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Media and Mediating the Message

A presentation at the George Wright Society Conference

Angela Smith George Wright Society Conference March 4, 2009

In October 2008 I was fortunate enough to be invited to have lunch with filmmaker Ken Burns at an event in Nashville. Seated with seven academics at a large table, I looked him in the eye and asked him if he understood that he was perhaps the only individual in the country whose films create the public’s perceived narrative of American history. Fortunately, this man who brought us acclaimed films of The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and soon The National Parks: America’s Best Ideas, does understand. He understands and he also sees that it his responsibility to create films that reflect a broad view of America that has nuance and depth and also tell a good story. A number of academic historians argue that Burns’ power to disseminate history through popular media is not a good thing.1 As a public historian, longtime graphic designer, and a filmmaker, however, I appreciate what Burns has done for history. I would argue that it is time for historians to set aside their grievances and enter the filmmaking domain. I, for one, aspire to use my historical training and design sensibilities to make films from inside the historical profession that communicate history to a broader audience. As a student on that path, I know that the debate on film as a medium to deliver history is not nearly settled. Currenty, I am at work on two projects—one is a wall exhibit for a national

See Robert Brent Toplin, Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond, (Oxford University Press, USA, 1997); Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public, The Practice of American History, 1890-1970 (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 7588; and David Cannadine, ed., History and the Media, (New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 90-94.


battlefield site and one is an independent film that focuses on heritage tourism. Both, however, are solid in their history and grounded in research and analysis. Historians usually criticize films that draw content from history by charging that the filmmaker oversimplified complex themes. It is true that the filmmaker must limit the narrative because of the inherent time limits of film. A history book can remain by your reading chair for months, the reading “in progress” in whatever way your schedule determines, perhaps by chapter or perhaps in an allotted time at the end of the day. Film, on the other hand, is often absorbed in one sitting of a couple of hours, with the exception of films done as episodes, such as Burns’ nine episodes of The Civil War. A film, like a book, takes years of research and production before there is a finished product. And the products are very different. Film as a medium is quite unlike the written word, which is the historian’s typical vehicle for communication. As a visual medium, film communicates impressionistically rather than analytically. Filmmakers utilize sound, and pictures to tell a story, and at their best evoke emotions that can change the way you understand the subject. Additionally, film has the ability to communicate in a way that encourages “historical thinking.” That is a strong defense to criticisms posed by historians that film shortchanges history. The term historical thinking, coined by Sam Wineburg at


Stanford University, suggests that students—and their teachers, too— must learn how to critically read primary sources and how to critique and construct historical narratives. “What’s new about that?” you might ask, and your skepticism would be well-placed. Historical thinking is not a new concept. In fact, more than 20 years ago, two Harvard professors boldly suggested that America would be well served if our government’s decision-makers engaged in that kind of thinking to avoid costly blunders, misplaced assumptions and ambiguous analogies. But even before Richard Neustadt and Ernest May published Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, poet and philosopher George Santayana had warned: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Though the concept is not new, Wineburg has been instrumental in focusing research on the problem, particularly in the classroom. As a profession, we are growing ever more conscious of the importance of historical thinking when communicating with many publics. The audience that traditionally we knew to be heavily populated with academics is not what we count on today. The web audience alone can multiply our history consumers by millions. That’s all the more reason to focus on what we’ve been taught and what we claim as our strength – accuracy and integrity in reporting history. So, I do not claim that historical thinking is either new or trendy. What is new, however, and what will change tomorrow and next year


and every year after, is the expanding array of inexpensive tools to construct those narratives. The Internet is an amazing tool to communicate history. Creating websites that utilize any combination of movies, podcasts, timelines, and text offer unlimited opportunities for history education. Thinking historically and using these tools will help us know the past and will allow us to share it with a wide audience. The written word—primary documents, books, and periodicals—will remain, but will increasingly be available not just on paper. Events that happen today, decisions that are announced tomorrow, social and cultural artifacts that are created this year all accumulate in a multimedia world. Historians of the future will have many more choices about how they will document history and make it accessible. This is good news both for the academy and the public, the historian and the consumer. As both a historian and as an American baby boomer that grew up going to the movies for entertainment, I see the most powerful characteristic of film as its ability to transport the audience to another place and time. The challenge of using film as a medium to interpret history is that the audience expects a sensory experience. The visual, emotional and performance elements that are central to film must work together to tell a story. The filmmaker, like the author, must first determine what the story is, that is, which of the many elements of any slice of the past will be the focus. At this point, the filmmaker must


conceptualize the story as a cohesive, whole narrative – as a performance that will take hold of the viewers in the opening scene and lead them on the journey to another place and time. Historical thinking, however, begins the same way for both products. In the case of either the author or the filmmaker, research comes first. Once the professional has determined the story, subsequent questions demand answers: What is the best way to tell this particular story? Who can help me tell this story? What kinds of records are available that can be used to illustrate the story? Is there any music that fits? What interviews must be conducted? In the research phase, I am always alert for images that reflect the tone of a place, or I am on the lookout for a place to conduct an interview that illustrates some core element in the film. It is the filmmaker’s responsibility to create tone. One way to do that is with lighting. Choosing to shoot exteriors on a gray day or a sunny day can change the entire tone. Using artificial light versus natural light for interiors can also change the tone. In the editing phase, one can use programs such as Photoshop to alter images or add still shots or vintage footage to create yet another tone. Learn to think visually in your research— what images or objects inform your story. This is an important skill for curators, archivists, historians and filmmakers. During the last year I have been working on two major projects, a film, Refuse to Fold, with fellow Ph.D. student Brian Dempsey, and an


exhibit for Stones River National Battlefield, Toward Whole History at Stones River National Battlefield. The film is about the changing narrative arising out of emerging heritage tourism in the Mississippi Delta. In this film we profile the owner of the Blue Front Café, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, in Bentonia, Mississippi. The Blue Front is a juke joint, a neighborhood bar and dance spot, that Jimmy’s mother opened in 1948. Two years ago the state installed a Blues Trail marker in front of the bar to signify the importance of the Blue Front to the history of the blues and to Mississippi. There will eventually be 130 statewide. Jimmy is also a musician who plays a dying form of the blues genre called the Bentonia blues. It uses the same guitar tuning as now legendary bluesmen Skip James and Jack Owens, small-town musicians whose work emerged during the 1960s blues revival and is acclaimed by aficionados. When Brian and I began this project, we were conscious of our desire not simply to create a beautiful scenic film about the mystical Mississippi Delta—that would be easy. But we concentrated on portraying the Delta as honestly as we could by using the words and landscapes that reflected the story as it unfolded. We also wanted to provide opportunities for people like Jimmy to have a voice and ultimately to provide their perspective on the changes in the region. That goal is not at all unlike the goal we had as students in our Cultural Resources Management class at Middle Tennessee State University when we set out to develop a concept for an exhibit, Toward


Whole History at Stones River National Battlefield. Again, our first question was “What is the story?” First, we had to learn about cultural landscapes generally, followed by research into the specifics of the cultural landscape at Stones River National Battlefield. Then we had to figure out the best way to communicate the story to the public. The result is a proposal for a four-panel wall exhibit at the Stones River National Battlefield Visitor Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that will interpret the cultural landscape of the battlefield from the period before the Civil War to the present. My section focused on an active, thriving African American community that was established soon after the Civil War battle of 1863 at Stones River. A large Introduction to Public History class spent a semester last year doing archival research, recording property transfers, examining census records, conducting oral histories, and researching the Freedmen’s Bureau records. I took the information this class collected and began synthesizing the information, tracking down leads about possible descendants of some of the names we discovered, and putting the pieces together to develop the story. In both cases, the blues film and the battlefield exhibit, there is a story arc. Chronology alone will provide a timeline, but the most difficult task in telling a story in any medium is to create a story line that has a clear and dramatic beginning, middle, and end. In true storytelling format, it needs some tension to hold it together, and chronology alone does not


often provide that. It does not, however, need to be dramatized in a way that is not true to the spirit of the story. Interestingly, there were similar gaps in the record as we did research for both projects. In the South, a longtime lack of recognition of black culture as well as exclusion of blacks from many public institutions means that the record is incomplete. For the decades when blacks couldn’t vote, there are no voting records; when they were slaves, there are no census records of them by individual or family name; other records—births, marriages and even deaths—rarely were part of the public record before 1865. Because of this, it’s hard to find out when an old bluesman in Mississippi was born or what Tennessee families inherited property purchased by a former slave freed at the end of the Civil War. Race is certainly not the only factor that presents a dilemma in constructing a solid narrative, but it did come into play in both of these projects. As historians, however, the authority of the narrative lies in the integrity of the research. Information has its own history, and determining how it arrived at the place where you examine it, who had possession of it (and when) can anchor it in place and time. In modern history, media sources and oral history can be invaluable in creating a likely framework for both the existence and absence of information. In the case of Stones River, for example, deeds have been a rich resource. The names of some of the African American property owners


whose names are on deeds don’t give us the person’s history prior to the purchase. However, the absence of those same names—at the same time—on census records could be the first indication that they were slaves. Comparing last names (slaves, of course, often took their master’s name) and location of property can provide more clues. Oral history can fill in gaps in written records. In this case, some of the surnames are still present in Rutherford County. Family bibles, diaries and other documents may have been handed down. Similarly, there are African American families in the Delta who have been there for generations, from slave times to the present. There, too, many records are missing, even though most of the figures in the story are 20th-century. Through the same process, one is able to find information that can be interpreted with reasonably integrity. It has been in this way that the state of Mississippi has found some of the early blues musicians’ houses (even houses they didn’t own, but rented) and their unmarked gravesites. There are several approaches available to the historian filmmaker. The first is an archival approach to telling a story from the past. This is the Ken Burns approach. It involves looking back and telling a story about the past from the perspective of the present. The palette options for filmmaking are contemporary interviews about the topic, intensive research, archival footage—both still photos and film, text slides, and voice-over narration. This approach is very effective. I asked Ken Burns


if he ever considered changing his method of filmmaking, and he replied that what he is doing works, and he doesn’t see any need to fix what is not broken. There are, however, other methods available. For example, in my current project, Refuse to Fold, we are taking a more anthropological approach. We are studying current events with an eye to contemporary perception of history. This is quite different from the Ken Burns approach. We understand that change is happening in the life of Jimmy Holmes, a 62-year-old college graduate, because of a change in the public perception of the blues and the Mississippi Delta. The change is precipitated by efforts to market the Delta as a mysterious land, full of black folk heroes. Our goal is to unravel the myth and give voice to Jimmy and others like him who have survived the civil rights struggles in Mississippi and for the first time are being honored by the same government that as recently as thirty years ago attempted to condemn Jimmy’s historic family business. “Rising from the Ashes,” my section of the exhibit at Stones River National Battlefield, is both similar and different from the filmmaking experience of Refuse to Fold. The research involved in “Rising from the Ashes” is not complete, but because of the time frame, just one semester, there are clear gaps in the historical record that needed to be completed. We knew enough about the battlefield that we were aware that several historical periods made an impact on the landscape, from its agricultural use long before the Civil War to its role


in a community to its preservation as a national park site. Each period, each layer, is important to help us find the story and relay it as a narrative in a particular medium. More research had to be conducted. I headed to the deed office and began searching for at least one African American family that lived on the battlefield in the 1860s and still owned land in the 1930s when the War Department purchased the land for the park. The first item I ran across was that George Avent, an African American, purchased a mule for $150 from Sam Brown during the summer of 1867. Then I found that less than a year later, Avent purchased property from the same man. Next I found a record that showed Samuel Gresham, also an African American, purchased 40 acres of land from H.H. Kerr in 1872. I knew about Gresham from previous research efforts, but the 1872 purchase date was at least six years earlier than I had expected. Records indicated that Gresham’s heirs owned a large strip of land in the area, land the government purchased in the early 1930s. It was in this room of giant books that I found the evidence needed to prove that at least two African American families—George Avent and Samuel Gresham—purchased property on the battlefield less than ten years after the battle. I now had solid evidence to present to the public. More research needs to be done, but this evidence gave me something to show in an exhibit. The deed books are handwritten with beautiful penmanship, and George Avent signed his name with an X, indicating his inability to write his name.


This is a powerful image, a visual image that we can pass on with the use of digital technology. Though I did not have the whole story fleshed out, what I had discovered gave me enough information to make strong connections using primary sources. Honestly, I understand that we may never have the whole story. Generations have passed and most of the oral history is lost and the records are limited. The historian has to decide at what point he has enough to be true to the story. On the other hand, he also has to decide how much his audience is willing to absorb. In that case, a limit in the presentation does not mean a limit in the history or the ongoing record. There are no definitive answers to all of the questions that surround historical narrative, but we do know that the audience for history is changing just as the technology by which we deliver it is changing. The constant must be the integrity of the research and the historians who interpret it. I encourage historians to step into the filmmaking ring. The sensibilities we bring to the craft will enrich the products presented to the public. A concerted effort to incorporate film training into the Ph.D. curriculums in history would be a good first step. We have a great opportunity before us; as a profession let’s choose to broaden our skill set. Consider the depth and breadth of history; doesn’t it make sense that we use every tool available to document, interpret, and disseminate it. It’s a way to help more of us remember, to learn from


the best of what we’ve been and avoid repeating our worst mistakes. The public will be richer for it. So will the historians.

Toplin, Robert Brent. Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond. Oxford University Press, 1997. Tyrrell , Ian, Historians in Public, The Practice of American History, 1890-1970. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Cannadine, David, ed. History and the Media. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.