Monthly Archives: October 2011

Last minute costume ideas from the vaults of history

Last minute, whatcha gonna wear for Halloween, tonight?  To those of you who already know, props!  To those of you who don’t it is time to step up!  Here is my top 5 list of last minute history-inspired costumes:

1. Julius Caesar

What you need: an old white top sheet, and a purple or red top sheet, belt, some red paint or fake blood and some real or fake vine/laurels–enough wrap once around the head, plastic knife (optional)

What to do:  (Note: if you are missing the red or purple sheet, grab a second white one.)  Take your white sheet and cut a hole in the middle large enough to fit over your head and belt this as your undergarments (which should also hide any warm under-layers).  Take your red or purple sheet and wrap it over your right shoulder and then around your waist.  Around your head, much like a crown, you should wear the laurels or vine or fake leaves–a sting and some construction paper would do the trick also.  Apply blood for multiple stabbing wounds and if you bring a plastic knife make sure it is liberally coated in blood.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  (Note be sure to hold the knife pointing at yourself as if you have just ripped it from your soon-to-be corpsefied body!) “Et tu Brutae?!?”  (This can be shouted in a tone of stunned surprise or delivered in a death-rattle gasp–your choice.)

Historical accuracies: 1) Caesar was careful for political reasons not to wear a crown or diadem, associated with eastern (principally Persian) tyrants, and only ever wore the laurels of victory.  2) As a Roman of note he would have worn a toga, but his would have been in the royal purple–which was originally a rich purple taken from a particular mollusk endemic to the Mediterranean Sea.  Over time this color was replaced with red because of the mollusks rarity after years of harvesting.  (See Cover the Earth–Early Modern Red.)  3) Using Latin–it’s what he spoke.

2. Monk

Benedictine Monks

What you need:  Select brown, black, gray or white for the following: A hoodie, slacks/skirt, sheet (can be white or black if not wearing brown) and a long string of beads or a long rosary.  OR, use two sheets, or a Snuggy (c) and one sheet.

What to do:  Put on your matching hoody and slacks/skirt–the skirt would really look better in this case–just saying, and cut your sheet to shoulder width and cut a hole in the middle and drape it over your head (it should hang at least ankle length on both sides of your body).  If you decide to go with two sheets, they should either be same color or gray (on the bottom) and black or brown on the top and a cut a hole in the middle and put it over your head with a belt–the shoulder-width sheet should still be on top.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Et benedictio Dei omnipotentis, Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti descendat super vos et maneat semper.”

Historical accuracies:  1) Monks wore modest clothing and “cheap” colors.  2) The narrow cut sheet is a scapular, which was special piece of the habit that was blessed.  3) The Latin blessing translates: “And may the blessing of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, descend on you and remain with you always.”  Latin was used up until the last century in the Catholic Church.  (See Why Friar Tuck is not a Monk.)

3. Egyptian eunuch (Warm climates only!)

What you need:  White bath or swim towel–the one you stole from the hotel that one vacation should do, sandals, white dish towel, a long strip of cloth to wrap around your head, black eye make-up and a (preferably gold) platter with fruit on it–note a really long leaf for fanning the queen maybe substituted or a long narrow jug of wine.

What to do:  Wrap the towel around your waste–it is up to you to secure that bad boy, I take no responsibility for accidents!  Optional: Put the dish towel on your head with the long side in the front and than tie it down with the strip of cloth.  Finally, lay the black eye liner on thick and be sure to draw a line out from each eye ball a ways towards the side of your face.  Carry your prop.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  Nothing.  Eunuchs serve, they don’t speak–some didn’t even have tongues.

Historical accuracies:  1) The eye make-up was a big deal–and royalty wore even more of it–for mystical reasons.  As it turns out there was a fair bit of lead and other toxins, so it probably contributed to a host of health problems and early death for a class of people otherwise pampered incredibly well.  2) The climate was warm and Egyptian servants are portrayed in Egyptian art as wearing something around their bottom half, if anything.  They also always have the eye-makeup.  3) They are often bare-headed, so the head piece is only optional.

4. John Wilkes Booth (on the run)

What you need:  A suit (that you can roll around in the mud in–or cover with make-up that looks like mud), a mustache, a pistol and faked limp.

What to do:  Wear the (muddy) suit, put some leaves in your hair and limp around either carrying the pistol or having it visible on your person.  Apply mustache.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Sic semper tyrannis!

Historical accuracies:  1) On the lam, he ran through the Maryland wilderness heading south and got rather worn down–hence the muddiness.  2) After shooting Lincoln, he leapt to the stage and injured his ankle.  3) As he did so he shouted, in Latin, “Thus always to tyrants!”

5. Tom Brokaw (or Anderson Cooper) in the field

What you need: For either: A vest with many pockets–such as, a fishing or hunting vest–in tan or brown, a white short sleeve button-down shirt and slacks that match in fashionable way.  For Jennings: if it is a cold night, you could just wear a suit and tie with a old gray/tan trench coat.  For Cooper: You may substitute black muscle shirt or polo for white button-down and a sleek black vest (i.e. flak jacket) for the many-pocketed vest.  Optional: a microphone for Brokaw or a bluetooth or similar device in the ear for Cooper.

What to do:  Put your clothes on.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  If going as Brokaw, talk about Cold War politics.  If going as Anderson, talk about Operation Enduring Freedom.

Historical accuracies:  YouTube either of them in the field on location.


Filed under Historian's Journal

New #FF (Follow Friday) posts

Fridays, I will be adding a new #FF (Follow Friday) post for Twitter.  Even if you are not on Twitter, many of my suggestions have websites and blogs that are worth checking out.  Today, focusing on art and history.  Enjoy!


1.  @alphaomegaarts  Tahlib

@Alphaomegaarts tweets for the Alpha Omega Arts site: a blog and as aggregation site for religious art from any sect.  Some great finds there!


2. @FolgerLibrary  Folger Library

@FolgerLibrary is the Twitter arm of the [Shakespeare] Folger Library in Washington DC.  Shakespeare fans unite!!  There are many great resources for instructors, students and drama lovers!  (Also, a great visit if you are in DC!)


3. @walters_museum  Walters Art Museum

@walters_museum is a great follow!  Tweets include Art of the Day–worth it for that alone!–blog posts, and exhibit or lecture updates.  The Walters Museum in Baltimore is a gem of a museum!  It has an impressive manuscript collection, a wide range of historical art going back to Mesopotamia, a great Byzantine and Medieval exhibits, and religious art from all over the world.  Also, it is a smaller more easily managed museum than the Met or the Smithsonian–though I nevertheless recommend that the makers of Night at the Museum look into it anyway!!  Easily accessible if you live in DC, MD, DE or East PA–and it’s free!


4. @wbdnewton  William Newton

@wbdnewton, William Newton’s Twitter handle, is also a religious art guy!  A Shiite Catholic, he blogs (and tweets) as much about religion and society as he does art, but (both of) his blogs are informed and authoritative commentaries on art.  (His Amy Winehouse post earlier this week was a nice, balanced tribute to the troubled artist.)



Leave a comment

Filed under #FF, Historian's Journal

Researching to write historical material or historical fiction

How to Improve Your Researching Skills and Write Accurately | recently published this article on how to research for your work.  One of the reasons many authors enjoy writing is because it offers one the opportunity to explore many things they are curious about.  History offers a huge amount of material and opportunity in this way.  The article linked above is a very good starting point, but I wanted to make some history-specific recommendations to add to this writers’ guide.  These are useful, I believe, for the author of fiction or non-fiction.

Reliable Sources

When a historian writes history, he or she writes an argument for his or her interpretation of the past.  As with any argument, evidence is needed–if an author does not provide adequate evidence, be suspicious!  History is always a journey into foreign lands as separated by time and sometimes physical space.  It is faulty to presume that the past is always familiar, even when at first glance it appears to be a very familiar situation to present circumstances.  This is one of the non-historians most frequent errors!  Presumptions and generalizations based on supposed similarity may provide compelling reading, but are often misleading at best and an entirely misrepresentative of past peoples and cultures.  (I find it particularly troublesome, because if we do it with historical peoples, do we not also run the risk of doing it with foreign peoples?)

Some common examples of this include the assumption that Renaissance artists were generally gay because they were so artsy–it is true that Leonardo da Vinci was accused of sodomy (a term which encompassed a rather large category of sexual deviance, of which when defined for modern audiences often seems odd and confusing) while he lived in Florence, as were many more people than were likely guilty, although evidence does exist to suggest he was in a relationship with a young man.  Another useful example is Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible which was written as a commentary of Cold War-era commie “witch-hunts.”  As such, it is far more descriptive of Miller’s contemporary America than of colonial Puritan Salem.  Dan Brown’s accounts of the Roman Catholic Church’s history are incredibly flawed–I have no idea how accurate his accounts of science are or are not.  Biographies are often, also, a difficult sort of book both to write and to use as a source.  Often biographies are unbalanced, leaning too heavily towards vilification or laud.  They are also frequently too divorced from the era or eras in which their subject lived, providing a myopic account of the figure’s actions.

So, how does an untrained researcher of history avoid these pitfalls for articles, books or fiction.  Start with reliable sources.  Start with the history book written by a history scholar.  These are identified in many ways, my recommendation is head over to a nearby certified research library as designated by the American Library Association’s Association of College and Research Libraries.  Access the JSTOR database and do a search for your topic, this way you can get both reviews and scholarly articles on your topic.  Depending on the era you are researching, there may be other databases that are also more specifically targeted to your research–the librarian will be able to assist you with that.  If you have a university close by and the history department teaches the area you are researching, faculty may also be able to assist you in building a reading list.  (Remember your college schedule?  Faculty are busiest in preparation for a semester and immediately after major due dates such as midterms and finals week–the soft spots are usually when the students are working on projects.)  Another good place to start are the collections of published by Cambridge, Oxford and other preeminent universities and university presses.  These are usually compilations on a subject, such as the Oxford Illustrated Guide to ___ and the The New Cambridge ___ History c. ___ to ___.   (Note: these same companies often also have similarly good materials for youth!)

The advantage to using these sorts of academic resources are twofold: 1) you’ll get good information, and 2) you’ll get good, cited evidence that provides a paper trail for your research, including both secondary (scholarly written history) sources and primary (contemporary original documents from the studied era) sources.  These authors have been through history boot camps, they understand how to interpret the past and are also on guard against assumptions of familiarity or strangeness.  Also, there are general guidelines that they all follow such as stating the intended purpose of the written work, supplying evidence through cited sources, etc.  (Always read the introductions!  Also known as gold mines by history majors and grad students everywhere!)

When it comes to history research, your online sources are generally limited to the following options: 1) the American Historical Association and like organizations of scholars (many exist on more specific areas of expertise); 2) .edu sites that have information or collections of primary sources (caution: these can often be dead or neglected sites that a professor set up, but for whatever reason has ceased using and the school has since pulled), a very useful site of this kind is the Internet Sourcebook provided by Fordham University; 3) internet sites attached to a museum collection or related online exhibit, the Smithsonian, for example, does this regularly, now; 4) internet sites established by a historical site or preservation project which can vary widely from local projects to National Park sites or National Trust for Historic Preservation projects.  Beyond that, one must tread carefully.  History is a subject that many people enjoy, but fewer people actually do well and the web is absolutely groaning with bad historical information for anyone to misuse!

That’s my basic primer.  I was motivated by the useful article from and from oodles of experience being disappointed or just plain offended by the inaccuracies that pass out there for fiction.  I long for the day that people actually have a useful and vaguely correct concept of the Middle Ages, for example, as opposed to the prejudiced account of the Dark Ages that was largely, though not entirely, created during the Enlightenment and is wrong or vastly overstated on most counts.  Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the importance of reliable sources and primary documents–that goes last bit goes double for writers of historical fiction!!  Below are some additional reading recommendations before you really get rolling:

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Historian's Journal, History how-tos

Using memorials and monuments educationally, not “indoctrinationally”

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial (as seen from the MLK Memorial, across the Tidal Basin)

In my last post I raised some of the challenges that present themselves to the public in the case of memorials and monuments and with public memory in general.  These were meant for every citizen approaching any memorial.  In this post, I am specifically writing about how we can make use of these in education.  As is often the case, the challenges here are the opportunities, as well.

The first thing is to remember, that memorials and monuments reflect at least two points in time: the historical event (or life) and the creation of the memorial/monument.  Both must be accounted for in making a successful historical visit.  (Note the important difference between memorials and landmarks!  The Alamo may stand today as a memorial for many things, but it is the same edifice that stood during the battle—it is not an artifice constructed in memoriam.)  When visiting a memorial with students, they should be given the tools to engage with the memorial in the most productive way.  In other words, we want to fuel students’ reflections on people or events, as opposed to blindly accepting the portion of the story or legacy that the memorial presents; we want to encourage thoughtful and informed criticism, not senseless iconoclasm; we want students to engage the artist/designer in dialogue regarding the legacy of the memorialized person or event; we want the students to exercise the tools of history and try to honestly understand the person or event and the contemporary era.

Walking into a monument can be like walking into a small party of closely-knit friends, sometimes it is hard to engage it; the symbolism is wrought into the design so plainly, it is like trying to follow a conversation laced with inside-jokes and private innuendos all the while being left out of the laughter.  There are two reasons the symbolism seems illusive to students: inexperience with cultural tropes and a lack of understanding surrounding the event.  There is a third reason applied to a larger audience than students, namely the development of esoteric conceptions of the artist or designer which require explanation from the artist or interpretive guide—these are rarely self-explanatory even if one is an adept in tropes or well-versed in the relevant history.  (For example, at the new MLK Memorial, the Mountains of Despair and the Stone of Hope are far from obvious without explanation being provided.)  Most memorials have attendant materials, websites or guides to explain their design.  These should be explored after the necessary prep work, but before or in conjunction with the memorial visit.

The Vietnam Memorial: a simple design, but laden with symbolism, including subsequently added elements

Perhaps it is not surprising that many memorials and monuments go up in honor of controversial people/events or those with controversial elements.  If one considers the National Mall alone, there are numerous examples.  By tasking the students with learning a debate and then engaging it, one creates circumstances for which the memorials and monuments are made more interesting.  For example, before visiting the Lincoln Memorial students can engage in debates about whether or not Lincoln’s actions in the Civil War eroded states’ rights, whether he was justified in suspending habeas corpus, or whether he was prejudiced himself (and, if so, did he evolve)—all questions that have been raised in our national memory of the man during the event.  Each remembered person or event has its own historical nuances embedded within its consciousness.  To see whether or not a memorial engages these nuances once a student has delved into the debate himself is rewarding on several levels.

The other side of the memorial coin is the time in which it is built.  The Lincoln Memorial is not dedicated until 1922.  By this time, the age of segregation has been reinforced in the highest court of the land and the last of the Civil War vets have passed away.  This memorial is unique among most of the others on the Mall, of course, because it would serve as a stage in future Civil Rights efforts and many other causes.  The adoption or absorption of the Lincoln legacy into the causes of other groups is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.  It is probably worth noting that elsewhere, around the same time as the Lincoln memorial commission and dedication, other cities were building memorials to Confederate and Union officers.  At the dedication, the crowd was in segregated seating.

So, when visiting a memorial or monument, the person or event has to be adequately covered before the visit.  Where possible, engage the student in an existing debate—either one that is legitimately scholarly or one that has developed culturally around legacy.  One useful activity is to ask how the students would design a memorial to the event of the person—noting the possibility that they may rather have someone else: John Adams, for example, instead of Thomas Jefferson.  What would they emphasize?  (Note: this can be turned into a larger project that would include going through the planning procedures for an actual monument considering petitioning responsible governments, funding, location, civic response groups, etc.)  Another activity is to tap into student interests and have the class create a “museum” to the subject of the memorial that may ask questions the memorial neglected.  (More on student-made “museums” elsewhere.)  As I suggested on my blog, quote selections is another great way to introduce the memorial or monument—I particular recommend this activity to visitors of the MLK Memorial in DC.  After carefully researching an individual’s writing, what quotes would best represent him or her?  This can be used with events, too, as each event is surrounded by historical predecessors and people who made noteworthy commentary—it is not a requirement that quotes be positive depending on what is being reflected.  (A part of me has always regretted that none of the language from FDR’s executive order which initiated the Japanese Internment was included in the memorial—how we can commit atrocities is almost as important as remembering that we have succeeded in doing so.)

The National Park maintains the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and provides literature for the memorial

One of the reasons I suggest debates, is because of the staying power researching and supporting an argument has with students.  It demands reading, listening, writing and the gathering of evidence for the purpose of formulating the argument.  On the one hand, these are essential skills for everyone to possess; on the other hand, the process and information is lasting.  If students further engage each other’s arguments through assigned reading of each other’s papers during draft phases, the debate becomes more powerful, still, and ferments in their minds allowing them to bring really informed outlooks to the memorial.  This works whether you are considering legitimate scholarly debates about subjects or cultural legacy debates between regions, citizens and historians, etc.

Once at a memorial, there are a number of approaches that can be taken: 1) design a small survey for other visitors considering elements of the memorial, legacy of the event, knowledge that people bring to the memorial, etc.; 2) critique the memorial’s intent with its application: “does it successfully…?”  “do these elements call to mind…?” etc.; 3) ask students to analyze what the memorial remembers versus what it omits and further ask if this is just; 4) ask students if they think the memorial prompts further reflection or research; 5) ask students what a foreign visitor or someone from another region of the country (as applicable in some local monuments) would take away from visiting and exploring the memorial/monument—does this suggest success or failure for the memorial?  These are just a few of the options at one’s disposal, but the salient feature in all of these is to really reflect on how we are asked to remember, while considering what historical investigation suggests about the past figure or event.

If we accept that there is a certain subversive element in every memorial or monument—a design intended to direct your memory of X—than we can make an honest assessment of it.  Students will likely approach memorials the same way they do museums and history books: as authorities on the subject.  This is a passive acceptance of what is presented to them.  We do students a disservice if we allow them to accept without questioning and a greater disservice if we tell them to question without demonstrating to them the tools that allow them to ask informed questions.  Without those skills and lessons, we have really failed them.  We condemn them to either follow the herd like sheep or wander our city streets aimlessly seeking “change” without knowing what change they want or how to accomplish it.  Memorials, even more than poorly written textbooks or news reports, offer an excellent opportunity not only to teach about an event or person, but to teach about someone’s attempt to direct their one’s thinking.

The Korean War Memorial is in memory of the "forgotten war"

I am not arguing that memorials or monuments are thus bad things, necessarily, but take a look at Soviet monuments in Moscow or the Kim family in North Korea and one can see how it is that an attempt to “direct” thought regarding legacies can certainly be dangerous.  Naturally, American monuments are not the products of dictators—they are frequently the result of democratic processes, in fact.  As such I except the differences.  I do not think FDR memorial is akin to Stalinist programming and design, but I do stumble on his supposed legacy the most when I think of all the damaging things that are omitted from his memorial—his “Redlining” legacy is one of the major contributing effects to the decline of minority neighborhoods in our urban areas, for example, and about a mile or so away from his memorial is another dedicated to the American citizens of Japanese descent who were deprived of their rights by his executive order.

I think David Rieff’s article, “After 9/11: The limits of remembrance,” is an important acknowledgement of the challenges of memorial.  His statement that “the ghost at the banquet of all public commemoration is always politics,” is an apt one for a country that has always been run by two parties (for the most part) and their dissidents.  He is quick to acknowledge the need for mourning, but also asks when it is that we forgive and forget, and further queries whether or not remembrances inhibit our ability to do that.  It is fair to argue that memorials and monuments may be free of “too much truth” in the same way that Rieff suggests eulogies are free of such, but that cannot be the end of it.  Just because we omit it from the eulogy does not mean we should obliterate it from our knowledge or overlook it in our investigations.  This is the trick with public memory.  This is the challenge and the opportunity in teaching with memorials and monuments.

It is necessarily different than the museum exhibit which generally, though not always or not always successfully, seeks to be more conscientious in its consideration of history.  Frequently, museum exhibits ask challenging questions, while attempting to provide the materials for thoughtful consideration on the issues at hand.  In lieu of those aids, teachers must provide the materials and present the initial questions that stimulate research and thought along these lines in the case of memorials and monuments.

Signer's Island is in Constitution Gardens on the National Mall remembering each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, all of whom would have been tried for treason

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

What to do with memorials and monuments? A reflection on memory

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial - Washington DC

This past weekend, the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was finally dedicated after Hurricane Irene washed out the original planned celebration.  As a memorial, it has been critiqued for some elements that seem discordant with the man it is supposed to be recalling.   (For my own review of the memorial, please follow this link: “Remembering MLK, A review and reflection on the new memorial.“)  This brings up many questions about memorials and monuments–controversy has swirled around every edifice that has been built upon the National Mall–some of which were raised surrounding the 9/11 ceremonies last month.  It has prompted me to consider the value and purpose of memorials and monuments, quite apart from aesthetic considerations, which I am less qualified to do.

Last month, in anticipation of 9/11 ceremonies, David Rieff wrote “After 9/11: The limits of remembrance” for Harper’s.  In it, he expressed a certain hesitation with the memorials and the planned ceremonial events in conjunction with the opening and dedication of memorials in New York City, Arlington, VA and Shanksville, PA, in addition to countless others unveiled around the country.  He stated, “The fact that the opening of the 9/11 memorial will mark an event that, to some degree at least, has been seared into  the lives and consciousness of most Americans should not obscure the fact that the ghost at the banquet of all public commemoration is always politics–above all, the mobilization of national solidarity.”  He goes on to compare this to the national holidays such as ANZAC day for Australians and New Zealanders (honoring soldiers who perished in the First and Second World Wars), French Bastille Day and our own Fourth of July as ceremonies that create “large-scale solidarity.”  Further, “It is about the reaffirming of group loyalty rather than the establishing of historical accuracy, let alone the presenting of an event in all its moral and political complexity.”  Rieff makes a valid point.

Rieff is judicious in his understanding of those who still mourn the losses suffered in the attack, but is critical of how lines are drawn between remembrance and history, if they are drawn at all:

It is important not to exaggerate.  Whatever meaning history eventually assigns to the attacks of 9/11–and though they are often conflated, history is the antithesis of remembrance–it is highly unlikely that these commemorative events will do any harm to America as a society, even if there is not likely to be very much to learn from it either, any more than there is from eulogies at a funeral.  And in an important sense, for the relatives and friends of those who died on that day, remembrance will surely afford some measure of recognition and consolation, though of course not of closure, which is one of the more malign and corrosive psychological fantasies of our age.  (The Latin phrase “De mortuis nil nisi bonum,” “Of the dead speak only well,” has often been parodied with the quip, “De mortuis nil nisi bunkum,” but this is wrong.  There is nothing admirable about candor during a commemoration, just something childish and conceited.)  Remembrance is not valued for shedding much light on the truth in all its nuance and ambiguity.  And that is entirely appropriate.  The problem is both the degree to which remembrance nourishes illusions about how long human beings can rememberand, far more seriously, the potentially grave political and historical consequences it can engender.  After all, to remember may not just mean to grieve; it may also mean to harbor a vision of securing justice or vengeance long after it is time to put the guns away.

~ David Rieff, “After 9/11: The limits of remembrance”  (accessed 9/9/2011 Harper’s Magzine,

Rieff continues, arguing that remembrance, especially collective remembrance is often the fuel that fires ongoing enmity long after it is due to fall away.  That Americans have let go of Pearl Harbor is evident in that no American is likely to have turned down donations following the tsunami because of that now “ancient” attack.  But, in the case of the Bosnian War, Rieff argues, would an ability to forget past injustices not have been better than the senseless slaughter predicated on collective remembrance?  It raises reasonable questions about memorials and history.  Are the two antithetical?  Does remembrance harm history?  Are monuments and memorials really valuable to the societies that raise them or are they detrimental in perpetuating myths and legends?  (His discussion about the real physical limits of human memory for grand events is less germane to my purpose in writing, but no less interesting.)

Smithsonian "exhibit" memorializing 9/11 for the Tenth Anniversary

In German, the word for memorial or monument is Denkmal.  The noun, Mal, means a “marker,” in this case, and Denk comes from the noun, “thought,” or the verb, “to think.”  (Ehren, means “honor,” and Ehrenmal is sometimes used to refer to a memorial, but it is not as common as Denkmal.)  Memorials or monuments in Germany, then, are “thinking markers” as opposed to simply being markers for remembrance as is implied in “memorial.”  (This should not necessarily assume that the German memorial looks or functions differently, but perhaps that there is a difference in the cultural approach.)  This is not typically how Americans regard memorials and monuments.  We tend to think of them as remembrances, which may imply reflection, but not necessarily.  The word memorial, literally means “to preserve memory” through artificial means whether by planting, structure, literature or other artwork.  Both memorial and monument are words of Latin derivation meaning to remember.  As such there is a real complication with memorials and monuments: if they are built for memory, how do we remember?  Might it not be better if they were built with thinking in mind?  Do we sacrifice history to a contrived collective memory, as Rieff suggested?

I think it interesting to compare the memorials that have been built upon the National Mall.  To the memory of individual people, the nation has the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR Memorial and now the MLK Memorial.  Of these, the Washington is a mere architectural feat, a simple obelisk that could as much mean “Washington” in reference to the city as to the general and the first president.  The Lincoln and Jefferson are both completed in a neo-classical style—a reference to the classical inspirations for our government in the Athenian democracy and the Roman republic.  Each is adorned with the man’s quotes.  The Jefferson’s quotes reflect the conflict he witnessed and the rhetorical battle in which he engaged during the American Revolution.  Lincoln’s quotes are from the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural speech—both prompting reflection on the Civil War and the injustices of slavery.  The FDR is similarly engraved with quotes, but is a sprawling affair that attempts to mark the historical events of his four terms.  FDR’s quotes, some of which are awkwardly truncated at the “end” of the memorial to make him more of a dove than a hawk, are those made during the great national crises of the Great Depression and World War II.  The memorial goes out of its way to represent the eras and FDR’s response—one may debate how successfully it is achieved, but the intention is clearly apparent.

Naturally, none are critical of the remembered presidents; the Jefferson Memorial does not acknowledge his slaves or affairs he had with them; the Lincoln does not acknowledge his suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War; nor does the FDR Memorial acknowledge the controversies surrounding his policies, his attempt at stacking the Supreme Court, his “secret” “Redlining” policy built into the FDIC insurance codes, or his executive order, creating the Japanese Internment.  Does this obscure history, then, to have these memorials which remember these individuals selectively?  What historical knowledge does the average visitor bring?  If they have little or no additional knowledge, is this the only side of the coin they have later in life?  Does this, in fact, perpetuate the national myths we prefer to the history about which scholars are reasonably confident?

Seen from the benches facing the northern wall of quotes and looking South toward the Stone of Hope and the Mountain of Despair

The newest addition to the National Mall and Tidal Basin is, of course, the MLK Memorial.  (Readers should note that I omit a discussion of the George Mason Memorial, honoring the writer of the Virginia Declaration of Rights—inspiring the American Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution—and one of the Virginian delegates to Philadelphia during the construction of the Constitution.  His is a small though pleasant affair, seated roughly across the road from the Jefferson Memorial, arguably off the National Mall proper.)  It is an unusual memorial in many respects.  Its original design was denounced by the board that must approve it, but any changes from it are indistinguishable in the final draft.  I will not rehash old discussions, here, but I will point out that the man who is famous for leading the Civil Rights movement, fighting unjust laws with civil disobedience, non-violent protest and religious sermons and speeches, is not remembered in his memorial for any of these things.  There is no reference to Selma or Birmingham.  There is reference to his disapproval of the Vietnam War and to a Nobel Peace Prize, but not to his experiences, sufferings or plans, not to his history.  The quotes that are used for his remembrance are largely ambiguous statements (in at least one case, misquoted), and while they are statements about peace, one has to wonder if this is not more of the same wishful thinking that Rieff referred to above.  (To see which quotes are included click on this link: “Which MLK quotations would YOU have included in the new memorial?”)

Do we understand from this memorial that MLK’s work is done, let by-gones be by-gones, better not to dredge up those old conflicts?  We are all at peace now, our two races, we have no more problems between us?  The work is done?  I can only imagine that these would be hotly contested notions.  Is better to move on, or should there be an acknowledgement of the courage to fight repression and injustice?  What do young generations really get out of the memorial?  What do they remember?  This case is not about acknowledging faults about a man who is nonetheless worth recalling, rather it is about remembering the collective faults of ourselves, a nation that legalized prejudice against a race of people.  Or is this one of those points, as with Bosnia, that Rieff mentioned for which forgetting is preferable to harboring vengeance years later?  If that is the purpose, it is does not have that feeling in the memorial—the sense is that the legacy has been high-jacked for the purposes of critiquing current conflicts.

So, what purpose do these memorials serve?  Is there a conflict of interest between remembrance and history?  Does remembrance only inspire legend or myth-making; does it only tell half the story?  Do we neglect history as a discipline that requires careful consideration and thought about what people said and did in a time that is not our own and differs in many ways from our own?  Is any useful understanding achieved from the visits and time spent in and among these memorials?  What do they teach in the end?  They are not museums, which share some of the same limitations—subject to the memorial plans of the curator and sometimes as guilty of ambiguous, laudatory memory—but which also have more historical information built into exhibits, more room to ask questions about past events and directly challenge the viewer as opposed to mere quotes and symbolic art.

It is incumbent upon us all to treat memorials and monuments, not just as remembrances of past peoples or events, but to delve into a greater understanding, to self-educate.  Naturally, memorials are themselves products of their time, more so than the individual remembered (there is nothing so astonishing—and yet, sadly, unsurprising—than holding a picture of the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication, segregated in its seating, next to a picture of the 1963 March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”).  Anyone who visits the MLK Memorial should take it upon themselves to listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech, should read the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and should understand the crucible that King and his colleagues created for this country with the Civil Rights Movement.  Many debate whether it or Thurgood Marshall’s legal battles were most effective in changing America—I think it is a debate each American history student should explore, study and weigh in on and while they’re at it throw the Black Panthers into the mix, as well.  Similarly, we should not enter any other memorial or monument passively and unthinkingly.  One should be able to arrive at the site and think about it, contemplate it and where necessary critique it.  Each individual must do the heavy-lifting alone, because these memorials are not designed to be educational tools, nor even necessarily “thinking markers” so much as they are memorials and monuments to someone’s contrived remembrance.  But, even with memory—which we understandably value—we must be critical, inform it and confine it with history.  It is necessary to be on guard, because even the lessons from our history classes can be overwritten with the strength of collective memory, infused into our culture with memorials and monuments.

The Lincoln Memorial

1 Comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal, Travel

Word of the Week, 10/10-10/15/11 — kiss

kiss /kis/ verb … 1. verb trans. Press or touch (esp. a person’s lips or face) with slightly pursed lips to express affection, sexual desire, greeting, etc., or reverence. OE btransf. Of a bird: touch lightly with the bill in a supposed caress. LME.

D.H. Lawrence She leaned forward and kissed him, with a slow, luxurious kiss, lingering on the mouth.  L. Cody She did not like being kissed.  G.Vidal He kissed her averted cheek and left the room.

verb intrans. Of two people: exchange a kiss or kisses. ME.

H. Fast When had they last kissed or embraced?

3fig. averb intrans.  Usu. of two things: touch lightly. ME. bverb intrans Touch or brush lightly against. LME.

R. Graves My arrow kissed his shoulder and glanced off.

4 Billiards & Snooker etc. Cause a ball to touch (another ball) lightly…

5 verb trans. Bring into a certain state or position by kissing; take away, remove from, by kissing.

6. verb trans. Express by kissing.  Also with cognate obj., give (a kiss)).

Tennyson We will kiss sweet kisses, and speak sweet words.  W. Maxwell Bedtime came and I kissed my mother good night.

~ Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

Everyone knows the word kiss.  It is a word of Germanic origin.  Julius Caesar did not kiss Cleopatra any more or less than he kissed his wife–in Latin he kisses is basiat from basio, basiare (there are a few other words, actually, but students of the Romance languages will recognize basio best).  Kiss originates in Old English (cyssan), Old Frisian (kessa), Old Saxon (cussian–Dutch: kussen), Old High German (kussen–German küssen) and Old Norse (kyssa).


Kissing affectionately

What is really remarkable about this word is the range of meanings associated with it.  There is the primary action of affection or love-making, involving a certain intimacy, familiarity or friendship.  This is, in fact, one of the primary expressions of love ranging from a platonic peck to a full-bodied, amorous make-out session.  The slang borrowings, however, most often operate by exploiting the implied intimacy of the kiss.

cities,couples,dates,embraces,embracing,Europe,European,flirting,flirts,Fotolia,hugging,hugs,kisses,kissing,love,people,Photographs,relationships,romances,Valentine's Day

Kissing amorously

Some of the slang phrases simply take on a characteristic likeness to kissing with other actions, such as “kissing the cup” which is to take a drink, but not of water or milk, this often refers specifically to drinking alcohol.  Similarly,  “kiss the book” refers to taking an oath, sealing it by kissing a Bible or a holy relic.

alcohols,Austrian culture,Bavaria,beers,blond hair,blouses,drinks,European cuisine,females,German culture,glasses,iStockphoto,lederhosen,Oktoberfests,Photographs,studio shot,traditional clothing,traditional culture,wheat beer,women

Kissing the cup

In most other slang instances we see the word being employed in varying ways to create homage or subservience.  “Kissing the ground” was a employed in the case of royal or religious personages, or done for religious reasons.  In other instances, this is extended to losing the race, “kiss my dust,” defeat, death or submission, “kiss the ground” and “kiss the dust,” and, finally, various versions of “kissing a person’s backside,” ranging in meaning from a voluntary (brown-nosing) to a demanded (kiss my…) submission to one’s actions.  None of these slang expressions work without the intimacy of the original definition.  But, while they all share some sense of submission, they do so for slightly different reasons.

Kissing the ground

As an act of homage–which when enforced is easily equated with forced submission–it is a gesture of respect based on perceived worthiness.  The object or individual to whom the homage is being paid is regarded as holier, for example, than the individual who approaches and in many cases may not be touched or addressed without this act of homage.  This is similar to submission created by the other expressions, but more ritualistic and less crass.  In the case of athletic competition, for example, “kissing one’s dust” is what 2nd place through last place do behind the winner.  In more crass slang usages, there is still a perception of worthiness between two individuals, but it is based on hostility between the two, or a mutual perception of inequality.

dust”]accomplishments,athletes,blurry,competitions,finish lines,motions,people,racing,runners,sports,track and field,victories,winners

What makes the crass expressions coarse, is the usage of a word that we use in intimate situations to define power relations between two people as opposed to love and affection.  Because of its prior use in homage for centuries in Western Civilization, this application has precedent but the old usage does not survive today except perhaps in rare instances in which someone kisses another’s hand, but even this gesture we associate more with its proper definition than with slang.

Americans,African descent,brides,celebrations,couples,grooms,kissing,love,people,romances,special occasions,weddings

Kissing another's hand

All in all, I much prefer the proper definition, which is to say I enjoy it immensely.  In fact, I’ll sign off by kissing the cup to the kiss!

Leave a comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

Eating up the past! Teaching history with food

Food is the most underrated means for teaching history.  Cooking is one of those life skills we all need and one of those survival skills employed by every generation of human beings, extending way back into our prehistory—in fact, food is one of the few means by which we come to know our ancient ancestors.  Evidence of historical subsistence, meals and feasts comes down to us by a variety of means.  The two most obvious sources are archaeological finds of food storage and “cook books”.  (Nowhere does Epicurus aid the human cause more, than when he writes about food in classical Greece!)

chopsticks,dining,dishes,foods,households,Japan,Japanese,Japanese food,photographs,restaurants,rices,seaweeds,shrimps,squids,sushi

Food is one of those important cultural markers—we recognize this, today, when we travel.  Who goes to Spain and does not eat paella and tapas?  Or, Germany and not eat wurst and schnitzel (other than vegetarians and vegans, of course)?  Or, Louisiana and not eat jambalaya or gumbo?  Or, Japan and not eat sushi or noodles?  And, so on and so on.  It is why on short trips we avoid McDonald’s, but on long trips we might order a Big Mac to stave off homesickness or culture shock.  The study of past is essentially traveling.  The mental skills you develop researching history are often interchangeable with those of traveling.  Many people think history is pretty dry in comparison with globetrotting, but I think they go hand in hand.  Preferably accompanied by a fork and knife or chop sticks!

Just as regions and cultures have created their food culture from the grains, spices, plants and animals that are indigenous to their area or trade lines, today, so too did our counterparts in past years.  In fact, through the study of food one can see just how remarkably cultures were changed when, for example, the Old World met the New World—can you even conceive of German or Irish food without potatoes?  Further, the presence of spices that are not indigenous suggest trade routes.  In many of the biographies of holy peoples in Europe and further abroad, one finds evidence for food as a means of social status, so by extension was something avoided and minimized as an excessive luxury by some holy figures and redistributed to the poor (noteworthy exceptions to this include St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther).

baskets,Europe,farmers markets,food market,food markets,foods,France,market,markets,Photographs,powders,Provence,rouille,spices,text

Almost as interesting as the recipes of past times are observing how those recipes changed over time with different influences.  This is easily observed in the U.S. with the immigration and the different waves of innovation in food processes, followed by recent movements along the lines of health or local farming.  In this case, many of these transitions may be observable within one’s own family heritage.  For example, I recently came into a small inheritance of family books care of my grandmother who downsized her living situation earlier this summer.  I now have a handful of cookbooks that were passed along, in addition, of course, to our own family recipes.

So, how do we incorporate food into history education?  There are actually a plethora of ways!  All of these should come back to the concept of feasting!  This is something that is somewhat lost on modern western culture, but was previously a huge part of our heritage.  This is not just the idea of eating a big meal with extended family, it is eating a big meal with multiple extended families from the community!

Feasting as part of the lesson

Each culture has its own feast days or signature dishes.  Incorporate these into the lessonplan.  There are some great resources, including websites, in the foodie world.  For example, Francine Segan has a couple of cookbooks devoted to 1) Ancient Greece and Rome, The Philosopher’s Kitchen, and 2) to Late Medieval/Early Modern England and Europe, Shakespeare’s Kitchen.  In these instances, she has looked back at some of the relevant texts and extrapolated recipes for modern kitchens.

breads,cakes,celebrations,Christmas,Christmas cakes,Christmas gifts,Christmas ornaments,foods,German culture,gifts,holidays,hollies,iStockphoto,Photographs,presents,ribbons,stollen,sweet breads,sweet foods

There are also collections of primary sources that include descriptions of meals that are available.  A couple of American examples include, American Cookery: Or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, by Amelia Simmons, originally printed in 1796; and, The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook by Mary Randolph which was first published in Washington DC in 1824.  These are really proto-cookbooks, before the age of recipes as we understand them and cookbooks with ample instructions.  As a result, some collaborative work on interpreting such recipes is probably necessary for less imaginative, creative or experienced cooks.

Europeans throughout history celebrated certain feast days with actual feasts, these can be duplicated in the classroom.  They also had special dietary constraints for fasting.  Brian Fagan, for example, wrote Fish on Friday, Feasting, fasting and the discovery of the New World, including recipes, that lays out the cultural background fasting from meat and eating fish.  (I think there are some flaws with some of his arguments, but I find his approach to the material useful and worth considering.)  Do you have to teach about the European experience this way?  No, of course not!  But, if you are trying to get the attentions of young minds and plant seeds that will further fuel their experiences in history, getting to their brains via their stomachs is not a bad way to go about it!

Eating as a way of getting to know where we come from

This approach to incorporating food should tap into the student’s cultural heritage.  By taking advantage of family lore, cook books and recipe books this can be a great activity that brings out an interest for the past through one’s family history.  Interviewing family elders, exploring the cultural community from which they come, gathering photographs and by other means one can compile a series of cultural pieces around food, especially in this country with immigrant cultures and community histories.

bratwurst,food,fried,German cuisine,iStockphoto,meals,sausages,vegetables,white cabbage

The obvious thing is to develop a book or collection of family lore, recipes and history.  This collection can be the work of an individual student or a compilation by many students.  It is a great scrapbook of ideas, food, history and stories.  Inevitably the regional color reaches through from each contributor.  As cool as the collection is, its unveiling should be accompanied by a great feast and the student should be involved in the cooking!

Experiential learning and eating

This idea is based more on a combination of food and field trips.  For example, one can go rustic-tent camping at Gettysburg, PA.  Bring a cast iron dutch oven and get a Civil War cookbook before you pack the food for the trip.  Make and pack some Civil War biscuits or jerky.  Get your fire circle and make sure you can hang or set your cast iron on the fire.  Make it an experience!  Now, having said that, I’m not suggesting one voluntarily suffer; making amendments to a recipe that needs more seasoning or some herbs is perfectly acceptable—and, one should absolutely use modern freshness standards!

Obviously this sort of experience works best in conjunction with American history, assuming you are living in America, but it is not the only possibility.  Keep an eye out for community festivals at home or nearby towns and cities that are specifically aimed at sharing the past with the present.  These can be family-friendly Oktoberfests to religious celebrations to reenactments to opening night at a theater production or museum.

The reason there is appeal with this method for sharing the past is because eating is universal, but what we eat and how we prepare our food is not.  Along the way, pass some cooking skills onto youngsters who probably won’t get the opportunity to take home economics classes, even if they wanted to, unless taught at home.  This is great way to get students involved!  Literally tasting the past!

Note!  Especially if you are focusing on your local community, take advantage of local libraries and historical societies!  More good food sources are the National Agricultural Library and the National Archives.

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Food