii on a hillside near Artvin (in present day Turkey), circa 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/Library of Congress)


 Ruth Ellen Gruber drew my attention to this stunning series of photographs of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russia taken by the Czarist court photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944).  Using an ingenious system of red, green, and blue filters, he captured the exotic, the mundane, the familiar, and the novel throughout the empire of Nicholas II.  The collection is now in the U.S. Library of Congress.  Yet, in looking at the pictures of villages, government officials, and colorful ethnic characters and costumes, it is as if the pre-Revolutionary realities of Russia are, for a moment, re-lived in our gaze.      

And it’s not only about exotic locales and distant landscapes.  Margie Purser has pointed out a series of arresting images commissioned by the US Farm Security Administration from across the country in the depression years.  There’s the hustle-and-bustle of downtown storefronts, country fair girlie show performers, the handmade pastimes of the era’s children, the tragedy of a farm auction, and the unquestioned propriety of men doffing their hats before saying grace.        

Here too there is something almost tangible about the volumes the colors create– the browns and purples of the peoples’ clothing and the brown/green of the grass.  It’s not that these color photos are in anyway realistic, or even as vivid as the pigments of paintings from far earlier times.         



The Faro Caudill family eating dinner in their dugout, Pie Town, New Mexico. October 1940. Photo: Russell Lee (1903-1986)


It’s the fact that they SHOULD be black and white and that makes all the difference.  They make us pause for a moment and question our conditioned perceptions that everything old should be monochrome.   

The social historian’s ideal of understanding a lived present– as if we did not know the subsequent outcomes– seems to to be embodied in these rare colored images from the past.  Just look at these views of London in 1927, when it seemed that the future was wide open and anything was possible.   


The colors suggest that living eyes saw those colors as experience, not frozen history.     

Wi-Fi, Latte, and Amnesia at the Grassy Knoll Cafe


There was a time when everyone who could remember November 22, 1963 felt a cold, creepy feeling at the mention of the Texas School Book Depository.  It was from its sixth story corner window– so the official narrative related– from a “sniper’s nest” of cardboard boxes littered with the remains of a fried chicken lunch that Lee Harvey Oswald trained his rifle on the limousine in which President John F. Kennedy rode.   

Over the years, conspiracy theories and conspiracy experts about the JFK assassination flourished.  They flourished despite of– or because of– the official verdict of the Warren Commission, eight dour establishment figures who failed to calm the nation at a very anti-establishment time.  But whether one accepted the narrative of the deranged (?), radical (?), or soviet programmed (?) lone assassin, or whether one clung to the idea of a vast mafia, CIA, or industrial-military conspiracy, The Texas School Book Depository and its surroundings in Dealy Plaza became names to conjure with.  The “Grassy Knoll,” “the Railroad Bridge,” and the “Stockade Fence,” where shadowy figures that may or may not have been accomplices or additional gunmen were reported to have lurked, became an enchanted mythic landscape.  

It is indeed Hallowed Ground for our collective national experience.  It is and has been since 1963 the focus of fascination, not about what kind of monument should be erected there or what political or religious group should not be allowed to be there– but about the enormity of the event and what difference it made to the country, whatever one happened to believe that might be.   And while today the debate rages about the siting of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, it might be useful to toss away that red herring for a moment and consider what kind of memorial commemoration we will likely see where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.  

In the last couple of years, I’ve become interested in the worldwide transformation of historical sites and museums into leisure time venues– that are (functionally speaking) part multimedia entertainment attractions and part themed shopping opportunities.  I have blogged here the debate over the propriety of a casino at Gettysburg; about the marketing of Cold War kitsch in Berlin; and about the slash-and-burn urban renewal underway in Luxor.  I could even mention– and may do so at greater length one of these days– the role of Auschwitz in Poland package sightseeing tours.  All of these are somehow motivated by economic factors– jobs, tourists, merchandise, extra hotel nights per capita– for in an age of ever-decreasing public budgets for culture and its frequent outsourcing to heritage management companies, no museum or site executive worth their salt (on either hallowed or unhallowed ground) would dare to neglect the economic aspect of its own sustainability.  

It has certainly happened in Dealy Plaza where the permanent exhibitions (sponsored by American Airlines) have transformed an abandoned building with a grotesque history into a multimedia, experiential tourist attraction, complete with interactive screens, slick graphics, and a meticulous reconstruction of the “sniper’s nest” of cardboard boxes, protected from the tourists by a wall of thick plexiglas.   

As a sightseeing attraction for visitors to Dallas, it’s so neatly arranged and unthreatening (but surely a bit enjoyably creepy like Madam Tussaud’s or Alcatraz Island) that one wonders what happens to the memories.  

That’s why the following article from Dallas got me thinking not about the “Mosque at Ground Zero” but about the kind of memorial we are likely to have as the years roll on from September 11, 2001.  For despite the Fox News/Sarah Palin/Glenn Beck babble about honoring this site of American tragedy and resolve, we have gotten to the point where our forms of historical commemoration are so naturally meant to be economically self-sufficient– and their forms so uniformly designed for that purpose– that hallowed ground has all too often become just an another opportunity to direct traffic flow to the cafe and the gift shop– and turn visitors into consumers of souvenirs, snacks, and hot drinks.  I’m not sure that the new forms of edu-tainment and stylishly marketed refreshments necessarily encourage serious reflection.  Will the visitors remember anything except the visit itself?  

The carefully reconstructed "sniper's nest." Photo: The Sixth Floor Museum


 If it has happened at Dealy Plaza, it can happen at Ground Zero, with or without a “mosque.”  Musealized commemoration has become a technique for attracting paying crowds and keeping them occupied.  It’s also about selling a decontextualized vision of the past along with the themed merchandise.  Just follow the inescapable logic that site managers are now trapped in– and see if you agree that the kind of modern museum infrastructure that will likely furnish the future Ground Zero Visitor Center really makes visitors “feel inspired from the moment they walk through the door.”  

From AOL News – July 22  

JFK Assassination Museum Beckons With Lattes, Wi-Fi

by Linda Jones  

…With 325,000 visitors annually, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is the most popular tourist attraction in Dallas, yet it’s often overlooked by locals. Less than a third of its visitors, in fact, are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  

Now, officials are seeking to remedy the landmark’s relative obscurity among natives by luring them with a new store and coffee shop right across the street.  

Opened on July 1, the Museum Store and Cafe represents a “strategic opportunity” to increase the visibility of the historic site, said Liza Denton, director of public relations.  

“We believed this corner location, with commanding views of Dealey Plaza, would increase visitors’ overall engagement to the museum and historic site,” she said, “as well as attract those who live and work downtown.”  

Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, as his presidential motorcade traveled past the former Texas School Book Depository Building, which is now owned and operated by the Dallas County Historical Foundation, a private nonprofit. The museum is housed on the building’s two upper floors.  

Across the street, the new store and cafe — outfitted with contemporary, loftlike decor — is already receiving a steady stream of traffic and positive responses from the local community, with many residents paying return visits, Denton said.  

The cafe at the Museum Store and Cafe, across the street from the Sixth Floor Museum, a repository of documents and artifacts from the Kennedy era, at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, offers coffee, snacks and Wi-Fi. Photo: The Sixth Floor Museum


Like the shop inside the museum itself, the store here is stocked with 1960s-themed merchandise, such as reproductions of Jacqueline Kennedy’s three-strand pearl necklaces, as well as books and souvenirs. It also has a variety of items from local artisans that make statements about Dallas today, including jewelry and handbags.  

Visitors can refuel with gourmet coffee, sandwiches and pastries at the cafe, which also aims to lure local workers with pre-ordered boxed lunches. Organizers hope that the cafe’s free Wi-Fi will further draw in residents, and that the large wall screen showing continuous Kennedy film footage and photos will compel locals and visitors alike to settle in for a while.  

“We want our guests to feel inspired from the moment they walk through the door,” Denton said.  

For complete article, click here.

Pretty Brutal, No?

Human Dignity can never be divided or based on disrespect.


Barbarism in the name of “Tolerance” continues in Jerusalem.  How ashamed of our selfishness and self-serving hypocrisy we will all be when we finally come to our senses– or when the flow of History demands that we do.  

Just look at this.  

And look at my earlier posts of Feb 10 and Feb 12 for some context. 

Who Ever Said Heritage is About the Past? (Continued)

Smoke is seen as volunteers clear debris at the Kasubi Royal Tombs, destroyed by an inferno in the outskirts of Uganda’s capital Kampala, March 17, 2010. Credit: REUTERS/James Akena


From AFP 17 March:   

Uganda army deploys after fire destroys historic tombs

KAMPALA — Fire ravaged the UN-listed Kasubi tombs in Uganda and the army and police deployed across Kampala on Wednesday after protests by youths who claimed it was arson.   

Anti-riot units battled during the night to disperse young supporters of the Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, traditional ruler of the Baganda, one of Uganda’s main tribes.   

The fire on Tuesday night destroyed much of the 128-year-old tombs just south of Kampala where four Baganda kings are buried.   

The tombs in straw-thatched buildings are revered by the Baganda people and are a major tourist attraction on the World Heritage List drawn up by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).   

President Yoweri Museveni is to inspect the damage on Wednesday, a source at his office said.   

“When the fire broke out, police were called in and got there in time but the fire brigade was obstructed by a hostile crowd, three trucks were damaged and a fireman injured,” Uganda’s police chief, Major General Kale Kayihura told AFP.   

“Faced with this hostility and in an effort to stop the fire from destroying the tombs, the officer fired some shots in the air to disperse the crowd but no one was hurt,” he added.   

Kayihura said the cause of the fire was still being investigated.   

Peter Mayiga, a spokesman for the Buganda Kingdom, whose people are concentrated in the south of Uganda and Kampala, described the fire as “an attack on Buganda”.   

Last year an attempt by the authorities to stop the Baganda king from visiting an area near Kampala sparked running battles in the streets of the capital. Police fired tear gas and live ammunition.   

“This fire is very strange given what we (the Baganda) have been going through,” Mayiga said without giving details.   

Kayihura, reacting to Mayiga’s comments, said: “That is absolute falsehood. The government cannot be responsible for this fire.”   

The tombs were declared a World Heritage Site in 2001. As a spiritual symbol for the Baganda people, many go to the tombs for ritual ceremonies…   

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For more info on the Kasubi tombs, click here.   

Uganda has two other World Heritage sites, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Ruwenzori Mountains National Park. Both are “natural” properties.    

Much harder to make a political point with those…   


Another Good Underfunded Idea


City Reliquary Museum


Why not let regular people be curators at least once in a while?   

Process is always as important as product.  Fascination is often as good as erudition.   

Collections of bric-a-brac and popular culture can express personal pleasure in pattern from the world around us, not just illustrate human evolution or art history.    

This doesn’t mean that there should be no Louvre, no Metropolitan Museum.  I actually think that the existence of the Great Institutions and the Community Memory Centers will help each other to survive.   

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From the Village Voice Blogs:   

The City Reliquary Museum Tries to Save Itself

By Julia, Saturday, Mar. 6 2010 @ 10:54AM   

The City Reliquary Museum and Civic Organization in Williamsburg was never a profit machine. Founder Dave Herman told the Voice in 2006 “We’re not very good at PR. We all just do what we enjoy doing and hope people will find out.”   

Just now, Herman says that isn’t working out all that well. Due to rent, rising utility costs, and a few grants that failed to materialize, the non-profit storefront museum may be forced to close if they can’t raise $20,000 by the end of March. Even with the profits from February’s New York City Firefighter Date-Auction, they’re not there yet…   


Amanda B. Friedman’s Unicorn Collection


If the Historical Society is New York’s Attic, the City Reliquary is New York’s Dotty Aunt’s Tchotchke Shelf. Herman founded it in 2002 as a museum “for the people,” with a collection of his own random artifacts, and added geological samples, urban archaeology finds, and stuff donated by people in the neighborhood. The front window features local collections (this month, it’s Amanda B. Friedman’s Unicorns). The current exhibit – Company Journals of the Southside Firehouse – was curated by a firefighter from Hook and Ladder 104.   

They sponsor movie nights, an annual Brooklyn Bridge Birthday bike ride, and art installations by kids from a local elementary school.   

The gift shop sells dirt from all five boroughs and bottles of East River Water.   

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For more about the City Reliquary Museum, click here  


Who Do You Think You Are?

I am convinced that in the developed, industrial world we are on the verge of a new era in heritage communication:  the creation of a creative personal, individual connection to history.               


No not the old aristocratic Burke’s Peerage kind; no not the “came on the Mayflower” kind; and not even “Kunta Kinte is the ancestor of all of us,” Alex Haley kind.  I’m talking about a personal narrative, with specific names, brushes with greatness, misfortune, sadness, and maybe a few moments of triumph– packaged in the slick envelope of video pans and lap dissolves, with background music and reaction shots.               

The quest for identity in a globalized homogenized world went through its virulent, corporatist nationalist stage (and still does in some places as we have seen in the last couple of weeks).  It was transmuted into personal expression through hobbies and eventually shopping, creating personalities that were somehow at least superficially different from the co-worker in adjoining cubicle 3c.               

But now with the miraculous capacities of low-cost hand-held video, massive internet genealogical records and digitized historical photos, and hundreds (thousands?) of unemployed history graduates looking for work, commissioning a personal narrative can be as easy as making a wedding video.           

And with a bit of training and experience, that personal video history can be infinitely expanded and elaborated as more facts and insights are uncovered.  Just imagine the possibility of being the family Ken Burns.     

Sarah Jessica Parker: Episode #1: Luckless Gold Miner and Accused Witch


The first episode of NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” premiered last night and it has the advantage over Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS “Faces of America” in focusing on the celebrity subject of the search instead of the presenter.  Yet both shows resort in the end to a dutiful, if politically correct patriotism that revolves around what it means to be an American.  

The BBC original was much less focussed on what it means to be British and much more on how far and surprisingly other meaningful, moving experiences underlie the superficialities of “official” Britishness.   

What I see in the American adoption of this genre is at least the potential 21st century fulfillment of the revolutionary, radical innovation of the decidedly unradical Sir Walter Scott.  In “inventing” the modern historical novel, Scott tried to show that despite the way that history had always been understood– Great Men, Great Wars, Great Events– even marginal characters (read: you and me) were connected to those events.  They were affected by and affected the great sweep of history.             

So if the Great Men and Events were the main trunk of the massive tree of history, it also had spreading branches, sub-branches, twigs, and buds that reached every person on earth.  And Scott, by beginning his stories at the very end of a branch– with a particularly vivid character in a personal situation, was able to show that this personal situation, and by extension all individual situations were meaningfully linked to the great events of the time.   In a word, everyone was part of history.            

Even such an unlikely ally as the Hungarian Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukács saw the radical possibilities of Scott’s brand of Personal History in changing the individual’s relationship to history from a passive to an active one.               

And today, when we have been atomized into job descriptions or CVs and when our shared public idea of history is either passive edu-tainment or ideological caricature, enabling people to see their own roots in a surprising unexpected history wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  It might restore some sense of collective energy to regain control over how our history is today unfolding and it might allow people to have some sense of historical identity not determined solely by their choice of clothing, cars, or current livelihoods.      

P.S. From an online discussion with Cornelius Holtorf:      

…here is what I think is key: we have mindless heritage groups now (nations, ethnicities, religions) that cause more trouble than they are worth. On the other hand we have atomized individuals who live in the present but don’t really see how collective action is possible outside established institutions.       

I think the personal link to haphazard collectivities (adventurers, con men, criminals, and dreamers) in the past can be powerful!      


The History of Just Regular Guys

Tom Hanks seems to be a nice guy, smart and quick-witted, and an outstanding actor.  His political heart seems to be in an open-minded, humanist place. 

It’s interesting that he is now being recognized as the impressario of American collective memory– even more massively popular than Ken Burns.  At the center of that Hanksian memory is the steady perspective of flawed individuals who are forced by circumstances beyond their control into difficult situations and are forced to make difficult choices– that somehow always seem to make sense in the end.

This distinctive historical perspective resonates deeply right now– and it obviously says more about our own times than the history it retells. 

Individual.  Flawed and vulnerable.  Unsentimentally self-reflective. 

Forces sweeping us up, disrupting our existence. 

Impossibly complex life choices. 

What Tom Hanks offers through the uncertainties and grimness, though, is hope.  And that is something that more strictly scholarly history often fails to provide.

Heritage as Worthwhile Reflection

There are so many cases of the abuse, misuse, and cynical manipulation of traces from the past, that I have to stress something that offers at least a glimmer of hope.

Yes, there were abuses, bureaucratic boondoggles, and scientific wrangles over the excavation and commemoration of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan

But as I look at the conflicts between heritage administrations and local communities all over the world about the proper regard for human dignity and historical reflection, I cannot think of a better example of a project that, at the end of the day, benefitted everyone.

A Burial Ground and Its Dead Are Given Life

From the New York Times  Feb 26
By Edward Rothstein

Cemeteries are at least as much for the living as the dead. They are the locus of tribute and memory; they affirm connections to a place and its past.

So in 1991, when during construction of a General Services Administration office building in Lower Manhattan, graves were discovered 24 feet below ground, and when those remains led to the discovery of hundreds of other bodies in the same area, and when it was determined that these were black New Yorkers interred in what a 1755 map calls the “Negros Burial Ground,” the earth seemed to shake from more than just machinery. The evidence created a conceptual quake, transforming how New York history is understood and how black New Yorkers connect to their past.

That is a reason why Saturday’s opening of the African Burial Ground Visitor Center, near where these remains were reinterred, is so important. Among the scars left by the heritage of slavery, one of the greatest is an absence: where are the memorials, cemeteries, architectural structures or sturdy sanctuaries that typically provide the ground for a people’s memory?…

… The new visitor center, inside the federal building that was ultimately constructed over a portion of the excavation (the other part became a burial site and memorial), is meant to explain the site’s significance — not a simple task, because the passions stirred by the discovery were not just historical, but also personal. There was a felt connection to the people, unearthed in their disintegrating coffins, who in the early decades of the city’s settlement were often forced into its construction. A sacral regard for the dead was joined with a sense of identification and continuity…

…So there is still much more to be understood about the history of slavery and black Americans in New York. But in the meantime the burial ground gives back to both the “descendant community” and to everybody else a sense that we are all arising out of a more complex and painful past than we have often imagined.

Click here for entire story

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Note the contrast with the last post about the “Tomb Economy” in rural China…