This past Friday, my school was off, so my friend, Mel, who teaches across the hall from me, and I decided that we needed to do something fun! Things have been a little stressful at school and everyone has been really cranky, so it was nice to have something fun to look forward to on our day off and away! We invited another friend, Ang, that we used to work with and her adorable baby son to breakfast at The Sleepy Bee in Oakley. If you live in Cincy, you need to check it out--it's awesome, local, fresh, warm and wonderful. Brunch with a baby and a friend who just returned from Florida and still had that sunshine glow was just what we needed to forget about the week gone by.
After breakfast, the two of us headed to the new Cinemark theater in Oakley (it was too early to partake in the great beer selection that they have!) to see The Monuments Men. We both really thoroughly enjoyed it. It was refreshing to just sit back and absorb some history for a few hours instead of figuring out how to get our students to absorb it, 85 minutes at a time. I actually found it pretty humorous, but seemed to be the only one in the theater who thought so. Granted, a lot of the jokes were made on the French, or towards the Americans in France, so I was a prime candidate.
However, the movie got me to thinking as it normally does: I would have enjoyed this so much more if I didn't know better. Life is Paris during the war was so austere that they would have been jealous of the Greeks' current situation. Consumer goods were hard to come by; coffee, hosiery, meat, rubber were scarce and expensive. Life in Paris in particular was so difficult that the French dug up all of their beautiful gardens to plant vegetables, they didn't have the same access to food that those in the countryside did. None of this was reflected in the film, and the main female character wore stockings and cooked meat. While this didn't detract from the movie, which I loved and will add to the list I give my students, it did take me out of the moment and linger with me afterward.
The same thing happens when I'm in a museum or at some sort of historical monument. Not only am I reading and looking for information, I'm also evaluating and analyzing how they summed up complicated history into something that can be understood by the average person who doesn't have esoteric knowledge of the subject. It is really no different than what I do every day. There are entire periods of history that I took entire courses on that I don't even mention to the Freshmen in my Modern World History class. It is more in-depth than is merited in that kind of a class, just like an entire monograph (book) would be too much when only a short paragraph will do in a museum. Even if I'm looking at an exhibit that I know nothing about, I still try to put it in context and NEVER take it at face value.
Not much surprises me because if I know something similar happened in Europe and the US, it isn't surprising that it happened in Asia after that. I especially love going to museums in Germany to see how they deal with Hitler and the Holocaust. One of my best friends, Al, drug me to the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart and they simply focused on all of the money that the Nazis gave them to develop new engines and new vehicles that could be used for the war, but that would later have more practical and peaceful applications in a consumer society. I would love to go to Russia and see how they deal with Stalin and the gulags and the Great Purge, or even how they answer the question that my students keep asking: Is Russia a democracy?
In the US, we're very fond of living history, which I am SUCH a sucker for, but even how places like Williamsburg and Plymouth Plantation are created and run leaves a lot of questions about what is real or authentic or accurate. While I was in grad school, I made the unfortunate misstep of taking a public history class, which has forever tainted any historical encounter for me. Recreations can be very accurate, but they aren't real. However, the real thing is old and dingy and broken and so isn't very accurate or authentic any more. The arguments can make your head swim, but the important thing is to know going in whether you're seeing something as it is now, or as it was then. Probably the most authentic and accurate thing I've ever seen is the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. It took me three trips to Europe and two very out-of-the-way train rides and the tiniest hotel room ever, but I made it there. We had some okay beer, almost got run over by a few bikes, walked over countless bridges, were astounded by everyone's English, had some really BIG pancakes and made our pilgrimage to the Secret Annex. The furniture has been removed, but the owners of the building demanded that everything remain just as it was, no furniture brought back in or anything, so there are simply the walls, floors and ceilings and the window that Anne looked out to see her oak tree, which has been sick and dying for years.
Knowing too much takes a lot of the fun out of it, but I still keep going back. I love museums and history movies and historical fiction. I really love historical fiction, it helps me put things into context of the typical average people so that I can help my students relate better. Although I know that there are a lot of issues with the way history is being presented, I will always seek it out, I will always expose my students to it and eventually my children as well. Even if it is tainted, it is done with the best intentions, we just need to realize to take it all with a grain of salt and enjoy it for it's value to our culture and heritage and to help us understand how to move forward.