Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Environment and History. Can we be friends? [ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Maybe??

This week’s public history readings brought a new perspective on working in the public history field. They discussed public history and the environment; a combination I might not have immediately linked together. The fact is a region’s landscape can reveal a vast amount of historical information to any researcher. In David Glassberg’s article “Interpreting Landscapes”, he discusses the educational information that natural or built landscapes can reveal about our history. (Natural landscapes are associated with mountains or lakes and built landscapes are seen to be anything man-made: buildings, memorials, or even man-made lakes etc) He states that “evidence of social culture forces, as well as natural ones, are writ large in the hills, rocks, soil and plants that humans encountered and rearranged.”(1) Various forms of landscape can even provide insight into issues such as race, class, ethnicity, gender relations, cultural ideals, the economy, or even technology. Human influence on landscapes from over a number of generations can also be examined to better understand history. Glassberg also mentions the need for public involvement in preserving and interpreting their local landscape.(2) Long-term residents, he states, can emphasize the landscape value through their personal associations with the local environment. These areas might even be landscapes not initially identified by the greater community. Visitors to the area can also express the value of unique landscapes, natural or built, that may be different from what they’re used to. Encouraging public reflection and involvement can not only enhance their sense of place in the larger world but can also be a critical tool in guiding environmental perceptions.

Glassberg’s article clearly relates to Rebecca Conard’s article, “Spading Common Ground: Reconciling the Built and Natural Environments”. In discussing the value landscapes have in our society, Glassberg also demonstrates the lack of distinction between built, or man-made, landscapes and natural landscapes. Conard is also trying to make this point clear in order to encourage historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land managers to join forces to protect the world’s most valuable landscapes. She believes that the similarities between natural and built landscapes should inspire these advocates to work together for a common goal. Arguably the most amusing part of her article is when she describes the reason for the lack of deference between these groups. The historic preservationists, she says, think in terms of design and who lived where instead of the environment. The environmentalists grasp on to their aspirations of an ideal wilderness and then of course there are the land managers who think the other two are just a bunch of “zealots”.(3) Conard argues that these three groups with seemingly different goals need to come to some middle ground and work together. Otherwise the ever-sprawling new developments will eat up the environment and no one will reach their goal. The truth is, their objectives go hand in hand quite nicely, as cultural geography also displays our heritage.(4) As Glassberg said, we can learn so much from various types of landscapes whether they are natural or built. Parks, especially National Parks, are where cultural and natural history intersects. There needs to be common ground between those who want to protect our environment and those that want to protect our heritage.

These readings remind me of a trip I took with my family to the Yukon/Alaska. My father, being a history major himself, decided it would be a great idea for a few of us to take on the challenge of hiking the famous Chilkoot Pass. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this trail, the Chilkoot Pass was the most famous route taken by prospectors and would-be miners on their way to the Klondike Gold Rush.(5) (the route being from Alaska to British Columbia to the Yukon) Many might remember the picture of a long ant-like trail going up a snow covered mountain from 1897. This national park is co-operatively managed by both the United States and Canada. (Specifically Canada Parks and the US National Parks Service). This park is a prime example of a landscape that incorporates the interests of both historic preservationists as well as environmentalists.

Now I realize that this park, being a National Park, has “user areas” with “built” trails to guide hikers through nature which is often seen as a negative, especially by environmentalists. However, the trail is approximately 53 kilometres through “isolated, strenuous, physically challenging and potentially hazardous terrain”.(6) It also comes with a warning that says, “the Chilkoot should only be attempted by persons who are physically fit and experienced in hiking and backpacking. It should not be attempted by novice hikers.” (funny story about this...please see below)(7) It is these words that prompt me to say this is no ordinary National Park. Clearly, not every Joe on the block is going to travel to this area and take up a 5 day hike, without modern conveniences, into the middle of nowhere for a vacation. (though I highly recommend it!) Not only does this trail generate aching feet after a 13 hour walk up and over the peak (an elevation of 3525 feet) but it also serves as a prime example of the environment and history coming together. The trail is dotted off with various historical artifacts including sled frames, boot soles, back saddles and even the odd tombstone. SO this beautiful park provides an unforgettable education (and excitement for one public historian!) by walking in the footsteps of hopeful gold diggers of the late 1800s AND it also provides the hiker with a sense of appreciation for the beautiful environment around you. You literally walk through forests, foothills, snow, sand, and steep rocky terrain. Environmentalists should be more than happy with this national park. The park strongly advocates environmental conservation, closely follows the Leave No Trace philosophy and strongly recommends that hikers stay on the set path at all times. To be honest, from my experience, no one would want to leave the path anyways! You’d get lost! and when you’re in the middle of nowhere this is not a good thing. There is no one to help but the ranger stationed at the camp many, many hours away! So I have no doubt that a majority of the terrain is left alone. Overall, I think this National Park is a prime of example of how preserving both the environment and Canada’s heritage can work well together.
If you ever have the time, I strongly encourage taking this memorable hike through history and the wilderness. BUT!! Watch out for bears! You don’t want to see one 30 feet in front of you, on the trail, like I did. Scary!!

(1) David Glassberg. “Interpreting Landscapes.” Public History and the Environment. Ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino. Florida: Krieger, 2004, 23.
(2)Glassberg, 33.
(3)Rebecca Conard, "Spading Common Ground." Public History and the Environment, ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino, (Florida: Kreiger, 2004), 6.
(4) Conrad, 18.
(5)Though this route was used even earlier by the Tlingit tribes for trading with interior First Nations groups.
(6) Canada Parks Website. “Hiking the Chilkoot”
(7) Well, the Chilkoot pass is a very difficult hike as was mentioned. I'll never forget, sitting on my porch, checking our bags the night before we were to leave on the trip and my dad reading a pamphlet that gave this very warning. siblings and I started laughing really hard. The reality was...none of us were avid hikers. In fact, I had never actually camped over night in the wild before! I don't think any of us realized the dangers we potentially could have experienced until afterwards. but we made it!! Even with a bear encounter and warnings of avalanches!

*****I forgot to mention....the picture above, with people in it, is of my family on the trail. I call it "Snowball fight in July". We're just about to go up the 'golden staircase' on the left. It looks like only 30 feet...but in reality it's MANY MANY more than that!! It actually took a good couple of hours to climb the steep rocky path to the summit.

Monday, March 16, 2009

“Reads like real paper!” –Amazon Kindle

Well I didn’t know this was possible but in this world it seems that anything is. I just read all about the Amazon Kindle which was made in 2007. Perhaps this is common knowledge to most people but it was news to me. They’ve come out with a 10.3 ounce blobject that is a library in your hands! Students. Forget using the Library as a cover for your nights of drinking because Mom and Dad are buying you the Amazon Kindle for your homework!

Let me explain this blobject to you. It’s a small virtual and personal library in your very own hands! It has the same technology as cell phones and has free wireless to Wikipedia (a ‘reliable’ researching tool we know all students like to use). This little device can apparently hold up to 100,000 books, newspapers, magazines or blogs that the user purchases and it doesn’t need any wires or computers. can be anywhere and look up books to read at any time you want. You will never have to go out of your house when you have a paper due the next day!

What an interesting creation! In digital history class we’ve often discussed the possibility of libraries (the physical ones students find themselves sleeping in) becoming extinct. I am a believer that this day will never come. However, the Kindle certainly does bring an interesting wrench into the argument. One downside I can see though is that at the local library, you don’t have to pay to read or take out books and the Kindle requires a payment of at least 9 bucks per book.

I do wonder if this little device, and perhaps the many models that will follow, will contribute to a decrease in library attendance. Are we becoming completely digital?? Apparently the screen “looks and reads like real paper” which might be a bonus for those of us who get tired of reading on a computer. I’d like to see if this claim is actually true. Computers do get annoying when you are using it everyday for long periods of time. This would definitely make some library sympathizers consider purchasing the item.

Either way, I think the Kindle will definitely make some big changes.

Check it out and see what you think.

Monday, February 23, 2009

One more thing about Sachsenhausen

There is one thing I forgot to mention about this camp that I thought might offer some historical craic to others...

In the back of the camp there is a large memorial that, I want to say, the Germans put up in remembrance of those who suffered at the camp. It's a fairly large memorial that can be seen from all over the site.

When you walk up close, you notice that there are three human statues at the memorial's base. They are: an American soldier (i believe), and a Soviet soldier helping a prisoner walk. I thought this was quite nice. But then I looked at the prisoner more closely. The prisoner statue was of a strong and muscular young man which I thought was quite odd for a concentration camp victim. SO, I decided to ask the tour guide about it. In his response, he gave out an awkward laugh and said "they thought it was more realistic".

misrepresentation perhaps?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

“Wait Tiff! Get my ANTM pose in front of this pole thing! ...Eat your heart out Tyra!”

I’d like to think that the popularity of my blog is what pulled you to my page but I’m betting it has to do with the title. You either know what ANTM stands for and wanted the inside scoop on the next season. OR you’re thinking: what does ANTM stand for and how does it relate to history? (for those of you who don’t know what ANTM is, it’s the acronym for a TV show called America’s Next Top Model) Well, Curious George! I’ll tell you. It’s about an issue I had while travelling and visiting historically-sensitive sites and photography etiquette.

This past year I decided to travel to Berlin, which is arguably one of the best cities in Europe. There is so much to see and do that I feel the need to go back again this summer. I spent the day with a few Aussies but soon realized that they just wanted to go shopping and I wanted to go see the many historically significant sites. (Surprise surprise for a historian!) I mean, how can you be in Berlin and not want to see anything related to the World Wars or the division of East and West Berlin? SO, I decided to venture around Berlin on my own just to make sure I didn’t miss a thing! It was a hot summer day and the streets were packed. Tourists were everywhere and taking pictures of everything, which is fine because I was one of them.

I was only in Berlin for 3 days so I had to be picky about what I wanted to see. (Something I wish I could’ve changed) So I decided to spend at least one of these days at the Sachsenhauzen Memorial and Museum, which was a major concentration camp located just outside of Berlin. This camp was suppose to be the template for all the other camps that were set up around Europe. It looked as though only 20 percent of the original camp was preserved and I must say, the owners did a good job at maintaining the original buildings.

This heritage site did not provide tours around the camp so I joined an independent guide who was very knowledgeable about its history. I really appreciated how much information this man could provide the group without anything there to help him. I was enjoying the tour and learning all these news things until we came across the camp’s internal prison. (this was where they kept the big name prisoners. IE. political opponents.) I had ventured through and, at the other end of the building, came across a large pole with a steel rod hanging out. I started looking at this pole and thought: ‘I wonder if that was used for what I think it was used for.’ Eventually, the guide came out with the rest of the group and explained what it was. He said it was used to torture prisoners to reveal information. They used to tie their hands behind their back and throw them up on the pull. (Basically, they were hung from the steel rod with their hands behind their back and if they refused to reveal information, the guards would pull on their legs.) This is arguably one of the worst ways to torture prisoners. It’s absolutely disgusting. Everyone listening made a sound of disgust as he explained its significance and we soon move on.
At that moment, as the group started to walk away, I looked at the pole once more only to discover a young woman getting her picture taken in front of this device with a huge smile and posing with one arm held up along the pole.

Personally, I was SHOCKED. My first thought was: Did she not hear a word our guide just said about how this was a brutal torture device? I was tempted to say something like; “did you seriously just take a picture like that in front of a place where people were tortured and eventually died? Do you have no respect?” You see, I can understand maybe taking pictures of the artefact itself but posing ANTM-style? I just don’t get it.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking. What is the photography etiquette for historically sensitive artefacts? Is it ok for tourists to get pictures with items that were involved in a touchy subject? I really don’t know how to answer my own question here. Am I wrong for thinking this was completely inappropriate? Is it ok to take pictures of yourself in front of a torture device involved in the holocaust?

Tell me. What do you think?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Over the Top

Nothing is better at engaging a kid’s attention like a video game. Some of the most popular ones these days simulate war experiences. So when a museum wants to try and engage kids in history, they try their best to be cool and create its own game too! I was first introduced to the game “Over the Top” by my fourth year university professor, Graham Broad. This game, which is located on the Canadian War Museum’s website, is aimed at educating young kids about the unpredictability of war. Essentially, the player is a soldier named Terry Wilson during the First World War. Terry (you) is faced with a variety of difficult decisions that may or may not affect his life. As the game introduction puts it: “Your goal in Over the Top is the same as that of thousands of Canadians who served in the trenches during the First World War: merely to survive.”

Now, this game obviously isn’t like other video games kids play these days. It’s simply an interactive game that includes historical information and terminology of the time. Unfortunately, they don’t get to shoot anyone. (at least I’ve never lived long enough to do that) They also don’t get the crazy animations that you find in regular video games. However, they do learn about a soldier’s experience with rats, the general practices in the trenches and the danger and illusions of no man’s land.

It’s really an interesting game! Each obstacle you face could mean the difference between life and death. Do you volunteer to get the communication wire or do you stay put? Do you answer the call of injured men in no man’s land? Do you volunteer in a covert operation to the enemy trenches? All these questions come down to one thing. Do you live or do you die?

I think this game, is an excellent way to get kids interested in the history of WWI. It’s fun and you’re still learning at the same time. However, I think it’d be even better if they could create a game like this to be used on N64, Playstation or Wii. Let’s give the kids a ‘cool’ game to play with but sneak in educational parts without them even realizing it! Forgive me if there’s already a game out there like this. (if some historian has beaten me to it!) I don’t play video games too often. BUT, if not, and some big video game creator reads this and is interested, let me know! I’m down!

So now, head out in the shoes of dear Terry Wilson and play your chances on surviving the Great War! Let me know how far you get!

FYI- last time I tried to play this game, the interactive pictures/video weren’t working. So you may have to do the text version, which is just as interesting but it lacks the visuals that most kids want. Sometimes I wonder if the interactive visuals were cancelled because of parental discretion. This game can be a bit too descriptive for some players. For example, when I tried to grab a pack of cigarettes from just over the top of the trench, this is what I got for my selfishness: “Your fingers slowly grasp the lid when, out of nowhere, the crack of a rifle rings out and a bullet buries itself deep in your skull, killing you instantly” (in my defence, if I would have gotten those cigarettes, I would have been a God in the trenches!)

Good Luck!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fictional History

So I read this article a while ago and then forgot about it. But it just came back into my mind tonight as I caught up on a missed episode of the Tudors. Yea I like the show, what of it? Now, the Tudors is a good show and it's based on real events!
ok ok I know you're all saying "but Sarah, it makes up a lot of things" and maybe you're all right. But I still like it!

Anyways, back to my point. I read this article in the Toronto Star called "Survivor of Holocaust made up love story". Let me give you a synopsis.
So here it goes: This 79 yr old man Herman Rosenblat, and his wife, Roma made everyone believe that they had met at a concentration camp in Buchenwald. The story went that Herman was imprisoned in the camp and Roma used to sneak apples and bread to him at the wired fence. Once he was released they married. This is a pretty interesting love story, I'll give him that. People enjoyed this story so much that Herman was suppose to have it published with the title 'Angel at the Fence'.

Now. Reality Check: Herman and Roma actually met on a BLIND DATE in NEW YORK!! How funny is that! This couple was able to keep this story going for everyone they knew for 50 years! They even convinced Oprah! The BIG O! So, of course, his book was cancelled.

On one side, you're thinking: oh what a shame, that could have been a good book. BUT as a historian, you think...oh man! that's crazy! ...but not surprising...
Being a historian is all about looking at things with a critical eye.
It's really hard to believe stories without some sort of evidence to back it up and we always need our evidence! Despite the publishers, the movie directors, and the BIG O, scholars were able to push them to understand that his story just didn't make sense. (I don't know the details but just the simple idea that a woman could sneak up to a heavily guarded concentration camp fence without detection seems a bit strange to me.)

The downside of all of this is what the public as a whole will think. Are they going to be more skeptical of people's stories? Will it take away from the hope we have when they hear something good came out of something bad? Are all historical stories going to be looked upon with such harsh skepticism? It's all very interesting.

The funny thing is: Herman was right when he said "I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in this world." Nice stories like his always make even the hardest historical events bearable. But that's the thing about history. Not everything is as perfect as we want them to be.

Lets just hope that not every great story we've heard about the past is a fake.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bunratty Lessons

This past year I was living in Cork, Ireland. It was probably the best thing I could’ve done for myself and I highly recommend the European experience to anyone. (even if you have to go alone, which I initially did) I must say, the best part about Europe is, obviously, the fact that the evidence of their history is still in existence today. Maybe the reason I’m so marvelled by this is that Canada is a fairly young country and so our history does not dig as deep into the ground as our European friends. I mean living in Ireland was amazing. They have so much history and a lot of physical evidence for you to investigate. Seriously guys, Ireland has ruins like North America has mini- malls! You can quote me on that. It’s absolutely ridiculous! On a weekend off, my boyfriend and I would rent a car and head out on their alley-like highways to see what we could find. We would drive until we saw little signs that said something like ‘Dunguare castle’. Then we’d swerve off searching for these old ruins, sometimes finding ourselves in the middle of a field riddled with cows just to see remnants of a church or castle. (no joke!)

Well the one day we set off to Galway and found ourselves at Bunratty Castle. It was located in a small town (which is not rare in Ireland) and consisted of not only a castle but also little villages from different eras. This castle was one of my favourite places to go in Ireland. Most of the castles or forts that you see are empty or broken down a bit, which can also be fun because you can do some investigating to see what you can figure out about the place. However, this 800 year old castle is different. It was threatened to be demolished in the 1950s but was thankfully rescued and is now taken care of by Shannon Heritage. One of the most appealing features of Bunratty castle is the collection that is held within its walls, which range from the years 10 000 BC to the 20th century.

The item that I became most interested in was the Armada Table. The ornate legs of the table were, as 16th century sources say, salvaged from a Spanish ship that sank off the coast in 1588. This massive oak table was amazing to see. It was absolutely stunning. The one part I liked about it was that our tour guide said how he was in charge of cleaning it and looked forward to it every year. He would sit down on a little stool, with his special kit (which probably has Q-tip like instruments!) in order to preserve this 8 x 3ft piece of history. Now that’s dedication to preservation!

Part of the point I wanted to make about this was that, being in that castle, with some of the most amazing artefacts, really makes a person feel a part of history. I know some historians get annoyed with stuff like this but I seriously think that in order to get history across to people, they must be able to feel it. Now don’t get me wrong. I do see the benefits of digitizing history and I do agree with the steps taken towards it. I know it’ll make it easier for historians to see and read historical documents from all over the world. (which is amazing in itself). BUT what is going to happen with these artefacts that can’t be digitized. I doubt there is a historian out there that doesn’t get that excited, overwhelming feeling when seeing the artefacts in person. It’s the feeling like you’re immersed in history that, as far as I’ve seen, an online photo can never truly give you. So what’s the solution?

Well, I’m not sure there is one. Museums and archives will have to continue to upload photos of their collection on the internet. However, if a historian, or the public, wants to get the feeling that they are in the presence of history, I guess they’ll have to take the time to travel and see it! (at least until now!)