After all who were there are gone, what happens to history?Breaking News
tags: World War II, public history
There are pieces of burned wood, unearthed decades ago. There is a spoon, a wine-bottle fragment, assorted pottery shards — all carefully curated and elaborately explained.
And then there is the patrician voice of George Washington: “I’m certain,” he intones solemnly, “that if we didn’t attack the French first, they would have tried to ambush us. It was clear that they were on the offensive.”
Except, as is obvious, it’s not the voice of George Washington at all. It is a performer, reading from his writing.
At Fort Necessity, the spot in Southwestern Pennsylvania’s forested hills where an early “world war” among the English, the French and Native Americans began, history feels fascinating, meticulously preserved — and distant. Washington is 220 years gone, and the last survivor of the war that began here died in the early 1840s.
Last week, ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day reminded us that an entire generation is fading from the world stage. But what happens to the collective perception of major historical events when all participants and firsthand witnesses pass from living memory, when none of our fellow humans can still answer the question: What was it like to be there?
“When the actual witnesses and participants pass from the scene, we lose something — morally, intellectually and emotionally,” says Gregory Vitarbo, a military and European historian at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Most everyone views history through the prism of the particular present moment. But when the present moment still includes those who were part of that history, it adds depth and resonance to the proceedings.
This was evident last week on Omaha Beach in Normandy. Survivors, most more than nine decades old, brought the commemorations alive in ways that would have been impossible were they all gone, as they undoubtedly will be in a decade or so.
They talked of deafening noise, of heads bobbing in the sea, of “the acrid smell of cordite” from shelling. Their very demeanors — limber young fighters become stooped, slow-moving great-grandfathers — seemed to shout of connections with a past that, on most days, now seems remote.
Some of this is intangible, a matter of feelings. The closer you are to a watershed moment, the more likely it is to capture interest. This is why, for example, a fender-bender on the street outside your home is far more likely to grab your attention then the same event three counties away.
Same thing goes for history. For many Americans growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, World War II was very much a thing of the present — their fathers had fought, and they brought tales of the war to the dinner table. Today, the ranks of those emissaries have thinned and the direct impact is reduced, so naturally the conversation around it fades.
That’s why so much effort in exhibiting history at museums and historic sites these days employs sight, sound and touch — even for events that predated the technology to capture such across platforms. It’s also why elaborate historical re-enactments, complete with clothing and firearms and language and food, have become so popular. It all points in the same direction — simulating what it might be like to talk to an actual participant.
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