Making of the Silence

Apologies for my random Dr. Who reference, but considering we are dealing with historical silence it seems appropriate. The above creature is known as the Silence and cause anyone who sees it to forget that it saw it or interacted with it. The only way anyone could keep track of the times that this being was encounter was making some sort of notation about an encounter. In the context of a couple of episodes, the characters would use a marker to place hash marks on their body to document their encounters, but the only evidence they would have of the encounters were these marks. They only represented the encounter not the substance, nature, or details. In some respects, this is analogous to what Trouiliot was discussing. We know something occurs but the pieces aren’t always present. A record documents the event but misses many of the important details or more importantly leaves our certain perspectives.

I was particularly drawn to the idea that there are four major points where silence enters the historical narrative according to Trouiliout(26).

  • “The moment of fact creation
  • The moment of fact assembly
  • The moment of fact retrieval
  • The moment of retrospective significance”

The first two to me are probably most interesting as an archivist because they deal with issues of record creation and selection. This is probably a bit of semantic quibble because I’m going to use the term record instead of facts, because I tend to contend that the materials we use for historical research will have data and information in them. Occasionally, this data and information isn’t exactly factually. For me a record is a “persistent representation of an event or an occurrence made by an observer, participants, or authorized proxy.” (Yeo). Better said that records, or as you’d probably call them primary sources, document the perspective of participants. Inherent in the creation, is that not every participant creates records or in many cases unauthorized proxies create the records. So there’s a bias in the creation process. Even to some extent in the modern world, there’s still a bias in the creation process of records, but we should also think about what constitutes as a record. Are only textual records authentic sources, or do some oral traditions merit examination? If we examine an oral tradition how do we certify its authentic representation of events or emotional understanding of the events? This is where the moment of assembly comes up at least for archives.

The “moment of fact assembly” is also a problematic moment where silences can creep in to the understanding of a subject. Derrida would call this process archivization or the process through which information is determined to be worthy of belonging in an archives. Archivist would call this process appraisal and selection. Inherently this is a process of making a value judgement on the materials that are available and going through the process of acquiring those materials. I could speak at length about the politics of acquisition, but for sake brevity and focus, I’ll do that at another time. The major issue with the acquisition process is who is making those decisions, why are they making those decisions, and how are those decisions made. As an archivist, I’d call this evidence more that fact, although Trouiliot prefers the term fact, but I agree with him when he states “that history begins with the bodies and artifacts: living brains, fossils, texts, buildings.” (29) The determination that has to be bad is what are the reputable or I might say authentic bodies that can be consulted. Even if a record is bias, it still could be archival in the sense that it gives the bias thoughts of its creator. So what processes go into this determination. They are many an vary from archive to archive. Inherently because there’s no objective system to determine archival value, there is bias in all systems of archiving. This leads to the archival silence. The key for archivist and historians to acknowledge issues with the archives and determine methods for making the archive louder for many different voices. Modern archives do this through a number of methods including, community archiving, oral history projects, assessing current collections, documentation projects, etc,. These are beginning to deal with some quiet voices, but there’s still more to do.

I think it’s important to think about the processes that we trust to provide us with the sources for our research and to ask how can we ensure sources are authentic.

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Silencing the Past or Relegating Memory?

Last week, inasmuch as I was worried about the effects of Hurricane Irma on our neighbors South, and even myself in the North, I was thankful that I could focus on “the weather” and not the historic events of the previous sixteen years.  9/11 is not yet “past” enough for me to think of it in terms of history. Perhaps it was a touch of the divine that made it impossible for me to see the posts, because 9/11 is still fresh in my mind, and rife with anguish that I cannot (nor will I) go into here.  Needless to say, my TV and social media go off each year on this day, my moment of silence that lasts a day.  This year was different, I was not thinking about Trouillot or Irma in connection to 9/11.  In fact, this year was the first time in sixteen years I was not reminded in advance of loss; and its difficult to explain my dismay at first having forgotten, and then being reminded and losing that moment of non-memory.

When historians chronicle history, commemoration is not simply a recalling of the past and events, but the recollections of loss.  Brundage’s text addresses this concept of loss, if not directly, by discussing the ways in which various communities and groups “remembered” the pain of their pause.  The only way the pain made sense was to commemorate it in a positive way, to find meaning.  This is demonstrated with particular insight on his chapter on “Celebrating Black Memory.”  He asserted that “public commemoration” was the principle expression of black memory, and it represented a form of “cultural resistance.”  They remembered July 4th, January 1, and made use of, for example, the capitol of Richmond, VA as site of Confederate defeat, to underscore the continutity between their present circumstances and their race’s past.” (57, 59).  Resistance gave loss purpose.  Loss occurs in many different ways: loss of a loved one, loss of a childhood, loss of a job, loss of way of life.   As I read Trouillot and Brudage’s texts, I thought about this whole idea of “silence,” “memory” and “commemoration.”  When is it too soon to commemorate?  Is there ever a time that is too soon?  I can answer that question for myself because of personal experience.  It was not until the news interrupted the broadcast with the “moment of silence” for 9/11 that I remembered.

In his book Michel-Rolph Trouillot asserts that silences create a power that is as much invisible as it is material and he views the production of history as a process of human beings participating as both actors and narrators.  In the case of 9/11, like in the case the the American Civil War, the event impacts the memory of more than those impacted by proximity.

The act of terror, was a declaration of war, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that 9/11, if those who chornicle the event as “historical past” could, as Brundage asserts, co-opt memory and in an act of  “archival impulse…advance interest of the state.”  For those who were impacted by the events of 9/11, I could understand the impulse for the public to keep it public, to commemorate in a way that creating purpose and meaning and and to not be corrupted by the “political” implications.  Its one thing to to advocate sensible gun controls in the light of a horrendous epidemic of child loss to handguns; and quite another to commemorate memory, as Brundage asserts, in order to enhance “insecure status” by upholding a position of supremacy at the expense exluding others with a broad stroke.

Posted in community based history, Discussion, living history, Preservation, Race, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Pick your silences carefully

Over the past few weeks we read Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, a book dealing with historical narrative and the absences that can manifest through intentional manipulation of that story through historical actors, archivists and historians with different racial, political and cultural agendas. I noticed that several posts have mentioned Trouillot and the silences of which he speaks, and I’d like to put my two cents in.

Some of us discussed eradicating the gaps, silencing the silences. While I find that to be an admirable goal, in practice, I doubt the efficacy of such a plan. In a world of near infinite complexity, silences in historical narrative are not only likely, but inevitable. Whether those voids are intentional or unintentional, whether their impetus is ignorance, race, class or gender prejudices, simple time and monetary constraints, or merely the limitations on how complex and broad a story can be before it becomes impossible to hold in our minds, there will be silences. In our work with Avondale Estates there will silences: people and groups who slip out of the historical record, unmentioned on plaques and signs, forgotten by the archives. It is a sad state of irrevocable affairs.

Well, that was cheery. Here’s what we can do about it: pick our silences carefully. We can minimize some silences by being as inclusive as possible, and by giving space to as many as we can, but as our readings on interpretive planning reminds us, we have limited resources like limited time, funds, personnel, archival space and real estate. Therefore, in the upcoming weeks, and in our future public history ventures, we’ll have to make decisions on what story we want to tell and what story we can feasibly express through our interpretive means. In fact, we’ve already started to do so.

With our Avondale efforts I have two thoughts:

1) Be as inclusive as possible. Ethnic, gender, class, and sexual preference minorities should be included to the extent they appear in the historical record.

2) A variety or time periods and historical trends should be considered to give as rich and textured a history as possible.

Those are neither specific, nor original thoughts, but I would love to hear your thoughts on them.

I also don’t mean to be pessimistic with this post, but realistic. Our preservation, organization and interpretation of Avondale Estates will not be complete, nor perfect. We can strive for these goals, but thinking about how we can minimize the silences we will create allows us to preserve, organize, and interpret more effectively.

Let me know what you think. I’ll see y’all Tuesday.

Posted in Book review, community based history, Discussion, Gender, Interpretive issues, Preservation, Race | Leave a comment

The Image of the Falling Man

A difficult article, containing images from 9/11 that are uncomfortable to view:

A friend shared this thought-provoking article about how we censor our collective memory. The public deemed the images of 9/11 victims jumping from the Twin Towers as too much to bear – not only because of the gruesome and morbid nature, but because there was an inability to accept that some men and women took control of their ultimate fates. The photographs show the desperation and hopelessness of the tragedy, on a one-on-one scale. Because it is difficult to wrestle with the idea of facing our own deaths, we have labeled them as disrespectful instead of sitting with the gravity of the (assumed) decision to jump. The photographs haven’t disappeared entirely from the record, but it instantly became taboo to look at them or reproduce them. Is it in our best interest to censor this powerful imagery?  Who is “our”? The survivors? The families left behind? The Nation? Are all of the other photographs enough to make 9/11 real to us so that we can safely turn away from these, or are we ignoring part of the story?

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Silencing throughout History

This week has been very significant in the remembrance of 9/11 and dealing with Hurricane Irma.  As I sat at home on September 11th waiting for Irma to come through Atlanta, I saw numerous news channels focusing on Irma and paying little to the tragedy that struck out country 16 years ago.  But as the day went on, I saw broadcasts and documentaries that focused on the attacks on 9/11.  I could not help but to wander what history will future generations remember about this forever engraved day in our American History.  We as Historians know that we must treat history with the respect it deserves.  Although revealing the truth in raw details may force some to relive events and become uncomfortable, we owe it to future generations to show all sides of history.

After just 16 years, just based on the documentaries and news casts I have seen, I can feel that the history of 9.11 is mainly focusing on stories being told by survivors and family members of survivors, as it should be.  But in memorializing the World Trade Center, Pentagon, Pennsylvania and building monuments and memorials, is the true story really being told?  I don’t know the answer. Or are we just remembering what we choose to reflect upon?  Little is being spoken about the events that may have led up to the attacks on 9/11, or the first attacks on the World Trade Center, or the focus on the tensions between America and our adversaries.   What was the mindset of the American youth and teenagers during this time?  Should we discuss how military recruitment increased after 9/11 as a feeling of patriotism spread abundantly across our nation?  Discuss how these attacks were the flame that sparked the longest war in U.S. History. These are all questions and comments that should be representative when remembering 9/11 amongst many more.

But I do know that history has been known to be biased when it really should be nonbiased.  This is made clear in Trouillot’s book.  Whether we are talking about Blacks not wanting to hear about slavery, the significance of Haitian Revolution, or the conflictions in the stories of the Alamo.  The way in which we remember and record history has come into question.  History should not be edited, embellished, on SILENCED in any way.  Hopefully as current and future historians today, we have learned from the mistakes of the past in silencing, and will not repeat the errors of our predecessors.

Broxton Harvey

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A Visitor’s Experience at the 9/11 Memorial Museum

This week the sixteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks passed, much overshadowed by the severe weather of the weekend.  I wanted to bring it up with you all because I recently read an essay authored by Steve Kandell, an employee at Buzzfeed News.  Steve Kandell tragically lost his sister to the terror attacks when she showed up for work early that day in September at the World Trade Center.  This essay, in particular, caught my attention and had relevance here because it centers around Kandell’s experience at the newly created 9/11 Memorial Museum (he wrote and shared it in 2014, so it was new then).

I think the essay speaks for itself, so I hope you take the time to read it as it is not very long, and I think for public historians it serves as a glimpse into the visitor’s experience.  This experience, in particular, is obviously unique because he has such close connection to the event.  This event, in particular, is also unique because it has connections to so many people who are still alive, unlike many other historical events.  It is an event that permanently altered the American view of safety, so even if it didn’t directly affect you it still probably changed your life.  Even though I was in kindergarten at the time, I know it has impacted the way I and others move throughout the world.  There are many special circumstances to consider when thinking about sharing events such as 9/11 from a public history standpoint.  These events are a part of a “more recent history” where so many different voices share authority over the history.

While reading this essay, a few of the readings we’ve done so far this semester came to mind.  I thought of the interpretive planning models we read about and also the essay concerning the Enola Gay incident.  These thoughts are mostly just in reaction to one particular statement by Kandell in which he discovers that the museum has gotten the information about his sister incorrect.  While in this case, the inaccurate information may not have been offensive as in the Enola Gay exhibit plan but instead deeply frustrating for Kandell. I thought once again about stakeholders.  It seems that this is a very significant piece of a successful plan.  It is vital to not just considering your audience and how to supplement their learning but to consider the people affected.  One conflicting issue I see in this case is the difficulty in determining who the major stakeholders are.  There are thousands of people directly affected by the terror attacks so it could be an impossible job to survey each of those people.  It was a rather smart decision I think to have included in the exhibit a place for people to go in a tell their story; give their version of the events.  I see this as a way for correcting information; fact-checking if you will and also an informal way to conduct an oral history project.

This article is also interesting because of the way Kandell frames his view of the exhibits which is with this question of: How would you feel if your worst day was on exhibit for the world to see?  He also raises this idea of the memorial museum being the place where public spectacle and permanent grief meet.  What do you guys think about all of this?  I’m linking the essay below!  Also in the tradition, I’ve known since I was about seven years old I must ask the question: Where were you on September 11, 2001?

“The Worst Day Of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction,”

The official site of the 9/11 Memorial Museum,

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On This Day, 16 Years Ago

Today marks 16 years since the attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon. Being so close to the city during that time, there was a lot of loss, anger and uncertainty, not only about the future, but how we would remember the attacks. There were also debates about what to do with the site where the towers once stood. They ultimately decided to go with the version seen on the official website:

Both the memorial and museum have unique ways of interpreting the tragic events. The names, combined with the endless waterfall, really left an impact on me when I visited last year. The museum, on the other hand, as had some controversy over some of the more recent exhibits.

I wanted to know, what kind of tributes/memorials did your town/city have, or currently have to the attacks? If not, is there a monument or memorial that had a lasting impact on you?

Here’s another link, this time to one visitor’s experience:

Comments welcome, of course. Stay safe and dry everyone.


Posted in living history, Urban history | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment