Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What is History?

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

History is defined for us in elementary school, sometimes as “social studies”, “people of many lands”, etc. Like other subjects, it’s learned in short segments, feet on the floor and eyes forward, with an occasional field trip. Each grade level has its own area of focus – local, world, etc. – which probably will not interact with the grades above or below it. School-taught history doesn’t tend to build on itself the way that math and language skills do.

Early experience shapes many people’s feelings about history and museums. “I don’t like…” usually means you had a boring teacher and you were yelled at for touching something on a field trip.

If we (public history professionals) want to better serve people, we need to ask better questions. “Do you like history?” triggers grade school flashbacks. “What do you care about?” is personal and in the present. Anything you care about, from social justice to the stickers on bananas (seriously, I’ve met people who collect them), can be tied to history. It’s our job to make history fit you, not the other way around.

Antiques are often associated with history. If that’s your passion, that’s fine, but it’s just one small aspect of history.

 Everyday stuff (that’s a technical term, by the way) works with multiple generations. It either evokes memories or questions – “What is it? How did it fit in your pocket or take pictures?”

Appreciating photos requires no language skills or prior knowledge. We have a Facebook page where we post an old Geneva photo almost every day. Most of the comments are memories, but there are others from newcomers to the city, i.e. “Wow, I had no idea what _____ used to look like.” This is the south side of Seneca Street, seen from the corner of Linden Street, around 1952.

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