This week I returned from the USA after a 17 day self-guided tour around New York City, Washington DC, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I went with my lovely wife, who also returned (a good sign!) and who is a fantastic travel partner.
We landed in LA but only for a stopover before NYC. This is an amazing city. I won’t go into detail here about the pure awe I felt as we walked block after block of buildings from the 16th century to those still under construction. I won’t bore you with tales of walking through Central Park in freezing temperatures to see the John Lennon memorial garden or the lake named after Jackie Kennedy (Onassis). The Guggenheim can wait, the Natural History Museum will stay silent. For now. If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you may have seen highlights anyway.
What I wanted to briefly discuss was the deep sense of history I felt as I walked those avenues and streets (so wonderfully organised in a near total grid system that Sydney wishes it had). Buildings such as a church from the 1600s sat squat next to skyscrapers which house finance bankers. Small parks named after forgotten mayors gave yet another Starbucks a nice view. SoHo, TriBeCa and other older parts of the city gave it a menacing sense of a past which successive City Halls have worked hard to polish up. Tour guides and documentaries can give you a glancing experience, much like a thrown stone skipping across a placid lake has a brief experience of the deep water beneath it. Walking the streets and talking to people and reading sometimes hidden plaques reveals the true personality of the city.
Sometimes I find it difficult to connect students with a sense of history, of national or regional depth of experience, or even of their own past. It’s no wonder nations like the USA or France or Japan have a present so very much shaped by it’s past. Monuments to people and events which might have brought liberation or recognition, stories of wars and battles, locations which make you truly stop breathing for just that moment of realisation that you are standing at the crux of so many different timelines, chances and possibilities. These things can only truly be experience by what Patrick Stokes terms “embodiment”. The idea of being there is central to our understanding of whatever it is we are studying.
This is a point of difficulty for historians and students of history. Despite the wondrous monuments – some still under construction or repair – in Washington DC, despite the moving memorials to victims of the Holocaust at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, despite the statues of both metaphorical and real figures of US history, we can’t be there when it comes to the past. There will always be a sense of detachment and separation which is not, I believe, ever really joined. No matter that I stand in front of the original Star Spangled Banner in the National Museum of American History (part of the sprawling historical footprint that is the Smithsonian Institution) – a flag used at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War or 1812 – I can’t be there at the ramparts or in the fields of semi-rural Baltimore in 1812. I can’t smell the gunpowder or feel the rumble of the shot from British ships pounding the fort for hour upon hour. I can imagine it, but I can’t remember it.
Therefore a question that we always need to ask when studying history is how much is memory, how much is recorded and confirmed as fact (or as close to fact as we feel comfortable being) and how much is embellishment, imagination or pure fiction. By this I mean, to what extent can our history be proved? For this is one of the major distinctions that historians and commentators make about history as a discipline apart from that of literature.
I have to tip my hat to the many museums, galleries and other institutions which preserve and promote our histories. To bring those dreams to some kind of reality for us. Sometimes these histories are hard – such as walking past a mound of shoes taken from victims of the Holocaust – sometimes histories are easier to remember and celebrate – such as the victory at Fort McHenry. Whatever the history, we must attempt to absorb as much of it as possible in as personal and experiential way as possible. This was we draw history into ourselves and put ourselves into the story of history.
Oh say can you see…..