by Diana Yost-
As a graduate student working in the field of historical and museum studies, I have had the opportunity to enroll in several different classes related to museum work. Fields I have studied in the past include exhibit design, collection management, and curatorship. However, this past semester I ventured into a new realm for me, that of public history. Stepping out from the behind-the-scenes work of collection databases and exhibit label making, public history has helped challenge my perspective on how to communicate history to the public. There were two specific topics from the class that really made me question my role as a public historian. The first topic was that of the documentary, specifically our talks about Old North St. Louis and the documentary film about the Pruitt-Igoe housing development. The second is the idea of a community project, relating to our work with the Lincoln Place Heritage Association.
As a professional or academic historian, it is important to find an effective way to communicate history to the public. I feel like a balance must be struck between popular and professional history. It is our job as public historians to give the public not only historical truths but also to present to them overarching themes and connections to the broader picture. At the same time, we are met with the difficult challenge to keep the public interested and keep them coming back for more. The situation gets even more complex when working with a community to tell a history.
Earlier in the semester we viewed a documentary film called The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which detailed the conception and ultimate failure of a public housing experiment. The challenge with this film is how to present the story of the neighborhood while accurately portraying all sides of the story. Prior to the film, my knowledge of the project was the perception of it falling into disrepair and plagued by violence. The filmmakers did an excellent job at fusing this side of the story with the perspective from the residents who live there, showing how there were close knit communities and that this development was a home to so many families.
I relate the making of this film to our work with the Lincoln Place Heritage Association in that we are telling the story of the neighborhood, but we are met with the challenge of not just showing the one-sided perspective of the residents, but the historical implications of the neighborhood as well. We have discussed in class several times how we can, as historians, find that balance between the selective history the residents chose to tell and the other history of the neighborhood that may be brushed under the rug. The members of the Association have a specific story they want to tell about the neighborhood, but we as public historians have an obligation to be objective in our history and to tell more than just one side of the history.
As public historians, we not only meet with the challenge of communicating history to the public, we also are challenged when working with the public to tell history. While working with a community to tell a history, it is important for us as historians to not just tell a one-sided history, but to leave the public with a better understanding of the picture as a whole.
by Diana Yost-
This coming fall will mark my eighth year living in the Edwardsville area. One aspect of the region that I have enjoyed since the beginning of my time here is the historic Main Street in downtown Edwardsville. Having grown up in a small town, I was immediately drawn to it because of its nostalgia and small town feel. I love the architecture of the buildings and, more importantly, that they are almost all still functioning buildings, housing restaurants and businesses alike. As a huge supporter of historic preservation, I was so excited to find a historic downtown that seemed to be thriving!
However, there is one building in particular that caught my attention that was not being utilized–the old Wildey Theatre. With its noticeable marquee and beautiful brick design, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to it? After doing some research, I discovered that the theatre was built in 1909, and was designed to house board meetings and acted as a community center for the area. Vaudeville shows flourished in the beginning, with the theatre displaying a variety of singing, dancing, juggling, magic, and even comedy shows. The theatre then moved on to showcase silent films and eventually “talkies,” including the famous movie “The Jazz Singer.” Over time, the theatre lost funding and eventually closed its doors in 1984. In 1999, the City of Edwardsville purchased the property in hopes of renovating it.
Over the past seven-plus years of being in the area, I have heard several rumors of it being either being closed for good or that it will be reopened soon. Well, the day has finally come–the Wildey Theatre had its grand re-opening on April 12! I had the opportunity to attend one of the movies they were showing during opening week, “Singing in the Rain,” and was thrilled to finally be able to go inside the theatre that has mysteriously sat vacant for so long. The newly remodeled building has done an excellent job at preserving the integrity of the art-deco style architecture while also upgrading the facilities with modern technologies. There is even a functioning ticket booth outside of the theatre, just like there used to be. The Wildey Theatre plans on contributing to the community by not only showing movies, but also inviting students from Edwardsville High School and SIUE to perform there as well as other local entertainment. The Wildey Theatre is a piece of living history, and hopefully it will receive the support it needs to maintain its presence in the Edwardsville community.
by Diana Yost-
Over the course of the semester, our class has ventured into several different realms of public history, from podcasts to documentary films. One sphere of public history that we didn’t have a chance to cover in this course is that of art museums. As an undergraduate, I dedicated a great deal of my time to studying art history as well as studio art, and even though I am obtaining my Master’s degree in Historical Studies, the influence of art is still in the foreground of my thoughts.
I have unfortunately heard some of my classmates say you can’t learn as much from visiting an art museum as you can in a history or science museum. I could not disagree more! There is so much more to an art museum than looking at oil paintings and thousand-year-old clay pots. Art museums are an excellent way for the public to understand cultures of the past because they display pieces of art that are not only worthy of technical artistic talent but also because they are infused with meaning from that time.
Tomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a perfect example of history (even if it’s not technically a history museum!) Inside the museum visitors, can walk through a real Egyptian tomb, or an abbey of a medieval church, or even the living room of a Frank Lloyd Wright house. These visual and physical experiences engage the visitors with the objects, allowing them to feel like they are actually in that time period. This is a way the museum brings history to life; instead of reading what it’s like, visitors get to experience it first hand.
Another example can be found in our own backyard at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM). While there is not an ancient palace room to walk into, SLAM’s current special exhibit, entitled Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, teaches the history of the Mayan culture through art and artifacts. For instance, visitors learn that the ancient Mayans believed that water, and therefore rain and the ocean, was the source of life, and they illustrate the symbolic power that they believed water had on the objects they used in day to day life. Through this exhibit, the museum offers the public an insight into an ancient culture by means of connecting everyday objects and ornamentation to their belief in life-giving water.
While art museums are sometimes clustered into their own category of fine arts, I believe they are an integral part of public history. They provide the public with a different perspective on history by telling a story through art and material culture. While art museums are a great resource on artists and artistic styles, they are also another avenue to explore history.
by Diana Yost-
Some of you may remember a scene in the first Back to the Future movie where Marty McFly is being asked to donate money to help “save the clock tower!” I can’t help but picture in my mind that crazy old lady running up to him shaking her can of donations pleading for Marty to donate. She insists that he help “Save the clock tower!” She is referring to the old clock tower, located on the square in the center of the town. As you may remember, the clock tower had been struck by lightning and broken in 1955, and just laid in disrepair for 30 years. For this old lady, saving the clock tower was important because it had historical significance in the town. And for those of you who are familiar with the movie trilogy, you might also remember the clock tower being built in the third movie, taking place in 1885. It was a sign of the birth of the town, a symbol of the beginning.
I write about this as an example of historical preservation of significant buildings. Why do we preserve old buildings? An old, broken clock tower in a small town may seem insignificant for some. But for others, it tells a story. It connects its community to the past.
Personally, I am a huge advocate for preserving historic buildings. On one hand, being an architecture admirer I desire that the buildings be saved for their architectural quality. Aesthetically speaking, the designs of older buildings appeal to me much more than new designs. Historic neighborhoods just look better, if that makes sense. Appearance aside, historical buildings deserve to be preserved because they are a source of the past. Historians and the public alike can learn a great deal about a culture and a community from these buildings. What was the purpose of the building? Who designed it? Who lived/worked there? So many questions can be asked of these old buildings, and the answers can tell us so much.
by Diana Yost-
As a nation, America has a collective memory. This memory is used to unite the people together and give us a sense of communal identity as Americans. What and how we choose to remember says a lot about who we are and how we want to be represented. We preserve our American past through various forms of memory, such as national days of observation, memorials and monuments, museums and even festivals and holidays.
Take national days of observance for instance. There are days like Memorial Day where we all celebrate as a nation the same cause on the same day. We also have several national holidays. The 4th of July brings forth patriotic celebrations and festivities commemorating our independence as a nation. Then we have Thanksgiving, a day reserved for observation to commemorate a specific event in American colonial history. Americans choose to commemorate these occasions in a celebratory way. They represent the positive side of the past, where we remember the good.
National memorials and monuments are another form of remembrance. The city of Washington D.C. is decorated with a variety of statues and other forms of sculpture all representing important people and events from America’s past. We select these people and events to remember as a way to educate the public on things deemed significant to our past.
Museums are another form of public education, and many museums are focused on collecting items of “Americana,” things that are distinctly American. We do this in effort to preserve our past, as a reminder. Historic preservation also plays a role here, ensuring that certain artifacts and even buildings of our past are preserved for future use of remembering and learning.
All of these forms of memory, along with many others, are ways for Americans to feel connected to each other as a country. By observing national days of commemoration, celebrating our past through festivals, and creating objects of remembrance such as memorials and monuments, Americans are striving to not forget their past. What we chose to remember shows what is important to our history.
The Oriental Institute
-by Diana Yost
On the University of Chicago campus there is a museum called the Oriental Institute. The museum houses an impressive collection of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts, including copies of Hammurabi’s Code, the Rosetta Stone, and items from King Tut’s tomb. I was fortunate enough to live in Hyde Park (where the University of Chicago is located) for a while and quickly became familiar with the Oriental Institute. I loved that the University provided public access to its extensive collection for free and I took full advantage of it.
At the time I was living there and frequenting the museum, I never gave much thought to the title of the institute. To me, the “Oriental” was simply a reference to a geographical region. After all, the collection held artifacts from areas of Nubia, Egypt, the Levant and other areas of ancient Mesopotamia, so I saw the title fitting to its substance. Plus, the University of Chicago is a prominent university, so surely the name was accurate in the representation of the collection.
Recently, however, I read a book written by Edward Said, titled Orientalism. Essentially, Said discusses how the term “oriental” came into use and what it stands for. Said brings up the argument that the orient as we know it is actually a Western construct of the East. The word is just a reference to the “other,” the “inferior,” something opposite of the West. Basically, it is the Western perception of the unfamiliar East. It is the reason Westerners traveled to the East, excavated the land, and brought back to Europe and America the exotic artifacts that we now get to enjoy in museums.
While reading this book, I couldn’t help but think about the Oriental Institute. I suddenly found the name of the museum questionable, thinking it is along the same lines as calling a museum about Native Americans an “Indian” museum. The Oriental Institute was created in the 1920s, and its collection was brought to the University from professors and students of the University who traveled to these places. At the time, the name purely indicated the location of where the artifacts originated. Today, I think the name brings on a whole new meaning. It is a reminder of the past, when Westerns, including Americans, justified their power over others.