Sunday, November 11, 2007

FreeMind: The Grown Up Grade School Approach to Organizing Research

There is something exceedingly comforting about going back to the basics. This weekend I have done just that using a program called “FreeMind”. FreeMind is essentially the digital version of the brainstorming mind maps that I used to make when I was in grade school, in order to organize my thoughts and research ideas.

FreeMind starts with one “node” which is your basic idea, and then you can create as many nodes attached to that as you need, including different degrees of subtopics called “sibling” or “child” nodes. One can keep their FreeMind experience very professional and just have lines connecting words, or one can really make use of the program and enjoy the process by making it so all of the main topics have bubbles surrounding them. There are also multiple icons, such as question marks, numbers, and light bulbs, which can be added to thought bubbles to label which ideas are most important and which still need work. There is also the option of adding “notes” to specific nodes, where one could record any additional research needed on that particular topic.

I have been using FreeMind to organize my research for an exhibit I am proposing on the history of medicine. All of the sources I have been using so far have been from the web or excel spreadsheets, and I have easily been able to copy and paste artifact and archival reference numbers onto my digital mind map. In addition, I have been manipulating and maneuvering the FreeMind nodes as I find new sources, or as I change my mind about the order of importance of my research finds. This is the first mind map I have used in years, but I am definitely going to reintegrate them into my research habits, due to the efficiency in which FreeMind has enabled me to quickly organize my previously scattered thoughts.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Role of Memory in History

Over the last couple of weeks, I have spent a lot of time analyzing the role that memory and oral history play in presenting or writing about history. In particular, I have been wondering how I should make use of these sources as a Public Historian. My thought process began at my visit to the Canadian War Museum to gather information for my Exhibit Review. I found myself extremely conflicted about the sole reliance on oral history in Bev Tosh's travelling exhibit War Brides: Portraits of an Era. I concluded that as a historical exhibit it could be strengthened through using a wider variety of historical sources. That being said, I still found this exhibit incredibly effective and have found myself trying to articulate ever since why this exhibit spoke to me in such a profound way.

I was afforded some answers to my questions this week while I was doing some very suiting readings on oral history for my Public History course. In Alessandro Portelli’s article “The Peculiarities of Oral History” it is argued that the meaning people make from events is just as important as what actually happened. Portelli states, “What the informant believes is indeed a historical fact (that is, the fact that he or she believes it) just as much as what ‘really’ happened”[i]. I think that is why War Brides had such an impact on me (indeed, two blogs worth), because although I left with very few conventional “facts” I still had obtained an exceedingly clear conception of what being a War Bride meant to the women involved in the exhibit.

However, I still was not satisfied on how to most effectively incorporate such sources into my own work. Interestingly, this month’s issue of National Geographic cover issue “Memory: Why We Remember, Why We Forget” addresses some of these same issues. The article “Remember This” by Joshua Foer explores the neurological side of making and retaining memories. Foer speaks extensively with “AJ”, a woman who remembers everything she has done, said, or felt, every day of her life.[ii] I found myself thinking how much easier it would be to do history if everyone had the ability to retain such rich memories of their past. However, AJ herself sees her gift as a burden, stating:

I remember the good, which is very comforting. But I also remember the bad- and every bad choice,” she says. “And I really don’t give myself a break. There are all these forks in the road, moments you have to make a choice , and then it’s ten years later, and I’m still beating myself up over them. I don’t forgive myself for a lot of things. Your memory is the way to protect you. I feel like it just hasn’t protected me.[iii]

AJ’s belief that memory is supposed to protect people by allowing them to forget some of the suffering they have encountered in their lives, finally made clear to me my own perspective on this topic. It seems that the Public Historian’s role is to make sure that people are not allowed to forget the past, even if it is painful. As Michael Frisch states in his book A Shared Authority, what should be the main concern of Public Historians is “...a fundamental commitment to the importance of that verb at the heart of memory, making it something alive and active as we confront out own world.”[iv] Therefore as idealistic as it might appear, it seems that it is the Public Historian's duty to use memories and oral history to help the public to face and learn from the past.

[i] Alessandro Portelli, “The Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop Journal 12 (Autumn 1981), pg. 100

[ii] Joshua Foer, “Remember This” in National Geographic, November 2007, pg. 35

[iii] Ibid, 51

[iv] Michael Frisch, “Memory, History, and Cultural Authority,” A Shared Authority:
Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York: SUNY Press, 1990), pg. 25

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Canadian War Museum Exhibit Review

War Brides: Portraits of an Era. Travelling exhibit organized by the Canadian War Museum in collaboration with Bev Tosh, contemporary Canadian artist. On display at the Canadian War Museum from May 12, 2007 to January 8, 2007, as viewed on October 7, 2007.

The travelling exhibit, War Brides: Portraits of an Era, is an alluring artistic interpretation of the physical and emotional journey many women made to foreign countries, alongside soldiers they had met and married during World War II. The war brides include 44, 000 women who moved with their new husbands to Canada, 1,000 who moved to Newfoundland, and 4,000 who moved from Canada to other Commonwealth countries. This exhibit is based on artist Bev Tosh’s travelling exhibit One-Way Passage which was comprised solely of paintings. War Brides: Portraits of an Era is an updated version by Tosh that includes mixed media photographs and additional portraits, and is currently hosted and organized by the newly built Canadian War Museum. Since thousands of Canadians today are descendants of the war brides, Tosh’s exhibit compliments the overarching theme of the Canadian War Museum, which is to demonstrate the effect war continues to have on the country. This is an engaging exhibit which draws on the war brides’ own stories and Tosh’s artistic interpretation of these women’s experiences. Although it relies too heavily on personal accounts and not enough on the historiography, this exhibit successfully juxtaposes the romantic vision these women had when they embarked for new countries, with the harsh realities they often faced when they reached their destination.

When one enters the exhibit, the beauty of the room is striking; the walls are painted a deep plum colour, and the room glows due to strategic placement of lights, which accent the abundance of both photos and paintings of the young brides. Upon a closer inspection, the visitor also realizes that the exhibit is not only aesthetically pleasing, but is also saturated with powerful interpretations and renditions of multiple women’s lives. In particular, this exhibit aims to let the visitor experience the overwhelming range of emotions that enveloped the war brides, whose journey began with love, excitement, and happiness, and often led to loneliness and loss. Therefore the appearance of the room combined with the focus on images over heavy amounts of text, encourages the visitor to absorb the emotion of the exhibit, rather than strictly read their way through it.

The displays themselves are a unique presentation of thought provoking mixed media photographs and portraits, personalized by Tosh’s own experience as a war bride’s daughter. An example of a mixed media display is “Leap of Faith” where the picture of the Canadian Air Force war brides is projected onto a World War II parachute set up like a wedding gown. Another innovative display includes framed photographs of individual women layered overtop of objects such as barbed wire. These manipulated, war-etched photographs are then juxtaposed with the joyful scrapbook of Tosh’s parents’ “honeymoon”, and the “Wall of War Brides” which is a collection of tea stained pictures of the women and their new lovers. The variety of ways these photographs are presented demonstrates to the visitor how multifaceted the war brides experience was; in particular it emphasizes the atmosphere of war in which the relationships were formed, and imply the complications that such marriages were bound to encounter. The paintings, unlike the pictures, tend to place emphasis on life after the war. In fact, most of the paintings are part of a display called “Bride Ships” and are portraits done on wood, which are arranged to represent the ships that the women travelled on to reach their new destinations. The wooden portraits are purposely placed so they are leaning on each other to represent how heavily the war brides found themselves relying on each other.

The exhibit also contains an interactive element, in the form of a wall where visitors are urged to “Please Share your Memories”. This portion of the exhibit promotes visitors to become personally engaged. The wall is especially relevant to relatives of war brides, and most of the letters and pictures posted on the wall are from grandchildren who have come to see the exhibit, and have left messages to or about their grandmothers. That being said, those who do not have a personal relationship with a war bride are still able to feel included by having a chance to read the poignant notes left to the women by their loved ones. The creation of the memory wall and its high levels of visitor participation, demonstrates that the exhibits foremost intended audience is the war brides themselves, along with their families and descendants. In addition to the families, however, this exhibit also appeals to social historians or people who are interested in hearing a less conventional narrative about the Second World War.

The main criticism of this exhibit is that much of the information presented comes from potentially unreliable personal accounts, which is a cause for concern considering that most museum visitors completely trust eye witness accounts of historical events. On one hand, this seems unavoidable in an exhibit that focuses on involving the actual people who lived through a particular historical event; however, this exhibit would have been able to present a more balanced historical interpretation had it drawn on the contemporary historiography available on this topic. To counter this, the Canadian War Museum has provided the museum gift shop with a wide variety of academic material on the subject, for anyone interested in a more comprehensive historical account on the war brides.

To conclude, this exhibit successfully captures the complexity and depth involved in thousands of women’s decisions to move to a new country with their recently acquired wartime spouses. Although this exhibit could be strengthened through the addition of historiographical interpretations; War Brides: Portraits of an Era would still be an excellent permanent addition to the Canadian War Museum, since most of the other exhibits do not focus on social history and present more traditional militaristic historical narratives.