World-building & Public History: A Comparative Analysis

World-building is the authorial practice of developing an imaginary world. The practice encompasses the imagining of a history, a world ecology, topographical features, cultural features and more to enrich and entrench the overall narrative. More advanced world-building techniques include the development of religious communities, monuments and colloquial language. Those fictional universes that employ world-building successfully can hint at the larger narrative with the transition to a particular setting, the playing of a particular song, through artwork and design, and even the mention of a particularly inspiring or ominous name.*

The idea of world-building seems obvious and omnipresent, but it wasn’t always so. The term itself is dated only as far back as 1820, and some of the earliest writers to be attributed with performing this crucial task are J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis.* These writers all gained recognition in-and-around the 20th century, and inspired every generation since to adopt this practice wholeheartedly. These ‘big three’ are in many ways the gold-standard of world-building. I would argue some other great writers of the late 19th century, such as Lewis Carroll, were less concerned with world-building and more concerned with finding answers their own spiritual quandaries. The question, though, is this: Where did they mine all of their inspiration for their works? Did these authors just sit in their study and use their imagination for decades until they had enough to put on paper? Unsurprisingly, the answer is no. Tolkien was undoubtedly inspired by his father’s works, which included decades’ worth of fantasy writings, and also his involvement in The Great War. Tolkien witnessed firsthand the brutality of the war at the Battle of the Somme, while also being bewildered at the beauty of the mountainous regions of France and Switzerland. Bloodshed in the midst of beauty became a standard for Tolkien’s future writings. Lewis was influenced heavily by the interesting combination of Catholic dogma and Icelandic mythology. Many of the themes in his Chronicles of Narnia play upon these mythological narratives through figures that closely resemble biblical heroes. His childhood in Ireland would heavily influence the topography of his worlds and his religious background, the morality of his characters. Historians are still debating Lovecraft’s influences. Let’s just say his life, those who entered into it and left abruptly, and the sickliness he faced were enough to inspire him to seek other worlds and fill them with dark and wicked things.

These three great authors all applied the ‘top-down’ approach to world-building. This method would have authors create an overarching narrative or ‘grand history of the world’, and then populate this world with places, people and things that would make sense to the greater narrative. These worlds are often very stable due to how methodical the approach can be. However, the intricacies of particular social groups, individuals and the significance of artifacts and places tend to be generalized and draw from attributions made by the most developed and therefore dominant group. In contrast, there is the ‘bottom-up’ method of world-building, which is far more risky, but ultimately far more engaging and supportive of different world-views. Those authors that utilize this methodology first create individuals and the social groups they belong to. Those authors then place these groups into homes and communities, and construct for them local cultures and things of significance to their community. These worlds are built on a near-molecular level, with themes and narratives that are built on individuals, relationships and ideals that can be traced back to small groups. As the scope of the narrative grows larger, the surrounding areas are generally given less exposition, but are still anchored by how vividly the place of origin has been portrayed. With this method, authors can slowly construct a greater narrative while utilizing these smaller communities as a platform for growth. Ideally, most critics would argue that authors should employ both approaches, but this can be exceedingly difficult to do while managing to keep a cohesive narrative.  I would argue that attributing causation and correlation from top-down and bottom-up simultaneously is only possible with narratives with no room for interpretation or dispute. The profession of history is not dissimilar. For example, if one were to argue that the demise of France during the Napoleonic Wars can be attributed in equal measure to war-exhaustion on a national scale, and to the failure of a woodcutters guild in Provence to provide timber for a particular ship needed in the Mediterranean, anyone would look at you as if you were a crazy person. It’s an odd example, I know, but generally narratives and historical arguments are alike in this way. The direction you build your narrative in matters, regardless of your platform.

To be continued…

*Would Voldemort be as terrifying if we didn’t learn of his past as Tom Riddle, or of his departure from Dumbledore’s side? Would the name Sauron be synonymous with tyranny and fear if his path of conquest and destruction hadn’t endured for thousands of years before the narrative really begins? In both cases, power and a terrifying outward appearance is not the case. Think of how many terrible horror movies there are with figures more twisted and hideous than these two, yet do not inspire the tiniest amount of dread or make you recoil in the slightest.

*Why does every author born in the 1890’s have multiple initials in his name?

Before you ask… yeah, I read a lot of nerdy things when i’m not reading history books. I’d like to thank my mom and all of my crazy English Lit professors at UMCP for this.

When A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Resource Recommendation 6

For My People: The Margaret Walker Center, an article by Robert E. Luckett, Jr., was quite an inspiring story of the transformation of a local hero into a national hero and icon. The life and works of this cultural icon inspired multiple authors of great fame themselves, including Toni Morrison and Alex Haley. Walker’s novel Jubilee served as a major source of inspiration for both of these authors’ works. Walker has dedicated the last thirty years of her life to educating her community and the blossoming of a younger generation of African-American artists and authors. Among those she worked with was W.E.B Du Bois, and Walker was dedicated to answering those who would ask the questions, ‘Should we talk about slavery,’ and ‘how much should the younger generations know about the darker aspects of the African-American experience,’ with the firm answers of ‘Yes’ and ‘As much as possible.’ Walker did not conform her writings to have idealized and heroic figures that elevated African-Americans. Her realistic portrayal of the world and the dangers afoot in her time were enough to elevate her successors. Walker thought about the world the way her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother did: “That the world is not the worst place in the world to be. That it’s what you make it and, if you look at it through dark colored glasses, it’s going to be a dark place to see.’’ Her service in promoting newer generations of African-American artistry and authorship through her clear expression of the world and her experiences has been forever memorialized by a center bearing her name.

“Samuel McCullough Was a Mullato Man”

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Everett Fly, distinguished guest and speaker at the Esperanza Center was the first speaker for the Westside Community and Preservation Speaker Series. This series will explore community history and historic preservation in communities of color.

Mr. Fly is a licensed professional landscape architect. He is an architect and a historian. Mr. Fly is currently a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. For years Mr. Fly has taken interest in the history of those not represented in the books and narratives that we see now in schools and communities. His talk was titled “Historic African-American Communities in San Antonio” and hit the nail on the head in terms of understanding that our current views are quite a bit flawed.

 

 

And a Grito Filled the Air

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A developing population can grow out of the past or it can grow with the past in mind and in sight.

Laugh, smile, and cry seem to just be those emotions present at events like these. The interesting thing is what brings you to attending events usually has something to do with someone inviting you or an event reminding you of it an hour before on some social media platform but when some kind of event just pops out at you from the side of the road then what choice do you have but to stop?

Photo courtesy of Gateway Photography: 7 Year Old Boy Singing at The 4th Annual Mariachi Festival at Mariachi Connection Inc.

I stopped promptly, opened a window and a grito filled the air. Chances are that if you are from San Antonio or even from Texas then you know what a “grito” is but in case you aren’t a local of the region, a grito is a cathartic joyous yell according to an article by Brenda Salinas with NPR called “In Mariachi Music, A Distinctive Yell Speaks To The Soul“. It wasnt the first time I had heard a grito and it definetely wont be the last time that a grito filled the air.

That following weekend just happened to be the 16th of September and the recollection of the Grito de Dolores or the Cry of Dolores came to mind right away.

Continue reading “And a Grito Filled the Air”

Is a Culturally Specific Museum Just Another Box?

When it comes to museum exhibits and collections, diversity is not always key — in one sense of the word. While it is important that we see all groups have a space to explore their history and identity among peers and the rest of the public, the most effective collections are not always a mix of many different art pieces or artifacts from all over the globe. Many times, ephemera of the same or similar origin will be displayed together in order to show a more thorough and cohesive story of a particular culture. However, when we select one identity to be the basis of our exhibit and museum construction, are we actually placing these groups into a box, or miniaturizing their personhood in order to emphasize just one of their many idenitities? Are culturally specific museums a good thing?

Reader, if I asked you to describe yourself as a person, what would you start with? Would you say that you are an American? That you are Catholic, or Jewish, or Muslim? Or would you say that you enjoy sports, or reading history blogs? Most of all, would you say just one of these things, and stop there? That is where some Culturally Specific museums and exhibits fall short. By supporting a familiar narrative about a particular group, the museum-goer doesn’t come away with anything they didn’t already bring with them.

However, when a Culturally Specific museum is done well, it can show the diversity and complexity of both history and identity that a group can have. One particular Museum that I feel does this well is the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. By presenting the many talents and identities encompassed within being Jewish, we are able to have a conversation about how the identity has changed, and shaped around the modern era. The CJM is not just for Jewish people, it is for all people to learn and be able to converse intelligently about what they may not have known, or simply may have assumed.

Maximilíano Durón writes that “cultural institutions are social institutions”, and I wholly believe this to be true. When we are able to walk into a museum and explore an identity that we do not apply to ourselves, our understanding and empathy for other human beings expands, and our minds can begin to conceive of what it may be like to exist as this other person, with their other identity. Even when something appears uncomfortable to the viewer, or controversial, we are able to ask why this artifact or display causes us discomfort, or why we don’t talk more freely about its subject matter.

All this to say, the Culturally Specific museum is able to both close our minds and open them, put us in boxes and allow us to escape them. It is up to the many hard-working museum staff and organizers that we see liberation rather than shackles. As for whether or not the Culturally Specific museum is just another box to put people in? It doesn’t have to be.

Renaming a Place to Destroy an Identity

Place is a powerful thing.  Place is not just a dot on a map or a green street sign, place is a force that shapes people and cultures.  It dictates what clothes you wear and what foods you eat.  Our modern world has overcome the constrictions of place with our advance transportation networks, however this was not always the case.  Societies were defined by the land they lived on.  It was who they were as a people.  Many cultures saw themselves as living with the land, not just on it.  Where these people lived was part of their cultural identity.  When the European explorers first came to this continent they drew their maps and labeled the places they saw.  They paid no heed to the fact that these paces already had names, for they did not care.  The people living there were seen as uncivilized and savages, hardly worth noting.  Slowly, the Europeans began to change the Place.  With these changes new names were laid upon the land and its features.  The bitter fruits of their labors still scar the land as the place names we see on our maps.  At first it was done out of ignorance or possibly indifference to the native cultures, but later Europeans would use place names as part of their campaign of genocide against the native peoples.

McKinley vs Denali 

The fight over place names is literally sky high, as in 20,000 feet into the sky.  The tallest peak in North America has gone by many names.  The natives who lived in the area had many names for the peak, depending on what side of the mountain you lived on.  The Russians who explored the area had a different name for it, but it was based on the local languages spoken by the natives.  The name Mount McKinley would be hung on the mountain by a gold prospector being interviewed by the New York Sun in 1893.  The name gained permanence with the assassination of McKinley.

“I don’t like the name of Denali. It is not descriptive. Everybody in the United States knows of Mt. McKinley and the various efforts made to climb it. In consequence, both Mr. Yard and I think that the name McKinley should stick.” –Thomas Riggs Alaska Engineering Commission  1916

NPS Photo / Kent Miller

Riggs could have helped pass a law that would have reverted the name back to Denali, but his opposition caused the mountain to be named after a man who had no connection to Alaska.  The name controversy would simmer until 1975 when a bill was introduced in Congress to change the name back to Denali.  This attempt was blocked by the Congressional delegation from Ohio, McKinley’s home state.   They did not wish to have that tribute removed from the maps.  The delegation was successful for 40 years.  President Obama and Secretary of the Interior Jewell were able to put the Denali name back on the mountain.  President Trump nearly rekindled the controversy when he proposed undoing the name change.  He was talked out of it by the Senators from Alaska.

This tale illustrates how the history of the continent is ignored until the Europeans show up.  There were people living on this land for 10-15,000 years before Columbus’ boats showed up but to the Europeans that didn’t matter.  They came with the intention of exploiting the land and its people.  The renaming of places was in part to show people who was in charge of this land.

The Devil is in the Details

How do you find places in the United States that were sacred to the original inhabitants of the land?  Look for the devil.  Besides plastering European names on places in the Americas, the Europeans actively destroyed native culture by changing names of places.  Near Death Valley is a cave that is fed by an underground spring.  This area was sacred to the Timbisha People.  It was christened Devils Hole by the Europeans who came to the area.  Why would you call an important oasis “Devils Hole”?  The answer is, to destroy it’s non-Christian divinity.  Through it’s association with the devil, the newly Christian converts would no longer worship at their once sacred sight.   This process was repeated in many locations around the country.  Probably the most iconic example is Bear’s Lodge, or as it is known on the map, Devils Tower.

A sacred land to 6 different tribes.  Courtesy JT Sleeter Photography

Devils Tower is located in North Eastern Wyoming.  It is an unusual geological formation.  It rises over 1200 feet but it stands by itself.  there are no other peaks or neat it.  It was a sacred place to many of the tribes in the area and they all tell a story about the formation’s origin.   The common thread of the stories is that the rock was created by the spirits/ nature/ a god to save people from a bear attack.  When Christianity was

Different tribes had different names for it, but the most common was Bear’s Lodge. Courtesy JT Sleeter Photography.

brought to the area the formation was renamed Devils Tower to break the mystical connection the natives had with this area.  This was not a unique event, there are many more examples of this patter all over the country; almost every state has a Devils Lake, you can visit the Devils River in Texas, and Georgia is home to the Devils Valley.  All renamed in an attempt to force subjugated people to accept the religion of their European conquerors.

Digitization of Collections: An Expectation or a Luxury?

Digitization of of collections is receiving increased attention by curators, as the benefits from technology become more evident and more accessible over time. Many institutions are hesitant to adopt this change, due to the expense, effort and risks involved. Others are far more open to the idea and see it as something that should simply be an expectation of museums and all educational platforms of the future. Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution G. Wayne Clough made a strong case for such change:

“Today digital technology is pervasive. Its use, particularly by the world’s youth, is universal; its possibilities are vast; and everyone in our educational and cultural institutions is trying to figure out what to do with it all. It is mandatory that museums, libraries, and archives join with educational institutions in embracing it.”

The Smithsonian Institute boasts over 14 million items in their collection, so the fact that he is in such fervent support of digitization, even with such a monumental task ahead of him makes the claim even more credible.

3D Scanning of Abraham Lincoln’s death mask. Quite an expensive undertaking between the technology and professionals required.

 

As more museum operators are becoming acquainted with the tools necessary for digitization, and the process becomes popularized, many newer museums are establishing guidelines and expectations for their exhibits to be digitized from the beginning.

Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, by Laura Coyle, discussed one such museum. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened on September 24, 2016. It did so “…beginning with nothing, and having a staff, collection, and museum to build, there was plenty to do, but the museum still committed to a digitization program well before it opened.” (Coyle) There are many reasons for their dedication to this monumental task, including making their collection more accessible and preserving artifacts which will degrade over time, even in the best of environments. Achieving the task of full digitization is a much more accessible goal for museums that begin the process from the beginning, but for others, it’s a nightmarish concept. Museums with little to no funding or backing, and those with collections that are hard to digitize, with fragile or difficult to move collections, the process is incredibly risky and seemingly impossible given the amount of man-hours and technology required. Hiring a team of digitization specialists, or ‘digi-techs’ is simply out of reach for them.

As the technology becomes cheaper and therefore more accessible, and as the technical experts and engineers necessary for such a task become more numerous, full digitization of most collections might be an achievable goal. For now, i’d argue that this luxury is limited only to those institutions with large amounts of funding and the national exposure necessary to warrant a need for such accessibility.

Finding the Coatlicue State: The Difficulties of Facing the Past

To start off this blog, I would like to thank the writer, Gloria Anzaldúa, for the idea of the name of this blog.  Anzaldúa had many great ideas for her time that often went unrecognized until recently.  She writes about the seven stages of higher conciousness or processing information, which is called, “The Seven Stages of Conocimiento”.   The Coatlicue State is a process where one faces thier opression and fears often through “higher conciousness”.  This state of being calls me to reflect on some events that occur when working with public history.

Hemisfare Park is an example that comes to mind when thinking of histories going through the Stages of Conocimiento.  The history of Hemisfare Park carries has many burdens in it’s history.

Hemisfare Park has an interesting history that I did not know until attending the “Save Texas History Symposium”  last weekend.  Dr. Laura Hernández-Ehrisman had a presentation about Hemisfare park and the US Commission of Civil Rights.  The Institute of Texan Cultures has an exhibit celebrating the 50th annviersary of Hemisfare Park but Dr. Hernández-Ehrisman offers a different lense to look through.  She shared the history of the neighborhood that was once there before filled with immigrants from all different backgrounds.  Although the city tried to preserve some of the older homes by relocating the houses to a different piece of land however, hundreds of people were displaced and relocated.  As people can recollect fond memories of the opening of Hemisfare, others have a confused and mixed-emotion feeling.  Although it may seem too late for the city of San Antonio to reconcile, forgiveness can take many forms.  The recognition of the neighborhood that once thrived where the land plot of Hemisfare Park helps the city confront what took place and the lack of consideration that politicans and city planners had.  It also brings stories and histories of the old neighborhood to light, exposing a untold past that has been hidden for too long.

The irony of the Institure of Texan Cultures being on top of an old immigrant neighborhood is still mind blowing to me however, in the exhibit “Viva Hemisfare”, they is a photo and brief history about what was on the land before Hemisfare.  And the fact that a scholar presented the story and scholars listened is the first step of acknowledging the desctruction of a neighborhood.

One may read the story of the example I gave and think okay but how is the city of San Antonio or some of the building ownder acknowledging the 1600 people who were dispalced, besides an exhibit or a symposium where most attendees were in poisitions of privilege.  I would argue that, this is the first step to transitioning into the Coatlicue State and people beginning to acknowledge a history that has been literally destroyed.  I believe that Public Historians can take on the emotional and physical labor of acknowledging the oppression and troubles because we have been given the tools to research and share the histories that we find and work with communities who need allies to help share thier voice.

Here’s a link for a photo exhibit courtsey of San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation