History has a variety of different definitions depending upon the culture and the context. One of the most important attributes to constituting history today is by the ways we can prove and document things that happened. We have these wonderful people called archaeologists and anthropologists that can dig in the dirt or find an abandoned place and use what was left there to guess what items were used for, and how that affected the lives of people long ago. Thankfully, over time people began to take this rigorous obsession with documenting their daily lives and historical events. But then again, we come to learn that documentation means a variety of different things to different people. In the U.S. we tend to think of documentation as physical proof, normally in the written form. This was part of the Enlightenment movement in England during the 17th century. Enlightenment refers to the period of time where a revolution, or maybe rather, a shift of thinking occurred. People began to ask more questions about science, religion, history, etc. In the British Museum, they managed to collect a variety of objects to reflect on the seven main categories of enlightenment.
• Religion and ritual
• Trade and discovery
• The birth of archaeology
• Art and civilization
• Classifying the world
• Ancient scripts
• The natural world
Trade may have been a main component that contributed to this revolution of thought. For instance, traders would bring strange objects to their homelands and people would buy them to try to understand them in relation to the world. This was not always true. Here is one example.
Soane was a huge collector of trade items, note the use of the word collector. He was not a historian, being he did not spend much time studying these items for historical purposes. Rather, he spent time collecting remains of old buildings because he believed that to understand and replicate a style of architecture (being that he was a very talented architect, this makes sense. His best known work is the Bank of England. He even designed his house in such a way that it was built around his collection. They do not allow photographs, so it is truly a marvel you have to see for yourself. Some of his collections are on display at the British Museum.
The British Museum took this theme of enlightenment and dedicated a whole room to this movement. The entire room and the entire museum; well, actually all museums, exist because of enlightenment’s effect on history and anthropology and how we today document history. In a reading by Dodsley about the management of the museum he said it was so full of items, but people did not have the particular information about these items they wanted to know. The management said the descriptions should be brief and low cost, but people apparently in general complained that their curiosity was unsatisfied. During the enlightenment people were almost overly curious about everything. So now, we have people perform extensive research on a variety of topics. We leave no stone unturned, and find an answer to every question that is both probable and exact.
We also went to the V & A Museum. I enjoyed this experience because instead of looking at artifacts, we mostly looked at historical and modern art. Because of this trip, I was able to more closely understand how trade effected style and fashion over the 1650’s-1800. It was interesting how collections, such as their giant ceramic collection, could easily be compared from one country to another. Thank goodness such important items from history could be saved and people could gather enough information for us today to have the greatest possible understanding.
Before this, the waters of the past were equally murky as they were interesting.
In Scottish culture, I can relate to this theme of storytelling because of my Native American heritage (what little of it I know of, unfortunately. So sad to see these traditions die). While Scotland has museums, they exist in what feels like a time capsule. Much like Soane’s house, there are places to visit that are preserved buildings and property of people from a few hundred years ago. But in a different sense, Soane’s house is treated like a private collection because there is not much known about his possessions.
With other places such as Gladstone’s Land and Georgian House, these places exist like a museum because specialists have been able to figure out what certain items were and what they were for… but unlike most museums, you will not see shelves decorated with memos and citations. You will not see signs directing you with time frames. You will instead see a person in a room with a name tag, and they will exist as your information box.
You walk into a room, and you might get a sheet of paper to read off of, but most likely they will just begin telling you a fantastic story about the room you are standing in, and perhaps focus on a bookshelf, a nail on the wall, the color of a plate, and explain its significance to that time period in relation to the world. The only way I can think to describe this experience is captivating. I learned later from our trip leaders that these people are paid volunteers that are given a box of files to learn about these rooms. So really you could point to a crack in the wall and ask what happened, and more likely than not they would know, and have a super neat story about it. That is simply incredible.
This is a newer form of storytelling that is a combination of the enlightenment documenting verses the oral tradition of passing down tales. Many cultures still practice these traditions, and even only a few hundred years ago, that was the main way people in Scotland kept record of history.
Johnson’s piece about his journey to the Western Scottish Isles discusses this experience of storytelling. When he hears a story, he understands what was said, but when he asks another person about the same story, he is confused because the story is treated in a different light. I think as a story teller, and even historians, have their bias when telling a story. We often tell stories in a light that we want people to see it in. His experience with storytelling is similar to mine in the way where if it is not really bias, it is perspective. From the top of a hill, a city seems small and I am the climber of the mountain.
From the bottom, it seems a mountain is a small rock in the middle of a great land. It is all about understanding.
I was amazed about how I read these accounts other people had of the highlands… and while I was in awe, I was also in shock about how familiar it seemed to me. Not because of what I read from glamorous accounts of Wordsworth, but rather because “wow, it looks like someone slapped a body of water in the middle of Tennessee!” It’s what it reminded me of. I was not let down, but I think I expected something different being we had terrible plane delays and awful inconveniences with travel literally the entire trip. Maybe in the back of my mind I felt like Wordsworth’s sort of storytelling left me hanging, when if I wanted to see some mountains I could have gone a six hour drive south.
The important thing to recognize with this storytelling is that we still do a similar thing. Myself as a journalist, I am the middle man between a story teller and a document which we know today as news, but what will later serve as historical artifacts and documentation. People tell me what they saw happen, and I write it down and put it out in such a way that it captures important details that are both interesting and relevant to life today. Storytellers then, did a very similar thing, but did not have such a concept as mass media yet… so, no writing down and no newspaper.
It is important in this day and age to recognize the impact word of mouth does have, and how it is the way in which we shaped our history. So next time you share a memory at your family’s dinner table over the holidays, just remember that you are practicing art and history in its earliest forms. If you feel compelled, you may want to write it down… and it is okay if you write it the way you want it to be.