In the fall 2013 semester I took a course called “History and the Public” with a great professor. Most of our course was based on discussions and a few written papers. The first written assignment was a personal reflection on what history meant to us, and how we got interested in it. This is mine.
Growing up, my family had memberships to nearly every museum within three hours. My sister and I were perpetually being dragged from one to another to observe history, science, or art. Like most kids, we didn’t really understand what we were being shown. But when I was about five years old, I saw this papyrus, a piece of a Book of the Dead, in the Brooklyn Museum, and I stood there staring at it for at least five minutes. That was the moment that it hit me that people throughout history hadn’t always lived like me, talked like me, written like me, or spoken like me. That moment of realization has shaped the way I looked at people, historic and contemporary, for the rest of my life.
Realizing that people hadn’t always been like me made me take museums much more seriously. They were no longer just a collection of old things, but windows into the lives of people who had lived hundreds, sometimes thousands of years before me. I suppose I still view history that way, windows into the past. I’m more fascinated by the everyday lives of young girls in ninth century Scandinavia than I am by the political machinations that set in motion the first World War. I’ve always looked at history more as the stories of millions and billions of people.
I also read a lot of historical fiction as a child; I still do, though now I spend as much time pointing out the historical inaccuracies as I do enjoying the stories. Like the papyrus, the fiction gave me an insight into what life might’ve been like in another time and place, and just how different it could be from my own life.
Now, as an adult, I plague my friends and family with stories of how people lived a thousand years ago, often more than a thousand. I talk about the details of a machine used to torture heretics in the fourteenth century, or the many meanings a bundle of flowers could have in Victorian England until they all start to ignore me.
But that doesn’t bother me too much, because then we go monumenting. We go to these places that everyone agrees has historic significance and our senses of history are so strong, no one can resist listening to a tale or two about the way a stolen leather German army jacket saved a soldier’s life in World War II by stopping shrapnel, or the story of why the Washington monument has two different colors, or the fascinating history of the statue on top of the capital building. Then I get to spin my various yarns and watch their faces as they grasp the complexities of these moments in history that happened so many years ago, but that still affect us now. Their senses of history have come out of dormancy, have been stimulated and fulfilled with new things, and that absolutely delights me. This is especially poignant in cities like Washington DC, where we pass these monuments and memorials all the time, they become simply a part of the fabric of our city and our lives here, but when we really focus on them, there is so much more to them than stone and space. When we really slow down and take a look at them, they give us so much knowledge about our collective past, that there is always something new to learn.
I find it truly amazing that so much history can be surrounding us, and we don’t know it. It seems almost as if there should be a feeling accompanying places of history, the way a cold breeze accompanies an open window. But if there were, it wouldn’t simply blow on museums, historic houses, and monuments. That cool breeze, that feeling of history, would blow everywhere, because everywhere, every single space on this earth, has a history far older than we would ever usually guess.
So there you have it. Some of the reasons I love history and I want to work in the cultural resource field for, well, ever.
(Similar post from History in High Heels here).