Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Weekend Muse: Reaching for the Past, pt. 2

To what extent does our modern “mind-set” influence our understanding of the Past, or perhaps “change” history?

This thought provoking question has kept historians awake at night, but I doubt many of us as interpreters have considered the issue. How DOES living history interact with the enticing "spell" of the Past, both to be affected by the Past, and to reshape that Past through modern attempts at re-creation and re-storation?

Can we really escape our modern aesthetics? Our tastes or comforts? Though one might argue that a living historian or history interpreter (call it what you will) can overcome modern "tastes" for food (though how many of us have suffered privation, totally inadequate diet and starvation?), electricity, and the like, and even the comfort of modern heating (even interpreting while living in -50 degree weather, I knew there was real, modern shelter nearby, contrary to the living conditions of my personna), sleeping accommodations, and other material goods (even contemporary goods used for interpretation made in traditional ways are still the product of a modern period), the question still remains:

Our Past is now, and always has been, shaped by the present. Else, how could historians of successive generations drawn such starkly differing messages and images from the primary documentation. At various times, those documents have produced patriotic, economic, nostalgic, and even cynical viewpoints. The present, indeed, does have the ability to change the Past.

Historical "insight" really is nothing more than our interpretation of the past from our contemporary vantage point, with our contemporary knowledge, with our contemporary understanding of the "world". As Stacy Roth puts it in her book, "Past into Present", "History is not 'the past.' It is an interpretation of the past, ever shifting because our uses for it change."

There is, then, no pristine absolute Past, or truth of the Past. The Past is ever clouded by our own wants, desires, politics, understanding of "how the world works." Should that paralyze those of us who wish to recover the Past, to understand and interpret it?

No. But it should create in us a humility in approaching this enterprise, a self-awareness of our limitations and prejudices present in the task. So that recognizing the imperfections in approaching historical realities we take seriously our need to research honestly with a humble understanding so that we can reflect our Past as we are given the light.

Research to discover what was common, not to jusitfy wants and wishes~ My eyes can read the past, but my other senses are severly neglected -- David Schmid

The Clerk


  1. I have always been aware of my possible modern attitudes versus assumed 18th century attitude. But I do not try to justify wants, I only deal in needs. I have lived an 18th century lifestyle for 20 years before moving into our now modern dwelling. No electricity, candles, grease lamps, tapers, period open fireplace for cooking, carrying water, hunting game, sleeping out during winter, growing our own food, fire from flint & steel. For me, there comes a time when you must trust your own feelings in regard to what is okay, and what is probably not okay. The best we can do is research to find out what was available to our persona in our chosen period, decide whether or not that item would be usefull to us, do I need this item?
    Back in 2002 I said in an article, "when packing for the trail, there must be a compromise between two principles: minimum weight and maximum self-reliance". Tempered with primary documentation, I think I have just about got it right.
    Regards, Keith.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Keith. I enjoy your blog (, for those of you who haven't checked it out as yet) and your dedication.

    Still, winter in June? Do you have to hang on to the trees "down under" to keep from falling off the Earth, too? :-D