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What will history make of your desk’s contents?

1 Jul

I pick up the Washington Post Express on my commute most mornings, and yesterday, among the numerous things that I totally have to check out (FOLKLIFE IS DOING R&B AND THE DIXIE CUPS WILL BE THERE, oh Internet don’t even get me started on girl groups I can’t even), there was this piece about “For All The World To See”, an exhibit about the narrative of the civil rights movement as told in everyday objects, currently at the National Museum of American History. Which, first of all, I totally have to check out. But second of all, I had a bit of a chuckle at the vaguely startled tone of the article. Everyday objects? In a historical collection? Interrobang?!?!?

Dude, that’s what history is. That’s why, for all the jokes that got made when the Library of Congress announced it was going to start archiving tweets, it’s important that they’re doing it: because history is the little things. Museums might put the shinies on display, but the tiny fraction of their catalogues that you see are joined, behind the scenes, by the less-pretty things that will tell you a lot more about the realities of everyday life.

In conclusion, for all you historians from the future, the contents of my desk are as follows: tea, chocolate from the UK, a broken rubber band, a post-it containing the details of an appointment with my therapist, my keys, a couple of Kate Beaton cartoons, a pair of scissors, and some packing tape. And binder clips. Lots of binder clips.

(Actually, now I’m going into Material History mode and I am getting ready to tell you all what impressions I, a historian, might draw from those things, but that’s an entry for another time.)

In which there is awkwardness all around.

5 Oct

The happy little stars this layout uses for bullet points just add to the effect, really.

  • Hey remember when you made a big deal out of Holocaust denial and then it got out that your family converted from Judaism when you were little? Hahaha, man, that was awkward.
  • Or hey remember when you were a German pen company and you marked the birth of a dude who embraced an ascetic lifestyle and “shunned foreign-made products” and was pretty known for making hunger strikes by selling a $25,000 pen? Oh man, that was awkward.
  • Oh man remember that time you used the White Man’s Burden as an excuse to wipe out the indigenous people and then it turned out they had canal systems thousands of years before you got there? Hoo boy was that awkward.

Oh man, sorry dudes, I am out with a pretty fierce cold the past few days so I pretty much got nothing. Also why would you need a $25,000 pen at all, seriously.

In which my excitement is no enigma.

4 Oct

…sorry about that.

I was really jazzed last week when I read this BBC article about how Bletchley Park has been awarded 500,000 pounds for development! This is one of those things that I just find so endlessly interesting and yet have somehow never managed to see the times I’ve traveled to England. Hopefully I’ll be getting back sometime in the next year or so and I can get to it then.

Basically Bletchley Park was the site of the British codebreaking efforts during WWII. It was located about equidistant between Cambridge and Oxford, the joke being that so many of their people came from one of those universities that if they seemed to be favoring one with the location there’d be no peace. If you pick up any kind of resource on Bletchley Park you will find all sorts of hilarious and/or tragic stories (for the latter, see Alan Turing’s ENTIRE FREAKING LIFE).

Here is the thing: a lot of the brains behind the operation were, to put it delicately, nerds, and if you are like me, you have noticed that while plenty of nerds do have normal social skills and hygiene, plenty of them don’t, so if you get a group of nerds together, add the normal nerd levels of neurosis and intelligence to super-code-breaking-genius levels of these, and place them under stress (like, say, having to break German codes and begin all over again every single day), hilarity will tend to result. As for the tragic bits, apart from, as I said before, Alan Turing’s ENTIRE FREAKING LIFE, it was all intelligence work, which means that to the eyes of most of the country, it was a cushy desk job that you took to get out of actually serving. There’s a story of one codebreaker who got this letter from a former tutor, ripping him apart for not enlisting when so many of his classmates had done, and for just taking some safe little government desk job when his country really needed him, and of course even though he was doing just as much as the guys who went off to fight, he couldn’t possibly say that on account of its being TOP FUCKING SECRET.

I’ve currently got Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park in my to-read pile, but having flipped through it a little, it seems pretty excellent! Basically I am a sucker for espionage history in general, and I am also a big fan museums/historical sites, so hearing that Bletchley Park had gotten a decent bit of money (and that there are plans for a 10-million-pound renovation over the next few years besides) was pretty awesome.

In which I cannot maintain my cynicism.

1 Oct

Man, I don’t even know what it was about this, but it basically had me all weepy and ridiculous when I read it. So, okay, awhile back, a high school teacher assigned his students a project in which they would collect oral histories from their family members to create a record of the town’s memories of the Second World War. And they ran across a story the American 30th Infantry Division who were moving through Germany at the end of the war, intercepted and then proceeded to liberate a train that carried thousands of people from the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen to a death camp. It turned out this story had basically been forgotten about, because Mat Rozell, the teacher who’d started it all, began getting emails from people who’d been on that train.

Like, the ABC article about it is kind of silly and manipulative soft journalism, but I’m not gonna lie, I was totally manipulated by it. This is also a really good example of how technology can be really useful for historical study; one of the survivors who was on the train said he had spent 44 years searching for some mention of the incident and found nothing until Matt Rozell’s high school history class posted what they’d found on the Internet.

Seriously this is ridiculous, I am crying all over again. I don’t even know, guys.

In which the news is not all completely infuriating!

30 Sep

Some of it is hilarious! In the midst of the Polanski business (here’s a free tip, readers: if you don’t want to go to jail for raping a child, maybe you shouldn’t rape a child), here are some articles that have shown up in my reader and did not make me want to punch a lot of people!

First of all, the Telegraph reports that apparently archaeologists are now thinking that the Battle of Bosworth Fields actually took place about a mile away from the site that’s been previously used to mark it. Awkward!

Also from the Telegraph comes news that a dude who made some wacky claims about Hitler’s skull fragment on a History Channel special never actually examined the fragment. Hey, remember when the History Channel wasn’t all WWII all the time? Yeah, me neither.

And the Times reports that a Van Dyck self-portrait is due to be sold! They also say, however, that “modern detractors argue that van Dyck is to blame for 400 years of flattery and airbrushing in depictions of the famous and the powerful”; maybe I am not so up to date with the art history world, but I have never heard this at all. Is this true?

Or if “what wacky times we live in” is your thing, the BBC reports that a PoW camp in County Durham is for sale on eBay!

Ah, that was refreshing. By the way, for those of you who’d like to know whose movies to illegally download borrow from your friends instead of buying from now on, the LiveJournal celeb-gossip community ohnotheydidn’t has a list of people who’ve signed the “Free Polanski” petition. Fortunately, most of my favorite celebrities and imaginary significant others are not really important enough for anyone to have asked their opinions on the matter, so I can continue with planning our imaginary weddings, but man, this is bad enough. Et tu, Tilda Swinton?

In which the jokes are mostly too easy.

22 Sep

Two things in my Google reader feed that made me laugh this morning:

  1. The Telegraph reported that Vikings were generally warned away from Scotland, because the weather was awful and the people were incomprehensible and scary.
  2. A whole bunch of new interviews with Bill Clinton are being released in a new book by Taylor Branch, the historian who conducted them! The Daily Mail has chosen to focus on stories about Boris Yeltsin’s drunken antics. I cannot really laugh too much at their “journalism” there, however: my response to seeing the first couple paragraphs of NPR’s article on the subject was “yeah, I bet you would need an ‘oral historian’ to write about the Lewinsky scandal, WHAT UP”. This was shortly followed by being sad that no one was around to high-five me for that. :(

In which history is DELIGHTFUL.

21 Sep

From The Independent comes the news that “a war hero decorated for his bravery in the fight against Hitler is finally being honoured by his home town 55 years after his death.” The hero in question being, by the way, a pigeon.

I cannot even figure out why I am so charmed by this. Possibly because I love pigeons. Maybe it goes back to how Bert and Ernie were my favorites on Sesame Street? I don’t know. In conclusion: PADDY THE PIGEON, FUCK YES.