Friday, May 1, 2009

School's out for summer...

Today was one of my last days at school. Walking through campus it had me thinking about my own history. I had this very familiar feeling - that of one chapter closing and a new one beginning. I started reminiscing about the past year and even back to the first day. How nervous I was and uncertain of what the year would bring. It actually gave me some comfort, because I think most people feel uncertain when you finish a chapter of your life and start a new one, like with school. Because you know eventually you will get into the routine of whatever you have moved onto and will once again look back at it in a similar way. What made me particularly sad, however, was knowing that when I come back to visit in the future, things will not look or feel the way they do now. It is so strange how your memories of a place can feel so particular, and you tend to imagine that when you revisit that place, that you will have that same feeling. But you never do. Things always feel and look different.

My mother recently had that sort of experience. She took me to visit her old university and nothing looked the same. Even from the way she has always described her school, I think I was surprised as well. So, much had been built up. The gardens were not being maintained and the neighbourhood she had once lived in had seen better days. It was disappointing for her. It is strange the way your memory works.

Although I am going to miss this school and the people I got to know so well, I am going to take a lot from this year. I learned a great deal from this program and made some wonderful new friends. There are so many new possibilities waiting for the public history field. Creating a digital exhibit (website) the way we did showed me that there are new ways of educating people about history. You can reach a greater audience; people who would otherwise have a difficult time accessing this information. We also had the opportunity to produce a multimedia and interactive exhibit. It was interesting seeing how our audience interacted with technology. Some people felt quite comfortable playing around with the technology we used for the exhibits. Some, however, you could sense were intimidated by it. I think with time, as people get more comfortable with technology, there will be more room to make these interactions more intricate. For that reason, I think it will continue to be important for public historians to educate themselves with the latest technologies. Or at the very least, be knowledgable of the possiblities that are out there.


Things change. Technology changes and new chapters begin in your life. Enjoy the memories and always remember, there is always more you can learn.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Educating people about the Holodomor

I recently had an interesting conversation with one of my fellow classmates. I was talking about my interest in the history of the famine in Ukraine (or what is known in Ukrainian as the Holodomor, which I know I have mentioned more than once in my blog). The conversation led me to discover that this classmate, who was also a teacher's assistant for an undergraduate history course, had recently led a discussion in one of her tutorials about this very subject. The tutorial was primarily based on two quite extensive and detailed readings that had been assigned to the students of this course. Since the reading was somewhat different from some of the other readings they had been assigned in the past - in the sense that it was more graphic in detail because it was dealing with the starvation of millions of people - the t.a. asked what their reactions were to the readings. One person raised their hand and commented that they considered themselves to be fairly aware of world issues, yet they knew nothing about this particular atrocity. And they questioned why so little was known about it.

During this past year, many Ukrainians have been trying to get the famine taught in the highschool curriculum. Unfortunately, they have been repeatedly denied. I find this interesting because if students in the early years of university were disturbed by the fact that they had not been taught this in past courses, does that not demonstrate that it should be? It was recently recognized as a genocide by the Canadian government...

I often use the example of the famine in Ukraine, because it is a subject I have studied. However, there are a lot of subjects that are not stressed or taught in schools.

I just wanted to share this story with you. It made me somewhat hopeful that more people are becoming aware of what happened during the Holodomor and are questioning why so little is known. This also means that people, hopefully, will want to be more educated on subjects that are not given the recognition they arguably deserve.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The nature and culture of parks

For as long as I can remember, I have gone camping. My parents took me camping for the first time when I was only one year old. Still in my playpen, we nestled in our retro tent (well it seems retro now) and camped for a few weeks during the summer months. After that, I am pretty sure we went camping every summer – because little me got completely hooked. When I got a bit older, my parents purchased a tent trailer in order to be able to travel for longer distances and for greater lengths of time. I have seen all of Canada that way (except the Territories and Newfoundland). One of those summers, we also travelled through Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, and Michigan. I have also camped in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia. We even camped when we went to Disney World in Florida and had an Armadillo get into our cooler much the way you would expect a raccoon to get into one. It was quite the interesting sight.

I loved those experiences. I got to see so much of my own country, and a good portion of the United States. I have seen so many beautiful landscapes, experienced different cultures, and the animals I have seen – everything from bears (and quite up close), mountain goats, moose, elk, bald eagles, owls, and wolves (most of which I saw when I was in Alberta and British Columbia). What my family and I really enjoyed doing is getting up really early in the morning and taking drives at dawn, just to get a glimpse of these animals.

I have also always enjoyed learning about the history of the landscapes I have visited. For instance, I have been to Drumheller Valley and remember finding it fascinating that, first of all, that type of landscape exists in Canada, and secondly that many dinosaur bones were dug up from the area (therefore learning about both the nature and the culture of the landscape). Then there is the area in British Columbia that has some of the oldest trees in the world (I think we stayed in Saskquatch Provincial Park when we travelled to B.C.). I distinctly remember the sense of history in the landscape there (probably because the trees were so big and old, not to mention the legend of Big Foot, which is often told to tourists in the park). I also remember being completely fascinated when at night the entire ground would appear to be moving because of all the slugs on the ground (sounds gross I know, but really I was just worried about stepping on one on my way to our tent trailer).

I guess what I am trying to demonstrate is that my experiences camping have taught me a lot about “nature” and “culture”. In recent years (because I still enjoy camping), I have found myself particularly interested in participating in the educational walks that are put on by many parks. I enjoy both the ones that take you bird watching in the early mornings, as well as the ones that take you on a journey through the forest to learn about the history of the landscape; some of which take you to ruins and discusses what the land was once used for. It is particularly interesting because I recently read two chapters in a book entitled Public History and the Environment, edited by Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino. The first chapter was written by Rebecca Conrad and was called “Spading Common Ground: Reconciling the Built and Natural Environments.” In this chapter she emphasizes the need for, and I quote, “historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land managers to spade common ground. Together we must find ways to produce messages of meaning for a broad public.” (18) It seems like a very ambitious idea to get these three groups of people to work together, but I also believe it is important. And one of my favourite parks, Algonquin Provincial Park, might be a good example of these different groups working somewhat together (although I do not have proof that that is the case).

Algonquin Provincial Park spans an area of approximately 7,700 square kilometres. As you can see on their website,, they have the Park Interior that is to provide the “real wilderness experience”, which is only accessible to the public by canoe or on foot. There is also the Parkway Corridor, which has approximately 8 campgrounds that are accessible right off highway 60 and provide comfortable amenities, such as flush toilets, showers, stores, gift shops, restaurants, and rental facilities for canoes and bikes. In Conrad’s article, she points out that, “Despite the fact that most of us want to experience nature with modern conveniences handy, we are nonetheless compelled to declare some places off-limits to all but the lightest of human use where we ostensibly let nature take its course unimpeded.” (4) That seems to be exactly what has happened in Algonquin. Part of what drew people to Algonquin at the end of the nineteenth century was the railroad that was built into it. It made this vast landscape more accessible for people. The railroad is no longer used and is now a part of Algonquin’s “built environment”, however now highway 60 runs through it, so people can get to it quite easily and experience “nature” while having access to these amenities. Not to mention, as Conrad also states, it has become a lot about recreation, hence the rental facilities. Then there the “off-limits” areas of Algonquin – the interior – where only the, what I am going to call, “hardcore” campers venture to really experience nature (I would really love to experience that one day).

There are some problems with this picture however. I have camped in Algonquin many times (along the parkway corridor), and the fact that a highway goes right through this landscape is very intrusive. When you are camping in one of the 8 campgrounds along the highway, you can sometimes hear the noise of it (some of the campgrounds are closer than others and I have ridiculously good hearing, so it sometimes bothers me). One of the main reasons you hear the noise from the road is that many transport trucks use this route. Another part of the experience of camping along highway 60 is that you more often than not, see the majestic moose along the side of the road (they are especially attracted to roadside in the spring because when the snow melts it leaves the water salty and they enjoy drinking it). I have seen far too many of these animals lying on the side of the road who have been struck by speeding vehicles. But at the same time, it is how I am able to get to Algonquin. Also, apparently (from what I have heard and remember) there is a good portion of the interior of Algonquin where logging still occurs. This is an example of what David Glassberg writes in his chapter, “Interpreting Landscapes”. He says that “Most powerfully, landscapes bear the imprint of economic forces.” (23) This is particularly true of Algonquin which has a rich a long history of logging. They even have a Logging Museum that can be accessed off of highway 60 (which is also an example of the “culture” you can experience while at the park). I have taken the tour and it is quite interesting. During this tour, I remember the interpreter discussing the issue of present day logging in Algonquin. Although it is economically valuable, apparently it is also environmentally beneficial (strange I know – I did not see how that could be at first). However, if you think about it, the interaction between man and nature has existed for a very very very long time. Even Natives would have cut down trees to clear plots of land. The interpreter pointed out that the areas that are chosen to be cut down and carefully selected, and are quite small and are far from one another. And what happens is by cutting down these small areas of land, it gives for room for new growth and prevents larger sections of trees from getting diseases from each other (something to that affect). He urged us not to judge too quickly before understanding the reasons and process of logging in Algonquin.

What Algonquin Park basically demonstrates is that the historic, environmental, and economic factors that exist within it, which seem to function with one another quite well (for the most part). At least from my limited knowledge and perspective. My biggest issue with the park is that highway. It is too wide, the speed limit is too high, and I really wish they would not allow any transport trucks through it – but I am an animal lover and it just breaks my heart when I see dead animals lying on the side of the road. I think that one of the ways to maybe come to some sort of solution to all kinds of issues that exists within all parks, would be for the historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land managers to work together.

In a way I think that the landscapes I have visited have an altogether different history for me…they are a part of my history. The memories I have attached to many of these places are so precious to me. And yet I know if I visited a lot of these places I would be slightly disappointed because they would be somewhat different from the way that I remember them. A great deal of that would have to do with the changes that have occurred to these places because of the way that humans have interacted with these landscapes over the years since I was a child. Not to mention new technologies and economic demands that have also played a significant role in altering the landscapes within parks. I think the nature and culture of the landscape is losing out in the battle. I know that in Banff, Alberta there have been a lot of new developments put up (which means a lot of the natural landscape has changed). I have watched many documentaries that illustrate the concerns they have with the development that has undergone there. It makes me extremely sad to think of that place (what I consider my favourite place in Canada – but again that is based on my memories of it, not its current state). However, the changes that have occurred in that area tell us something about our present day culture.


As a side note, the experiences I had as a child visiting many of these provincial, state, and national parks probably also contributed to my interest in public history. I just hope that more is done to preserve the history, culture, and nature of these wonderful landscapes. It seems now, more so than it did when I was a child, that these issues need to be addressed. But the fact that we are talking about it and showing concern for it, is also saying something about our culture. That we don't want to lose the history and nature many of these landscapes hold for us - and that we are trying to take some courses of action to help preserve it, while still making it accessible to the public. It is all about balance (as I have said before even when talking about Public History)...

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is History alive with the Sound of Music?

I wrote this blog a while ago, probably sometime near the beginning of the school year. I realize I should have probably posted this a long time ago, I just never felt that this blog was ever complete. I would constantly return to it, edit it, and then feel that it was still missing information. In any case, I would like to post it now, and maybe through the comments sections, we can together expand on the ideas that I present (of which I am not sure make any sense, but I am going to put those thoughts out there anyway).

There is one example that I feel has been overlooked when considering “public history” and that is historically inspired theatre productions and musicals. In our readings so far, I have been introduced to many examples of public history, most of which have included communicating and interpreting history in museums, archives, film and television, historical fiction, and on the internet. Many of these examples were discussed in the following reading, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen. In the chapter, “The Presence of the Past”, the authors surveyed the historical activities people had believed they had participated in within the last 12 months. I found this analysis interesting because “Looking at photographs with family or friends…” was at the top of people’s lists, and museums were beat out by watching “…movies or television programs about the past.” (Rosenzweig and Thelen 19) I also found it interesting that one area was not considered at all, which is why I would like to discuss it.

In my perspective (and remember I wrote this a few months ago), what we as public historians are trying to do is interpret history as accurately as possible, while taking our audience into consideration. Some would argue – as they do with historical fiction and film and television productions – that theatre production and musicals do not portray history accurately enough. But remember, what essentially occurs is an interpretation of a particular subject. The main difference I see with film, television, theatre productions and musicals is that the medium you are using is different. Instead of solely using words, as you would when writing, you are using people, images, movement, and music to connect with your audience. Many people may not connect to history by simply picking up a book. How often do you purchase a magazine and not read the articles, but simply skim through it and look at the photographs? At a museum, how many of you have simply looked at the artifacts on display without really paying attention to the text panels? We have become a very visual society. Besides, whether it is the magazine or a museum, the images and artifacts you see are specifically chosen by the editor or curator respectively, in order to convey a certain message based on their own interpretations of the subject. You are therefore not necessarily provided all of the information, because a photograph shows you only one portion of a larger scene and people working in a museum select which artifacts are included in an exhibit. Not every artifact is placed on display, particularly if it does not support the theme(s) the museum has chosen. What you are therefore getting is an interpretation of the subject. That does not mean that you cannot learn more about the subject that is being presented – but you are at least getting some important points to consider. Some important points that can hopefully make you aware of the subject and will inspire you to learn more...

Therefore, is this really any different from what film and television tries to accomplish, and for that matter, what theatre productions and musicals communicate when considering historical subjects? Remembering that our audience may not necessarily be interested in every possible detail of whatever history we are portraying, what we essentially are trying to deliver is the big picture based on our own interpretations. And in order to capture the audience’s attention, we need to be creative in how we deliver the subject. That does not mean that our point of view is the only one there is – same as when you read an article. Yes, there will be elements in the production that are fictional, but those elements are supporting the delivery of the historical message. In other words, the fictional elements are the creative contributions that help draw in the public.

Like film, theatre productions and musicals are more popular mediums that have a wonderful entertaining quality which can be more attractive to the “general public” we are interested in communicating with. There are many examples of history inspiring theatre productions already: Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Evita, Fiddler on the Roof, Rent, and how could any of us forget the Sound of Music? As a child I must admit I watched the film, however I do not know if at a young age I would have been aware of the Second World War, if it had not been for that film. Not to mention, it provided people with a unique perspective on that history – that not all citizens under Hitler’s rule were in support of him. It also made me want to learn more about the Second World War as I got older.

Part of the problem is that historians are not involved enough in these forms of communication. Like using Digital History, for example, I don’t think we have acknowledged all the different ways we can communicate history to the public.
I had just started my studies in public history when I wrote the majority of this blog and although literature may exist on historically inspired theatre productions and musicals, I have not seen any indications of it to date. And I simply wondered why? I think a lot of the criticism associated with communicating history through film and television are probably very similar to the criticism one would have if historically inspired theatrical productions were to be included in the public history mix. Which is, that in most instances, they are not accurate portrayals of history and that they can leave the public with a distorted image of that history. Unfortunately, from more recent readings, some museums and living history sites are being criticized in a similar manner. So, this leaves me somewhat confused. How do we interpret history as accurately as possible, while taking our audience into consideration? How do we continue to communicate history without compromising it? I think that the answer (and challenge) is to keep it all balanced. I think some of the films that have been criticized have not kept the balance, same goes for the museums and living history sites. It has become more about “amusement” instead of about balancing amusement with accurate historical research. It is a challenge for public historians, but it is something that we need to constantly be thinking about.

Therefore, although historically inspired theatre productions and musicals may seem like a stretch for communicating history, I think it is something that can be revisited and should maybe be included when learning about public history. I know that I found musicals very inspiring as a child. I loved watching the Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof. They had that emotional connection – that romantic quality I think many people associate with history.
Anyway, let me know what you think about all this.

P.S. I had another working title for this piece that I would like to share with you. It was, Don’t cry for me, Public History. I simply felt the one I chose conveyed the message I was looking for a bit better – that maybe history is alive in places you would have never even considered. And maybe that is part of the problem...we as historians are not considering all the various forms of communication that are being used to present history to the public.
Question: Do you think theatre productions and musicals that are based on historical subjects should be considered as forms public history?
Poster Images (from Wikipedia):
1) Sound of Music - Original Cast Recording
2) Rent - Original Broadway windowcard
3) Fiddler on the Roof - Original Broadway windowcard evoking the artwork of
Marc Chagall.
4) Evita - Cover of Original Broadway Recording
5) Miss Saigon - Original Poster
6) Les Miserables - Portrait of "Cosette" by
Emile Bayard, from the original edition of Les Misérables

Getting people to think about history…

We have had numerous discussions in many of our classes about some of the issues that exist with historically inspired films and historical fiction. They are entertaining forms of communication; however they lack the historical accuracy of scholarly publications, and yet many people receive a lot of their information about history from these mediums. This makes professional historians wary of these forms interpretation.

The other side of this issue is that these forms of communication, whether it is a historical film like Saving Private Ryan or a historically inspired piece of fiction such as The Da Vinci Code, at the very least, has the potential to get people interested in whatever history is being presented.

I think that film and historical fiction are two very popular forms of communication and they reach the greatest number of people. Although most history that is interpreted through these mediums is not always as accurate as I think they should be, they do accomplish something else. They have the potential to make people aware of whatever history is being presented. That said, I think that there is more that needs to be done to make the general public also aware that the history that is being presented is neither fully factual nor complete and that there is more you can learn. And I would like to point out some of the ways, I think, that can and has been accomplished.

Let us take the already much talked about book, The Da Vinci Code. This book generated so much hype when it came out. It was controversial, exciting, interesting, and in many ways, quite convincing. However, this was a "fictional" novel and many took it very seriously because of some of the things that were suggested in it. Then there was the much anticipated film based on this novel that again caused a multitude of media coverage. The spin off of both the novel and film produced an array of documentaries and books. What I found so interesting, particularly when watching the documentaries (as I have to admit I have not read any of the books that were published in reaction to The Da Vinci Code), was that many of the documentaries looked at different points of view. Some focused on supporting some of the claims made in The Da Vinci Code – almost attempting to try and find further proof. Others however focused on showcasing all of the elements within the book that were fictional. The greatest debate seemed to focus on whether there was the possibility of whether or not Jesus Christ could have been married. There were those that acknowledged, at the very least, the possibility that he could have been. Then there were those that outlined all the reasons why this could not have been the case. It was all very interesting, because I felt like I was being presented with all these different points of view. All the documentaries were gathering their information and opinions from, in many cases, historians who were either on the fence over the issue, were intrigued by what was being suggested and were therefore open to some of the possibilities, and then there were those that had definitive answers one way or the other. It allowed the viewers to be given more information than was presented to them in the book or the film. There are also books that have been written “decoding” The Da Vinci Code. I have not read any of them, and therefore cannot comment on them. However, they provide additional information that may or may not have been presented in the documentaries. So, for anyone that was intrigued by The Da Vinci Code, can at the very least, learn more about the subject and what is historically accurate.

What I particularly liked about the whole phenomenon (if you can call it that) of The Da Vinci Code, is that it was openly questioning a part of history – and a controversial history at that. I think that we need to be open to the fact that we cannot know everything there is to know about history – especially ancient history. It is a mystery and we will continue to find new clues that may alter what we think we know. It is like an adventure.

Thus, The Da Vinci Code, both the fictional novel and film, arguably produced greater interest in conducting scholarly research into this piece of history. And it arguably made people more aware of that history. In general, it made people want to learn more…

There was another book I read not too long ago that made me want to learn more about a particular history. That book was called, ironically, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. The novel was based on a rather popular subject matter: Dracula. However, this one provided information about the real Dracula, the one who was known as Drakulya or Vlad the Impaler, ruler of Wallachia (which is in present day Romania) during the 15th century . First of all (and I think I have said this before in one of my previous blogs) the book is very good, and I highly recommend it. Especially curled up with a hot chocolate on a rainy thunderstorm type night - it is great! I also found it so interesting that I watched many of the documentaries that had been produced on this real life Dracula. They included: Dracula’s Underground, Vlad the Impaler, Real Dracula, and the True Story of Dracula. What was also very “refreshing” if you don’t mind me saying so, was that the author, Elizabeth Kostova, included a section at the end of her book entitled: Elizabeth Kostova’s suggestions for further reading. The bibliography was divided into the following section (which I think is very smart, because it addresses different people’s interests): 1) Dracula/Vlad Tepes; 2) History and Folklore; 3) Travel. It would be wonderful if every piece of historical fiction went to that trouble. In the beginning of the book I think she also introduces the fact that not everything is factual, but a lot is based on the actual history of Vlad the Impaler and some of the conflicts he was involved in during his 15th century rule.

I guess the point is that there are ways of accessing more information about the type of history that is being interpreted, whether in a historically inspired film or piece of historical fiction. What these more popular stories are able to do is grab people’s attention. Not everyone will want to watch the numerous documentaries or read the books that are in response to a film like The Da Vinci Code, or dive into the “suggested for further reading” section of a novel, but people have the option. And I think that these films and books also have the potential to get more people interested in the subject matter more than they would have been before it was popularized. This means by producing these forms of interpretation, we are probably increasing the amount of people who are becoming interested in history. I can probably provide one more example to that affect. In my undergraduate studies, I remember when The Da Vinci Code (the film) came out. A year later, a course was introduced focusing on Leonardo Da Vinci and people enrolled in it immediately. It seemed to make people want to learn more about Da Vinci and I don't think that is a negative outcome.

Simply put, I think we need to continue to produce an array of films and pieces of historical fiction that are based on all kinds of history. That way we can popularize other subjects that people know little or nothing about.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Performing at the ROM

A few weekends ago I decided to visit the Royal Ontario Museum to see the Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: The Remarkable Trypilian Culture (5400-2700 BC) exhibit. The artifacts in this exhibit have been dated earlier than even the Pyramids, which is why I was very excited to go and see it.

I think because I am in a public history program, it is natural for me to notice the little things in an exhibit; the design, the flow of it, how they displayed the information, and so on. I am particularly interested in exhibit design myself and this one, in my opinion, was done very well. It was very artistic - the colours were rich and were drawn from the artifacts themselves - it had great flow to it, and had the “wow factor” that I like to see when you walk into a museum exhibit. People tend to take notice of the visual first; it is what draws them in, which is why I think design is so important. And I was particularly impressed with the design of this exhibit.

In November I had already had a chance to see some of the exhibit, when I performed at the gala opening and on Ukrainian Heritage Day. The choreographer of the Ukrainian dance company I am a part of was asked to work with a limited number of dancers on a special interpretive dance piece inspired by the artifacts of the Trypilian culture. I was one of the dancers selected to perform this piece. It was not the first time I had been asked to be a part of a special project for the ROM. In 2001 I had been selected to play the role of a princess in another modern piece choreographed for the Scythian Gold exhibit. We performed the Scythian dance approximately five times, including an appearance on Breakfast Television. That experience had been very memorable, which is why I was once again honoured and excited to be a part of another such project.

I had already enrolled in the MA program at the University of Western Ontario, when I was approached to dance for the opening of the Trypilian exhibit. By agreeing to be a part of this project, I committed myself to traveling back and forth on weekends for rehearsals in Toronto. As I have already mentioned in previous blogs, I have danced with the same group for over twenty years and have often seen my choreographer inspired by historical subjects. I think I owe some of my interest in public history to the creativity I have been exposed to through dance (other performances have included interpretive dances choreographed for the opening of a Ukrainian art exhibit and at a commemorative event for the famine in Ukraine).

In total there were 11 main dancers: four family members, six spirits, and one matriarch. It was a powerful piece that brought together two worlds – the secular and the spiritual. The dance started off slowly and kept building throughout, increasing with energy, until we all became one. As we were brought together by the matriarch, the end was not the end at all, but the beginning. A sense of rebirth was characterized at the end of the piece, as a little girl was brought into the world – a joyous gift for everyone.

The costumes were also inspired by the exhibit. The spirits wore hand-painted beige unitards, with a pattern that was comprised of brown and black painted swirls, which can be found on ancient Trypilian pottery. What is so remarkable is that these patterns are still used within Ukrainian culture today. My mother paints Ukrainian Easter eggs, and one of her favourite patterns to use is the tripisky pattern (which has the same colours and swirl patterns we see on the artifacts). The exhibit itself contained a lot of pottery, but it also displayed many small figurines, most of which were of the female figure. For this reason, the majority of the dancers were females and the costumes were created to emphasize the female form.

Working on this project was once again an unforgettable experience. I really enjoy being a part of creative projects in general as they inspire me, and I love to be inspired :). I think having us dance at the opening of the exhibit was a unique way of introducing the exhibit itself.

1) Catalogue of the Trypilian Exhibit edited by Krzysztof Cluk
2) Photograph taken by Markian Radomskiy
3) The dancers...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"An Affair (with history) to Remember"

When I was an undergrad at York I began as only a Fine Arts Cultural Studies major. In my first two years of studies I enjoyed taking all of the “artsy” classes, particularly when it came to photography. But when in my third year I could not get into many of the art classes I wanted to, I ended up taking the year to meet all the requirements needed outside of the fine arts. I started with a few Ukrainian culture courses and one history course. I still remember sitting in the classroom the first day of Eastern Europe, Since 1918; the history course I had decided to take. The professor laid out his expectations and I remember being quite worried that I would not be able to do well, as I had not taken a history course since grade nine. However, I stuck it out and it ended up being one my favourite classes, not to mention it motivated me to add history as a minor. Basically, from that day on I was hooked…

What I find fascinating and what keeps me inspired all the time, is how passionate history professors are about their work. The amount of knowledge they possess on any given topic is what keeps me coming back, so to speak. In many of my history classes it never felt like I was in school. Rather it felt like I was sitting in on story time, not in a lecture. I also enjoyed the debates that would develop as a result. You think you have a good take on a historical subject, then someone throws out a different viewpoint and you cannot help but stop consider it, which I think teaches you to be more objective. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a good example of that. In this novel, the author put forth a very controversial alternative to a history that has been otherwise considered fairly concrete. It prompted scholars to revisit this history and generated a craze of documentaries and books that either considered this new alternative or refused it. If nothing else, debating the various perspectives definitely keeps things interesting and it opens your mind up to new possibilities.

The challenge is in transferring your passion for history over to the general public, who might otherwise find it somewhat uninteresting. However, I think that one of the students in my class got it right when she said, you have to draw people in with emotion first not facts. This is why I think Dan Brown's novel was such a success. I too believe that in order to draw in the general public to experience the wonderful world of history, we need to reel them in with emotion and then we can teach them about the facts. And I am continuously learning about the problems and issues surrounding the work of public historians.
My hope is that one day I will inspire others with the historical subjects I am passionate about, in the same way that I have been inspired by the work of my professors and students alike. Do not forget, I was a fine arts major who never imagined would be taking history. But here I am, and I could not be happier.

The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism By Tina Rosenberg (one of the books I had to read in the course, Eastern Europe, Since 1918).