Why bother with history?

As we near May 1, the unofficial start date of 2017’s tourist season at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV), I’ve been asking myself why people should care about what MHV has to offer. As a curator, someone whose working life focuses entirely on history, this is an uncomfortable question. Of course people care about their history…right? But the reality is that many good and wonderful people don’t care about history, which leads me to ask an even more uncomfortable question: Why should people bother with history at all?

We are busy people who lead lives full of family, friends, work, Facebook, Netflix, cooking supper – the celebrations, the setbacks, and the grind of daily life. Where does history even have room to edge its way into our thoughts, much less our lives, in any meaningful way?

As a curator, I think the key to answering that question is in the word “meaningful.”  If we don’t care about history, perhaps it’s because we don’t see it as significant or relevant to our lives. Indeed, romanticized stories about the past, or supposed “lessons” that we are told we should learn from history, rarely are personally meaningful. But what if history wasn’t made up of stereotyped, two-dimensional characters but of people who led lives full of good and bad choices and decisions; who were bold and cowardly, victims and perpetrators; who sometimes rose above their circumstances and at others caved in to the crippling status-quo? In other words, would history be more meaningful if we acknowledged those who lived in the past as real and complex people?

I recently read a challenging article on the purpose of history written by Paul Kramer, a U. S. history professor at Vanderbilt University, entitled “History in a Time of Crisis.” He quotes Joan Wallach Scott, Professor Emerita at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who said that the purpose of history is “to open the possibility for thinking (and so acting) differently.” Taking this approach, the point of history is not to learn a lesson (and to dodge the trite threat that “history will repeat itself” if we don’t), but to continually grapple with our understanding of ourselves and each other, our lives, and our world. This struggle to understand and to think differently about the past can be uncomfortable and requires much more of us, I think, than simply memorizing the dates of historical events. This view of history, however, gives us the opportunity to come face-to-face with people who are different than us, who might have held beliefs that we don’t share, and who made decisions with which we may not necessarily agree. In these encounters with history there is the potential to understand more fully what it is to be human, to have empathy for others, and to see things from a different perspective. In a world that’s often divided between “us” and “them,” these are valuable skills to cultivate.

As a museum curator, I am continually challenged to find new ways to encourage people to think critically about both the past and the present. In particular, though, I get excited about my work when I think of the opportunities our exhibits, museum tours, and artefacts provide for connecting with people who don’t currently care about history and opening the possibility for them to think about the past in a new way. This challenge is a guiding principle in the creation of our 2017 exhibits. Two of them, on the theme Storied Places, will see MHV partnering with the arts community through the Steinbach Arts Council and with high-school students at Steinbach Regional Secondary School and Landmark Collegiate. I hope you’ll join us and accept our challenge to think again about history.

Calendar of Events:

April 2: 7:00 PM – Vespers Service

April 6: 7:00 PM - Auxiliary Film Night - The Last Objectors

April 27: 7:00 PM – Volunteer Orientation

May 6: 7:30 PM - Local History Lectures – Family, Food and Spirituality


About the Author

Gary is responsible for the overall management of MHV. Guiding the staff, informing the board, and networking with officials, volunteers, corporate sponsors, individual donors and other guests. He has a business diploma and a MA in Global Studies from Providence Theological Seminary. With his family he did humanitarian work for 18 years in Asia, including being a CEO of a Compost Enterprise in China. He loves to discuss the Mennonite story and how it is relevant in our world. Learn more about the MHV.

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