Why We Fill Our Museums with Lies

Vancouver - Dec 2010 013I have a tiered collection of soap boxes that I like to scale every once in a while and proselytize about all the things the world is doing wrong and the role that you are playing in its downfall.

The tallest, indicating the need for my loudest sermons, is reserved for my rail against the way America teaches history. Beyond out right lies about discoveries, criminality and immorality, our collective history is taught from a singular view-point. The rich, white male. These men are then carved into marble heroes. We’re taught to idolize and accept without questioning the accuracy of what we are taught.

These heroifications are the reason Oval Office extracurriculars dominate headlines and create a morality backlash. We’ve been taught that people in positions of social or political influence are above human behavior. They should not have a history that includes any poor judgment, miscalculated goals, or indiscretions.

Because lord knows we don’t…

Museums and historical sites have a sordid habit of playing into these historical compartmentalization. The majority of a museums’s space is generally dedicated to history as experienced or viewed through masculine, white eyes. Once they have finished teaching you the “history” they will occasionally include black history or woman’s history or, very infrequently, LGBTQ history.

These separations teach us that their history is not our history. It doesn’t even run parallel, as subconsciously communicated through the size, depth of knowledge, and attention given to these exhibits. These are histories of less significance and their impact is only slightly felt and, even then, only within the segregated groups.

The labels put on these histories are accepted as necessary qualifiers to identify whose history we are learning. Why do we accept these labels, when qualifiers such as white history or man history seem like silly redundancies? It is assumed that when we use the word history without specification we are talking about the rich, white male story.

By teaching singular history, you are teaching an egocentric, singular view of the world. Putting on those labels creates a history for you and him, her over there and me, rather than OUR history. It becomes a fractured story that we then use in our lives as an excuse to continue to live as a segregated global community. We assume that because we have no collective history that it is impossible to understand each other.

I’m not arguing against the individual histories that help identify a group of people. There are certainly experiences that my ancestors as white Europeans do not share with Africans or people of the First Nations. But the museums that present events or social ideas should not limit their points of view to the majority. By doing this the majority becomes the self-appointed authority, even in situations where population shifts have made them racially a minority.

A culture teaches this way to make themselves appear important and to aid in assuming a role of dominance. A national story of moral righteousness and strength in character portrays an indomitable force. The damaging side effect is the delicate façade created. The nation is now forced to cower behind these paper heroes hoping they will hold. Of course, the obvious irony is the strength of character that comes from accepting responsibility and allowing growth in the wake of errors.

The unfortunate reality is that museums are forced to tell false stories and create heroic portrayals. The concealed truths and, often, blatant lies, are a result of thinly veiled demands. Donors with a vested interest in keeping clean historic reputations will only donate with caveats on how the information is presented and what parts of the story must be left out.

Essentially we are selling our history to the highest bidder. If they would like to stay open, museums have little choice but to accept the money or artifacts within the stipulations. The rich have created our history. And will continue to do so, unless we began to demand otherwise.

First, donate time and money, when you can, to museums, historic sites, and other non-profit preservation organizations. It would take a significant amount for most museums to become independent of large donors with agendas, but…I hate to say it…anything helps.

Secondly, don’t accept that the history that you’ve been taught is, in fact, the truth. When you visit historic sites and museums, ask questions. And then see through the well-crafted and rehearsed answers.

Finally, cultivate your own knowledge. Start with James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America for a more involved conversation on the buying of our history. Then read, research, and explore with a critical eye.

This seemingly out of nowhere post was a result of the incredibly honest, refreshing museums in and around St. Louis. I’m hoping to get a post up soon about the surprising way they presented our history.

When Your Travel Companion is a Bitch

St. Louis Courthouse and Gateway Arch

St. Louis Courthouse and Gateway Arch

I am a bitch to travel with.

I refuse to sleep. I’m picky about what I eat. And I want to see it all.

While I may apologize for how my travel-ness sometimes presents itself, I won’t change the way I traverse my trips. I will come home exhausted and disheveled, but enlightened and so learned that I will start planning my next trip before I’ve even unpacked.

Travel isn’t vacation. Travel is experience.

Leisure is for Sunday mornings back at home when you sleep until noon, move to the couch about 12:13, and spend the day watching censored movies on TBS.

When I travel, I tend to follow the simple rule: if it can be done at home, there’s no point in doing it while you travel. While exceptions are inevitable, I’ve found that the greatest experiences come when I stay closest to that rule. Especially in these three areas:

1. Sleeping

Accommodations are not for luxury and decadence. Their purpose is to provide a place for the three to four hours of sleep required each night to ensure function the following day. Hours can also be banked. Skip a nights sleep and splurge on six the following. As long as my room has a lock on the door and lacks insecta or other pests, it fulfills its necessary duty.

2. Eating

If you eat at McDonald’s when you travel, there’s a special level of hell for you and your laziness. The only time this could come, even slightly. close to acceptable is at 3am, when your judgment is already impaired. So much of experiencing a new place is eating local. Defining dishes need to be eaten in their neighborhoods, elbow to elbow with their creators.

3. Doing

Always go to the major (and minor) tourist traps in a city. Experience the postcards, but then experience life as it’s actually lived in your destination. Go to sporting events, festivals, art shows, plays. The things that a culture celebrates and how they do so will give you a deeper insight to who they truly are.

Sense of Adventure Scale from One to We’re All Going to Die!

Ngorongoro Crater (picture by Jonathan Dunn)

Ngorongoro Crater (picture by Jonathan Dunn)

I’ve never been comfortable rating one’s sense of adventure. It seems that where a cross-state road trip ranks somewhere near a crocheting injury on the risk scale, swimming with baited sharks is…well…swimming with baited sharks.

While listening to the travel stories of friends and reading blogs of the ever-departing, one begins to invisibly chart that sense. The scale differs. Miles from home, unexpected dining experiences, exotic animal encounters, it all factors into the weight you give their adventuresome ambition.

But why?

Isn’t any adventure simply to stave off complacency?

I realize that it’s inherent to human nature to feel the need to compete. To good, better, best your neighbors and friends. I may not ever be able to rail a successful argument against that need, but as travellists (it’s a word, look it up), our competition should instead be with that complacency.

In my circle there is palpable wanderlust. Each day, my Facebook feed is the equivalent of a “what-I-did-this-summer” photo essay. It makes me jealous. I have gone further than 100 miles from home once  in the last 6 months and that was as an airport chauffeur for someone else’s trip.

This may be one of the reasons why my upcoming trip to St. Louis feels like a bucket list accomplishment. But more than the notion that it is an overdue vacation with my sister, leaving my daily life heightens my sense of adventure.

Wisconsin Polar Plunge

Wisconsin Polar Plunge

I’m a difficult person to travel with if you value things like sleep. I find little point in spending time in a new place doing something that can be done at home. I’ve filled my week in STL with experiences that can happen in no other place.

We are going to eat our way through The Godfather at Tenacious Eats. Sunday will find us at the International Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, IL for a 5k and celebratory Bloody Mary contest afterward. A baseball and, subsequently stadium food, aficionado we will be taking in an evening game at Busch Stadium and I’ve talked my sister into a picnic dinner while watching the Twelfth Night at the Shakespeare Festival.

Oh, and the arch, the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour, Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site, the City Museum, the zoo, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Scott Joplin House, the Cahokia Mounds, Molly’s in Soulard, Calvary Cemetery, Bogart’s Smokehouse, Left Bank Books..like I said, no sleep.

Flying planes off the Astoria Column.

Flying planes off the Astoria Column.

I know very little of St. Louis. I’m imagining Midwest sensibility layered with that certain Southern charm and inland Eastern grittiness topped with a dash of Left Coast hipster. It’s easy to say that you keep an open mind when travelling to a new place, but media, blogs, friends, and research have forced me to cull certain opinions.

I’ve heard STL is “scary” and “rough.” I’ve been told to avoid certain neighborhoods or, in fact, the entire Eastern part of the city. I know there’s a musically rich history of ragtime and jazz, two genres absent from any of my playlists. Growing up in Olympia and now living in New Glarus, I understand brewery towns on a small-scale, but the way beer tycoons can shape a city.

It’s these preconceptions and questions that are the fuel for adventure. I won’t climb the world’s tallest anything or collect passport stamps , but by getting in my car and driving 300 miles, I’ve topped out on that imaginary sense of adventure scale.

I’ll be blogging about my trip starting next week, so check back for updates on our adventure.

Your Complacency Causes my Unicorns and Rainbows

I won’t ever apologize for my beliefs or for putting them into words. However, this post comes with an apologetic caveat. Included are generalizations presented in a far more aggressive tone than usual. I tried to edit it to lighten it up, but couldn’t manage to balance the humor and sincerity of the argument.

I’ve written a few posts now about the pessimism of people who consider themselves “realists.” They hold the idea that by being optimistic or hopeful, we are disconnected. And, quite possibly, naïvely think we are living in a world of unicorns and rainbows. I write these posts for two distinct reasons.

The first being the need. Not the need for it to be said. There have been disciples of these ideas for centuries, but the need for it to be repeated, reworded and read. What’s new is the individual perspective which ignites new theories and ideas on how to instigate the necessary change.

The second reason I continually write about my personal views on subjects like community or the responsibility of global citizenship is because I can’t see the incredulous faces you make when you read and disagree with it. I get those quite often when I choose to share my opinions in person  By posting, I’m getting to share my opinion without having to tactfully pretend I didn’t see the deep creases set in on your forehead.

I get it. I understand that my ideas constitute a certain amount of desire for tree-hugging in a communal neighborhood. Or that they are somehow considered on the fringe. But unfortunately I also understand the disturbing nature of the ability for people to classify issues with the encompassing blase scoff: “it is what it is.”

You’re right, it IS what it is. But it’s because you choose to respond to issues with that clichéd retort that they are. Instead of acknowledging that the situation is not fair or a disgusting invasion of human rights, you are content with complacency. You shrug and recoil back into your own life. While your ignorance is most definitely your bliss, your neighbors are dying in wars against perceived terrorism, drugs, and the economy.

Teaching empathy is difficult. It may be that it is something inherent and can’t be developed, but one thing that can be acquired is perspective. Challenge yourself by responding to issues. Question how it you can change it or what you can do to help, rather than consider it an ugly, but inevitable part of the world.

Beyond developing new perspective, constantly question the point of view you’ve already developed. How many of your established beliefs are a result of direct experiences in your life and how many are inherited from friends, family, or the media? I’m not promoting a decline to paranoia, but consider where your strongly held beliefs originated. It will be uncomfortable to confront these ideas, but the goal in life isn’t to reach a peak of thought and then recline in comfort. Instead it is a constant pursuit of knowledge. The insatiable nature of wanting to know more and to know why.

Tell Me How Much You Hated History Class…or Didn’t.

I never understood the polarizing quality of history. It’s not like you had to have the exact answers like math or science, or English, if you had a Jane Austen-obsessed teacher, who couldn’t possible understand my disinterest. (I will go to my grave arguing the pointless quality of reading Pride and Prejudice AND Sense and Sensibility back-to-back as a 15-year old.)

But history. It was about revolutions and events that created ideas. It was about great people writing heroic stories. Except when it was about June 27, 1880 or Milan, Ohio. Turns out there were right and wrong answers, which is apparently why some people just really don’t like history.

I’m doing a little research on these early notions of history. A short 8 question survey to determine whether a theory I hold about early history education is worth pursuing or simply a misguided resentment at the educational system.

I know we all love to share our opinion. Why else would be blog..or troll blogs to disagree with other people’s opinions…

Help me out by taking my survey here. And look for a future post about the results.