Sunday, May 18, 2014

Celebrating Anniversaries. Commemorating Wars.

We have been commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War for years now. My twitter feed has been noting archival projects, social media blitzes, major reenactments, and museum exhibits throughout the events. Cultural Institutions began planning years in advance.  Internet outreach has enabled us to build up interest and create long running projects that aim to keep people engaged. I have very mixed feelings about these activities and while I tend toward the opinion that they are a good thing, a little piece of me thinks otherwise.

One way that cultural institutions aim to get the public involved is through Crowdsourcing. A good example of this is a project through the University of Iowa.

Saylor and her colleagues “crowdsourced” the Civil War by digitizing the letters and diaries and making them available to the public. They created a website where transcribers can choose a document, transcribe it in a niffy box, and email it to them for review.

Goals: To get the public involved, highlight a major event, and get much needed help for making archival materials more accessible.

The Civil War events are having a small lull. According to the civilwar150 site, not much of significance happened during the War in the spring and summer months of 1864. My Twitter feed on the events has been quiet. Perhaps, it's a good thing that the centennial of WWI is getting underway too so I have more commemorative articles to link to. (Am I being fascetious? I'm not sure. That's what I'm here to discuss.)

The United States World War One Centennial Commission has a wonderful web site to remind us about this oft forgotten catastophic event. 100-years after a War, it is easy to see it as ancient history. It is easy for us to forget how the events of the past have lead us to where we are today. The roots of Russian history and conflict go back this far, for one thing. As one example of the need for remembering our history - Understanding events in the Ukraine today can be related to World War One. And, yet, my mind still questions this "celebration" of anniversaries.

I fall victim to anniversary syndrome. For a Town's 250th I think, "let's do it up!" For my school's fiftieth I say, "let's plan retro events and highlight our community!" Anniversaries give cultural heritage professionals a chance to pull in the general public, to help them get as excited about history as we are. In some ways, these celebrations are artificial constructs. We can find an anniversary for anything and make it worth celebrating, but is that a bad thing? If the general public wants festivities to get excited about history, the fact that they are interested is a good thing, right? Anniversaries allow archivists to convince people to dig through their attics and basements to find materials that document our history. Society has used anniversaries to highlight our heritage for at least hundreds of years. We have highlighted war in this way for probably thousands of years -- from stitching battle history into tapestry to honoring our Veterans with special days each year.

2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of what we now sadly know as The First World War – it would never be The War to End All Wars.  As we look back over the century we should remember that these men did not die in vain – they fought a war that, like the one that followed only 25 years later, was necessary to contain the territorial ambition of a major European power.  About one hundred years before the outbreak of the First World War British and Allied troops had defeated France at the Belgium village of Waterloo - and contained a major European power.
Remember the courage and honour the sacrifice of the boys who became men 100 years ago and support the young men and women who have followed in their footsteps and are today's soldiers.  - (from Spirit of Remembrance  web site - "Battlefield tours for discerning travelers") 

I am a bit troubled by the hoopla. How do we pick and choose what anniversaries to mark? What anniversaries are we forgetting? Are there under-documented events/wars/communities that need more attention from the governments that sponsor them? Are we glorifying War -- molding it into something romantic through a "celebration?"  Are we all doing all of this for the right reasons?  

To be sure, much good work is being done. These anniversary events deserve remembrance. Cultural heritage institutions could use the boost, excitement, collections, and donations that come from these events. It is a fine line to walk. Anniversaries, especially those of war, deserve related activities that suit the occasion. We need to remember that these events involve people. We need to remember without a sense of adventure and without romanticism. We need to ensure that our communities are boosted by our commemorations. We run the risk of trivializing terror and giving an amusement park atmosphere to what should be solemn memorials.

Let's remember this as we go on to mark the third year in our commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam Conflict.

What do you think about using anniversaries to boost the work of cultural heritage institutions? Do these anniversaries help our communities? If these anniversary celebrations are a good thing, with whom should cultural institutions partner to make them worthwhile?

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