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Fashioning History

R. Berkhofer
ISBN: 9780230617209
DOI: 10.1057/9780230617209
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Fashioning History

10.1057/9780230617209 - Fashioning History, Robert F. Berkhofer Jr.

Also by Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr.
Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and
American Indian Response, 1787–1862
A Behavioral Approach to Historical Analysis
The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from
Columbus to the Present
Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse

10.1057/9780230617209 - Fashioning History, Robert F. Berkhofer Jr.

Fashioning History
Current Practices and Principles

Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr.

10.1057/9780230617209 - Fashioning History, Robert F. Berkhofer Jr.

fashioning history
Copyright © Berkhofer, Jr., 2008.

All rights reserved.

First published in 2008 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN® in the United States—a division

of St. Martin’s Press LLC, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

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company number 785998, of Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS.

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ISBN-13: 978-0-230-60868-9
ISBN-10: 0-230-60868-X

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Berkhofer, Robert F.
Fashioning history : current practices and principles / Robert F.
Berkhofer, Jr.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-230-60868-X
1. History--Methodology. I. Title.
D16.B466 2008

A catalogue record of the book is available from the British Library.

Design by Scribe Inc.

First edition: December 2008

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Printed in the United States of America.

10.1057/9780230617209 - Fashioning History, Robert F. Berkhofer Jr.

For Sally

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Preface ix
Acknowledgments xiii
Part I Construing the Past as History:
Processes and Presuppositions
1 Historical Methods: From Evidence to Facts 3
2. Historical Synthesis: From Statements to Histories 49
Part II Comparing Histories: Forms, Functions,
Factuality, and the Bigger Picture
3. Texts as Archives and Histories 93
4. Things in and as Exhibits, Museums,
and Historic Sites 133
5. Films as Historical Representations and Resources 175
Afterword: The History Effect and Representations
of the Past 215
Notes 219
Index 259

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Understanding the past as history changes over time in how we know

about the past, what we know about the past, and what we think impor-
tant about the past. Historical practice over time as a result has its fash-
ions of method, interpretation, and meaning. Do new times bring forth
new answers to old questions? What do historians do today? How do they
know what to do? Why do they do it that way?
Fashioning History offers my report on the discipline of history in the
early twenty-first century as the historical profession tries to reconcile
long-standing approaches to evidence and synthesis with the challenges
posed in recent decades by the so-called postmodern critique of history as
a way of understanding the past and by the explosion of sources and his-
torical interpretations on the Internet and mass media. Each development
questions in its own way how historians identify and interpret evidence,
create arguments and histories, and give public meaning to the past.
Postmodern theorists questioned the very ability of historians to rep-
resent the past accurately or truthfully. As a consequence, such theory
seemed to undermine the very authority of the profession, and many his-
torians reacted initially with hostility. Few attempted much explicit accom-
modation. With the options and outcome now clearer after a few decades
of dispute, we can examine to what extent postmodernism actually influ-
enced the discipline and profession. This is not a book about what histo-
rians ought to do as some of my previous books argued but rather my take
on what they do practice today.
The proliferation of historical sources and histories on the Internet has
made the basic jobs of historians both much easier and more difficult
and, in my opinion, more needed. The rapid and ever-increasing digiti-
zation of documents and other historical sources on the Internet has
made the task of those who would infer the past from surviving evidence
amazingly easier than in the days when only visiting archives and other
repositories all over the world allowed access to the documents. At the

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x • Preface

same time the increased access to such documentation also multiplies

those who interpret such evidence without the training professional his-
torians receive in these matters. Such democratization of doing history
frequently challenges the long-standing rules of method and interpreta-
tion that were and are the common grounding of professional historians.
When the identification and interpretation of evidence and the creation
and critique of larger arguments and stories can be asserted by anyone
and everyone, what is the role of professional historians in testing the
accuracy of facts inferred from the evidence surviving from the past or in
evolving and evaluating the larger arguments, stories, and meaning given
the past?
Traditionally during the last century books and articles on what histo-
rians did was answered mainly in relation to other books, articles, and
learned editions of documents, which I have included among “texts” in
Chapter 3. Beyond their schooling, most people today learn about the
past from historical tourism or from television and motion pictures.
Chapter 4 discusses how historians curate and design museum exhibits
and manage and interpret historic sites of various kinds, based broadly on
what I have characterized as “things.” Not only do most adults gain their
knowledge today about the past from moving pictures and television but
historians increasingly appear on screen as well as advise on documentary
films and television shows. I discuss all these forms of moving visual
imagery under the generic term “films” in Chapter 5. By examining these
various types of history in relation to each other, we see better not only
what historical practice actually encompasses today but also recognize
more clearly the principles justifying and grounding historical practice in
general. Such comparison provides deeper insight into the general as well
as varied nature of history as a way of construing the past.
Because I treat texts, things, and films as equally valid approaches to
interpreting the past, I have adopted the awkward consumerist word
“products” as shorthand for all of these results collectively instead of
always listing individually the multiple forms histories take today. Thus
all kinds of histories are products, and conversely all products in this
usage are histories of one kind or another. Likewise, a single history is a
product just as such a product is called a history.
Historical methods and so-called methods books traditionally described
how historians should derive their facts from their evidential sources,
which were long equated mainly with texts. Even expanding methods to
cover researching facts inferred from material objects and moving and
other visual images covers only a small part of what historians must do in

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Preface • xi

producing a history no matter what its form. Historians must also orga-
nize or synthesize various and often intellectually contradictory compo-
nents into what they call a history. Thus I have devoted a chapter to the
elements common to histories as finished or synthetic products (Chapter
2) in addition to methods and the idea and uses of evidence (Chapter 1).
To indicate both methods and synthesis at times I have chosen the word
“processes” to go along with products to signify that various methods and
ways to synthesize exist. Moreover, I want to suggest by that word that
both historical methods and syntheses apply to things and films in addi-
tion to the usual texts.
In an attempt to offer my readers a chance to consider their own con-
clusions on the topics I discuss, I have adopted two rhetorical conven-
tions. I often pose a series of questions as a way of looking at a problem.
Although the book reveals my own answers to these questions in its orga-
nization and phrasing, I hope my rhetorical strategy affords readers an
opportunity to consider their own answers to the same basic questions.
Second, I try to present sides to an issue on (if not always in) their own
terms for the same reason so that readers have some basis for their own
conclusions. If nothing else, I want to suggest in my own efforts that fash-
ioning histories has its own fashions. In this way I hope to illustrate as
well as argue that the connections among histories as products, history as
an approach to the past, and historians organized as a profession are vari-
ous, dynamic, complicated, and perhaps problematic in the end.

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Intellectual and personal debts accrued while working on a book are

always pleasant to acknowledge. I owe intellectual debts to all the authors
cited (and often those unnamed as well), especially when venturing into
fields new to me. Most pleasant to acknowledge are debts that are per-
sonal as well as intellectual to Robert Berkhofer III, Martin Burke, Robert
Chester, Martin Dolan, Sally Hadden, Martha Hodes, Mary Sies, David
Shorter, and particularly to the late Genevieve Berkhofer.

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Construing the Past as History

Processes and Presuppositions

Fundamental to all aspects of historical practice is an idea of the past.
Crucial to any idea of the past is its very pastness: the fullness of what
once existed previously no longer persists as such in the present. That the
past cannot be observed today as it was once lived and experienced by
persons alive then poses the conundrum of understanding the past as his-
tory. How and what can we know of that past if so much of it is gone by
definition and experience? Thus understanding the past as history demands
assumptions about its nature, ways to study it, and how best to depict it
to a modern audience. Without a relatively clear idea of—or at least def-
inite presumptions about—the character of the past, historians and oth-
ers would not know what to look for, where to look, or what to do with
it when found. Thus a rich set of presuppositions about the past precedes
any research into it and exposition or representation of it as history. Such
presuppositions are the stock in trade of the professional historian.
Chapter 1 examines the research or empirical side of the historical
enterprise. Chapter 2 looks at the literary and artistic side of histories as
representations of the past as history.

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Historical Methods

From Evidence to Facts

lthough the past is gone, historians not only presume that the past
was once real but that they can comprehend what happened then
from those things postulated as surviving from the past into the
present. Even though the past no longer exists as such, historians main-
tain it can be inferred from such things as manuscripts, monuments, and
other material objects that exist in the present but have been accepted as
survivals from previous times. In particular, memories not only seem to
offer clues to past matters themselves but also justify the reality of a past
once existing as such. But texts and things and even memories do not
replicate the entire context of which they are presumed part. Thus histo-
rians must envision or postulate the larger context of the survivals they
study even as they explore them for clues to that larger world. Efforts to
overcome this hermeneutical paradox became known as the historical
method in the profession.1 The variety of techniques that come under this
rubric are considered the empirical or “scientific” side of what the profes-
sion does, according to many historians and other scholars.2

The Idea of Sources as Evidence

All such empirical historical research rests upon three fundamental premises.
First, the past actually existed: people in the past really did think, act,
and experience their own times as a living reality. Second, their thoughts
and activities resulted in a variety of artifacts at the time that have sur-
vived into the present. Third, these artifacts today offer both valuable
and valid clues to the actual thoughts, activities, and experiences of those
past peoples. The connections posited among these three presumptions

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4 • Fashioning History

allow historians to consider surviving texts and other artifacts as “sources”

or “evidence” for what past peoples did indeed do or think. Likewise, the
linkage presupposed among the three suppositions enables historians to
infer factual particulars, or what they call “facts,” about past persons,
activities, and institutions from these sources. Both the conversion of the
variety of surviving artifacts into sources and the creation of facts from
those sources have been the subject proper of books on what the profes-
sion calls the “historical method.”3
Historical method, although singular in professional use, embraces in
practice a multitude of techniques for converting survivals into, first,
sources and, then, facts. If the ultimate end of historical method is to pro-
duce facts, or more accurately statements of fact, then survivals only
become sources or evidence through inference or argument directed to
historians’ ends. To call a survival a source or evidence, even a “trace” or
a “remain,” presumes whole sets of assumptions orienting historians to
the past as a grounding for history, to identifying specific survivals as pos-
sible sources according to certain aims and current intellectual outlooks,
as well as inferring statements deemed facts from such sources.4 The term
“source,” therefore, packs a series of intellectual assumptions into a seem-
ingly simple operation that supposedly and seamlessly converts survivals
into information, then that information is considered as evidence for
something the researcher wants to know, and finally statements labeled
facts are extrapolated from that evidence. To unpack this series of opera-
tions, the first three sections of this chapter summarize the nature of sur-
vivals themselves, their identification as sources, and their customary
classification into primary and secondary sources for historians’ purposes.
The subsequent two sections examine what kind of connection particular
kinds of factual statements have to the evidence supposedly supporting
them. Last, I consider memories as reliable historical sources, clues to
providing context, and as history.5

Survivals from the Past

All the things around us are survivals from the past, but not all are of
equal interest to students of history. Mere persistence over time does not
make them “historic” or “historical” in the eyes of historians, and it is not
merely a matter of time and ancientness. Their historicalness, or historic-
ity in one sense of that word, depends upon their utility to historians or
others, and their usefulness in turn depends upon how well they fit into
some framework or context employed by the historians and others to

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Historical Methods • 5

understand the selected survivals. That framework or context derives in

turn from the desires and needs of the historians and their society and
culture. When the historical profession stressed political, constitutional,
diplomatic, and military history as the fundamental focus of any study of
the past, then the records, relics, and monuments produced by politi-
cians, generals, and others important in the stories of nation-states or
empires held greatest interest.6 The development of economic, labor,
intellectual, and social histories in the middle decades of the twentieth
century began a shift to the nonelite and common people, often in gen-
eral as a collectivity. The emphasis on feminist, minority, postcolonialist,
cultural, and microhistories in the last decades of that century continued
the trend towards the common people but reflected new interests and
produced new stories. In each instance, historians searched for new
sources or exploited existing ones with new as well as old methods and,
more importantly, questions.
Pictures, public buildings and monuments, coins, arms, and particu-
larly documents suggest the main kinds of records or materials tradition-
ally studied, just as censuses, photographs, films, electronic messages, and
everyday artifacts like garbage dumps and latrines suggest the newer or
additional kinds of materials investigated more recently. Letters, diaries,
newspapers, legal documents, government records, statues, coins, and
paintings were (and are) collected and preserved in public and private
libraries, national and local archives, and museums of all kinds. The chief
criterion for what was saved in general was thereby interpreted (and vice
versa) according to national or local pride in the statements and deeds of
great men and great families or stories of the nation state and nationality.
As historians broadened what they covered in their histories, so too did
they expand what was—or should be—saved for new stories of previously
uncovered persons, groups, or sectors of life in the past. (Of course, they
also mined the older, traditional materials with new questions.) Older
museums, archives, and libraries have expanded their collections, or new
museums, libraries, and archives were founded to include photographs,
films, electronic data, and more mundane artifacts. Historical preserva-
tion and reconstruction broadened from great government buildings,
military forts, and large private houses to whole towns like Colonial
Williamsburg in Virginia; factories in Lowell, Massachusetts, and
Ironbridge Gorge in England; suffragists’ houses and slum tenements; or
stops for slaves fleeing the Southern United States on the Underground

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6 • Fashioning History

So multiple is the number of survivals of interest to students of history

today that it is difficult to find any easy classification system of their
nature. Traditional classificatory systems mainly listed kinds of written
documents, while recognizing the worth of material artifacts to the histo-
rian. The American historian of France, Louis Gottschalk, in a primer on
historical method first published in 1950, covered almost exclusively
written testimony in his chapter on “Where Does Historical Information
Come From?”8 The British historian Arthur Marwick, in the third edi-
tion of his The Nature of History (1989), presents a comprehensive listing
of sources “relevant to all types” of historical research. In eight pages he
offers and describes a dozen categories of survivals: half of which are com-
posed entirely of written materials and four of which combine words, pic-
tures, and objects, for example, films, oral testimony, and inscriptions on
buildings and coins.9 Just two of his categories contain only unwritten
materials such as aerial photographs, artifacts, and observable practices
persisting from the past. In a 2001 introduction to historical methods,
early modern and medieval historians Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier
discuss briefly the “evolution and complementarity” of “source typolo-
gies.” They quickly cover the traditional narrative and literary sources
from diaries to newspaper articles; formal legal and juridical documents
whether court proceedings, medieval charters, or mortgage papers; and
such “social documents” as produced by governments, businesses, and
other bureaucracies old and new. Two-thirds of that section discusses
unwritten sources: archaeological, oral, photographic, sound recordings,
and electronic.10
The more comprehensive the lists and the more varied the artifacts
and media, the more difficult it is to find a classificatory system. Whether
traditional or more recent, these systems rest on dividing records and
writing from other kinds of remains and relics—in other words, between
texts of all kinds and other things. They also depend upon separating
texts from other kinds of media. Categories of artifactual survivals over-
lap in the following scheme, but the three groupings suggest implications
for where they may be found and how they might be used in research.
Physical/material objects versus textual. Historians have long referred to
physical survivals as “relics” or “remains,” while they referred to the texts
as “documents” or “testimony.”11 All survivals are physical objects or arti-
facts, but scholars of material culture separate the documentary from the
other physical artifacts. Buildings old and new, whether palaces or mod-
est cottages; capitols or other governmental buildings nationally or
locally; churches and schools and even museums themselves; factories,

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Historical Methods • 7

shops, and other businesses, all interest some historians today. Such arti-
facts of past everyday living as clothing, bottles, cooking utensils, tools,
and machines can interest today’s historians as much as weapons, coins,
monuments, and religious relics did yesteryear’s historians. Village and
city houses and streets as well as farm fields and fences gather as much
attention as battlefields and roads; railroads and canals as churches and
temples; jails as well as courtrooms; servant and slave quarters as man-
sions; slum tenements and immigrant ghettoes as suburbs. Even bodies,
bones, and hair now interest some historians as much as their anthropo-
logical and medical colleagues. Physical artifacts of all sorts are found in
museums of all kinds and historic sites, while textual artifacts are usually
located in libraries and archives.12
Written versus other media. The bibliographies of current histories like
those of older ones reveal that documentary remains still constitute the
largest category of artifactual survivals of interest to most historians.
These range from personal documents like diaries and letters to such pub-
lic documents as local and national legislative and court records, from
scribbled memoranda to local and national censuses, from signed essays
and editorials to anonymously mass-produced newspapers and pam-
phlets, from memoirs to treaties and maps, from inscriptions on ancient
monuments to codices. School records vary from pupils’ essays, university
syllabi, report cards, internal communications, and board minutes. Religious
documents include church membership lists, religious pamphlets, doctri-
nal statements, sacred books, sermons, hymnals, and official proceedings.
Business documents embrace bills, receipts, accounts, and contracts as
well as meeting minutes, stock certificates, and letters. Historians are always
delighted to find individual diaries, whether by housewife or midwife,
minister or parishioner, businessman or worker, professor or student,
government official or lawyer, general or soldier in any place and in all
Among unwritten media are visual and auditory materials that still
communicate directly. Pictorial artifacts have always been important to
historians, but the category has expanded from statues, paintings, draw-
ings, and maps to include photographs, films, and videotapes.14 Sound,
long lost to the historian, now includes audiotapes and other sound
media starting in the late 1800s, but these sources prove to be as fragile as
any manuscript.15 Oral history also in a sense conveys the sounds of the
past though recorded after the fact or in the present.16
Personal versus institutional. This categorization cuts across the previ-
ous two. It stresses the mode of production and distribution, both of

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8 • Fashioning History

which are relevant to their evidential use as sources. Personal artifacts

stress the uniqueness of their production, whether letter, diary, or artisan-
crafted object, and their probable lack of wide distribution. Institutional
artifacts betray their bureaucratic origins through their place in a filing
system or archive, or their frequently widespread, even mass, distribution,
whether coins, newspapers, or movies. Although past bureaucracies pro-
duced unique documents and other artifacts, such as a chancery letter or
church edict for example, the institutional is usually associated in modern
times with multiple copies of text or object, best symbolized by the mass
media and mass production. Mass media began with the printing press,
and mass production is a hallmark of the industrial revolution.17 Whether
a textual source is institutional or personal makes a difference not only in
how it is interpreted but also in how it is classified and organized in
archive, library, or manuscript repository. Similarly, whether a material
object is institutional or personal makes a difference in interpretation and
in what kind of museum or historic site.
This basic partitioning of all artifactual survivals into material objects
and documents, into unwritten and written materials, reflects a long-held
assumption in traditional historical method that texts contain their own
interpretations in a sense (and thus can be repeated with little or no inter-
pretation by the historian?), while material objects, such as tools, cloth-
ing, and landscapes, only yield their meaning through the historian’s
active interpretation. The latter require the historian to infer meaning;
the former offer their own through report, record, or testimony, and so
on. On one level of understanding, this is a truism. Communication is
direct in textual materials, indirect in other things. In a sense, documents
are already represented versions of the past, already interpreted by those
of the time in light of their categories and perspectives. Thus they appear
to present their information directly. Other artifacts only offer informa-
tion indirectly through inference and interpretation by the historian, even
in those cases when the existence of the object is taken to correlate with
the artistic or technological level of a population or indicate its social
organization and cultural values.
But to separate conceptually textual artifacts from other things, writ-
ten from unwritten materials, implies that one is more symbolic than
another for historians’ purposes when all survivals are “read” symbolically
to establish one or more contexts in the past from one or more contexts
in the present. Pragmatists as well as postmodernists agree today in theory
that all survivals are interpreted in one way or another, and all historians
concur in practice. Thus Howell and Prevenier define a source as “those

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Historical Methods • 9

materials from which historians construct meanings.”18 Statements of fact

therefore are always inferred, never found, even when they are repeated
from statements found in a source. Historians must always decide what
are valid facts for their purposes.
Even today, however, historians do not use all the artifacts persisting
from the human past because in general they still consider the more
recent millennia as their chief focus. Or, at least they still have not found
a context sufficient to interpret all that persists from human behavior in
the past, although archaeology and environmental history seem to be
stretching the old boundary that separated history from prehistory.
Conversely, much that historians might want from the past has not sur-
vived. Few or no events as such persist from the past, and even very old
persons remember only relatively recent parts of the past. Moreover,
many documents and other artifacts resulting from the thoughts and
activities of past peoples exist no longer. Those that do endure sustain the
idea of “traces,” “remnants,” “traditions,” and collective memories as sur-
vivals. In general, however, the older the period, the less material survives.
Wood and fiber products rarely survive from ancient times; stone and
metal artifacts more so. The materials of burial practices remain more
than farming practices, although the latter may persist in some places
from a not so recent past.19
The loss of relatively recent material happens even today to the cha-
grin of historians, for example, the fragility and disappearance of early
movies and sound recordings. Messages and Web sites on the Internet
prove even more evanescent than old manuscripts. Newspapers and pam-
phlets of the eighteenth century, for example, survive better than those of
the early twentieth century, because of the rag content in eighteenth-cen-
tury paper as opposed to the wood pulp and high acid content paper that
was used later in the nineteenth century. Similarly, books published
between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries are far more
vulnerable than those produced before or after those hundred or so years.
In the hope of preserving their books from that period, the Library of
Congress, for example, plans to deacidify 8.5 million of its 18.7 million
Modern technology has proved a mixed blessing in the historian’s
efforts to discover as well as interpret past survivals. On one side, new
technology provides new information about the past. Aerial surveys dis-
close old settlement patterns by tracing, for example, Roman roads in
Britain or the spread of Aztec cities in Mexico and beyond.21 DNA analy-
sis traces ancestry, most famously recently to test the two-hundred-year-old

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10 • Fashioning History

charge that Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children with his slave
Sally Hemings.22 The radioactive decay of carbon-14 or the comparison
of tree rings dates grains, buildings, and artifacts. And of course the com-
puter analyzes massive amounts of data faster and surer than the manual
methods of old. Technology moves so fast these days that it makes obso-
lescent popular applications of just yesterday. We no longer possess
devices to read old punch cards, hear older audiotapes, or read earlier
computer inputs. These obsolescent but very recent technologies now
pose problems of salvage as severe as any other preservationists face.23
Archives, libraries, and museums today face the modern dilemma of
too much material. On one hand, they command ever better methods of
storage and preservation. On the other hand, even the largest and richest
have space and money to collect and retain only so much. If too few
things survive from the long ago past, too many things are produced in
the present. The National Archives of the United States contained at the
end of the twentieth century 4 billion pieces of paper, 9.4 million pho-
tographs, 338,029 films and videos, almost 2.65 million maps and charts,
nearly 3 million architectural and engineering plans, and over 9 million
aerial photographs.24 Modern governments and other institutions are
generating too many records and other matter far too fast to keep and
store all of them. Should the state of Florida, for example, preserve or
destroy the nearly six million punch card ballots of the controversial 2000
presidential election that introduced the word “chad” into the vocabulary
of the average American voter as everyone waited for the recount and the
eventual close victory of George W. Bush? The Florida Secretary of State’s
office estimates that it will cost a quarter of a million dollars to move and
store the documents and another one hundred thousand dollars a year to
maintain them. 25
Historians assume that the many documents, buildings, pictures, and
other survivals from the past constitute but a small part of all that once
existed. Even most formal, written, and bureaucratic records no longer
survive let alone those of oral communications, informal interactions,
illegal activities (unless noted in court proceedings), and numerous other
human activities, including faxes and e-mails today. One Italian scholar
estimates that the ratio of lost ancient world texts to those that survive
today equals at least 40:1 but believes his figure is far short of actual loss.26
An English scholar of medieval history estimates that only about one per-
cent of the once existing documents of the era from 1066 to 1307 still
survive from that country’s past.27 Thus Louis Gottschalk writes of docu-
mentary sources in his historical methods handbook under the heading

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Historical Methods • 11

“Historical Knowledge Limited by Incompleteness of the Records,” “And

only a part of what was observed in the past was remembered by those
who observed it; only a part of what was remembered was recorded; only
a part of what was recorded has survived; only a part of what has survived
has come to the historians’ attention; only a part of what has come to
their attention is credible; only a part of what is credible has been grasped;
and only a part of what has been grasped can be expounded or narrated
by the historian.”28
With appropriate allowances for the exact nature of a given artifact,
Gottschalk’s lament applies in general to other kinds of physical artifacts
as to survival rate, the difficulty of contextualizing them, and their use in
interpreting and narrating history. Although historians cannot “create”
facts when no evidence from the past exists, they must and do “extrapo-
late” by educated guess from the presumed context of the existing sur-
vivals to cover the silence of the nonexistent. (Oral history can help fill
the void in more recent times.) In the end, even the documented must be
interpreted, and so we turn in the next section to the transformation of
survivals into sources.

The Identification of Sources

A fundamental goal of the historical method is to convert survivals of var-
ious kinds into what historians call “sources.” Sources provide the evi-
dence for the historians’ own representations of the past. From such
evidence historians derive the facts that support their statements about
the past and which they incorporate into their histories. According to
modern historical methods, sources are not found so much as identified
and isolated according to a historian’s research agenda. The conversion of
survivals into sources depends upon a set of assumptions governing their
relationship between their present-day existence and the role they pre-
sumably played in the lives and institutions of past peoples.
If historians must infer factual particulars from survivals, they need to
know that any given survival can be trusted to be what it represents itself
to be. If the artifact is fraudulent in some way, at worse a forgery or a fake,
it will cause historians to draw invalid inferences, hence to posit inaccu-
rate factual particulars about the past. Therefore, before historians can ask
what can a survival as source reveal about what happened in the past, they
must ask the prior question about whether any given survival provides a
reliable basis, that is, a trustworthy source, for their inferences of fact. Is
the artifact what it appears to be so historians can presume it a valid base

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12 • Fashioning History

for their inferences about the peoples and times of its production? In
other words, can the historian trust the document to be what it claims to
be or the material artifact what it seems to be in order to derive the fac-
tual particulars she declares? Are a document’s dates and authorship accu-
rate and its text the original one? Are the producer and the date and site
of production of a material artifact correctly attributed? To validate a sur-
vival as a useful source, then, presumes a division between the facts estab-
lishing the authenticity of the artifact itself as opposed to the facts to be
derived by the historian from the artifact.29
The techniques, traditionally considered the scientific basis of the pro-
fession, for validating artifactual survivals of all kinds as proper sources
follow from this methodological assumption of a division between the
legitimacy of a source as source and the nature of it as evidence for facts
about the peoples and events of the past. The techniques vary for these
purposes depending upon the form of the medium: whether charters or
censuses, buildings or diaries, paintings or photographs, coins or ceme-
teries, battlefields or agricultural field systems, oral histories or collective
memories. Or, they vary depending upon the date of the artifact and the
technology used to produce it.30 The basis of the appropriate technique
distinguishes essentially between whether the artifact is documentary or
textual in the broadest sense or is some other kind and form of material
object. An artifact, of course, often combines text plus significant mater-
ial aspects. Coins or monuments contain linguistic inscriptions and pic-
torial matter as well as form and materiality. Murals and paintings are
pictorial but also frequently symbolic or depict a story. Songs and news-
reels are verbal as well as musical or pictorial. Often sources from the
medieval and ancient worlds demand special techniques and skills pro-
vided by what were once called auxiliary or ancillary sciences such as his-
torical archaeology, numismatics (the authentication and dating of coins
and the deciphering of their inscriptions), diplomatics (the critical study
of official and other corporate forms of documents), paleography (the
study of the appearance and stylistic conventions for the dating, authen-
tication, and transcribing of medieval and other archaic handwritten doc-
uments), epigraphy (the study of seals and inscriptions on ancient and
later gravestones, monuments, buildings, and other hard surfaces), and
chronology (the study and reconciliation of different dating systems).31
But even more modern sources need special skills and knowledge to
detect forgeries and “read” images and maps.32
All the techniques have three or four main goals: attributing author-
ship of a document or the producer of an artifact; determining the date

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Historical Methods • 13

and place of its creation; ascertaining the authenticity of its form and/or
the accuracy of its contents; and perhaps deciphering its content. Such
deciphering may range from the translation of its language from one to
another or from an ancient one into a modern one or even from past
words and usage into their present-day equivalents—if such exist. A sim-
ple example would be those terms for material objects that no longer exist
and for which modern people can only guess at their function. (As for
example, a strip of bronze from a sixth-century English grave, which a
museum staff in 1988 labeled wittily “God knows–but we don’t.”)33 Many
modern documentary and other artifactual survivals are sufficiently clear
about their producers, times and places of production, and genuineness,
and so they pose little or no problem about serving as valid sources for the
historian. Historically, scholars developed many of the classic techniques
to cope with the problems posed by manuscripts, coins, monuments, and
other survivals from early modern, medieval, and earlier times. The gen-
eral implications of these methods alert all historians to the common
premises underlying this aspect of historical method and the resulting
uses of various kinds of contexts.
The most basic question about any artifact as source is always about
whether it is genuine or spurious? Is it by whom, from when and where,
and in the exact form it was originally? The most notorious examples of
false survivals, hence unreliable sources, are outright forgeries, frauds, and
hoaxes. Scholars developed modern documentary techniques for studying
medieval documents, with their profusion of forgeries. Scholars estimate
that from maybe ten percent to perhaps one-half to two-thirds of medieval
documents in some places, periods, and categories are forgeries or cor-
ruptions.34 The Donation of Constantine was perhaps the most historic
of these, for, one, it had real effect for seven hundred years in the history
of the Roman Catholic Church and, two, the exposure of its anachronisms
in 1440 is frequently credited with starting modern critical source analy-
sis. Supposedly an edict from Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to
convert to Christianity in 312 CE, the document gave the Pope domin-
ion over Rome, the Italian provinces, and perhaps the entire Western
Empire. Pope Stephen II used the document in 754 CE to challenge the
effort of Constantinople to diminish the authority of the papacy over the
Western Empire. Scholars assume the Donation of Constantine was pro-
duced in Stephen II’s chancery for that purpose. In 1440, Lorenzo Valla’s
analysis of anachronisms of style and reference in the document ques-
tioned its authenticity. Historians of historical scholarship and method

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14 • Fashioning History

often point to his and other philologists’ techniques at the time as the
beginning of modern critical documentary method.35
Artistic, textual, and other kinds of forgeries and their critical unmask-
ing appear in all eras from ancient times in both the Western and Eastern
worlds to the present. Textual forgeries range in time from ancient Greek
authors, for example the letters of Socrates and Euripides, to twentieth-
century dictators, for example the diaries of Benito Mussolini and Adolph
Hitler. The still popularly accepted tale of romance between Abraham
Lincoln and Ann Rutledge rests on forged love letters publicized by the
Atlantic Monthly in 1928. The Vinland Map, supposedly showing the
Viking discovery of America and depicting the continent for the first
time, still perplexes historians and other scholars a half century after its
donation to Yale University in 1957. If authentic, it would arguably be
the most valuable map in the world; if a forgery, as most now claim, it has
fooled many an expert for the last half century.36 Forgeries of letters and
other documents and artifacts will continue as long as money, political
influence, propaganda, religious, egotistical, and other purposes call them
Probably the most notorious and harmful forgery of the twentieth
century was the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, whose twenty-
four sections supposedly revealed the conspiratorial plans of a secret Jewish
government for economic, political, and religious dominion over the
world. Mainly plagiarized from a French satire on Napoleon III, the
Protocols culminated a century of anti-Jewish forgeries. The Protocols were
first published in Russia during the first decade of the twentieth century
but soon appeared in many languages after World War I to fuel the viru-
lent anti-Semitism of the times. The automobile maker Henry Ford pub-
licized the document in the United States. Hitler used it in Germany to
further the Nazi cause. The small book had been translated into at least
twenty languages by the end of the Second World War, and it is still in
print and on the Internet in this century. It was even the basis for a Ramadan
multipart special on Egyptian television in November 2002.37
Even past photographs and newsreels of past events were doctored for
propaganda or other purposes. Live soldiers played dead, and deceased
soldiers were rearranged and posed by some Civil War photographers to
enhance the effect of battlefield slaughter.38 In contrast, United States
authorities allowed no photographs of dead American soldiers to appear
in the mass media during the entire nineteen months of the First World
War and not for the first twenty-one months of the Second World War.39
Edward Curtis, the noted late nineteenth-century photographer of Native

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Historical Methods • 15

Americans, carried a trunk full of hairpieces and clothing to make his

subjects appear more traditional than they were when he photographed
them.40 A team of English filmmakers doctored a newsreel sequence of
Adolph Hitler in Paris as it fell to the German Army in June 1940 so as to
show him dancing in delight as part of a British propaganda campaign.41
Great as the problems of using yesteryear’s photographs and films as evi-
dence are, they pale before the possibilities of tomorrow’s computer-
manipulated simulation of past and present alike.42
Although not as bad for the historian’s purposes as outright forgeries,
but misleading in their own way for historical research are garbled, cor-
rupted, plagiarized, or ghostwritten texts. Corrupted versions result from
inadvertent mistakes while hand copying texts before the advent of print-
ing and intentional editing of texts by editors or publishers after that
time. The more copiers and the more times a manuscript text was copied,
the more likely words were misread or miscopied from the original. In
more modern times, the published version of an article or book may con-
tain heavy or light editing of the author’s words, so what the public reads
may be quite different from what the author wrote originally. Many mod-
ern political or other leaders neither write their own speeches nor com-
pose their own letters. Often some of the most memorable phrases in
modern political speeches are the handiwork of speechwriters. Although
the mechanical production of newspapers and magazines guarantees mul-
tiple copies all equally original in a sense, modern American newspapers
produce variant versions by geographical region (such as the New York
Times metropolitan and national versions), and magazines, thanks to the
computer, can vary advertising content by postal code. Likewise, motion
pictures may vary by format, length, and even some content from the
original version when shown on a television or Digital Video Disk.
Methods old and new, then, ask the same fundamental questions of
the survivals studied to establish them as authentic. What must we know
of any survival’s origins and subsequent history, its pedigree in a sense, in
order to trust it as a source? (1) What are its origins (genesis): who or
what, when, where produced? (2) What is its lineage (genealogy): origi-
nal, copy, copy of copy, and so on? (3) What is its history (provenance, in
one of its meanings): Where was it found? How was it found? Who found
it? Who preserved it and how (and maybe why)? How did it come to be
in the possession of its present owner? These questions elicit the source’s
chain of custody and what those links disclose about the authenticity of
its contents. Of course forgeries are their own kind of sources about the
times, places, and peoples of their creation. This history of origins,

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16 • Fashioning History

genealogy, and provenance can become its own source of data for the dif-
fusion and reception of an idea, memory, or myth.
The public associates such a pedigree most notably with paintings,
rare books, or antiques, where it is called a provenance or provenience.43
Art museums seek to know from experts whether a famous painting or
sculpture is by the artist, from his workshop or school of followers, merely
a copy by someone else in the past, or even a modern forgery. Whether a
painting or other art object is worth millions, much less, or nearly noth-
ing often depends on its placement in one of these categories. How much
the object is worth for the historian’s purposes, however, depends not
whether it is the original or a copy but whether it portrays its times accu-
rately. Thus much of what we know of Greek sculpture derives from the
Roman copies that have survived into the present. Rare book libraries and
manuscript collections try to ascertain whether what they possess is the
original author’s version, a later edition or copy, a facsimile, a corrupted
version, or even a forgery. (Hence the importance of the debate over the
Vinland map.) Once again, the historian’s purpose may be served well by
a copy that is assumed faithful to the original. This is especially true if an
original no longer exists, for then a facsimile or other kind of copy must
suffice. The manuscripts of the ancient world were particularly vulnerable
to decay, erasure, destruction, and random recopying. So, for example,
the oldest full version of Homer’s writings is a copy made nearly eighteen
centuries later. The writings of the ancient Romans Cicero, Livy, Pliny
Younger and Older, Virgil, and Ovid only survive as traces beneath later
Christian overwritings. Medieval monks copied the works of Plato as
consistent with Christian doctrine but not those of Aristotle, which come
to us through Arab copyists.44
A pedigree is more important for documents produced prior to print-
ing, because the repeated scribal copying, which preserved the text in the
first place, easily produced and multiplied errors in succeeding versions.
It was the printing press with its capacity for multiple copies of an “orig-
inal” that ensured the survival of some of them into the present. But even
here the press operator or other intermediary between author and audi-
ence may have edited the text or image from what the author or artist
intended. Of course, the purpose of many original documents and arti-
facts—old and new—was to mislead by misrepresenting matters. Thus
the document might be authentic, but its content is false to the facts,
whether intended to deceive an enemy in war or a population in peace-
time about policy. Regardless of kind, only a small part of past documents
and other artifacts survive into the present.

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Historical Methods • 17

Tracing the history of the artifact over the course of its career or life, so
to speak, ensures that the present-day document or material object sur-
vives from the claimed or purported time and place and results from the
purported or claimed producer. Such a pedigree allows historians to know
when and where, by whom, and probably how any given artifact was cre-
ated and, therefore, whether it can be trusted as a source from which the
historian can infer correct factual particulars about the times (and con-
texts) of its creation. The importance of a good pedigree for a document
even became an issue in recent international diplomacy after the destruc-
tion of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001. Questions
arose immediately after the release of the Osama bin Laden videotapes
about their authenticity. Journalists, television pundits, politicians, and
scholars all debated how the tapes had been obtained and by whom, who
had made them and when, and why they surfaced when they did. (Also
debated was the adequacy of the English translation provided by the Bush
administration and whether the tapes supported the contention of the
White House about Al Qaeda’s role in the destruction.)
One of the main businesses of museums, archives, and libraries is the
certification of the artifacts in their possession as genuine, whether picto-
rial matter of all types, manuscripts, books, maps, films, recordings, and
written records or material objects of all kinds. Such certification allows
historians to be certain of the date of creation, the authorship or producer,
and other details vital to the establishment of those artifacts as authentic
sources for deriving factual particulars of and for a history.
The most important function of museums, archives, and libraries is
the preservation that allows survival of past texts and other artifacts into
the present. Students of historical memory therefore see archives and
museums as sites of official and collective memory(ies). Officially, these
institutions are places designed for receiving records and other artifacts,
organizing and cataloguing them, and storing them safely and systemati-
cally for their retrieval and viewing. Unofficially, as many researchers dis-
cover, numerous documents and artifacts are not catalogued, their retrieval
is not as certain as hoped, and many artifacts remain in private hands out-
side these institutions. Although of recent origin by historical standards,
scores of motion pictures and sound recordings are lost, and many of
those remaining are in fragile or worse condition. We have even less of an
idea of how much electronic data has been saved, let alone created. (But
Google’s massive Internet scanning and storage may prove invaluable to
future scholars.)

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18 • Fashioning History

Museums, archives and libraries are not impartial preservers of past

survivals. Their guardianship of local or national heritage skews their col-
lections toward the concerns of those in a position to influence such deci-
sions or who pay for the acquisitions. Until recently art museums exhibited
the great and not-so-great (male) artists as defined by the Western tradi-
tion. This stance neglected women and minority artists as outside this
tradition—usually not even defining their work as art. Perhaps the
most invidious distinction is the division of art into the “prehistoric” kind
usually housed in natural history and archaeological museums and the
“historic” kind, especially European, displayed in “art museums.” Manuscript
repositories customarily preserved and perhaps preferred the documents
of the powerful and the upper classes. Even state archives reflected the
same biases in their collections, and historians thought this appropriate
when they concentrated on the history of elites so long traditional in the
discipline. As the British oral historian Paul Thompson graphically described
this bias, “The very power structure worked as a great recording machine
shaping the past in its own image.”45 To see how this principle worked in
a concrete physical setting, one has only to remark the survival of the
great Southern plantation mansions in the United States and the disap-
pearance of the slave quarters surrounding them.46 Even though muse-
ums, archives, and other repositories are trying these days to compensate
for previous biases by searching out new artifacts and documents, histori-
ans need always to remember to ask of all these institutions: what they
save or saved and why? What they neglect or neglected or destroyed and
for what reasons? Such questions hint at what data is missing from the past.

Primary versus Secondary Sources

Different kinds of artifacts require different kinds of techniques for their
validation, dating, authorship, and accuracy or authenticity, but the
major assumptions underlying these techniques are similar across medi-
ums and disciplines. Although the practitioners of oral history, documen-
tary research, visual image analysis, and historical archaeology may differ
in their specific methods, they share the basic critical methodological
assumptions for understanding and analyzing survivals as sources.47
Survivals become certified as sources through relevant questions, and
those are framed according to one or another presumed or postulated
context. These questions are traditionally discussed in the classic methods
manuals in terms of “external criticism” or in newer ones as “source criti-
cism.” External or source criticism establishes the authenticity of the survival:

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Historical Methods • 19

that it originated at the time and in the place (its when and where) it was
supposed to. It was called external criticism (as opposed to internal criti-
cism discussed in the next section) because that confirmation occurs
through operations external to the artifact itself, usually through compar-
ison with the same or similar kinds of artifacts. Though the object of analy-
sis is the document, the context of that analysis depends how it fits in
with other texts, or its intertextuality as literary theorists call it. Negatively,
external criticism looks for, among other things, anachronistic words in
texts or objects in pictures, anomalous paper and canvas or other medium
and material, and variation of its general appearance from others of its
kind. Positively, it proposes a date for the undated, attributes authorship
if anonymous or wrongly signed, and places it in a tradition of form and
content if that is not clear from the artifact itself. Since the latter are attri-
butions, such placements have proved wrong at times.
The main goal of all these techniques from the viewpoint of historians
is to warrant that artifactual sources are really contemporaneous to the
times of their production, because historians prefer to work from such
“original sources.”48 They believe those sources coming most directly from
the times they are researching offer the best clues to those times. Historians
emphasize this preference in their research by distinguishing between
what they call “primary” as opposed to “secondary” sources. Primary sources
are those documents and other things both from and about the times
being investigated. Secondary sources are those referring to matters and
times earlier than their own time of production. In that sense all history
books are secondary sources (except for a history of history-writing), but
so too are historical re-enactments, documentary films, simulated arti-
facts, and virtual computer images of past texts, artifacts, peoples and
places. Such a distinction always depends upon the question asked, for
what is a secondary source for one question may be a primary source for
another question, but this is a topic for the next section on facts as state-
ments about particulars. Conversely, that a single source can be both pri-
mary and secondary shows the importance of using contemporaneous
evidence in historical research that applies to the question asked.
Even many sources historians accept and use as primary may be sec-
ondary in a technical sense. In traditional historical methods manuals,
only eyewitness, that is, actual witness as opposed to hearsay, accounts
constitute original or primary sources. Were they written down at the
time of occurrence or only later from memory? What if the source is a
report of rumor or hearsay? Newspaper accounts? Are the court records or
legislative journals verbatim transcriptions from stenographic or sound

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20 • Fashioning History

recordings, or merely summaries of what occurred? Memoirs or autobi-

ographies, even though written long after the events they chronicle, may
recount matters for which there is little or no other evidence. For lack of
better survivals about these matters, all these latter kinds of documents
could, might, and, often, must serve as primary sources. Even though
removed from the persons or events reported, they are closest to what is
represented or reported. Thus, although not original in the sense of being
contemporaneous, they become primary in terms of what is to be known.
Historians also accept as primary sources such hybrid materials as pho-
tocopies, facsimiles, microfilms, published editions of manuscripts, and,
increasingly these days, digitized versions of texts and artifacts. Such
hybrid materials save the researcher much time and money and allow a
more deliberate study of the materials than a hasty visit to archives, rare
book library, or museum. Increasingly, these repositories do not allow
study of the originals in order to save them from the deterioration wrought
by too many researchers physically handling them. (The Manuscripts
Division of the Library of Congress, for example, allows only a very select
few researchers to handle the actual letters of the Founding Fathers as
opposed to copies.) Although clearly not the actual sources themselves,
these copies can be accepted if they are good faith and, even better, accu-
rate, reproductions of the original sources. Even so, the researcher must
ask of each such reproduction just how much interpretation the editor or
compiler employed to produce the copy or edition.49
The present state of many artifacts, buildings, ships, and landscapes
illustrate the problems of understanding such hybrid sources. How should
one understand reconstructions and restorations as opposed to the origi-
nals of such material objects? Many wooden ships and buildings, for
example, have been replaced part by part so that almost nothing original
remains, but still the ship or building is accepted as the original. For
example, both the HMS Victory, Lord Horatio Nelson’s flagship at the
Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and the USS Constitution, better known as
Old Ironsides as a result of a War of 1812 battle, lay claim to being the old-
est commissioned warships afloat, and both have been so totally recon-
structed that they are essentially mere replicas of their original wooden
selves.50 A historic garden is a good example of replacement accepted as
original, but many of the plants have necessarily been renewed, trimmed,
or replaced. No matter what the ideal mode of preservation preferred by
professionals, no restorer today is likely to paint the Great Sphinx and
ancient Greek statues, for example, in the bright colors they wore origi-
nally. On the other hand, many a grimy painting today is restored to the

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Historical Methods • 21

supposedly vivid colors the artist intended. The brighter colors of the
restored Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo and the most recent attempt
to save the deteriorating Last Supper by Da Vinci provoked widespread
criticism. Da Vinci, for example, used a quite unstable medium for his
masterpiece, finished in 1498. Restoration began already in 1726. Each
of the nine subsequent restorations tried to undo the mistakes of the pre-
vious one. Each of the restorers attempted to preserve what they thought
Leonardo had intended. All contributed their own touches more or less to
what we still call the original. The most recent restoration lasted twenty
years, and some scholars question whether the brighter colors are consis-
tent with Leonardo’s vision or achievement. They accuse the restorer of
repainting rather than restoring the masterpiece.51
Even supposedly unrestored monuments and buildings no longer
appear as they did to people who constructed them due to the ravages of
time and human intervention. Of course, the greatest difference between
the originals in the past and their existence now is the changed context in
how they are seen, heard, and, in general, experienced today. Those who
would preserve battlefields fight the encroaching sights and sounds of
modern civilization, whether the threat is tall buildings, communication
towers, amusement parks, or modern highways. The very surroundings
that earlier people developed as part of a living environment are now con-
demned as unhistorical and are removed in order to capture the supposed
past as interpreted by nostalgia, historians, politicians, or tourist boards.
Colonial delegates used the Pennsylvania State House, or what is now
called Independence Hall, in Philadelphia to declare their independence
in 1776, and others drafted the Constitution there during the summer of
1787. Moderate size skyscrapers now dwarf it, and modern traffic noises
and tourists now surround it. To build the Independence National Historical
Park around the buildings, almost all nineteenth-century buildings were
torn down, including some considered architectural landmarks in their
own right. In other words, all the historical fabric that had grown up
around the building was removed in the name of restoring the original
environment. Yet only some of the contemporary structures surrounding
the historic buildings were reconstructed to give the visitor a sense of the
late eighteenth-century urban environment. The park itself contains
empty but once occupied spaces and such alien buildings as the Liberty
Bell Pavilion, National Constitution Center, and the visitor orientation
center.52 Even documentary filmmakers must search out built environ-
ments without the paraphernalia of electric wires, anomalous buildings,
and modern inventions. A 2002 documentary miniseries on Benjamin

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22 • Fashioning History

Franklin used locations up and down the eastern seaboard for historic
buildings and landscapes to portray his American experience of the time
but had to look to Lithuania to find eighteenth-century urban exteriors
free of modern buildings or inventions to depict his years in London and
Paris.53 Tourists, of course, are their own kind of context; over a million
persons a year visit Colonial Williamsburg for example.
The most important of the post hoc contexts historians use is know-
ing the future of the past and therefore the outcome of past persons’
beliefs and actions. Not only do historians know now what diplomats
thought then would follow from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand
in 1914, but they also know how the First World War ended and what
followed thereafter. And the same is true for the discovery of radium and
the invention of dynamite. At the same time, much of what happened in
the past and the reasons for those events, and so on, are lost to us because
the sources do not survive. So we both know more and know less than
those persons of the past knew.54 Divided by city-state or country, by eth-
nicity or religion, by class or gender, by education or association, let alone
by era, past persons saw events through their own perspectives. Thus all
sources come to the historian through some perspective. Just as universal
omniscience is denied to persons in the past, so too is it denied to histo-
rians. Even if the future of the past is known, it must always be depicted
from some point of view.
The assumption of one or more kinds of context allows the historian
to first collect survivals relevant to a research project and another context
or two to interpret them as sources for that research. As Howell and
Prevenier remark, all sources are “read” both historically in light of the
context of their past existence and historiographically in light of how the
historical profession looks at and understands the materials today.55 In
line with this admonition, we must also remember that the historian is
just the most recent person to interpret the documents and artifacts.
What the historian of early modern times Peter Burke observes of docu-
ments in general applies to all sources (with allowances for the specific
kind): “It is impossible to study the past without the assistance of a whole
chain of intermediaries, including not only earlier historians but also the
archivists who arranged the documents, the scribes who wrote them and
the witnesses whose words were recorded.”56 This observation is broadly
true of specific museum exhibitions and even their general collections:
from producer of artifact, through successive owners, to its acquisition by
a museum, through successive winnowings of selection or deacquisition,

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Historical Methods • 23

until interpreted as part of a “permanent” exhibition or saved as part of a

general collection, until the next round of selection, and so on.
At the heart of historical research therefore lies a certain circularity of
reasoning about the relationship between past and present through the
study of these surviving artifacts as sources: survivals or traces found in
the present tell us about the past just as the past is made known to us
through these survivals and traces. For this circularity to achieve its
methodological ends, historians use context in several ways. First, histori-
ans use currently accepted historical knowledge and interpretations to
provide one or another kind of context to “read” these present-day survivals
as clues to the past they postulate and hope to describe. They, in short,
must have some idea of what they are looking for and whether they have
found it. They gain the basis for doing this from the context of current
interpretations and knowledge. Second, historians organize the facts they
elicit in the present from these survivals according to some context said to
operate in the past. They presume some kind of a context created, so to
speak, the survivals, and, in turn, those survivals will yield through study
that self-same context. In that way, such a context not only organizes the
data about the past but also gives meaning to those facts adduced from the
survivals studied. In these ways, the overall context of historical method-
ology and modern methods presumes the context (intertext) of current
knowledge to understand the traces and data of the past in order to see
them as (and in) context in order to produce further knowledge about
the past or to correct that knowledge. The penultimate context for such
factual derivation therefore is the consensual and traditional practices of
the historical profession. The ultimate context is, as neopragmatists, Marxists,
and many traditionalists alike point out, the society (and culture) that
both fosters and polices the historical genre by how it supports archivists,
museum curators, historians, and other specialists as professionals.57
The assumption of the historical method that artifacts assumed to
come from the past can now reveal how the once living lived presumes a
peculiar kind of relationship between past and present peoples and, in a
sense, vice versa. To what extent must historians presume that past and
present peoples think and act similarly in the same basic situations in
order to derive facts according to the historical method? But is such an
assumption the temporal equivalent of ethnocentrism? Or, should histo-
rians assume that the past is a “foreign country,” but then how do histo-
rians escape the temporal equivalent of solipsism that follows such an
approach to the otherness of past peoples? Naturally, historians prefer a
middle path between these extremes, but where that lies may depend

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24 • Fashioning History

upon how long ago the historical actors lived or how different their cul-
ture was. It is not clear how well either memory or social tradition can
bridge quite different eras. This suggests the hypothesis that the farther
away in time and/or culture, the more difficult the reconciliation between
past and present; the closer to our time and culture(s) the easier the his-
torians’ task. The basic conundrum is clear, its resolution far less so. The
proliferation of historical techniques and the multiplication of so-called
auxiliary sciences and disciplines are meant to alleviate if not solve these
dilemmas. In the end, as we shall see, the past and the present are always
linked through contextual assumptions—often with some metanarrative
as intellectual foundation or ultimate context.
In the end, then, what converts survivals into sources are the questions
asked of them and the postulated contexts used to judge the answers
about their credibility, authenticity, and utility. As a consequence, there
obtains no one-to-one correlation between any given survival and its
interpretation as a source, because one survival can be interpreted in mul-
tiple ways and, therefore in effect, as many sources. For a similar reason,
no one-to-one correlation obtains between a source and the facts inferred
or hypothesized from it. As we shall see in the next two sections, a source
can yield through interpretation multiple facts, and, conversely, a single
fact can be developed from many sources.

Facts as Re-presentations
The ultimate goal of the historical method is to produce facts about past
persons, their ideas and actions, their experiences and institutions, and
the events involving them. The working assumption—some postmod-
ernists might say prevailing myth—of historians is that their productions
rest on an empirical basis of factuality. That factuality is presumed to con-
stitute the accuracy of history and therefore its truthfulness. That truth-
fulness is both produced and warranted by the techniques of the historical
method. Thus the factuality, accuracy, truthfulness, and methods of his-
torical practice all depend upon one another in both theory and practice.
In fact, many, but especially traditional, historians argue that the whole
historical enterprise, and therefore the theoretical nature of history itself,
should and can be understood only in light of its empirical practices.58
The relationship between assertion of fact and use of evidential sources
can be divided into two broad categories. The first, covered in this sec-
tion, I label “re-representation” or “re-presentation” for short, because the
historian repeats, that is presents again, one or more statements (to whole

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Historical Methods • 25

arguments and stories) that she accepts as factual just as given in one or
more sources. The second, treated in the next section, I label construction
because the facts (let alone arguments and stories) need not only to be
inferred but developed—that is, constituted—by the historian from one
or more sources. The basic distinction between re-presentation and con-
struction, then, hinges not upon how simple or general or how concrete
or abstract the factual statement adduced but whether it comes directly
by way of quotation or paraphrase from the source or sources or indirectly
by interpretation and development from the source or sources. Re-pre-
sentation always implies the possibility of comparing the text or other
artifact with a verified, authentic original. Without the possibility of such
comparison, an alleged copy or simulation must be considered a repre-
sentation constructed by the historian. Both depend equally upon infer-
ence and interpretation by the historian. Both represent the past as
history. Representation, however, is the more inclusive term. All re-pre-
sentations are representations, but representations can take many forms
other than re-presentation.
If the historian re-presents factual statements originally recorded,
reported, or otherwise presented in one or more sources themselves, then
the sources must be presumed to communicate such statements in the
first place. This approach explains why historians traditionally studied
sources that were testimonies or reports, or at least documentary or tex-
tual in a general sense. Classic methods manuals developed rules particu-
larly for this level of historical practice.59 If testimony and reports are to
constitute the foundation of re-presentation as a historical practice, then
the documentary sources must be as authentic, as trustworthy as possible
in the first place. Only after the pedigree of a document or other textual
survival establishes it as authentic can historians investigate it for the par-
ticulars it can reveal as a source for their goal of re-presenting facts about
past peoples’ ideas and beliefs, activities and behavior, institutions and
experiences, events and transformations.
Such re-presented facts can range from statements about simple phys-
ical and behavioral manifestations to abstract, symbolic constructions,
from, say, uncomplicated plain everyday beliefs and activities to compli-
cated imagery and social events to complex statistics and poetry. If exter-
nal criticism asks whether a source can tell us what it claims to or seems
to represent, then internal criticism inquires what a source can tell us
about the past that we want to know. If the task of source criticism is to
establish the trustworthiness of the source, especially documentary, then
the job of internal criticism is to extract the factual particulars from it. If

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26 • Fashioning History

external criticism seeks to establish the factual basis of the document,

then internal criticism seeks to derive historical knowledge from it.
Historians’ dependence on the author or other producer of a docu-
ment or text for the discovery, validity, and authority of their information
led to a set of basic rules in traditional historical methods manuals.
Although these rules were meant to apply to constructed as well as re-pre-
sented facts, they seem particularly appropriate for the latter, especially
since the source can be quoted or paraphrased. The rules sought to answer
as best possible: who (or what in the case of institutionally produced doc-
uments) knows best and how and why.
The most fundamental rule was summarized in the stress on original
or primary as opposed to secondary sources. The more the text was pro-
duced at the time by someone or some group who witnessed or partici-
pated in the event, the better the evidence and the more probable the
historian could trust (and repeat) the facts stated. So a basic rule looked
at the degree of removal of the testimony, report, or other document from
the specific place and time of the event. Was it firsthand eyewitness
knowledge, secondhand hearsay, thirdhand information, fourthhand spec-
ulation, or further removed? Was the testimony, report, or other text pro-
duced by someone or some group at the time, a little later, or much later?
In all instances, but particularly in these latter ones, is the report or testi-
mony consistent with other sources? Do different documents report the
same fact or set of facts? Ideally, corroboration depends upon two or more
independent witnesses, but historians are often lucky to have one witness
to an event.
Another set of maxims deal with how good a witness or reporter was
the producer of the document. These maxims query the witness’ credibil-
ity, reliability, and authority. How competent was the witness to under-
stand and report the event, to ask the right questions about it, or come
from the right social group to best comprehend matters? What were the
witness’ biases in the matter and in whose favor? Did the witness have
personal interests or purposes in the matter or in views of the matter
itself? Did the witness desire to please a certain audience then or later?
These rules assume certain conditions are more favorable to credibility:
the testimony or report was a matter of indifference or, better, prejudicial
to the witness; the matter was common knowledge at the time; the mat-
ter was purely incidental or even contrary to the expectation of what the
witness usually says or does. Last, what of the style of the document and
what does it tell the historian about the credibility of what is expressed in
the contents? Was it satire, pathos, or other literary form that may not

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Historical Methods • 27

mean what it seems at face value? Does the document follow standard
conventions used in letters, laws, reports, or treaties at the time? The sen-
timents of letters and diaries often follow the conventional sentiments
and formulas, so to speak, of their time. Thus they reveal more of what
was expected at the time (which is valuable too) than report what the
individual may have actually felt.
Such rules eventuated in a hierarchy of documents based upon their
time of production, the size of the intended audience, their private versus
their public nature, and, of course, the accuracy of their rendition. These
maxims are expressed as probabilities or what is more likely to be the case
in any given instance. First, contemporaneity to the event is valued over
subsequent production, because it is assumed that the closer the testi-
mony is to the event the better it is remembered. Thus letters, diaries, and
newspaper reports from the time are thought more likely to be accurate
and better testimony than memoirs and autobiographies written long
after, especially if they are ghostwritten. This seems true of memories and
oral history too.
Second, according to these rules historians preferred private and con-
fidential letters, reports, and dispatches to public ones, because the rules
presumed the smaller in number and the more discrete the producers and
consumers the more likely the testimony was not slanted for public con-
sumption. (But what of slanting for an audience of one, especially a pow-
erful or influential person?) Thus letters of all kinds, whether business,
political, family or otherwise, whether addressed to one or a few persons,
are considered more likely to reveal what actually happened and why than
newspaper reports, public speeches, or other medium directed to a large
or mass audience. For the same reason, a private diary is preferred to a
published memoir and a confidential military or diplomatic dispatch to
general information released to the public, even though the diary entries
may be highly conventional in their expression of feelings or formulaic
according to the standards of the document or time.
Third, the accuracy of the testimony is assessed. Is it as close to what
was said, thought, or experienced at the time? British parliamentary pro-
ceedings, for example, were secret until well into the eighteenth century.
After that time what records of the debates were published were sum-
maries by reporters. The British House of Commons only supported a
“substantially verbatim” record of their proceedings beginning in 1909.60
Although in the United States the House of Representatives opened its
galleries to the public including reporters from its founding and the Senate
a decade later, not until the establishment of the Congressional Record in

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28 • Fashioning History

1873 was a “substantially verbatim” record kept of the speeches and debates
in the two chambers.61 Did and do public opinion pollsters receive the
unvarnished thoughts of their subjects, and do the aggregated opinions
projected from sampling procedures represent how the “public” perceives
something? Autobiographies and memoirs often embody the combined
thoughts and talents of the subject and the ghostwriter. Who writes a let-
ter signed or a speech delivered by the president of the United States, or,
for that matter, any major leader around the world today? These prob-
lems plague all historians’ use of documentary materials but are especially
important to those seeking to repeat, paraphrase, or otherwise re-present
facts from documentary sources.62
Re-presentation of evidence as fact limits the nature of the sources to
texts that can be understood like testimony. Material objects without
writing, for example, even when their very existence is taken as indicative
of a fact about the nature of a society or culture requires the historian to
infer that fact (such as coins and commerce, palaces and power, or weapons
and war). Thus objects in museums, for instance, need labels at a mini-
mum, if not lecturers and booklets, as noted later in Chapter 4. Even
though such texts as poetry, songs, novels, and other creative and sym-
bolic materials can be reproduced by the historian, they only become re-
presented facts through the historian’s interpretation.63 Similarly such
visual materials as paintings and photographs can also be reproduced, but
the historian needs to provide the facts they are said to prove. Oral histo-
ries and memories only become textual evidence through the intervention
of the historian or someone else in the first place, but they can be quoted
or paraphrased as fact. And of course the existence of a textual source
rarely proves facts about its reception at the time and certainly not later or
by whom.
Louis Gottschalk declared that the primary purpose of the historical
method is the derivation of factual particulars.64 According to him, histo-
rians should investigate documentary sources not as wholes but for spe-
cific answers to the classic questions of who, what, when, where, and how
(and maybe why). Although historians may pose the questions when re-
presenting the facts, they expect and, more importantly, accept and repro-
duce the answers given as such in the document itself. To re-present facts
as given in an authenticated source means that the historian agrees with
and therefore accepts what is presented in the document at face value.
The more facts historians repeat as given in the document, the more they
tend to adopt the actor’s or actors’ points of view or ways of understand-
ing the matters under study. At its most inclusive, that means the historian

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Historical Methods • 29

adopts the document’s point of view of who are the actors, what took
place, where it occurred, how it happened, and maybe even why. The
more historians re-present the facts as given in the document, the more
they allow the historical actors to define the situation, to frame the ques-
tions, to explain the matters at hand, and also, most likely, to shape the
overall point of view on the matters.
Thus, the re-presentation of facts works best in those cases in which
historians seek to offer actors’ views of matters. Explanation proceeds by
intention, desire, and motive as actors describe, understand, or profess to
understand events. The historian acknowledges that how the histori-
cal actors understood social categories and groupings, social and physical
environment, culture and politics describes matters best and most accu-
rately. Thus factual re-presentation worked well for discussing elite goals
and actions in the old political, diplomatic, military history. It also serves
well in the newer cultural and microhistory as shown in such classics as
Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century
Miller and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s, Montaillou: The Promised Land of
Error.65 But there is a fundamental problem with using the views of a sin-
gle social group, whether subaltern or dominant, whether oppressed or
elite to represent matters. Without extreme care, the actors’ orientations
and presumptions can all too easily become the historian’s own way of
looking at these matters. Even the mere quotation of a view can imply the
historian shares it as the correct and accurate one. For example, what if a
historian quotes at some length a source disparaging French Canadian
colonists, African American slaves, or Native American males as “lazy” in
her book as if she accepted that biased description as her own and correct?
Recent attention to the histories of racial and ethnic groups, women,
gays and lesbians, subalterns or other subordinated persons caused histo-
rians to search out new documentary sources. The new documentary
sources could now be investigated for factual particulars not found in the
traditional documentary sources produced by the elites in a society. At the
level of re-presentation, though, this still means the acceptance of the
facts as presented in the sources themselves.
In recent decades, these re-presented facts about minorities were
added to the sum total of historical information. As a result, these facts
challenged general interpretations of the nature of society as presumed
previously by most professional historians. If questions convert sources
into facts, then multiculturalism changed the questions asked of old
sources as well as fueled the search for new sources. It also provided new
kinds of contexts in which to ask and answer those questions. This challenge

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30 • Fashioning History

is better explored in the next chapter on historical synthesis with its focus
on explanation, generalization, story, argument, perspective, and meaning.
As these considerations remind us, newly accepted facts can contradict
old facts, challenge generalizations, and perhaps even revise older inter-
pretations. The most obvious and elementary rebuttal occurs when one
derived factual statement discredits another. Somewhat more compli-
cated is the challenge of a new fact or facts to a generalization. In this
sense, the factual particular proves useful as a check or test of others’ gen-
eralizations. While a compilation of many facts may not prove a point,
just one well-chosen fact can disprove a generalization. Still more compli-
cated is the revision of prevailing interpretations through questioning the
previously asserted and accepted facts and offering newer, presumably
more accurate factual statements. I suppose that is the hope and remedy
expressed in the phrase “sovereignty of the sources, tribunal of the docu-
ments.” 66 The phrase implies that even a complicated synthesis of facts,
argument, viewpoint, and moral outlook can be tested as a whole by sim-
ple recourse to the facts. Interestingly, however, proof of inaccurate
statements or disputed facts need not overturn a historical synthesis by
themselves, since an interpretation or synthesis is much more than just
the sum of its inferred factual statements as we shall see in the next chapter.
It is at the level of factual re-presentation that the empirical founda-
tion of historical practice, hence history, seems most evident. But even in
the re-presentation of the most rudimentary facts, the historian must
interpret the sources’ interpretations. At the least, historians must under-
stand the language of a documentary source, including the possibility
that the text is a satire in which the words do not mean what they appear
to. A good example of whether a statement should be read as satire is pro-
vided by Benjamin Franklin’s comments on the possibility of the colonies
forming a union in a letter to James Parker, March 20, 1750/1: “It would
be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be
capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union, and be able to execute
it is such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissolu-
ble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen
English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advan-
tageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of
their Interests.”67 For many years that sentence was interpreted as anoth-
erexample of Franklin’s penchant for irony, but recent proponents of the
significant impact of the Iroquois Confederacy on (white) American ideas
of federation accept the statement as not only justified and prophetic but

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Historical Methods • 31

also as utterly sincere and serious in spite of its prejudicial reference to

“ignorant Savages.”68
The problem of translation extends from interpreting the words of one
language into those of another to interpreting from the conceptual cate-
gories of one time into those of another. That words and concepts had
different meanings in their own context from how historians had long
understood them is the argument of Quentin Skinner and others reclaim-
ing the supposed meaning of tracts and debates in early modern European
political thought.69 Thus even elementary re-presentation of the facts
from a document must surmount the hermeneutic conundrum of the
historian translating from how actors interpreted matters in their time
through their own views and viewpoints to how the historian can under-
stand actors in the past through today’s views and viewpoints.70 That such
translation occurs guarantees the necessity of anachronism to smaller and
larger degrees in historical practice.71
How and what did actors understand as the appropriate context of their
thoughts and actions, and how and what can current historians understand
and re-present of that context? Must the historian share social and cul-
tural traditions and maybe even language, customs, and politics with past
peoples in order to interpret past artifacts and records? If the past is really
different from the present, to what extent can the present-day historian
use re-presentation as a means of expositing that past for a modern day
audience? To what extent do the contexts of today determine what of and
how we today understand the past, and vice versa? Even though the con-
texts of past thoughts and actions give meaning to them, it is the contexts
of the present that must provide understanding of those earlier contexts.
The role of living tradition both helps and blinds us at the same time to
past contexts. It provides context to past documents and artifacts that are
still in use or at least recognizable. But tradition also blinds us to past texts
and objects by making them seem familiar when they are not necessarily
so, as recent arguments in intellectual history and political theory show
about the words of John Locke and others.72
Even at this basic level of factual re-presentation, documents are read
in light of accepted history in spite of the admonition of historical
methodologists, for the assessment of valid particulars is as much a func-
tion of current professional knowledge of a period in general as what is given
in the source. Where do the questions asked of the documents come from:
within or outside the documents? If inside, then the historian risks
accepting the author’s viewpoint as her own. If outside the documents,
then what provides the context? First, that context may derive from the

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32 • Fashioning History

historian’s knowledge of events from the future of the time studied.

Second, that context comes from the history profession at the time of the
research. Sources are always read from a historiographical context that
poses certain standard questions and screens certain answers as plausible
about a period or set of events. Last, collective memory and heritage shape
and influence the questions and answers, even if negatively. These prob-
lems arise even when the historian quotes or paraphrases the sources.

Facts as Constructions
Historians also construct factual statements fashioned from one or more
sources. A history, no matter how short, is obviously constructed, but so
too are many or most of the facts comprising such a history. Any resort to
more than one source for any matter other than simple corroboration
(that is, the same fact across sources) of a re-presented factual particular
involves the construction or constitution of factual statements. Any fact
not repeated or paraphrased from a source is constructed, and even para-
phrases may be constructed to a smaller or larger extent. The two kinds of
facts, but especially those constructed, always depend for both their cre-
ation by historians and their acceptance by other professionals and the
public alike on the framework used to derive and interpret them.
Factual statements have to be constructed for all nontextual sources,
for the historian must develop their meaning through interpretation.
Material objects and even visual artifacts do not yield their factual infor-
mation without the historian’s inferences. Although some persons profess
to believe that material objects “speak for themselves,” the presence of
labels if not more elaborate interpretive aids in museums suggests the
opposite. Even if the artifact itself is taken as direct evidence—a direct
correlate—of what it is said to prove, the historian must still construct the
facts. Historians take the very existence of a network of roads, aqueducts,
railroads, airports, or Web sites as indexes of technological skill and bureau-
cratic organization. The distribution of coins and the nature of artifacts
map the extent of commerce and trade routes. Censuses, court records,
and legislative proceedings prove governmental organization by their
existence as much as by what they say. Body and building ornamentation
like murals and paintings signify certain artistic techniques and taste.
Poems and stories suggest cultural premises and moral values. The nature
of the medium can disclose a great deal about its producer if not always
its consumer. Handwriting in a document, for example, can reveal a lot
about the author: quavering strokes might signify age or condition of health;

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Historical Methods • 33

spelling and grammar might demonstrate level of education.73 Maps not

only show an image of the landscape and even the world but also suggest
navigational skill, trade routes, printing skills, political power, and cos-
mology among other things.74 That historians take the very existence of a
source to prove factual points relies ultimately on the context constructed
by the historian to interpret the evidence in that manner.75
To the extent that historians reject any one document’s or set of textual
sources’ versions of facts, be they presented as testimonies, reports, obser-
vations, summations, explanations, statistics, stories or otherwise, the more
they must resort to the development, that is, the construction of facts
through inference, analysis, interpretation, or other means from one
or more documents. Historians are forced to resort to constructions of
fact or facts in several instances common in documentary research. If
sources disagree on a fact, then the historian must either select one ver-
sion to re-present or construct a fact by inference and interpretation.
Comparison of variations among sources may suggest the best version for
re-presentation but more likely it results in a constructed fact. A fact may
be created by inferring it from several sources.
My study of the Ordinances in the United States Articles of Confederation
Congress from 1784 to 1787 creating separate territories and eventually
self-government for them in the area between the Ohio and Mississippi
Rivers used all these methods of construction to arrive at the facts. Almost
no letters or legislative debates exist to provide motives or reasons for the
changing proposed ordinances over time. For many of the changes, there-
fore, we have only the bill itself reported out of committee. Sometimes
the only alteration in a bill was the word “district” being replaced by “ter-
ritory.” That the word “territory” replaced ultimately the initial word
“colony” and then “district” indicates, I believe, that the politicians of the
time thought they had originated a new kind of colonial system that gave
the inhabitants equal status eventually with the original states in the
Confederation, even if they had to recapitulate the sequence of the thir-
teen states from colonies to independent states. Thus the reasons for the
modifications must be inferred or constructed rather than re-presented.
I concluded from the scanty evidence that the first scheme of gover-
nance usually ascribed to Thomas Jefferson was actually first proposed in
outline before he arrived to take his seat in late 1783. He did flesh out the
nature of government, and he particularly named and bounded the even-
tual states. However, Jefferson’s own proposal for the location and size of
the new states-to-be violated the maximum size specified in his own
state’s cession to the new United States of its claims to this region in the

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34 • Fashioning History

first place. I arrived at this conclusion by measuring his proposed states’

boundaries against a map of the time with which he was likely familiar
and might have used himself.
Last, in a more controversial proposition, I argued that the evolution
from initial dependent territory to full-fledged statehood in the final
Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was not as different politically from Jefferson’s
1784 Ordinance as other historians had long argued. They portrayed
Jefferson’s plan of self-government in the beginning stage as liberal in
keeping with the Progressive school’s interpretation of the man himself,
while denial of self-government in the first stage in the final 1787 Ordinance
was characterized as conservative just as was the Federal Constitution of
that year compared to the Articles of Confederation of 1780 in their view.
I hypothesized rather that the two documents may not have been as dif-
ferent in Jefferson’s eyes as Progressive historians argued, because he had
not discussed any changes very much in his usually voluminous corre-
spondence. Moreover, he never mentioned the change in governance as
such. Whether such negative evidence proves my contention is debatable,
but these disputes show that the facts derived from such scarce evidence
rely more on the political views and historiographic school of the histo-
rian than empirical extrapolation. If nothing else, it is clear that scarce
sources point to the constructed nature of most historical facts derived
from them.76
Historians commonly reconstrue the facts already interpreted in a
document to create different or new ones. The most obvious reinterpre-
tation occurs when there is great difference in cultures, worldviews, and
standards for behavior between the historian and the producer of the doc-
umentary evidence. The greater the difference between past and present
persons, the more obvious to historians is the bias of the sources. Past
documents can be good sources for the values and actions of their authors
but less so as they describe or categorize the values, activities, and institu-
tions of the others observed in the source. Facts about these matters may
therefore be re-presentations or constructions. Such documents, however,
may be poor sources for the thoughts, experiences, and at times the
behavior of the others described in them, particularly when dominant
people depict those subordinated in a society or when those of one “cul-
ture” describe those of another. In such cases of past obvious bias, for exam-
ple, against slaves, witches, and aboriginal peoples from today’s viewpoint,
historians prefer to reinterpret the sources in light of modern-day stan-
dards and sensibilities. Thus so much history about the discriminated

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Historical Methods • 35

against, the subordinated, and the subaltern comes from constructed facts
about them according to a modern as well as past context.
In line with modern-day sensibilities in these and other instances, his-
torians infer or postulate, then, quite different facts to describe who,
what, where, and how or to explain the why than given by the authors of
those primary document(s) seen as biased. Historians today, for example,
must sort out what they accept as facts from the assumptions about racial,
ethnic, and other inferiorities so long the context in which so many doc-
umentary sources were produced. This reinterpretation applies most
obviously to ethnic, racial, gender and minority groups, because so often
elites, oppressors, or others dominant in a situation or in a society pro-
duced the sources. Postcolonial histories, subaltern studies, and the pasts
of native peoples until recently rested mainly on such constructed facts.77
Construction of facts through reconstruing past evidence often comes
into play when describing the aggregate actions, values, social groupings
and categories by social class and other methods common to social analy-
sis today. Although the British political historian Geoffrey R. Elton
thought such theory contaminated, even concealed, the facts from the
past, each historian must nevertheless construct or at least construe how
any given past society worked and what were its parts. Such analysis may
not be the explicit goal of the historian’s research, but her facts will pre-
sume these categories. The historian must be particularly careful about
assuming that persons in the past would act just like those in the present
when faced by a similar situation.78
Construction also results from historians using modern-day statistical
analysis to provide new data about a past society. Often such analysis
results in facts about a society that its citizens may have experienced but
did or could not describe or report in their documents as such. Economic
historians, for example, create previously unknown statistical facts about
the degree of unemployment, the impact of international trade, or the
gross national product. Social historians construct statistical facts about
social mobility, the literacy rate, and the social background of participants
in voluntary associations or riots. Demographic historians construct birth
and death rates or age at time of marriage. Political historians use statisti-
cal analysis to determine the presence and role of political parties in the
electorate and the government or the issues salient to voters. Such statis-
tical analysis not only generates new facts but also new explanations of
past phenomena different than the people at the time may have con-
ceived. While documents from the time are utilized in such analysis and
some past observers may have given the same generalizations and causes,

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36 • Fashioning History

modern-day statistical and other kinds of analysis allows denial or confir-

mation of those facts given at the time or provides new ones.79
As these paragraphs suggest, a good many constructed facts result from
the levels of abstraction and synthesis used to give content to social cate-
gories. Many generalizations about groups of persons, sets of events, insti-
tutions, societies, and other collective subjects are examples of constructed
facts. A notorious example is social class, but others are ideologies and
moral values. Although these constructed facts may be derived from a sin-
gle document, they usually are developed from several or more. Statistical
descriptions, for example, may re-present what is given in one or more
documents, but more likely they are constituted from an analysis of many
sources. Statistical analysis aggregates and analyzes data in many individ-
ual documents to produce facts about general matters.
Facts are obviously constructed when they describe what past peoples
could not have known explicitly in the same way as a modern-day histo-
rian does. Perhaps the most important type of this reconstruing comes
from the historian knowing the future of past actions and beliefs. That
historians know the future of the past enables them to have post hoc pre-
dictive powers. They know how plans and actions, economic cycles and
political movements turned out. Such knowledge allows historians to
construct facts about the unintended as well as intended consequences of
aimed-for actions. Sometimes historians quote or paraphrase documents
by later persons describing the effects, particularly in the so-called old
political, military, and diplomatic history. In the newer social and politi-
cal history, the historian derives the effects of past demographic and eco-
nomic trends, electoral cycles and legislative coalitions from a multitude
of documents through sophisticated techniques. Other, usually later,
sources may mention one or another effect, but the historian needs to
look specifically for differential effects on specific sectors of the popula-
tion. This is the domain of reader formation, reception and audience
response theory.80 Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers
in Chicago, 1919–1939 (1990) describes, as part of her general story of
mass production workers and the labor movement, how African Americans,
Mexican Americans, various immigrant groups, and poor white Southern
Americans each reshaped mass culture to their own purposes in the 1920s
and early 1930s.81
If the hazard to the historian of re-presented facts is adopting the
source’s viewpoint on matters, then the risk of constructed facts is substi-
tuting the historian’s viewpoint for that of the source as the basis of the
fact. Both kinds of facts, however, result only from questions put to the

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Historical Methods • 37

sources. Those questions are framed according to the historian’s purposes,

social theories, explanatory models, understanding of human affairs,
social and cultural traditions, and what the historical profession endorses.
The resulting facts, or more precisely factual particulars, are of various
sorts depending upon what the factual statement refers to, how it refers to
it, and what the nature of the supporting evidence is as found in the sources.
If one were to conceive of factuality and truthfulness in historical prac-
tice on a scale of how much and closely the evidentiary sources are used
to make assertions of fact, then at one end are factual particulars given in
the source itself. At the other end of the scale are complex, summative or
classificatory statements developed from many sources. The English Civil
War and American Revolution, for example, are both “facts” in the sense
historians use that term. Facts on that level, however, embrace a myriad of
other facts about battles won and lost, generals’ plans and soldiers’ actions
in the field, the behavior of wives, politicians, merchants and others at
home, and millions of other facts, and they in turn rest on countless other
facts. Even to ask what was revolutionary about the events of each revo-
lution elicits still other facts as answers. 82
Historians consider all these many kinds of statements factual and
truthful in their way, but the way matters greatly and varies widely in his-
torical practice. And, of course, all depend upon one or more contexts of
use and understanding. They may, and more probably do, depend on
some social theory or model of explanation or even some interpretation
or moral or political purpose, but that is left to the next chapter. Whether
offered as descriptive, explanatory, or interpretive, all such statements,
however, are proffered as (and believed to be) factual in historical prac-
tice. All are considered part of historical knowledge.
As we move from facts about specific, concrete matters to facts as sum-
mative statements, classificatory terms, and abstract matters, even though
all are based (more or less) on empirical evidence, we can begin to see why
historians argue over what is a fact and what are the facts in a specific case.
Some facts are agreed upon by all (professional) historians. These facts, on
the whole, are those corroborated by many documents and are re-presen-
tations of what is given in those documents or easily inferred according to
professional standards. These are so accepted as true that no one goes
back to the documented sources. Historians accept as historical facts that
Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, that French citizens cap-
tured the Bastille in 1789, that George Washington became the first pres-
ident of the United States in the same year, and that the Berlin Wall fell
in 1989. These facts mark what historians consider still other facts: the

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38 • Fashioning History

end of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of the Roman Empire;
the end of the ancien régime and the beginning of the French Revolution;
the end of the Articles of Confederation government and the beginnings
of the federal government under the United States Constitution; the end
of the cold war and the beginnings of whatever the post–cold war era will
be called. Such second order statements are recognized as facts by profes-
sional practice and social custom and are therefore considered knowledge.
These second order facts may be constructed but they are considered fac-
tual and therefore true to the past.
Some statements about the past are considered true, that is factual, by
only some historians. Such facts are more likely to be constructed than re-
presented, because of the greater degree of interpretation needed to estab-
lish the fact. Historians might differ over which documentary evidence is
pertinent, what the evidence really means, and what statements are there-
fore factual. Differences among historians over the truths of such facts are
likely to sort according to interpretations, schools, theories, or methods as
we shall see in the next chapter.
Whether a document can and should be accepted at face value illus-
trates well this point and its associated problems. Historians can agree on
the authenticity of the document as such but disagree over how to inter-
pret it factually. The two proclamations, for example, issued by the
English king Charles II at the end of the 1676 Virginia rebellion that was
associated with the name of Nathaniel Bacon receive quite opposite treat-
ments by the standard authorities on the subject. Wilcomb Washburn
argued in 1957 that the proclamations “designed as propaganda leaflets to
aid the governor in breaking up the rebellion, placed a price on Bacon’s
head, but promised pardon to all his followers who would lay down their
arms within twenty days of its publication.”83 Both an earlier authority
Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker and later Stephen Saunders Webb accept
the documents at face value.84 To them the king indeed was more lenient
than the vengeful Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley. The reader of
these three experts can only conclude that their differing versions of these
two documents depend, first, on their appraisal of the character of the
two protagonists, Berkeley and Bacon, and, second, on the larger inter-
pretive context they use to understand all the relevant documents.
Washburn favors Berkeley over Bacon and excuses all his actions, no mat-
ter how vindictive they appear. In this case, he defends Berkeley’s own
more vengeful proclamation condemning the rebels by devaluing the
King’s more lenient proclamations as propaganda. Wertenbaker por-
trayed Bacon as the “Torchbearer of the Revolution,” as one of his books

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Historical Methods • 39

is titled, because he saw the rebellion as prelude to the American

Revolution. In line with this grand narrative of the growth of American
democracy, he sides with Bacon as a democratic forerunner and depreci-
ates Berkeley as an aristocrat opposing democratic advances. Hence
Wertenbaker sees Berkeley’s own proclamation as furthering aristocratic
ends even if it meant disobeying the king’s orders and proclamations.
Webb places the events of 1676 in an imperial context, in which the
English officials were trying to consolidate a more centralized and bureau-
cratic imperial administration—“the end of American independence,” as
his subtitle puts it. Thus they oppose Berkeley’s longtime goal of operat-
ing a Virginia independent of the crown and mainly for the benefit of the
governor and his followers. Berkeley therefore saw the king’s proclama-
tions as furthering stability in a rebellious colony, which the governor
sought to undermine in order to continue his own independent exploita-
tion of the colony’ inhabitants and resources. In each historian’s case, his
larger interpretive perspective governed his reading of the document and
whether to accept it at face value. In all cases, the facts were constructed,
and, in Washburn’s instance, his view even undercuts any reason to re-pre-
sent any statement found in the document as factual.
Whether re-presented or constructed, the credibility of all facts depend
upon three general sets of contexts. One set comprises those contexts
derived from professional training and traditions. Another set revolve
about those attributed to various past societies and cultures. Still another
set includes the reception of facts by various audiences in the present.
These are interconnected in practice. Thus one person’s generalization is
another person’s fact. One person’s fact is another person’s hypothesis.
Some statements about the Washington Monument in the United States
Capitol illustrate the relationship among these contexts.85
All historians and their audiences accept the following statements as
fact and therefore true. The Washington Monument in Washington, DC
(to distinguish it from other monuments erected to him in the United
States) is a 555-feet, 5 1/8-inch tall neo-Egyptian obelisk. The object
itself is a survival that can be measured, but the attribution of its neo-
Egyptian style comes from historical knowledge of its documents and
context, partly a re-presentation and partly a construction. That the
twelve-ton plus cornerstone was laid July 4, 1848 and the one hundred
ounce aluminum cap was placed December 6, 1884, are statements re-
presented from the documents. Likewise, that it commemorates George
Washington as the commanding general of the Continental Army during
the American Revolution and first president of United States under the

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40 • Fashioning History

new federal Constitution comes from the tradition of its name and, more
importantly, from generally accepted acknowledgment of the facts.86
Most historians and many of their audiences would accept as true and
probably a fact that the obelisk erected to him is a phallic symbol. Some
might even say that this is appropriately ironic given that Washington
could father a country but not children. The first fact owes its inspiration
to the theories of Sigmund Freud. The second is an inference from the
absence of records about any children with Martha Washington, even
though the documents reveal she had two children with her first husband.87
Fewer historians and probably fewer of their audiences (especially
males) might accept as true that for Americans to call George Washington
the father of his country perpetuates the patriarchal myth that oppressed
women throughout United States history. That Washington is called “the
father of his country” is documented tradition. That this is a patriarchal
myth and that it oppressed women throughout American history depends
upon a feminist interpretation of American history.88
Almost no historian but perhaps more of the audience accept as true
that the monument points upward toward Heaven where Washington has
resided since his earthly death. The factuality of this statement presumes
a particular interpretation of the Judeo-Christian belief system. The pro-
ponents of this statement as fact believe that the elevation of the monu-
ment indicates or symbolizes a pointing upwards. This belief in turn
hinges upon an anthropomorphic interpretation of the obelisk: elevation
represents direction. They of course assume the location as well as the
existence of heaven. The denial of such an interpretation, let alone as a
fact, shows the secular assumptions underlying modern historical knowl-
edge and even interpretation. Of course, the east face of the capstone con-
tains the words “LAUS DEO,” but this is an artifact of the 1880s. So
what evidence is this pro forma statement either of what was believed at
the time of the monument’s origin or now? 89
As these various statements suggest, historians cannot separate the
establishment of a fact from its creation according to some framework of
interpretation. Nor can they split the acceptance of a factual statement
from the context provided by an audience, whether other professionals or
members of the larger public. To separate facts from interpretation is to
misunderstand and misrepresent what historians do and can do. Both re-
presented and constructed facts use contexts and interpretation in their
own ways. Many historians also argue that facts cannot be separated from
one’s ultimate values and beliefs. The production of factual statements is
the culmination of the historical method, but it is only the beginning of

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Historical Methods • 41

fashioning histories. Factual statements, whether re-presented or con-

structed, are among the elements synthesized into histories, which is the
subject of the next chapter.

Memories as Sources, Context, and History

Memories are a special kind of survival. Our memories seem to give imme-
diate access to the past. Moreover that impression of the past grounds and
warrants our certainty that the past once really existed. Such a common
sense existential notion of the past as real justifies ultimately both the pro-
fession of history as an intellectual enterprise and the historical method as
its chief technique.90
People’s memories provide evidence about earlier events, customs,
thoughts, and traditions. Some memories seem just like any other form of
testimony about the past. In fact, historians have long used memoirs and
other documents produced by individuals remembering events, activities,
and attitudes from their own past. Oral history interviews of those who
were famous or infamous add to the customary historical data about past
lives, activities, organizations, movements, or events. In practice, the dis-
tinction between primary and secondary sources and the maxims employed
to evaluate and develop the facts from secondary sources handled these
forms of memory like other evidential sources. In this use of memory,
such testimony supplements other forms of documentation.
Some memories provide information obtainable in no other form
about the past of an individual, group, or society. Oral historians query
workers, soldiers, women, minorities, and other members of the subordi-
nated and exploited for the view “from the bottom up” or “from below”
in order to get a glimpse of the past otherwise undocumented. Museum
and historic site curators discover the uses of tools, objects, and other
material artifacts from those who used them or at least remember how
they were once used. By such means they gain knowledge about obsolete
machines and tools, antique toys and games, and once common house-
hold artifacts and practices.91 Museum curators and archivists also find
invaluable at times the information supplied by informants who remem-
ber neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, and schools no longer in exis-
tence. At times, such memories help provide a larger context for museum
exhibits and historic sites. Documentary filmmakers include individuals
to give firsthand accounts of their previous lives or times as a way of
adding authority as well as authenticity, information as well as interest, to
their movies and television shows.

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42 • Fashioning History

Memories also perpetuate traditions and customs and venerate the

verities of a group’s or society’s heritage as people commemorate what
they at present believe best or most important about their past. Today
some museums or other repositories even collect memories to remember
experiences of those events too horrendous to leave to the ordinary forms
of written history. Such collections of memories are meant to guarantee
that such sacrifices were not in vain and will not disappear with the death
of those who experienced the events they recall. Forgetting is not an
option in this urgency to remember the evil horrors of the past and pro-
pels much of the recent emphasis on the importance of memory in schol-
arship. Such uses of memories raise the problematic relationship between
memory and history and exemplify the difficulties of applying the tradi-
tional maxims of evaluating sources as evidence for facts.92
To students of memory, everything seems based on it—personal iden-
tity, culture, gender, ethnicity, and nationality as well as heritage—because
everything not of the present moment is from the past and therefore a
memory or depends upon a memory. Such an approach to memory
absorbs all other kinds of study and is too imprecise for the use of the his-
torian. To students of history, memory is at best a source, although it also
serves as context for historians and heritage for others. If everyday experi-
ence tells us memory of the past can be vivid, it is also warns us that mem-
ory is fallible as we forget. As fundamental and elemental as memory
seems to the historical enterprise, it poses problems as survival and source,
resource and context, heritage and history.93
One major problem stems from memories being both personal and
social. On one hand, all memories are those of individuals about their
lives, families and friends, neighborhoods, regions and nations, rituals
and places of worship, professions and occupations, schools and school-
ing, military service, ethnicity and gender, and a multitude of other mat-
ters. That almost all memories are shared by at least some other persons
and often by many in a society poses problems of description as well
as explanation for the scholar of collective memory. Even most immedi-
ate individual memories and their local contexts are social: family, friends,
neighborhood, workplace, church, school, and military camp. But even at
this level do all the participants share the same memories of the same
events let alone of a longer past? That peoples’ memories of matters, fre-
quently the same matters, so often vary by the person’s age and genera-
tion, social class and organizational position, place and time, ethnicity
and gender among other contexts suggest both their social dimension and
the problem of descriptive aggregation. Hence whether a person is a general

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Historical Methods • 43

back at headquarters or a soldier in the field, a grandparent or a grand-

child, a boss or a worker, a master or a slave, a patrician or a proletarian,
in one ethnic group or another, a member of an old aristocratic family or
a new immigrant, a nurse or a housewife, a politician or a professor, a
priest or a poet, a suffragist or a nun makes a difference in memories, oral
recollections, and folk and formal histories.94
Even more difficult to describe and explain are memories seemingly
shared by all within a society or culture. Yet it is these collective social or
public memories that have most fascinated historians and other scholars
in the last few decades. According to Pierre Nora, the editor of a seven-
volume compendium of scholarly essays on French sites or realms of
memory, such “lieux de mémoire” are “specific objects that codify, con-
dense, anchor . . . national memory.”95 They can be immaterial as well as
material, for he includes mottoes, festivals, speeches, treaties, customs,
flags, and holidays as well as commemorative monuments, palaces, cathe-
drals, cemeteries, school textbooks, national founding documents, paint-
ings, and archives among the many such sites. According to Nora, these
sites embody and reinforce as they trigger and represent the past in the
popular consciousness. Such memories are cultural to the extent they are
shared and constitutive of a culture to the degree they comprise and per-
petuate the collective identity of those said to share it. They are historical
both in the sense they survive from the past and they symbolize the past
of (and to) a society.
In pursuit of the mechanism and medium of cultural or collective
memory, scholars have studied a wide variety of social phenomena: pub-
lic holidays, rituals of all manner sacred and secular, school lessons and
texts, commemorative parades and ceremonies, patriotic monuments and
memorials of all kinds, street and other place names, museum exhibitions
and heritage displays, preserved or restored old buildings and towns,
jokes and popular songs, children’s stories and television programs, and
visual and verbal objects of all sorts that exemplify as they prompt mem-
ories (so-called mnemonic memory). Today television is one of the great
mnemonic memory generators. As a result of its dissemination then and
its frequent repetition later of the collapse of World Trade Towers on
September 11, 2001, people across the globe instantly recognize the scene
when played. Of course the differing interpretations of that event across
organized groups and nationalities hints at the difficulty of generalizing
about what a supposedly collective memory signifies to different persons,
let alone what it shows about popular historical consciousness.96

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44 • Fashioning History

The profusion of terminology in the field indicates the disagreement

on how best to describe let alone explain such phenomena. As the several
terms—collective memory, social memory, public memory, national
memory, official memory, vernacular memory, countermemory, and even
at times the older terms remembrance and myth—all suggest, the prob-
lem revolves around who shares what and how. As the various terms
imply, some differences result from the varying assessments of who cre-
ates the memories and how, who perpetuates the memories and why, who
uses the memories for which purposes, and what are the traditions and
modes of representation by which they are transmitted.97 Thus, for exam-
ple, notions of national and official memories presume they are shared
throughout a society, though the latter probably originates from govern-
mental or other bureaucratic sources. Vernacular and countermemories
suggest that memories are situated in differing social sectors and may
derive from an oppositional impulse to the national and official ones.
Students of social or collective memory agree that present-day concerns
screen the memories of the past, that many past events are not remem-
bered by social groupings, that memories serve present-day political and
other purposes, and that such memory is objectified because it is public
and therefore intersubjective. Just who shares and how is open to argu-
ment but memories are always mediated by time, space, cultural values,
and social position. In that sense and way the problems of description and
explanation in collective memory are no more or less problematic than
most other inquiries into social and cultural phenomena.
Another major problem concerns the connection between collective
memory and history, or more precisely, the relationship between histori-
cal scholarship and popular or vernacular historical consciousness. Whether
collective memories of past matters agree with historians’ interpretations
of those places and times is once again an important—and open—issue.
Once upon a time not so many decades ago, memory and history were
considered opposites in goal and reliability. Historical scholarship was
thought to describe the past as it really was, while collective memory
imagined a past that never existed as remembered. Historians proved such
memories all too often to be merely nostalgic or even mythical in the
sense of being false. Pierre Nora asserted, for example, that history and
memory are in “fundamental opposition.” He declared dramatically in
his 1984 introduction to Lieux de Mémoire, “Memory is life, borne by liv-
ing societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution,
open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its
successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation,

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Historical Methods • 45

susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on

the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incom-
plete, of what is no longer. . . . At the heart of history is a critical discourse
that is antithetical to spontaneous memory.”98
Compare the similar distinction historical geographer David Lowenthal
makes between “dead” history and “vital” heritage in Possessed by the Past:
“[H]eritage and history rely on antithetical modes of persuasion. . . .
Heritage exaggerates and omits, candidly invents and frankly forgets, and
thrives on ignorance and error. . . . Heritage is immune to critical reap-
praisal because it is not erudition but catechism; what counts is not
checkable fact but credulous allegiance.”99 History employed documen-
tary analysis because living memory of the past was extinct or disappearing.
However, with the modern disbelief in standard grand narratives of
progress, or other grand narratives, to provide a larger context for heritage
and the seeming postmodernist reduction of so much historical scholar-
ship to textual representation, the gap between memory and history nar-
rowed in the opinion of many scholars. As historical representation
becomes more invented and fictive according to postmodernist assump-
tions, collective memory becomes another important form of representa-
tion of the past. Scholars study how memories come about and are shaped
and transmitted in the hope of learning how societies come to understand
their past. Thus historian of recent Germany Wulf Kansteiner defines col-
lective memory as “the result of the interaction among three types of his-
torical factors: the intellectual and cultural traditions that frame all our
representations of the past, the memory makers who selectively adopt and
manipulate these traditions, and the memory consumers who use, ignore,
or transform such artifacts according to their own interests.”100 The ulti-
mate question about collective memory as heritage is how and to what
degree popular historical consciousness fashions the past even in profes-
sional histories. (Of course, individuals’ memories of historic events offer
valuable evidence for historians through oral history.)
To what extent do the social and temporal positions of individual his-
torians in relation to collective memories of their time shape their histo-
ries? Those claiming to be the 1960s generation prefer to remember those
times and their generation more favorably than those coming before and
after. From the clashing experiences of the 1960s come the contending
memories of that and other generations as they all age.101 Many historians
from that generation distrust big institutions, public or private, national or
international, and all huge processes, whether the global spread of capitalism
or mass media (usually depicted as working in union). They therefore

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46 • Fashioning History

frequently prefer the local and transnational over the national and inter-
national, countermemory to the official version, and even the people’s
experience and memory over long- dominant formal histories in the pro-
fession. While older historians in the United States still enthusiastic about
the possibilities of politics, as manifested in the New Deal for example,
trusted modern liberalism and the national government, a younger gen-
eration of historians condemned that liberalism for the actions of the big
state it justified and the warfare, racism, gender inequality, and continu-
ing poverty it allowed, or even fostered.102
Thus a historian’s individual autobiographical or shared collective
memories offer a resource that provides personal guidance for measuring
what is factual, plausible, and moral in the documented past. On one
side, postgraduate seminars often question what the aspiring historian
had learned as official memory in elementary and secondary school and
perhaps even in college. On the other side, historians bring their own
family, social class, political, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, regional, national,
and other experiences to the formal training they receive in graduate
school. These memories may challenge prevailing professional knowledge
and interpretations. In that sense, family traditions and vernacular mem-
ory may act as counter-memory in a historian’s life and work. Surely some
of the reason for the rise and popularity of oral history must be ascribed
to efforts of historians and others to counteract official memory as repre-
sented in earlier twentieth century histories with the experience and
knowledge embodied in the vernacular memory they possessed, whether
of workers, women, or subalterns. Perhaps the greatest influence of back-
ground as opposed to professional training may show in what a historian
accepts as realistic and ethical in a history. That Armenian and Turkish
histories still differ over the 1915 massacre of Armenians, or Japanese and
Chinese histories over the so-called Rape of Nanking, Hispanic and Texan
memories of the Alamo, or Irish and English accounts of Northern Ireland,
for example, shows the influence of background and tradition versus pro-
fessional training in the production of histories as well as memories.103
Continuing social traditions and “living” collective memory provide
historians and their audiences with a context for understanding the past
as history. When memory and tradition are shared by historian and pub-
lic alike, there seems little need to describe and less need to explain those
institutions, customs, languages, societies, cultures, governments, economies,
tools, weapons, and other things still used and shared. Living memory, for
example, provides a ready-made context for understanding past artifacts
no longer used in the present and customs no longer prevalent. Whether

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Historical Methods • 47

and how much living memory is required to understand a past society

was raised provocatively many decades ago by a president of the American
Historical Association. He suggested to loud dissent that American histo-
rians who came from families of recent immigrants and were reared in
cities could not really understand the rural and Protestant lives of English
colonists in what became the United States.104 What experiences and
background enables a historian to cross religious faiths, gender bound-
aries, racial groupings, ethnic cleavages, and quite different cultures is a
matter of controversy.
As social traditions change or become extinct and memory becomes
weak or nonexistent, the more the historian must approach the past like
an anthropologist in a foreign land. Without living memory and contin-
uing social tradition, the more the historian needs to imagine a context to
make sense of the documentary and other artifactual survivals in order to
understand the past as history. That context is generated by formal train-
ing to interpret documentary and other remains through the historical
method. Those once living documents, monuments, and other sites of
memory are studied now for what they reveal about how past peoples
imagined and represented matters: to embody communal values; to exem-
plify virtue; to offer warnings and lessons; to legitimate practices and
institutions, to provide self and/or collective identity. Commemorations,
memorials, and other forms of collective memory now become sources to
be interpreted as representations by a past society of its then present and
That both collective memories and professional historical interpreta-
tions have their own histories, then, complicates their relationship to each
other and their uses in understanding the past. The question of continu-
ity or discontinuity of tradition and memory between a given past, a later
point, or now (or vice versa) is posed starkly in the idea of invented tradi-
tions: those rituals and other practices purporting to be ancient in origin
but actually recent in creation. Many such invented traditions arose to
create and support a collective identity, like the Scottish Highland tradi-
tion, the rediscovery of Celts, the cult of Shinto in Japan, or Confederate
flags and other symbols. Other traditions sustain the hegemony of a mod-
ern national state, like British royal pageantry, the French Joan of Arc
Day, or the American Thanksgiving and Memorial Days. The discovery
of such invented traditions demands customary historical analysis.106
Even though such traditions misrepresent the ancientness of their prac-
tice, they constitute their own kind of historical data about past and pre-
sent societies and cultures. They just cannot be accepted at face value as

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48 • Fashioning History

an accurate representation of what they claim occurred in the actual past.

The very idea of an invented tradition challenges the validity of social tra-
dition as a guide to the past. On the other hand, official and collective
memories and professional histories may accept the same metastories as
their ultimate contextualization.
In the end, memory studies and professional histories share the same
problems and often demand the same approaches as a result. As Kansteiner
concludes, memories like professional historical representations “are
negotiated, selective, present-oriented, and relative, while insisting that
the experiences they reflect cannot be manipulated at will.”107 To the extent
that memories are collective they offer important intersubjective clues to
how a society conceives and represents its past. To the extent that collec-
tive memories are about history, they pose the same problems of analysis
and interpretation as any other survivals converted into sources, hence,
for example, both the value and problem of oral history.
As invented social traditions demonstrate about the past of a society,
collective memory as a guide to the actual history of society can perpe-
trate its own kind of obfuscation. What collective memories can tell us
about the past that historians seek to explicate in their own works elicits
a different approach to memory as source than what such memories
reveal about how a group of people represent(ed) their past to themselves.
In both cases historians use memories as sources but to different ends. In
exploring sites and realms of collective memory for clues to popular his-
torical consciousness, historians ask who are the makers and perpetrators
of such memories in a society, through what means and to what ends, and
how and why were these memories received and interpreted in the ways
they were by a group or society. In investigating memories as sources for
the historians’ own interpretations of the past, they ask what kinds of
facts can be developed from what kinds of materials and how reliable are
the inferred or hypothesized facts about the past? In both cases, historians
approach sites or realms of memory with the same critical attitude and
often the same basic questions as they would for validating any other arti-
fact as a reliable historical source.

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Historical Synthesis

From Statements to Histories

he historical method does not produce histories, only statements
that can be used in a history. The procedures do not even produce
a story or argument as such unless these are repeated directly from
a source. Every history is much more than a simple summary or compila-
tion of factual statements. Each history in its very form as well as content
navigates the tension among the many grander and lesser goals historians
and others pursue in representing the past as history. In the end, then, any
history must be judged by what it is: an organized or synthesized totality.
Historians consider this complex production the literary or artistic side of
their practice.

Histories as Form and Content

Many schemes exist for classifying kinds of histories. Some stress forms of
presentation and the nature of the medium: monographs, reports, essays,
lectures, documentary films, museum exhibitions, historic sites, and
reenactments among others. Alternate schemes categorize by the intended
audience: general surveys and films destined for classrooms; television
programs, popular histories, and historical pageants for the lay public;
scholarly monographs and articles directed to the professional historian;
the preservation of historic sites and reconstruction of old buildings and
villages for antiquarians, preservationists, and historians. One can sort
histories by the sectors of life covered: political, legal, diplomatic, mili-
tary, economic, social, intellectual, cultural, ecological, and so on. These
in turn are further divided. Social histories, for example, include urban,
educational, medical, working-class, women’s, minority, and old age among

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50 • Fashioning History

other topics. Still newer kinds of histories focus on diasporas, tourism, the
human body, emotions, masculinity and gender, books and reading,
memory, childhood, and local everyday life or microhistory. Other classi-
ficatory schemes center on technique: biographical; statistical and quan-
titative; narrative; and analytical among others. Some stress space—local
or national in the age of the nation-state; regional, world, comparative, or
transnational in more global times. Some concentrate on time: from a few
days to centuries and eras, from stable times topically organized (syn-
chronic) to dynamic times and change diachronically organized. Historians
often see various historical works as belonging to one or another school.
Thus they might distinguish among Marxist, bourgeois, French Annales,
or social science histories. Or, they might designate various schools of
what they call interpretations. The basic interpretation of United States
history, for example, is said to have moved through the so-called progres-
sive or economic interpretation, consensus or counterprogressive, and the
New Left or neoprogressive schools during the twentieth century.1
All these are reasonable and standard ways of classifying types of his-
tories, but they do not identify the general and common component parts
of histories as such, especially across mediums and schools. Professional his-
torians and those who theorize about historical practice agree that
“proper” histories are more than mere assemblages of factual statements
but much less than grand speculations on the ultimate meaning of the
human past. Historians deprecate compilations or lists of facts as a “chron-
icle” or “annals” at the same time as they repudiate giving some overall pat-
tern to the entire past as “universal” or “speculative” history. Beyond agreement
on these extremes, however, historians differ on the nature and purposes
of historical synthesis and therefore its component parts.
Nevertheless, such disagreements suggest starting places for a general
scheme of categorization. Long-continuing disagreements over whether a
history is an art or a science, an empirical study or a literary synthesis sug-
gest one basis for a general categorization of components.2 Older dis-
agreements over whether “proper” explanation in histories is best provided
by narration or (social) science-like reasoning points to the various modes
of connecting the facts of a history as another starting place.3 Social sci-
ence historians as well as theorists of history also propose considering the
modes of explanation broadly conceived as theories and models.4 More
recently, rhetorical and narrative theorists add categories for understand-
ing the modes of exposition chiefly as text and discourse.5 The enduring
conflict over the possibility of objectivity in historical practice and perva-
siveness of bias in historical works indicates the role of evaluation and

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perspective as another basis for categorizing the general component parts

of a history.6
Regardless of the forms the many kinds of histories take or the topics
they cover, each one embodies in varying proportions description, argu-
ment, and/or narrative as forms of exposition; generalization, explana-
tion, and/or interpretation as modes of connecting the facts and providing
perspective on them; and politics, morals, and/or other lessons and uses
as ways of evaluating past matters and giving them meaning. What dis-
tinguishes among different kinds of histories in this view is not their
length, specific subject matter, or medium as such but how the many syn-
thetic components discussed above are combined in any given project. At
the risk of separating what is combined in text and practice, let me briefly
discuss each of these general components before looking at examples of
their combination in the next three chapters. From the standpoint of this
book, each component must also be considered in relation to re-presen-
tation or construction in the uses of evidence.7

Narratives and Arguments

Forms of expression may vary by the kinds of histories and media, but
they all show the use of language or image to present a story and/or make
a case. For some scholars, narrative is the traditional and preferred mode
of historical synthesis, as the words “story” and “history” indicate by being
the same or allied terms in so many European languages. To convey this
idea in English, some scholars resort to parentheses: (hi)story. Other his-
torians choose argumentative, topical, and analytical approaches to make
a case or prove a thesis. Usually both narrative and argument are com-
bined in a proper history, even if the overall combination is categorized
under one or another name. In practice each kind presumes the other,
frequently explicitly but always implicitly, for both are modes of organi-
zation and of making connections. As modes of organization, all are
process as well as product in historical practice.8
A narrative is considered the genre of time par excellence, because it
answers the question what happened by tracing the development, changes,
and resolution of events over time. Agents, aims, actions, settings, and
outcomes are plotted to reveal the changes from beginnings to conclusion.
Stories are told as events are sequenced into a series as situations change,
lives are lived, and meaning is given to their modifications and transfor-
mations. Narratives are organized by the author who orders the events,
actors, and settings into coherent temporal structures of plot and subplot.

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52 • Fashioning History

The author emphasizes some matters and subordinates others to give

interpretation and meaning to (and to explain, in a sense) the changes
selected to be part of the story. Such selection in the historian’s hands cuts
the complexity, indeed chaos, of the past down to (narrative) size.9
Narrative in historical practice is always a stream of events unfolding
in time. The order of statements in a history need not follow the actual
chronological sequence of events as such for stylistic and/or explanatory
reasons. Historians may telescope time for dramatic reasons or use flash-
backs and flashforwards to point out implications. Thus one can analyze
the relationship between the form of a historical narrative as textual or
discourse time in contrast to its content as calendar time in the telling of
a (hi)story. Regardless of any such separation of chronological and textual
time, a historical narrative is always presented as accurate to past persons
and events—or at least the surviving evidence about them—unlike fic-
tional stories. Histories share the narrative as a literary form with many
other genres such as novels, certain paintings, operas, many songs, films,
comic books, and jokes. These other genres may even include actual per-
sons, events, and settings as part of their stories, but only histories promise
nothing but the truth based upon past evidence. Historical narratives pre-
sume that their characters, the events, and the larger context into which
they fit characterize accurately the pasts of those persons, actions, and
Many histories are not explicitly narrative in form. Their content is
organized by argument, theme, analytical category, or topic.11 Argumentative
histories, as the name suggests, present one or more arguments rather
than stories as such about past persons, events, and times. Analytical and
topical histories organize their contents by argument and/or theme.
Synchronic histories stress an extended middle over beginnings and end-
ings by showing the interrelationships among matters at a given cross sec-
tion of time, be it a year, decade, century, or more. While each of these
histories eschew traditional narrative explicitly, they presume some larger
or overall (hi)story as context for their subject matter and their own
forms. Sometimes that historical context is no more than the standard
history that frames the times that the arguments, analyses, and topics are
about. The cross-section of time elaborated in a synchronic history, for
example, presumes standard history as the narrative that contextualizes
the times that lead into and away from the era it explores extensively for
the multiple interconnections among ideas, events, and institutions.12
Narrative and nonnarrative histories alike espouse explicitly or, more
frequently, implicitly one or more larger stories as a way of contextualizing

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their data, offering an interpretation, and providing perspective and

meaning. Variously called in the profession grand, master, dominant, or
governing narratives if explicit and metanarratives and metastories if
more implicit, all offer the larger context needed for organizing the sub-
ject matter and form of individual historical syntheses. The advance of
(Western) liberty and democracy, the struggle of the masses versus the
elites, and the imminence of ecological apocalypse are just some among
many such contextualizing master narratives. Their larger truth depends
not upon evidence so much as the outlook and values shared by histori-
ans with their audiences.
Many historians feel that narrative is more congenial than other dis-
cursive forms to historical synthesis because it stresses the actions of indi-
viduals as the causative agents in the unfolding of events. By
concentrating upon the actions of concrete individuals as opposed to
abstract forces to explain how (and why) what happened in the past, nar-
rative histories allow for contingencies, choices, and other acts of human
agency in influencing peoples’ destinies. In such a case, actors’ intentions,
desires, judgments, and beliefs connect as they explain the sequence of
occurrences. The emphasis on concrete actors’ intentions and choices
allows narrative historians in their syntheses to lay blame or lavish praise
upon specific individuals in causing wars and peace or depressions and
prosperity; in leading social movements and cultural trends; in formulat-
ing political ideologies and scientific ideas among many matters. To
American intellectual historian Thomas Haskell, causal attribution,
including narratives, and ethics and moral responsibility are “two sides of
the same coin.” As he argues, “To be an agent is to be causally efficacious,
a producer of intended consequences. To hold people responsible is to
presume that they are causally efficacious agents and therefore capable
(within limits) of which consequences to produce. Judgments of praise,
blame, responsibility, liability, courage, cowardice, originality, deliberate-
ness, and spontaneity are just a few of the quintessentially ethical qualities
that ride piggyback on perceptions of cause and effect.”13 For this reason,
historian of American women Nancy Isenberg posits “individuals who
shape their destinies” as the basic “canon of historical behavior.”14
Such a connection between human agency and narrative raises the
issue of the relationship between narrative as a literary form and the
actual course of past events and lives. Postmodernists argue that histori-
ans impose, that is, create, narrative structures in their efforts to organize
their factual and other statements into some sort of synthesis. Other his-
torians argue that narrative is natural to human affairs, because individuals

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54 • Fashioning History

plan their lives and understand what they do and did in terms of narrative
sequences.15 The sociologist Margaret Somers throws light on this debate
by arguing for four different kinds or uses of narrative. Ontological nar-
ratives are those that the social actors use to make sense of their own lives
in order to act. They define who one is; they provide a notion of self and
an identity for the individual, though developed as the result of interac-
tions over time with various social structures. Public, cultural, or institu-
tional narratives are those used by “publics” to understand and explain
family, workplace, religious groups, government, nation, or society. (Is
this social or collective memory?) She designated narratives constructed
by social interpreters or researchers as conceptual, analytic, or sociological
narratives. Such narratives speak of social forces, market patterns, cultural
practices, or other constructed entities as the “actors.” The challenge from
her view is how to combine ontological and public narratives into the
analyst’s or historian’s own analysis or narrative. Metanarratives, her
fourth kind, depict the epic forces of modern times such as Capitalism
versus Communism, Individual versus Society, or the Rise of Nationalism
or Capitalism or Democracy as some teleological unfolding of events in a
cosmic drama.16
All histories offer description, argument, and narrative in various pro-
portions, even though a specific work may claim to be mainly narrative or
argument. In practice if not in explicit exposition in any work, narrative
and argument presume each other, even if only between the lines or sub-
textually. Almost all narrative histories today contain sections devoted to
argument and analysis in addition to description and storytelling. All
analytical, argumentative, topical, and thematic histories presume an
implicit, if they do not contain an explicit, narrative. From the perspec-
tive of the last chapter, the big question is whether the narratives, argu-
ments, reports, and descriptions in a historical work are re-presentations
accepted as true by the historian from the sources? Or, are these elements
constructed and integrated as going together from the inferences and cre-
ativity of the historian? And from whose point of view are they presented?

Explaining and Interpreting

Historians make connections among their facts in their syntheses by
offering explanations and interpretations, especially in proper histories.
Argumentative and analytical works provide explicit reasons and causes as
explanations and even, at times, use generalizations, models, and theories
of human behavior, institutions, and societies to make their cases. Narrative,

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Historical Synthesis • 55

topical, and synchronic works offer implicitly always and usually explic-
itly reasons, causes, explanations, and influences among diverse ways of
connecting their factual statements and patterning their generalizations.
If description answers the traditional reportorial questions of who,
what, when, and where, and maybe how, then explanation answers the
question why. Questions and answers are always dependent on the knowl-
edge of asker and answerer as to what is to be explained (explanandum in
philosopher’s parlance) and what explains (explanans). For some askers,
learning who, what, when, or where answers their why questions. Even
these seemingly simple questions become complicated when asking, for
example, what makes a revolt a revolution, or a cultural awakening a
renaissance? For many other inquirers, learning how something came
about explains why it happened, and that is often the common mode of
historical explanation, especially in a narrative synthesis. Tracing the
course of events—or recounting—is basic to one form of narrative expla-
nation. But explanation, in the sense of accounting for, asks why it was
who it was, where it was, when it was, what it was, or how it was. This is
the explicit goal of analytical and argumentative histories—and good nar-
rative histories as well.17
What constitutes appropriate answers at this level of why question? At
a minimum, we should distinguish between the type or form of an expla-
nation and the content of it. Types of explanation cluster around two
poles. Those theorists advocating understanding as interpretation believe
that human beings and their affairs are best explained by the webs of
meaning the actors construct to understand and interpret their world.
Making connections in this way presumes that the observer can under-
stand the actors and their world(s) as they understood themselves and
their world(s). Interpretive explanations in this mode stress such matters
as intentions, desires, motives and rationales, beliefs, patterns of meaning,
cultural practices, values, and worldviews as the keys to explaining why
actors did what they did. Those theorists who support explanation as cau-
sation construct images or models of the actors’ behavior or circum-
stances that might be quite different than seen by the actors themselves.
Explanations of this kind may range from the statistical correlation of
variables to expositions of the material or ecological circumstances of peo-
ples to the nature of bureaucracies and other complex social organiza-
tions. Whether a narrative explains depends on how and what one accepts
as proper explanation in all these cases. The content of an explanation is
not just what it includes explicitly about the connections it makes in
explaining its subject but also the philosophical premises and social models

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56 • Fashioning History

that ground those connections. What does the theory, model, or even
image presume about social reality that justifies the relevance of its use
even as it shapes the content of its application?
Historians frequently rely on so-called common sense versions of under-
standing and explaining human affairs. They often divide explanatory
causes into long and short range; primary and secondary; necessary and
sufficient; definitely or probably; sequential, cumulative, or interacting.
Often such attributions are done without explicit, rigorous comparison
or analysis to isolate the cause(s) or to provide an explicit patterning or
hierarchy of causes. Sometimes historians offer thought experiments on
what if so and so had not happened or something else had occurred, in
effect counterfactual arguments. Historians, for example, speculate in a
recent book on what if Charles I had avoided the English Civil War or
what if Soviet communism had not collapsed in 1989.18 Historians all too
often explain human goals, actions, and outcomes by armchair psycholo-
gizing about what any human would do in the same situation. (To what
extent does this approach presume a basic and universal human nature,
which was until recently usually a male rather than a female version?)
They often treat social classes, institutions, and whole societies through ad
hoc theorizing and impressionism, supposedly justified by their immersion
in the sources.
Many historians belittle the social and psychological sciences for their
pretension to theory, because the results seem all too often trivial, tauto-
logical, and, worse from a historian’s view, ahistorical. Rather historians
seek not generalizations about all human beings and institutions, as the
positivistic social sciences once did, but explanations for what they take to
be particular occasions and events occurring at specific times in specific
places among specific persons and groups in the past. As the Australian
scholar Inga Clendinnen writes, “Large theories may generate good ques-
tions, but they produce poor answers. The historian’s task is to discover
what happened in some actual past situation—not to produce large
truths. The most enlightening historical generalizations tend to be those
that hover sufficiently close to the ground to illuminate the contours and
dynamics of intention and action in circumscribed circumstances.”19
With such an impression of the profession’s goals, historians’ basic theo-
ries and models of human behavior, institutions, and societies are frequently
more implicit image than explicit structures but no less determinative of
their explanations.20
Once upon a time (in the 1960s and 1970s) social science history in
the United States sought to make historical research and exposition

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Historical Synthesis • 57

organized and orderly by making the theories and models explicit and
the operations systematic.21 The so-called new economic, political, and
social histories never achieved the revolutionary results promised in their
manifestos. Meanwhile the interests of the profession shifted to more press-
ing political and moral concerns. Consequently, much of what was once
the approach and content of these new histories has returned to the social
science departments from which they were borrowed in the first place. In
recent decades the ahistoricity of the social sciences has been mitigated by
a historic turn in all human science disciplines. The rapprochement between
the social sciences and history is marked in the United States both in
books and other productions and the many joint appointments between
history and other departments.22
The content of social explanation cuts across the forms of social expla-
nation. Philosophers of social science range the basic content of social
explanation between two extremes they have christened “method-
ological individualism” and “methodological holism.”23 Individualism
asserts, as its name suggests, the primacy of the individual in determining
what happens in human affairs, while holism declares the dominance of
the social whole in explaining human affairs. Individualistic explanations
emphasize the conscious intentions and beliefs of individuals to account
for their actions. This view of the efficacy of human agency assumes
that social institutions are individuals acting in association. A society
as a whole is the aggregation of all acting individuals in it. This approach to
social explanation is known as methodological individualism, because it
views individuals as both the real creators and the real foundation of
(a) society. The voluntary actions of individuals can really change social
institutions and collective outcomes. Such a view of individualistic expla-
nation is presumed to ground as it flows from a classic nineteenth-cen-
tury liberal view of society.
Holism, or collective or social structural explanation, stresses the coer-
cive effects of the social whole upon the beliefs, actions, and so on, of the
individuals in it. A social organization, system, or structure persists over
time and can be considered independently in some ways from a set of specific
individuals in it. Although not really separate from the individuals compris-
ing it, it nevertheless constrains their behavior in certain ways and acts
apart from their individual volitions. A bureaucracy is a good example
of such a social structure with its rules, roles, and lines of authority, but so
too are economic organizations and systems (capitalism or land tenure
systems, for example), political systems and organizations (political party
systems or government bureaucracies), multinational or international

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58 • Fashioning History

relations (diplomatic customs and treaty systems), religious organizations

and doctrinal systems (church hierarchies and liturgies), and cultural sys-
tems (persisting values and languages). Historians like social scientists can
study why such structures arise, persist, or end in terms of the social con-
text and other social factors. In this view, society is composed of (individ-
uals operating as and through) classes, institutions, and other organized
entities. This position is termed methodological holism, because the exis-
tence of a society as a whole shapes, some might say determines, the real-
ity of the various lives within it. This view of a society as the collective
causative foundation for understanding the totality of human interaction
in it derives from a version of Marxism or of French social theory follow-
ing Émile Durkheim.24 Scholars, of course, seek to reconcile or find a
middle way between these two methodological extremes, but let me use
the extreme views to highlight some of the implications of interpretive
and explanatory models for historical research and synthesis.
Even my brief summary of methodological individualism and method-
ological holism suggests some implications for the historical method and
the derivation of facts. Proponents of the two views read sources differ-
ently, because they see social reality and its explanation differently
Individualists are more prone to accept peoples’ expressions of intentions,
desires, and motives in sources at face value, because they accept the
autonomy of the individual in explaining social behavior. They therefore
prefer re-presentation and paraphrase to make their points. A holist
might see these same expressions as “false consciousness” because “com-
mon sense” beliefs all too often conceal the “real conditions” governing
individuals’ existence. Most persons would not understand their true
interests because of hegemonic manipulation of one sector of society by
another. Any system of common beliefs becomes an ideology justifying
the way the inequalities of the social whole are organized. At worse, power
so determines knowledge, desires, and hopes that explicit expression of
such in the sources must be taken with a very large methodological grain
of salt. Individualists might accept polling results, for example, as truly
indicative of people’s attitudes, while holists see just another demonstra-
tion of false consciousness. In this latter case the historian understands
the true interests of people as a result of their class or other societal loca-
tion as opposed to what they themselves say (and presumably believe).
Historians of this persuasion resort to construction as their main mode of
deriving and expositing facts.
In line with their basic premises holists have trouble with the positivist
empirical bent of individualists, especially those who rely on statistical

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Historical Synthesis • 59

analyses of census data. Opponents of this approach to social science his-

tory argued against assuming the aggregative behavior of individuals to be
the explanation of (a) society. As one American social historian pointed
out long ago, numerical analysis “is based upon the fiction that the actions
of different individuals or cultural groups are, epistemologically speaking,
the same—that they are identical and discrete entities that can be com-
pared with one another in a scientific manner.”25 Opponents of this kind
of statistical history argued that its results like its premises are those of
political liberalism. Each side in this debate, like so many in social and
political understanding, accused the other of assuming what it needed to
prove and proving what it assumed.
The plainest implication of these differences over the nature of social
reality and its explanation is for the historical method. Individualist
acceptance of sources’ testimony at face value encourages the re-presenta-
tion of facts through quotation or paraphrase. Holist suspicion of ideol-
ogy and false consciousness on the other hand encourages constructing
facts by inferring from the sources’ content or perhaps re-presenting the
views of those people considered to have the most informed, that is, cor-
rect, view from the analyst’s standpoint. Many historians interested in the
subordinated and the marginalized, for example, see persons in those
social positions as a better guide to the nature of what “really” went on in
society than those placed in high positions. As historian of science Donna
Haraway phrased this position, “‘Subjugated’ standpoints are preferred
because they seem to promise more adequate, sustained, objective, trans-
forming accounts of the world.”26 To some poststructuralist theorists the
treatment of peoples on the margins of a society reveals best the central
values of that society—or at least of its elite sector. But Jesse Lemisch, the
first American historian to advocate in print viewing the United States’
past “from the bottom up,” argued before poststructuralist theory was pop-
ular in the United States, “sympathy for the powerless brings us closer to
objectivity.”27 If nothing else, proponents of each position would judge
the reliability of a witness and maybe of a source itself by their views of
what an individual is and can do and the overall organized (structured)
nature of a society in general. In the end, a historian’s social theory influ-
ences how she determines whether, for example, a cluster of ideas in
a source should be denominated an ideology, false consciousness, and an
example of hegemony on one hand or reasons, values, and proof of a belief
system on the other hand. Thus the sorting out of what are actors’ views
and what historians’ views in a history often reveal the latter’s allegiances

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60 • Fashioning History

to specific social theories (as we shall see below in the fight over cultural
history and the proposed rehabilitation of social history).
Proponents of holism and individualism might see the factuality of
summative classificatory terms differently. Those leaning to holism might
be willing to accept the “reality” of social structures as terms because of
how they see societies working. Those tending to individualism, on the
other hand, deny the reality of social structures and thus their value even
for analysis since they believe such entities are mere social fictions. Although
both sides might accept such concrete organizations as labor unions, cor-
porations, churches, governments, and armies as empirically real, they
might differ over according that status to the identity of classes and other
social structures and systems. In any case, individualists would always deny
causative agency to postulated structures and disaggregate empirically
real ones.
Do divergent premises lead to different methods? If the historian
accepts actors’ ideas and beliefs at face value, then does she use empathy,
interpretation, or imagination to reconstruct the actor’s so-called logic of
the situation or cultural framework? If the historian suspects such
hermeneutic methods, then does she employ causal analysis and explana-
tion? We have already seen the argument over statistics. In any case, the
content of social explanation influences the choice of explanatory form.
That the two positions differ so much in what they take social reality
to be and how best to explain it has implications not only for deriving facts
from sources but also how to put them together in a synthesis. The dif-
ferences show up in vocabulary, in the identification of historical “actors,”
and in the way the “story” is told. The most obvious differences are the
“actors” in each position’s story. Concrete individuals, their decisions and
aims, and their groupings into associations are the actors in individualist
stories and explanations. Social actors, so to speak, take pride of place in
holist stories and explanations. Even to discuss the two positions means
(mis)using vocabulary favored by and based on one or the other side.28 If
differing vocabularies make hazardous any description of what the two
sides stand for, they make easier their identification in historical produc-
tions. What are ideas and belief systems for the individualist become ide-
ologies for the holist; texts and language become discourses and hegemony;
rank and strata become classes; and perhaps sex and ethnicity become
gender and racial systems. What are competing choices for the individu-
alist become conflicting interests as the result of contradictory social loca-
tions for the holist. Interest group demands for the individualist become
evidence of class struggle for the holist; social systems become social

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structures or formations; leaders or elites become ruling classes. The indi-

vidualist describes society as associations of people banding together vol-
untarily as churches, corporations, governments, and other organizations,
and society itself is essentially conceived as a voluntary association of indi-
viduals. Society for the holist is conceived as a complex, organized set of
structures. Racism, for example, is a mainly a matter of psychology and
individuals’ prejudices under individualist premises and a system of
power and structured inequality under holist assumptions. Racism has a
psychological cause and solution for the former, and a social structural
cause and solution for the latter.29
Individualists in the end portray history as a series of events in which
actors’ views and actions determine to a large extent the social outcomes.
Change is explained by the actions of individuals. In traditional political,
military, diplomatic, and religious history the spotlight was on kings, gen-
erals, ambassadors, bishops, and other leaders. Many argue that the nar-
rative form is particularly congenial to this approach to history. The
dilemma of individualistic explanation is to cope with supraindividual
formations and macroscopic change. Holists depict history in terms of
structures in which their contradictions cause conflict and change for the
individuals in them. Argumentative and analytical histories seem the
form best suited to this approach. The once new social history preferred
explicit theory, social categories, and even statistical analysis of causation
in opposition to the implicit model of human behavior and social theory
of traditional history. To its critics the weakness of too much social his-
tory (and all of social science) was explaining change through abstract
entities and external forces as opposed to concrete individuals and their
choices. The American colonial historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich indicted
this approach to social history, which “in abandoning the individualistic
and institutional biases of conventional narratives sometimes substitutes
one form of exclusion for another, freezing people into a collective
anonymity that denies either agency or the capacity to change.”30
As I pointed out earlier in this section, scholars in practice attempt to
avoid the dilemmas posed by individualism and holism by seeking some
middle way. It is easy to condemn the oversimplifications of individual-
ism and holism but difficult to surmount their problems and premises.
That reconciliation or middle way must try to balance the agency of the
actors with the constraints imposed on them by social institutions and
their position(s) in them. Such a way must resolve the conflict between
the autonomy of individual action based upon free choices in spite of
social constraints versus the denial of any human agency in an oversocialized

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62 • Fashioning History

model of human behavior. At the same time the middle way must explain
why groups of individuals choose to create social rules, coercive collectiv-
ities, and inequitable distribution of social benefits and power. To steer
the delicate course between total societal determination of individual lives
and the complete societal laissez-faireism of individualism, these theorists
maintain that one must delineate how individuals initiate, maintain, or
transform a group or society. The continuing existence of any social whole
needs to be explained, not just assumed—especially those called a nation,
a society, or a culture. Ideas are not simply ideological reflections, and cul-
ture is not simply reducible to the political or social. The only choice
denied historians in this matter is no conscious choice: for some theory,
implicit if not explicit, on the nature of human behavior and the workings
of a society always grounds every history.31
The conflict between agency and structure in historical practice par-
ticularly came to focus in two schools that became increasingly popular in
the profession after the mid-1970s. Microhistory originated among
Italian scholars and alltagsgeschichte, or the history of everyday life, among
German scholars. At the risk of neglecting their differences, both schools
revolted against the impersonal structures and large-scale processes of
macrosocial analysis, whether exemplified in the long-term trends studied
by the Annales school or the impersonal aggregation of individuals, even
nonelite ones, by the social science school. Both groups of historians
explored the relationship between structure and agency through concen-
trating on the microcosm of specific individuals or small communities for
clues to the macrocosm of institutions and society. Both favored anthro-
pology over sociology as inspiration, particularly the intense local ethno-
graphic study and the “thick description” of Clifford Geertz. Both
concentrated on concrete life situations and the forms of daily experience
and perceptions of individuals as the basis of their generalizations. How
did ordinary individuals perceive, cope with, accommodate to, resist,
innovate in small ways, creatively modify, or support the larger forces
with which they lived and to which they contributed? How did such indi-
viduals alone or as a small group mediate between what they wanted and
what they were forced to do by custom, law, religious and government
agents, or material circumstances?
Both schools sought out and emphasized the ambiguities, fluidity, and
contradictions of thought and behavior of the “small people” they stud-
ied. Microhistorians produced noted works on rebels, heretics, criminals,
or other individuals whose confrontations with social customs and offi-
cial institutions produced detailed records. Although microhistorians

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studied both premodern and modern times, their work mostly explored
early modern persons and situations. Carlo Ginzburg’s intensive analysis
of sixteenth-century inquisitorial records to reconstruct the heretical cos-
mos of a northern Italian miller was a microhistory best seller of this
kind.32 Some historians of alltagsgeschichte studied peasants and folk cul-
ture in the early modern era, but most preferred studies of workers, pop-
ular culture, or support for Nazi ideals and institutions in the modern
period. The alltagsgeschichte exploration of ordinary people’s relationship
to Nazism in their mundane experience and behavior particularly showed
the nexus between lives at the micro level and societal macrotrends.33
The debate over social explanation goes on today in the discussions
about the nature and place of the social as opposed to the cultural in
human affairs. Those uneasy with the seeming arbitrariness of the cultural
seek to resuscitate a more sophisticated social history and particularly
class analysis in order to once again organize their histories through some
sort of structural explanation.34
As even this section’s brief exposition of social explanation reveals,
social theory, whether explicit or implicit, presumes political and ethical
choices. These choices have implications for perspective, meaning, and
morality. The editors of a reader on the “new social theory” observe a nor-
mative turn by the 1990s in the field. As they conclude, “we always theo-
rize or do research from a socially situated point of view, that social
interests and values shape our ideas, that our social understandings are
also part of the shaping of social life.”35 Historians are agents in regard to
histories about the past but also members located in their societies in the
present. To paraphrase Karl Marx, historians make their own histories but
not always under conditions of their own choosing. The historian’s own
social context derives from social traditions, collective memory, and pro-
fessional socialization. Whether the historians’ multiple social locations
have little or no influence or mostly determine their social theory and
explanations depend upon who theorizes the situation and according to
what kinds of social explanation. And, of course, this choice affects whether
the explanations are re-presented or constructed from the evidence.

Perspectives and Meaning

History, once promoted as philosophy teaching by example, still has its
instructive side in the right hands. Politicians, generals, and social scien-
tists are more prone than historians to draw lessons from the past, but some
historians do draw explicit lessons from their subject for policymakers

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64 • Fashioning History

and the public. Historians of military affairs, foreign policy, and educa-
tion are particularly generous in offering lessons learned from the history
of their subjects. The historian of military affairs Michael Howard offers
his essays simply as The Lessons of History.36 The historian of American
foreign policy Ernest May has written two books whose very titles indi-
cate his purposes: “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in
American Foreign Policy 37 and Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for
Decision Makers with Richard Neustadt.38 Likewise, the title of the vol-
ume of essays edited by Diane Ravitch and Maris Vinovskis, Learning
from the Past: What History Teaches Us about School Reform,39 shows the same
for educational history. Many more historians make their lessons less
obvious in their titles than these examples but still offer such instruction
implicitly if not explicitly. Most environmental historians, for instance,
particularly point out the dire implications of their studies.40
Debunking time-honored heroes and heritage is also an ancient and
honorable tradition in the history profession. While some historians urge
the profession to reinforce tradition and patriotism, others seek to expose
the myths of classroom pieties and national heritage. In the latter vein,
one author titled his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your
American History Textbook Got Wrong.41 The authors in The Invention of
Tradition exposed how recent many a supposedly ancient tradition was,
including Welsh and Scottish national culture, British royal rituals, and
the celebration of May Day.42 If popular history is society’s memory of
the past, then these historians hope to set the record straight.
Some historians seek to restore a submerged or subordinated group to
its (rightful?) place in the nation’s or the world’s history. The goal is
encapsulated in the very title of Hidden from History.43 Chief among
those hidden from traditional history was the half of the population who
were women. To the extent that standard history had focused on politics,
foreign policy, and wars, the nation-state as the arena, and the so-called
public sphere over the private or domestic, it emphasized male roles and
de-emphasized or concealed entirely female roles—except for such women
as Queen Elizabeth I of England or Catherine the Great of Russia.44
Likewise to divide prehistory from history was to hide, even deny, the
“people without history” their place in the past. 45 Aboriginal peoples may
have been first on the ground, but they were last to get a spot in the “white
man’s history.” (Canadian scholars now call their native societies “First
Nations” as a remedy.) When historians write about subordinated or
oppositional groups, should they side with them? Does that mean not
only presenting but even adopting their views on matters?46

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The new National Museum of the American Indian on the Capitol

Mall in Washington, DC, exemplifies in architecture, grounds, and
exhibits the dilemmas of representing minority viewpoint in majority
institutional setting. After extensive consultation with diverse Native
American groups and individuals, the museum planners focused on three
main themes to organize the exhibits. “Our Universes: Traditional
Knowledge Shapes Our World” presents indigenous cosmologies as vital
today to native understanding and life as they were yesterday. Such an
approach reinforces native religious traditions as it educates others about
the overriding importance of the sacred in native lives past and present.
“Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories” seeks to correct through
tribal histories the “narrow and inaccurate ways” the dominant society has
portrayed the past of native peoples in its story of imperial conquest and
achievement for the past five hundred years. On one hand, native soci-
eties were victimized: “In the struggle for survival, nearly every Native
community wrestled with the impact of deadly new diseases and weaponry,
the weakening of traditional spirituality and the seizure of homelands by
invading governments.” On the other hand, it is “not entirely a story of
destruction,” for it is also about “how Native people intentionally and
strategically kept their cultures alive.”47 To emphasize this point, the last
exhibition’s theme, “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities,”
shows that native peoples, their cultures, and their identities not only sur-
vive but flourish in the twenty-first century even in the midst of economic
and other hardships and contrary to white perception. Through these
themes, the museum’s planners hope to refute the usual cultural imperial-
ism long expounded and exemplified in dominant society media and
institutions. Through the shape of the building, the layout of its grounds,
the arrangement and purposes of interior spaces, as well as the nature and
message of the exhibits, the planners seek to adapt a dominant cultural
institution to traditional (and traditionalist?) native ends. Critics of the
museum believe that the efforts of its Native American staff to discover
and disseminate the values and outlooks of the many Native American
peoples go too far in creating a new kind of museum that crosses borders
supposedly separated in other museums: the secular and the sacred, his-
tory and heritage, scholarship and advocacy, and lay versus professional
In the end, the problems of perspective, morality, and political partial-
ity exist beyond explicit political and other partisanship. That a historian
takes the side of a political party or government, a religious or ethnic group,
the working classes or the entrepreneurs, and so on, is clear enough to those

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not convinced of those arguments already. So too are the judgments ren-
dered on the evils of the past. All professional historians these days are
against slavery, racism, and genocide and for justice, democracy, and
equality in general. But what do such commitments involve in the end?
Aside from praise for abolitionists and Allies and condemnation of slave-
holders and Nazis, for example, what does such a commitment entail?
Ought the historian also use the past to expose the inner workings of
today’s society that still perpetuates social and racial inequality, hege-
monic and oppositional ideologies, and globalism and imperialism?
Should all history be critical history that seeks to challenge, even sub-
vert, the status quo as some historians advocate? Such critical history can
point out past options not taken by a society, provide alternative frames
of reference to its members, defamiliarize the long accepted in the society,
and demystify the institutional facades hiding the people actually run-
ning the social machinery.49 In the end should historians in the West, for
example, praise or condemn, uphold or oppose the gap between the ideals
of liberal society and how they were practiced at home and particularly
abroad? These questions about politics suggest how perspective and mean-
ing penetrate to the very core of the historical project. The only unac-
ceptable answer is no answer to such questions as any brief examination
of the role of perspective and meaning in historical synthesis shows.
Both historians and their audiences use history and therefore histories
for their own purposes. The study of history is justified for many reasons:
to entertain and edify, advance cultural literacy, instill patriotism, challenge
the status quo, show God’s works, encourage toleration, teach lessons,
expose social evils, promote social identity, empower minorities, portray
everyday past lives and institutions, foster or condemn nationalism or
religion, study the past for its own sake, and prove the usefulness or
inutility of history among the many professed uses. The audiences and
those interested are many: the state through educational curriculums,
financing, and certification; social and political movements through pro-
paganda and organizational recruitment; religious groups through iden-
tity and boundary maintenance; museum exhibitors and documentary
filmmakers for information, audience appeal, and funding; historical sites
and pageants for commemoration, identity, and support; publishers and
entertainment moguls for service, amusement, and remuneration; ethnic
groups for preservation of memory and identity; and not least the profes-
sion itself for almost all these reasons. These interests, audiences, and
indeed historians themselves disagree on how best to attain their goals. All
agree that histories should provide perspective on the past, offer lessons

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(especially including the denial of any), and give meaning to their subject
matter, but they differ over what History conceived as an overall approach
to the past proves and therefore how a normal history achieves their ends.
The differences result from—as they show—the complexities of modern
societies and the multiple social locations of their citizen/subjects.50
Professional historians agree that proper histories offer perspective on
the past and give meaning through their syntheses, but the means to these
ends not only vary but are also in dispute. Perspective implies distance
from past peoples and events, and that distance supposedly lends objec-
tivity to the historian in her understanding of those past persons and their
actions. What distance in space lends to perspective in painting, distance
in time supposedly lends to perspective in history.51 The greatest perspec-
tive undoubtedly arises from the historian knowing the future of the past:
the outcomes of past aims and actions. At its extreme such retroactive pre-
diction underlies titles that contain such words as “The Invention,” “the
Individual,” or “the Event” followed by a phrase like “That Changed the
World.” A best-selling recent example of the genre is How the Irish Saved
Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome
to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill.52
Some argue history(ies) should show how today’s peoples, their soci-
eties, material objects, and ideas evolved from those of yesteryear’s. Such
mottoes as the present grows from past or the past is prologue to the pre-
sent embody this somewhat teleological approach.53 Others propose his-
tory(ies) should show how the past was quite different from the present.
This anthropology of time, so to speak, issues forth in a maxim like “the
past is a foreign country” or speaks of the “otherness” of the past.54 In
either case, the job of the historian is to recontextualize the past so as to
make it mean something to the present-day audience. At the least, the
historian must adopt a context understandable to a modern audience. At
best, the historian renders a new perspective, exhibits a new context that
makes the past memorable or useful or interesting to people in the present.
Given this necessity of connecting to an audience, the traditional caveat
about avoiding present-mindedness oversimplifies and distorts what his-
torians do and must do in lecture, book, exhibition, report, or film.
Part of the perplexity about political and moral judgments and per-
spective and meaning stems from the incompatibility of the dual tasks of
Clio, the ancient muse of history: to exhort her listeners to great deeds on
one hand and to record their feats on the other hand. Exhortation entails
advocacy at the least and justifies propaganda at the most. Reporting
demands accurate representation and even fair-mindedness about past

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68 • Fashioning History

persons, events, and institutions. To what extent then should historians

allow purpose to shape their projects and perhaps even control their find-
ings? How open and explicit should political, social, and moral commit-
ments therefore be? Should historians confess them in preface, prologue,
or other place? It seems easy enough to confess the explicit commitments,
but what about the implicit ones entwined in choice of subject, research
design, framework of interpretation, or even what is considered historical
reality or the nature of time?55
It is the imputation of meaning that arouses claims of bias, partiality,
partisanship, and the like. At their most fundamental histories give the
past meaning through the arrangement of their stories, facts, and gener-
alizations into syntheses, and those syntheses in turn provide the meaning
of the story and the context of the facts and generalizations. Historians
believe only through such organization does an assemblage of facts
become a proper history. Modern historians search not for the essential
meaning of all the past, once the domain of universal history or the phi-
losophy of history. Rather they seek arguments, stories, explanations,
interpretations, and perspectives that fashion a multitude of factual and
other statements into a meaningful synthesis—one that an audience can
understand and appreciate. It was and is here that grand and metanarra-
tives play such an important role in providing meaning for the profession
and audiences alike, especially implicitly, by offering a larger framework
for the narratives, arguments, moral and political evaluations, and other
statements. What seems objective and factual to one audience or inter-
pretive community, however, appears biased and implausible to another.
At times what is profoundly meaningful to one audience makes little or
no sense to another audience.

Voice and Viewpoint

Both perspective and meaning, whether explicit or implicit, find their
expression through voice and viewpoint. Questions about voice ask who
speaks and for whom in the text or other medium, and the analyst inquires
how and in what form. Questions about viewpoint ask from what and
whose viewpoint, that is, for what and whose perspective. Once again the
analyst queries about form as well as content. Only by taking a viewpoint
can the historian select and organize her factual and other statements.
Viewpoint gives coherence to facts and statements about the past; voice
gives expression to them. At the same time, it is adoption of a viewpoint
that leads to what others label bias, partiality, and lack of objectivity. The

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big question (from the perspective of the preceding chapter) is whether

the voices and viewpoints are found in the sources or supplied by the his-
torian. Are they re-presented or constructed?56
Do the historical actors speak for the historian as well as themselves, or
does the historian speak for them in and through the construction of the
history? In a re-presentation the historian often accepts the actors’ view-
points along with their statements. Is the best mode of exposition then
quotation with paraphrase a second choice? In a construction the histo-
rian always speaks for herself, but frequently in the name of the actors.
Can the actors speak for themselves or only through the historian in each
synthesis? Who speaks for the unrecorded, the undocumented? Oral his-
torians claim their approach recovers evidence of such activities and
thoughts not available through traditional means.57 Must a historian
share class, gender, ethnicity, religion, or politics with the actors in order
to speak for them? Must biographers admire, or at least like, their subjects
to be fair in their representation of them? Ought historians make a con-
tract with past peoples, so to speak, to represent their actions and their
viewpoints as honestly and authentically as possible as one noted scholar
once avowed in a session of the American Historical Association?58
Historians efface their personal presence in a history by using the
third-person voice. Such effacement is supposed to enhance objectivity.
Historians are warned and usually criticized for using the first-person
pronoun outside of footnotes, introductions, or their equivalents in other
media. At the same time such effacement of authority implies an omni-
scient viewpoint. Would use of first-person voice better cue the reader to
the viewpoint of the historian in a specific work?
Arguing and narrating from a viewpoint differs from arguing for a
viewpoint. The second is usually explicit in story or argument as theme or
thesis, but the first is usually implicit. Both select and shape the facts pre-
sented, but, if the viewpoint is implicit, the audience must read between
the lines or look behind the image to find it. Viewpoint in a history may
be from the perspectives of the historical actors or the historian, that is,
from within or outside the historical world being conveyed. Whether his-
torians re-present or construct statements about a historical time and
place, whether they adopt viewpoints and voices from the past or offer
their own, they must consider and combine at least four different kinds of
viewpoints in lecture, book, film, report, or exhibit.
First, viewpoint may be perceptual. From whose perspective or angle
is the physical world perceived or represented? Point of view in film is a
good literal illustration of this viewpoint. How much is seen through the

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70 • Fashioning History

eyes of the actors and how much from beyond them, even an overall
bird’s-eye or synoptic view by the director? How is the landscape con-
ceived as well as perceived in a history? Historians visit the locality of the
events they describe, although the events occurred long ago, because they
hope to see what past persons saw. For the same reason, some historians
join others in trying to preserve some historic buildings, battlefields, and
sites from modern development. What and whose names are on the land
and what does that show about its comprehension in the past? Whose
ecological understanding is conveyed by whether aboriginal or con-
querors’ place names are used? How did those living then understand spa-
tial and social matters as opposed to how we look at them today? Historical
and perceptual geographers as well as historians try to convey a “sense of
On the other hand, for historians to imagine the past as people then
felt and perceived it becomes ever trickier if not harder as transportation
and communication speeded up over the millennia. The transition from
oral to scribal to print to cyber cultures not only determined the nature of
the surviving evidence of past worlds but also offers its own evidence of
different perceptual and conceptual worlds. The almost instantaneous
communication of the telegraph and the increased speed of travel first by
steamship and railroad and then by the airplane shrank the earth and
increased the interchange among peoples. As the result of these commu-
nication and transportation changes, historians need ever greater imagi-
nation to picture the physical and social context of peoples the farther
removed they are from the present.60
It is of course fashionable for scholars in today’s world to stress how
great social and cultural interchange was even in the farthest past and
among all peoples, even those once considered “primitive,” as if the world
of yesteryear was similar to the global now. Hence past societies and cul-
tures once pictured as isolated, self-contained islands outside the stream
of history are now depicted as archipelagos wide open to constant com-
mercial and intercultural exchange very much in the flow of world his-
tory.61 In fact, the very conception of a culture or a society, even in the
extreme past, has only an attenuated meaning in scholarly usage today
given the extreme permeability of their borders and their continuous
change, hence the vocabulary of transnational, intercultural, translation,
negotiation, creolization, and hybridity to describe the past and present
encounters of peoples, the effects of decolonization and subalternity, and
the impact of border crossings and diasporas.

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The debate over the social construction of nature versus its indepen-
dent material effect seems another aspect of perceptual viewpoint. Whose
and what understanding of nature should be used in a history: the actors’
or the historians’? Those historians conveying the perceptions of the
actors re-present those views as such through quotation or paraphrase.
For them, the natural environment, like the social one, is the creative con-
struction of the inhabitants. Such an approach is likely to offer the social
construction of nature by those who modified it as they used it. The users’
understanding of their physical environment is a social and ideational
artifact in this view. Others argue that historians willingly or otherwise
judge the environmental soundness of their actors’ views and, more
importantly, their actions. It is this step that contrasts the historian’s the-
ory of what is nature and how it works with that of the actors. Of course,
all historians seek varying and complex relationships between past
humans and what they called or we call “nature.” Historians who point
out the unintended consequences of deliberate policy and uses depend in
the end on more than the social construction of nature. These historians
base their findings upon their understanding of the coercive reality of the
natural environment when humans tried to fool “mother nature” too
much. In the end all environmental histories take a stand on the degree to
which nature in a given place and time is chiefly a cultural interpretation
of a society’s relationship with its physical environment and the degree to
which nature possesses an independent environmental reality, or as some
say a “material agency,” in those circumstances? Both actors and histori-
ans define what is natural and nature.62
Considered equally natural was the rise of nationalism and the nation
in history. Romantic nationalism and modern scientific historical method
arose together in the nineteenth century, especially in the Germanies as
the idea of the “Fatherland” was created historically as well as symboli-
cally and territorially. In line with these dual trends, the nation became
not only the preferred unit of analysis but was presumed the most appro-
priate—even most natural—one for history. Historians assumed in many
ways that the national histories of England or France or even the United
States were not only the normative goal of actual history for all peoples
but also its normal route and the focus of its narration as a result.63 Most
professional historians continued until recent decades to stress the nation
as the proper stage, the best context, for history (as well as the basic social
actor), whether conceived as a state, a society, or a culture. Questioning
the simultaneous rise of a nation, nationalism, and nationhood and see-
ing nation formation as a multiple concatenation of events and persons

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72 • Fashioning History

led to two distinctly different results in today’s historical practice (besides

abandoning the Western European model of nationalism as normative,
normal, and natural).
First, historians no longer assume that the nation is a naturally occur-
ring and normal entity or that nationalism is a primordial drive in peo-
ple’s psyches and a part of human nature. Historians today increasingly
explore how national territories, a national political system and state,
national institutions and a society, and corresponding symbolic and cul-
tural representations come into being through changing boundaries, the
creation of governments and political allegiances, new social and institu-
tional arrangements, revised ethnic and gender definitions, cultural
inventions and symbolic attachments, commemoration and collective
memory. In this manner, nations were constructed first by their citizen
subjects and then by historians.64
Secondly, historians have also displaced increasingly the nation as the
principal stage for histories in favor of local communities and everyday
life or transnational movements and border crossings to focus on what
and who was involved in past processes and what were the effects.
Whether or not the extrapolation of the globalized world of the twentieth
century to the past will be found as insightful in the future as now, histo-
rians today speak in terms of capitalist world systems, colonial and impe-
rial systems, the Atlantic world, hybrid cultures, and transnationalism.
They have transformed the earlier study of migrations from one nation to
another that stressed the recipient society and culture into diasporas from
a source society or culture that emphasizes the interaction between earlier
and later times in both provider and recipient societies. They prefer to
look at movements and cultures that transcend national boundaries
rather than the older approach to the nation-state system and the result-
ing diplomacy and international relations. And last, they feel that the
study of everyday life uncovers the people, events, and institutions that
created, sustained, or opposed the larger trends and social arrangements
previously presumed in national histories or omitted from them when
using the nation as the primary focus. The transformation of local history
into microhistory, international relations into transnational trends,
migrations into diasporas, and newer definitions of ethnicity and nation-
alism all seem part of the recent movement from social to cultural history,
from structural analysis to narrative agency and contingency.
The last example of perceptual viewpoint concerns how the geography
of the world is represented ideologically. Just by repeating, for example,
the terms “New World” and “Old World” promotes European societies

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and devalues other peoples’ cultures. Such ideological geography includes

the arbitrary division of the planet into continents and hemispheres; into
West and East or West and the “rest”; and even the common favorable
judgment of the North over the South whether in so many countries
(France, Germany, Italy, and the United States for example) or continents
and hemispheres in general. The longtime concentration in histories on
nations, their lands, and their boundaries worked against portraying the
past according to sea- and ocean-based systems until recently. Historians
were slow to accept the idea of the Atlantic world of eighteenth century
or even the Pacific Rim in the twentieth century unlike the Mediterranean
World of ancient times and later. Confusion over the boundaries of the
Middle or Near East and of North and Latin America versus North and
South America reveal their ideological foundation. That presumption is
even more evident in the once popular designation of the so-called
European (and other “advanced” nations); the former “Communist
East”; and the rest (called successively the “undeveloped,” “underdevel-
oped,” and “developing” nations) as the First, Second, and Third Worlds.
The numbering system makes clear the Eurocentric basis of the nomen-
clature even as it elevates the economy and/or the political system of cer-
tain so-called Western nations as the chief criteria for making the ranking.
(The “core,” “semiperipheral,” and “peripheral” zones in World Systems
theory resemble in number and function if not in moral judgment the
Eurocentric history of imperial expansion.) The once extensive red or
pink color on world maps to designate the British Empire quite literally
colored the imagination of those viewing the map about the place of that
island in the planet’s affairs. The red- and blue-colored states from the
2000 electoral map of the United States have become a short hand for a
host of attributions about the cultural as well as political divisions in the
nation. All such “metageography” conceals complex actuality in the eyes
of many scholars even as it supposedly conveys that reality to those
expounding it.65
Such metageography poses the usual problems for historians. If they
re-present it through repeating the views of some past actors, they must
be careful not to accept its premises and perspective as determining their
own geographic views. If they construct the world of past actors, they
must not substitute their own geographical stereotypes for those of their
actors. This is the message of Edward Said’s influential book on Orientalism,
which exposes the ideological biases of Western conceptions of the “East,”
particularly of the Middle East. Of course, such metageographical
notions have their own history.66

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The most influential interpretation of American history depended

upon just such ideological geography. Frederick Jackson Turner’s concep-
tion of “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” to use the
title of the paper he delivered in 1893, outlined how (white) American
settlement recapitulated continually the evolutionary stages from sav-
agery through agrarianism to civilization as it advanced across the United
States.67 Each section of the country repeated the process from English
settlement on the East Coast until the Superintendent of the Census
declared the frontier had effectively ceased in 1890. For Turner, the con-
stant recapitulation of evolutionary stages on each frontier explained why
the United States differed from European nations in values, outlook, and
national character: the reversion to earlier social relationships reinforced
the democratic society of that level throughout United States history. The
school that Turner founded dominated the interpretation of United
States history until after the Second World War.68
As these last paragraphs indicate, a second kind of viewpoint may be
summarized as conceptual, that is how the world is represented from the
standpoint of a belief system, ideology, or worldview. This is the domain
proper of intellectual and cultural history. The history of ideas from
Arthur Lovejoy’s earlier mapping out of what he called “unit ideas” to
recent Anglophone attention to the history of political discourses to the
current Germanic interest in begriffsgeschichte, or conceptual history, all
trace formal ideas over time. Lovejoy’s interest in the assumptions ground-
ing the Elizabethan chain of being, Quentin Skinner’s detailed examina-
tion of how the meaning of Hobbes’ and Locke’s words derived from
intended action and political context, and Reinhold Koselleck’s extended
historical analyses of political and historical concepts all focus on the lan-
guage of academic and other formal thinkers.69 Although cultural history
also takes the human symbolic realm as its subject, it stresses collective
representations, general assumptions, common perceptions, and even
communal feelings, particularly of ordinary people. Just as philosophy as
a discipline proved handy to intellectual historians, so anthropology pro-
vided inspiration and models for cultural historians. If intellectual histo-
rians frequently deal with the academic and formal ideas or even the
so-called elite culture of a people, cultural historians attempt to interpret
culture more generally according to their anthropological insight.70
Cultural history of this kind was perhaps best known first through the
French study of mentalités but more recently the field has proliferated
through the study of cultural practices, representations, productions, per-
formances, and contingent but structured occasions. Two of the classic

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studies in the field utilized detailed inquisitorial records to reconstruct the

worldviews of common people. The Italian microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg
used the seemingly eccentric but original cosmology of Menocchio, a six-
teenth-century Friulian miller who was eventually burned at the stake, to
portray the conflict between and yet interdependence of elite and popu-
lar culture.71 The French Annaliste Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie seemed to
present the very lives and thoughts of the early fourteenth-century vil-
lagers of Montaillou, whether that was the nature of their housing and
habits, sheepherding and ecological practices, the relations between men
and women, sexual norms and experiences, gesture and gossip, or atti-
tudes toward death, nature, the hereafter, and the past.72 More recent cul-
tural historians explored the image and representation of the body and its
parts, Parisian apprentices massacring cats, the nature and practice of
reading and the culture of the book, and common emotions and general
perceptions of all kinds. Just as cultural historians enlarged their purview
to include such topics, so too have they begun to apply their approaches
to political, economic, and social history topics. In doing so, these histo-
rians have reversed the long-standing professional commitment to the
primacy of the political, economic, and social history of culture to develop
instead the cultural history of the political, the economic, and the social.73
Intellectual and cultural histories would appear a prime application of
re-presentation of the evidence given their methods and goals, but con-
struction always accompanies such efforts as interpretation, conclusion,
or lesson. Although cultural history, for example, supposedly seeks to
understand past worlds in terms of how their inhabitants did, such a goal
necessitates as much construction as any other kind of history. Even Carlo
Ginzburg artfully organizes his seemingly endless quotation from the
inquisitorial records, carefully construes the significance of the questions
asked and how answered in terms of his own inquiries, and ultimately
extrapolates some larger conclusions about the relationship of popular
and elite cultures from the recorded evidence as he re-presents it. Even the
literal re-presentation of the past through authentic material objects in a
museum requires much interpretive construction, as we shall see in Chapter 4.
Perhaps more than in any other kinds of history, intellectual and cul-
tural histories juxtapose past and current conceptions of reality. Such jux-
taposition poses choices which in turn necessitate interpretation and
construction by historians. While such choice particularly confronts the
historians when their evidence describes the actuality of witches, magic,
and miracles, they face the same basic problem when the sources present
or posit racial, gender, or ethnic inferiority. Ultimately intellectual and

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76 • Fashioning History

cultural history probes the very foundational assumptions of professional

history today. When and why did the past become considered different
from the present? When, how, and why did the assumptions of source
criticism allow the winnowing of facts from their evidential context?
When and how were the nature of narrative and other modern expository
forms accepted as the mediums appropriate to professional history?
When and how were the divisions of time naturalized and made funda-
mental to historical understanding? How and when did factual accuracy,
objectivity, neutral chronology, and temporal plenitude come to measure
what was proper for professional history?
The third kind of viewpoint may be designated in general as evalua-
tive, that is, people and events are judged according to some one’s moral
standards or value system. Do the values and morals come from the his-
torical world of the past or from world of the present? Should historians
(and their audiences) judge the morals of past people by our own? Or, are
ethics best appreciated and applied as a matter of time and place? Absolute
moral judgments condemn some behavior as bad no matter when and
where. Situational or contextual ethics seem inadequate for the sins of
racism, genocide, and oppression. But what about equal condemnation for
poverty, sickness, illiteracy, war, and criminal executions? What of praise
for the ethical treatment of animals and the philosophy of vegetarianism?
Historicism as the principal insight of the modern historical profes-
sion only compounds the ethical problem. Although the meaning of the
word has generated controversy since its German invention in the nine-
teenth century, the core of the conception lies in the assumption that
thoughts, activities, and institutions are best described and explained as
somehow fitting together in the era in which they are said to occur.
Understanding past people’s ideas and actions in terms of their times
stresses specificity, uniqueness, and temporal location, and that orienta-
tion has remained fundamental to the historical discipline.74
Such an orientation suggests two approaches to ethics and morality:
(1) each era as well as people has its own standards for judging the behav-
ior of then and there and (2) historians today have their own moral crite-
ria as a result of their own changed times. Should historians thus accept
the morality and ethical criteria of past actors as agents or the standards of
modern times and society? Historicism would seem therefore to hoist his-
torians on the petard of their most cherished insight. The historical
method goes only so far in ameliorating the problem. The moral views of
past persons and their societies can be re-presented as “facts” in their own
words and perhaps actions from the surviving evidence. On the other

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hand, the historian can construe, that is infer and construct, past ethics
from the silence of the sources on the matters investigated. Of course, the
historian can eschew explicit moral evaluation but certainly imply it
through the quotations and paraphrases she uses in re-presenting matters.
In still another strategy, the historian can assert that her moral ends give
meaning to facts about the past for a present-day audience. In all these
cases, the professional principles or context of the modern historian do
not resolve the moral issues of re-presentation and construction, of implicit
versus explicit judgments, and absolute morality or contextualist ethics.75
The fourth and last kind of viewpoint is grounded on an emotional
stance or empathetic identification. How should the historian and the
audience feel about the subject of a biography, the goals of a political or
social movement, or the nature of a cultural achievement after hearing a
lecture, reading a book, attending an exhibition, or seeing a film? Was some
moment in the past a golden age from which the present is a decline? Or,
should the audience feel better about the present in light of comparison,
explicit or implicit, to the past? No matter what museum curators do to
forestall such implicit comparisons between past and present lifestyles,
museum viewers usually note the great progress in technology at the same
time as some lament the more rushed and complicated life such progress
brought. In the end, should the book reader, lecture listener, museum
attendee, or film viewer feel good, bad, or neutral about change, persis-
tence, stability, or transformation in the past?76
Diverse perspectives and meanings as with other kinds of interpreta-
tions arise from historians, their critics, and their audiences being situated
in specific but different social (and temporal) locations with differential
access to power, knowledge, and its distribution. Their very situations
surely influence, perhaps determine, what they consider truth, reality,
facts, and the meaning of history. When approved of by a wide circle of
people in and out of the profession, the perspectives and meanings are
considered truthful and objective. When they are confined to a small cir-
cle of advocates, the majority considers them biased and subjective or just
unimportant. Does this mean that truthfulness, objectivity, and factuality
are ultimately a function of numbers and/or power, first in the profession
and then in the larger society?77
Arguments in the historical profession over partiality and impartiality,
truth and propaganda, partisanship and neutrality, fact and value have
traditionally centered on the notion of objectivity.78 Conventionally, the
notion of objectivity pertains to the relation between the observer and the
observed object. By definition, objectivity presumes the characteristics of

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78 • Fashioning History

the object itself solely determine the understanding of its nature by all
observers—as is supposedly the case in the physical sciences. In this view
of matters, therefore, the perspectives of the observers are not relevant to
the description of the object and maybe even to its explanation. Subjectivity
in contrast assumes the understanding of the object depends upon the
perspective of observer. Explanation in this view is not only dependent
upon the perspective taken by the observer but so may the description of
the object. For those who believe in the possibility of objectivity in his-
torical practice, truth results from the correspondence between the pre-
sumed reality of the past and the empirical investigation of the record it
generated. If interpretations differ, then the facts will determine their
truth, for in the end facts exist prior to and independent of interpretation.
If perspectives are many, truth is one for the known can be separated from
the knower and facts from values and viewpoints. Ultimately in this view,
history must and can be separated from fiction in order to avoid the evil
of relativism and all that means for the justification and very existence of
the profession itself. Of course, the possibility of objectivity in historical
practice depends upon one’s perspective on these issues.79
Although the ideal of rigorous objectivity has long justified profes-
sional practices and products, most historians honor such strictness only
in spirit today. Professional ethics, social theory, and contending inter-
pretive community affiliations all point elsewhere. If (absolute) objectiv-
ity means being free of all (social) context and independent of all interpretive
frameworks, then few today subscribe to such a view. If objectivity means
that a project follows professional procedures and represents the majority
opinion in a profession, then many more subscribe to this version in the-
ory and even more in practice. If objectivity means agreements only
among some and not other interpretive communities, then fewer may
subscribe in theory even though they may claim that the ideal still justi-
fies their truths versus those of others. In that sense they are all espouse
realism as the most useful philosophical foundation for the discipline.80
Both multiculturalism and postmodernism highlight the existence of
multiple voices and viewpoints in practice as well as theory. Accordingly,
viewpoint can no longer be considered from nowhere at all, a position the
intellectual historian Allan Megill cleverly named “immaculate percep-
tion,”81 or everywhere at once, usually denominated the omniscient or
God view. Thus Donna Haraway warns in her oft-cited article “Situated
Knowledges” against speaking universally but thinking locally. She argues,
“objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and
definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits

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and responsibility.” She goes on to point out that from a feminist point of
view “The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective
vision. . . . It allows us to become answerable for what we learn to see.”82
Social engagement, if anything, enhances the ability to see as well as promote
the truth.
To serve the end of truthfulness, objectivity need not, indeed cannot,
be neutral, as the American intellectual historian Thomas Haskell argues
so forcefully, “I see nothing to admire in neutrality. My conception of
objectivity . . . is compatible with strong political commitment. It pays no
premium for standing in the middle of the road, and it recognizes that
scholars are as passionate and as likely to be driven by interest as those
they write about. It does not value even detachment as an end in itself,
but only as an end in indispensable prelude or preparation for the
achievement of higher levels of understanding.”83
Such commitment and passion ensures conflict among rival perspec-
tives, which in turn assures the individual scholar’s partial viewpoints
become the community of scholars’ responsible pursuit of moral and
other truths. (This passionate objectivity demands as it presumes open
debate in the profession and the larger society.) The German theorist of
history Jörn Rüsen makes the point even more forcefully: neutrality is the
denial of history because without perspective historical discourse has no
meaning. Neither narrative nor metastory can exist without the histo-
rian’s viewpoint.84 Or, as the British military historian Michael Howard
put it so pithily, “No bias, no book.”85
Objectivity, in short, is intersubjective agreement in both practice and
theory, as it derives from dialogues first within the profession and then
between the profession and the divisions of the larger society.86 The truths
affirmed by such a view of objectivity are idiosyncratic or political until
their truthfulness is ratified by a majority of the profession voting by
favorable reviews, election to prestigious professional offices, awarding of
fellowships and jobs, and the conferring of prominent chairs and honors.
Truthfulness and objectivity in this view depend upon how many differ-
ent groupings hold how much in common about what it takes to produce
a valid history. Truthfulness and objectivity are, first, a consequence of
intersubjective agreement among individuals in an interpretive commu-
nity and, second, negotiation between interpretive communities to expand
the original circle of agreement. Historical truths result from such objec-
tivity, and both are the products of genre maintenance and policing. Both
truthfulness and objectivity constitute the rationale for the practice of
professional history. As a result, both are said to ground as they supposedly

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80 • Fashioning History

result from the procedures of historical methods and syntheses. Using the
rhetoric of factuality, truthfulness, and a new definition of objectivity
against their supposed enemy relativism shows historians are once again
being practical realists about their discipline and profession.
The more viewpoints and voices in the historical guild and in general
society, the more traditional history is challenged in forms of exposition
and explanation. Such a challenge underlines not only the role politics
plays within historical arguments and narratives as such but also suggests
the politics entwined in the various kinds of histories and the very nature
of history in general. No place is this political foundation better seen these
days than in the relationship between gender and genre. Concentration on
female work and roles in and out of family settings not only changed or
expanded the facts but also the forms of history. Political and military his-
tory excluded women and large sectors of society; social and cultural his-
tory included more groups and made the past relevant to the hitherto
socially marginalized.87 Indeed, some feminist theorists argue that the
whole fight over objectivity in the discipline and the search for the one
best story is a male approach to the world and the past. In their opinion,
then, gender and genre maintenance had gone hand in hand earlier in the
Regardless of one’s positions on these matters, one must conclude that
perspectives and meaning(s) pervade histories and find expression through
voice and viewpoint in texts and other mediums. Sometimes they are
explicit as part of the argument, story, or explanation. Sometimes they are
implicit in the very framework of interpretation, choice of research
design, how historical reality is defined, or subtextually between the lines.
Perspectives and meaning(s) in histories can re-present those found in the
sources, or historians can impose them through their interpretive con-
structions. Sometimes the perspectives are widely shared by other histori-
ans and their audiences, sometimes not. In the latter instance, each
contending side accuses the other of advocacy, partiality, bias, distortion,
or propaganda and attributes to itself impartiality, perspective, factuality,
and truthfulness. Both recontextualize the past according to their view-
point and purposes.
Multiculturalist and feminist theory underscored the presence of view-
point in every history at the same time as that understanding undermined
the monopoly or universality of any one viewpoint in the discipline. In
this state of diversity, then, the lessons of history will always be most man-
ifest to those who propound them but not necessarily to others. The
meaning of (a?) history will be clearest to those of the same interpretive

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Historical Synthesis • 81

school that elucidates it but challenged by those in other schools. From

this standpoint, the uses of history are many but the ultimate purpose is
the same: to offer convincing, yet presumably accurate, representations of
the past to as many individuals as possible. The diversity of viewpoints
makes such a goal a challenge. Perspective and context, meaning and
viewpoint, interests and uses, purposes and products must therefore be as
much a part of historical practice as they are always a part of historical
theory. To put something into historical perspective is to put it into some
historical context, and vice versa, and both are shaped by personal, pro-
fessional, and larger societal contexts at the time.

Schools of Interpretation and Metanarratives

Schools of historical interpretation and metanarratives are not only the
culmination but, paradoxically, often the inspiration for historical syn-
theses, even their foundation. Historical synthesis culminates in interpre-
tive schools and metanarratives because of the historian’s quest for an
ever-larger context to organize her story and argument, to interpret and
explain the multitude of events, and to provide larger perspective and
meaning for a history. Conversely, the historian can synthesize narrative
and argument, explanation and interpretation, perspective and meaning
into compelling relationships with each other in a history through con-
textualization according to the premises of some historiographic school or
In either case, the act of contextualizing history eventuates in a histor-
ical interpretation. Interpretation is a much used term by historians,
hence has many meanings in the profession.89 Interpretation is both a
practice and a product of the historical enterprise. As a practice, as we see
throughout this book, it pervades all aspects of historical research and
synthesis. It possesses at least four meanings as a product of those practices.
An interpretation, in one widespread usage, is the personal imprint an
historian gives any one history through the selection of facts and general-
izations, their overall organization, the pattern of meaning presented, and
the lessons elicited and perspectives adopted. An interpretation in this
sense refers to the style, broadly speaking, of a historical work, and is con-
veyed primarily through voice and viewpoint. Such “style” embodies the
individualistic, creative side of historical practice—the great goal of all
humanistic enterprises in modern times. Scholars presume that such an
interpretation reflects the historian’s social background, political outlook,
and scholarly and other commitments.

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82 • Fashioning History

To the extent that several or more histories embrace the same special
methods, set of arguments, or basic perspective, they are referred to as a
school of interpretation. That method is the basis of the school is clear in
oral history and the quantitative and psychoanalytical schools of his-
tory.90 The terms Marxist and neo-Marxist were applied to a number of
schools in the twentieth century that were inspired by the perspective and
methodology of the great nineteenth-century social theorist.91 Arguably
the most famous of twentieth-century schools was the French Annales
school. The second name of its journal, Annales: Économies, Sociéties,
Civilization, suggests its ambitious program.92 What distinguished the
diverse practitioners of this school was the focus on the continuing effects
of long-term phenomena as opposed to day-to-day events: slow changing
patterns of trade and economy, persisting kinship and social relations,
enduring intellectual systems or mentalités, or even slower climatic or
demographic cycles. As mentioned earlier, successive schools of United
States historiography are commonly designated the progressive or eco-
nomic interpretation from the first decades of the twentieth century to
the end of the Second World War; the consensus or counterprogressive
interpretation in the 1950s and 1960s; and the New Left or neoprogres-
sive interpretation from the 1970s onward. Those histories of history-
writing known as historiography frequently study changing interpretive
schools. To consider the nature of an interpretive school begins the shift
from an individual history or histories to the idea of the past as history.
The search for a larger context for general histories or even history in
general underlies the third and fourth meanings of interpretation. If
many historians’ search for a larger context results in the same explicit
overall story, then we can call it a master narrative, perhaps a dominant or
governing narrative, or even a grand narrative. Such a master narrative
might result from either the implications the historian draws from a more
specialized history, that is, the larger story of which the special history is
a part, or it might be the topic of a more general history. Some well-
known master or grand narratives are the rise and spread of Western cap-
italism, nationalism, and imperialism across continents and centuries.93
When the framework or larger context is implicit in a number of his-
tories, it may be termed a metanarrative.94 Metanarratives are literally the
grand or great stories behind the more explicit stories. These implicit
grand narratives or major interpretive codings are the strings that hold the
necklace(s) of facts, explanations, and generalizations together not only in
both specialized and general histories but also in any exposition of history
in general. They provide the contextual coherence for the larger truth of

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a history, and they validate that history as they organize it. Where once
history revealed the working of God’s will, classic historical metanarra-
tives since the Enlightenment relied on the ever-greater development and
dominion of reason especially as seen in scientific and technological
advancement, the inexorable spread of freedom as institutionalized in lib-
eral democracy or prophesied by Marxism, and the confidence in inevitable
progress to provide the ultimate, universal truths of history (even though
modeled on Western themes and institutions and from a Western per-
spective). Recent metanarratives counter these classic ones by stressing
the persistence of ethnicity and social and cultural diversity, agency over
nature in creating ethnic and sexual identities; the spread of global capi-
talism with its many discontents; the empowerment of subordinated
peoples and the rise of postcolonial hybrid cultures; the seemingly apoca-
lyptic ecological constraints on modern economies; and finally even the
arguments over the existence and effects of late industrialism and post-
modernism. Like the old, the new metanarratives seek to provide ultimate
answers about the origins, purposes, and fate of a people, even though the
claims of the new may seem less universal and ethnocentric to us today
than those of the old.
What separates the third and fourth meanings of interpretation is how
evident or hidden, how explicit or implicit, is the “string” holding together
the necklace of facts and other statements in an individual history, a gen-
eral history, a school of history, or especially in what is referred to as his-
tory in general. Whether explicit or implicit, grand or metanarratives
provide the most basic and largest contexts of all kinds of histories. The
larger the contextualization provided by such a narrative, the more likely
it is implicit, and the more likely it is this implicit story that gives coher-
ence to the ostensibly disparate facts, explanations, and generalizations
presented. Metanarratives underlie both individual and collective memo-
ries and supply the links between them. Such metanarratives, by provid-
ing a fundamental context, shape histories regardless of medium and topic.95
Questions of identity and origins particularly evoke metanarratives for
their answers. Who are the “we” presumed in a lesson, book, exhibit, or
film? If national progress has abated as a dominant narrative to organize
histories, the central role of the nation as the chief setting for history still
thrives. While the idea of the nation no longer is accepted as the inevitable
and natural outcome of a people’s history, the nation is still the normal
stage for presentation of many histories, although called the state, a soci-
ety, or a culture. The academic history profession is still divided mainly
according to national histories. Nationalism may need to be explained in

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84 • Fashioning History

history but history departments remain mainly organized by national his-

tories. Many major journals, such as the American Historical Review, arrange
most of their reviews by geographical area as well as time. American,
English, French, and German exceptionalism still thrives in metahistori-
cal practice if not always in theory.96
Ethnicity is not only a major component of collective memory but
also the basis of many a national history yet today. Whiteness studies trace
the evolution of certain nationalities becoming “American” and predom-
inant in United States history. “White” constituted the main ethnic affil-
iation of those Americans that figured prominently in the history of the
United States from its English colonial beginnings, which concealed any
Native American or Spanish genesis. Anglo-Americans long assumed
themselves the majority and without “ethnicity.” Only “immigrants” or
“minority” persons possessed race or ethnicity in this story. And histori-
ans seconded this opinion explicitly and tacitly until recently whenever
they spoke or wrote of the “American people.”97 In a similar manner, the
preferred metanarrative of the “English people” traces their roots to the
invading Angles and Saxons rather than the indigenous Britons and
ancient Celts.98 Such competing metanarratives of national racial and
ethnic origins are common to many peoples.99
That ethnic metanarratives even ground the origins of Western civi-
lization is shown by the heated controversy over the claims of political sci-
entist Martin Bernal that ancient Greek civilization originated with Semitic
Phoenician and Egyptian peoples rather than later Indo-European north-
erners. In his provocatively titled, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of
Classical Civilization, he argues that this history, acknowledged by the
ancient Greeks themselves, was ignored or distorted beginning in the late
eighteenth century in order to give a white European ancestry to those
later Greek achievements considered the foundations of Western civiliza-
tion.100 By the early twentieth century this racist-motivated “Aryan myth”
had triumphed over ancient knowledge, according to him. Bernal’s asser-
tions elicited a vast outpouring of books and Web sites denying or sup-
porting his scholarship and reasoning.101
The whole idea of otherness depends as much on a metanarrative as
does sameness.102 Sameness and otherness receive visual, often vivid, por-
trayal in museum displays. Do the peoples depicted in the exhibit look
and act like “us” to encourage identity, or are they presented in ways to
show difference and relativism? The answers to this question are particu-
larly evident in museum exhibits about early humans: are they repre-
sented as more ape-like or more “human”? Questions about similarity and

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difference can be applied to any of the so-called prehistoric peoples and

their modes of life. The lives and artifacts of Native Americans and others
long presumed “people without history,” to once again use Eric Wolf ’s
title, are displayed in natural history or anthropological museums as
opposed to history museums. On the other hand, archaic Greek, Roman,
Egyptian, and Near and Middle Eastern peoples and their societies are
represented in historical museums as well as archaeological ones. Only
recently are the Mayan, Incan, and Aztecan civilizations being accorded
the same status.
Feminist scholars and women’s historians still fight the metanarrative
of male-dominated histories that either exclude the activities of women
altogether or relegate them to the margins of the story. Once again this
issue is depicted visually in museum murals and dioramas of gender. This
matter concerns less the physical appearance of men and women and
more where they are located in a display and what they are doing. Are the
men central and active while the women are peripheral and passive or
even absent? Do the men’s activities, such as fighting or business, and the
women’s activities, such as cooking or housekeeping, confirm traditional
stereotypes of male and female roles and, more importantly, the worth of
those roles?103 According to some scholars this male bias is even marked
in archaeology’s naming of cultural stages by tool making. To designate
human cultural epochs as Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages is to stress male
activities and artifacts. Even to argue that civilization and history began
with writing favors male over female activities.104 In the end, is the “mas-
ter” narrative of western civilization still a male story in all too many texts,
films, and museum displays?
Although Enlightenment faith in the progress of civilization appears
dead for moral and political affairs, that metanarrative still constitutes the
implicit if not explicit basis for medicine and technology in many a lec-
ture, book, and museum exhibition. Though the historians producing
these histories deny such an explicit lesson, their hearers, readers, and
attendees draw that conclusion so popular is the metanarrative. Even his-
torians writing about the history of history all too often imply that recent
interpretations are superior to older ones. That trend is reinforced by the
normative turn in the return to history in the social sciences as well as the
historical profession itself. Emphases on the morality of historic agents
leads to judgments of their actions as better and worse, which extends to
lauding newer histories emphasizing that approach over older ones seek-
ing, even professing, neutrality if not always finding it. Particularly revealing

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86 • Fashioning History

are the changing judgments on past historical interpretations and the

search for the precedents of today’s more approved histories.105
In the end, all kinds of histories, whether argumentative or narrative,
whether the history of a life, a town, a region, a nation, or the world; of a
day, year, decade, century, millennium, or longer; no matter how partial
or comprehensive, all rely explicitly or implicitly on a larger narrative
context to frame their arguments, specific stories, moral lessons, and per-
spectives. To cover both the explicitness of grand narrative and the implic-
itness of metanarrative, I employed the term “Great Story.”106 Great Stories
serve as the larger or largest framework for organizing the disparate,
embedded stories and arguments of a segment of history, whether partial
or more general, short term or longer. They provide the coherence so nec-
essary to make what otherwise would be a chronicle or annals into a nar-
rative history. In current practice, such Great Stories serve as the larger
context for an overall approach to a national, transnational, or even global
Such Great Stories underlie even the past itself conceived as (a) history.
The only question, as the parenthesis in the preceding sentence indicates,
is whether the ultimate context of the past as history is one or more Great
Stories. Numerous Great Stories exist in normal historical practice, but
does the profession seek or at least prefer one overall Great Story as the
(an?) ultimate and necessary context for all the other contexts? Historians
once thought such comprehensive Great Stories were only the province of
(and most evident in) the speculative or universal histories seeking the
ultimate meaning of the entire human past, whether as class struggle,
clash of civilizations, technological improvement, or democratic advance.
Now they recognize that even less grand interpretive efforts use some sort
of Great Story to provide conceptual structure in humbler, everyday his-
tories. The construction of a Great Story or Stories as context in a history,
in an interpretive school, or for history in general constitute the ultimate
intervention by the historian to make “sense” of the past as history. Some
scholars therefore believe the greatest metanarrative is the standard,
unquestioned approach to historic time in western discourse.108
Subtextual analysis, or “reading between the lines,” of a history or his-
tory in general is the domain proper of metahistory. No longer reserved
for the great universal interpretations of all history or the search for the
ultimate meaning of the past, metahistory today explores on one hand the
larger and largest contexts posited by histories in general in the profession
and on the other hand the foundational premises of historical methodol-
ogy underlying those histories and therefore the fashioning of them. In

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Historical Synthesis • 87

the former case, metahistory examines the implicit models of human

behavior (classically hidden in traditional histories), the implications of
the politics presumed in a history, or the premises and nature of a histor-
ical narrative. In the latter case, metahistory looks at the epistemological
and ontological presumptions of a history or history in general as prac-
ticed by a school or the whole profession or examines the linguistic rules,
the rhetorical strategies, and the premises of historical narrative in gen-
eral. (The study of such rules and premises is known in literary theory as
narratology and what is studied is called narrativity.) Metahistory in both
of its forms provides as it studies the context of contexts, the framework
for the embedded layers of a history, and the premises that generates them.
In its most controversial form, metahistory studies the imaginative
configuring historians perform to shape their material at its very founda-
tions. Hayden White, whose Metahistory gave the term its new meaning,
argues that historians emplot their (hi)stories according to the same four
basic forms of romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire as other literary
authors. Likewise, he insists that the imaginative prefiguring that grounds
their texts takes the form of four classic rhetorical tropes: metaphor,
metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Whether dividing all of the historical
imagination into four parts is too few, too many, or just right is of less
concern to my argument at this point, then what such a scheme implies
about the nature of history and historical practice. To extend for the
moment White’s reasoning, are there only so many general plots by which
historical syntheses can be organized? Students of literary narratives find
only a limited number of plot elements and structures. Hayden White’s
stress on four basic emplotments and prefigurings as common literary
structures suggests that historical narratives are restricted in their basic
variety in the same way, despite the infinity of actors, events, and times
that such structures may contain. In the end, must all of the past be fash-
ioned into one or another Great Story in order to comprehend the
changes in human actions and institutions over time? Or, can historians
postulate and conceive of the past as a big picture that cannot be fully
narrativized? If the entire past cannot be narrativized as such, then must
one understand that big picture as some great annals or great chronicles
rather than a version of proper history? If this is the case, the past only
becomes history through the creation of histories by historians. History
conceived as a whole is the idealized or hypothesized story of the past pos-
tulated and extrapolated from various historians’ histories.
All of history therefore shares the same characteristics common to all
histories. Historical syntheses may be narrative or argument, but most

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88 • Fashioning History

histories use both. Historical syntheses unite explanation and interpreta-

tion through style and rhetoric. Historical syntheses combine meaning
and perspective through voice and viewpoint. Contextualization ranges
from the simple juxtaposition of factual statements to Great Stories them-
selves. Great Stories vary from explicit petit récits to overt master narra-
tives, from complexes of implicit presuppositions to entire metanarratives.
While all histories have common characteristics, they vary by degrees of
intervention and interpretation by historians acting as supposed interme-
diaries between the survivals from the past and the type of historical prod-
ucts they create in the present. The next three chapters examine the
relationships among the empirical and the literary and artistic elements
within various genres of history.

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Comparing Histories

Forms, Functions, Factuality,

and the Bigger Picture
With the general elements of method and synthesis common to various
sorts of histories outlined in the two previous chapters, we can turn to
how these elements combine in specific forms or genres of histories. First,
how do the elements of practice fit together in a particular history? How,
in short, is it fashioned in both its parts and as a whole by what aspects of
empirical method and textual synthesis? Second, what types of methods
and modes of synthesis prevail in each genre or type of history? Historians
draw upon processes from both historical method and historical synthesis
for each kind of product, but various kinds of products display different
mixes or proportions of the two sets of operations. Our basic concerns
can best be expressed in a series of questions derived from the general
processes involved in both methods and synthesis.
A focus on historical method raises questions in general as to what is
the relationship between the raw materials said to ground a product and
its overall nature. The traditional, empirical side of historical practice
assumes that the raw materials are primary sources and that the finished
product is a historical monograph or article extrapolated from those
sources, but general histories, archival collections, documentary films,
and museum exhibitions all highlight the varying nature of raw materials
as well as the different relationships alleged between raw materials and a
final product. Hence various histories raise questions about just what are
presumed to be the raw materials in any given case in addition to how far
or closely connected the finished product is to its supposed raw materials?
Can one measure crudely from the viewpoint of empirical methods the

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90 • Fashioning History

amount and kind of a historian’s intervention in a given product by the

distance in a sense between the nature of the alleged evidence, the actual
basis of the inferred data, the conclusions drawn from the created data,
and the proportion of other synthetic elements to this data?
Another set of questions arises from the processes involved in synthe-
sis. What is the role of argument, story, explanation, and ethical judg-
ment in the shaping of the statements in a historical product? This
question derived from the processes of synthesis applies both to individ-
ual statements in a history and to their totality as an overall historical syn-
thesis.1 What statements, for example, derive directly from the nature of
the perspective, the basic values, and the preferred politics of the orga-
nizer of the synthesis as opposed to being re-produced or constructed fac-
tual statements said to be derived from the sources? How do voice and
viewpoint shape the specific statements? In other words, this search pre-
sumes material can be found in a historical synthesis that is additional to
what traditionalists point to as the empirical foundations of the historical
enterprise. I raise these questions, not only about the nature of synthesis
in any one historical product, but also how the elements of synthetic
process are combined in various genres ranging from archival collections
to general history books, from a collection of material objects to whole
museums, from documentary films to popular historical blockbusters.
These general questions guide the framework of the next three chap-
ters as I apply them to three broad classes of historical products. Chapter
3 seeks answers to the questions raised above about what I call in short
“texts,” which range from archival collections to full-fledged histories,
from edited sources to grand narratives. The next chapter asks these ques-
tions of material objects, or what I dub “things” in general, which vary
from specific artifacts to museum exhibitions, from historical sites to her-
itage parks. Chapter 5 applies the framework to moving visual images, or
what I label, “films,” which embrace home movies as well as Hollywood
productions, documentary films, and television news.
Comparison of how empirical and synthetic components comprise
histories also reveals the framework of assumptions grounding words his-
torians commonly use to describe what they do. Thus “intervention” and
often “inference” depend upon the type of connections assumed between
sources, especially material objects, and their interpretation as conceived
by empirical methodology. “Extrapolation” and “invention” rely more on
the literary and textualist approaches to understanding the nature of his-
tories as representations. “Interpretation” as an activity seems to cover

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Comparing Histories • 91

connections ranging from the use of sources to the adoption of a meta-

Last, I employ the term “emplotment” and its variants in the remain-
der of the book to signify that the process of ordering characters, events,
and the other content of a historical representation is greater than just
what is called a plot or plotting in a narrative. Such considerations as
social theory, ethics, and other matters considered in the last chapter
combine with the facts derived from evidence to order the statements in
a text, the arrangement of objects in a museum, or the sequence of shots
in a film. Emplotment in this broader usage implies that all historical rep-
resentations are shaped by standard cultural and literary forms and gener-
ally based on a grand or metanarrative.

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Texts as Archives and Histories

exts became the chief focus of historians as they professionalized
in the nineteenth century. Source criticism and the historical
method principally dealt with documentary evidence. Historians
edited documents, wrote monographs, and presented lectures as the prod-
ucts preferred by the new profession. Even history in general was understood
chiefly as a text writ large. That heritage still influences the profession today.

Processing Survivals as Sources

To consider the relationships between what empiricists deem primary
sources and the interpretive elements of textual synthesis, I start with the
collection, preservation, and presentation of survivals as sources by such
institutional intermediaries as archives, rare book libraries, manuscript
repositories, records centers, and museums of various kinds. If the histo-
rian acts today as an intermediary between a presumed past and its expli-
cation and exposition as history, then archivists, librarians, curators, and
other institutional agents operate as intermediaries between today’s histo-
rians and their sources from and about that past. A brief glance at the
acknowledgments and bibliography in any monograph or the credits at
the end of a documentary film confirms the dependence of so much of
modern historical scholarship on these institutional intermediaries. It is
to these institutions’ handling of survivals, then, that we look for the his-
torian’s earliest interpretive intervention in the process of converting sur-
vivals into sources.
Archivists use the term “processing” in two different ways. For some,
processing designates all the operations performed on a set of records
before opening the set to public use.2 Thus the term would include what
archivists call the “acquisition” or “accession” of the records from the creator

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94 • Fashioning History

organization or its successor by direct transfer or through gift, bequest, pur-

chase, or conditional deposit from the present owner. Acquisition not
only includes physical custody but legal and administrative control of a
body of records. Such transfer might place some restrictions as to when
the records might be opened to public research or whether permission
might be needed for direct quotation in order to protect living or past
persons. Such restrictions are not only common to papers of public offi-
cials but also to records from corporations, labor unions, universities,
philanthropic societies, and even historical associations.3
Evaluation, or what archivists call “appraisal,” of a set of records deter-
mines what is of long-term worth in the records from the viewpoint of
current and future administrative, legal, fiscal, historical, genealogical, or
other uses—and what should be disposed of or destroyed as of little or no
use to any current or presumed future constituency. One of the great
archival problems of modern societies is the enormous amount of records
generated in all sectors. Whereas, for example, the United States govern-
ment produced 100,000 cubic feet of records between the American
Revolution and the Civil War, it generated 3.5 million cubic feet between
1917 and 1930. By the last decades of the twentieth century, the federal
government created as many records every four months as it produced
between the Revolution and the First World War.4 In light of this deluge
of records, it is estimated that no more than perhaps 1 percent of current
records can be retained, in spite of proliferating Federal Records Centers.
What is true for the output of governments today holds for other organi-
zations as well, and the vastly increased use of electronic communications
and records present problems of preservation as well as the quantity of
output. Sometimes records are deliberately destroyed, sometimes merely
concealed to maintain secrecy for legal or other reasons, such as with
Internal Revenue Service records, United States tobacco companies’
knowledge of the health effects of smoking, Iran-Contra dealings under
the Reagan administration, or bank accounts and other assets of Holocaust
victims.5 Sometimes the destruction is inadvertent because of bad guesses
about what will prove of value to historians, lawyers, identity seekers, and
others in the future. And then there is always the expense of preservation
and added storage space. In all cases, archivists and others judge what to
do in each instance according to one or more contexts supplied by narra-
tives prevalent in the discipline or their profession.
“Conservation” or “preservation” refers to steps taken to maintain the
records in a stable state for the foreseeable, perhaps indefinite, future and
the repairs they may need to achieve that permanence. Concerns about

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Texts as Archives and Histories • 95

conservation and preservation extend to the nature and type of “storage”

the records receive, such as acid-free folders and boxes; the control of
humidity, temperature and amount of light; and security. “Storage” also
refers to the appropriate kinds of accommodations or space for the vari-
ous kinds of records received these days: paper, electronic, sound and
video recordings, photographs and motion picture films, maps and charts,
and paintings and posters. Preservation extends from such rudimentary
practices as the removal of rusting clips and fasteners and various kinds of
deteriorating tape to complicated processes for cleaning dirt, removing
mold, stabilizing brittle and deteriorating paper or film, and protecting
faded writing and colors from light.6
“Access” refers to the ultimate purpose of the archives: to open the
records to scholars, lawyers, public officials, journalists, students, local
historians, and other users. What are the policies on access? Under what
rules and conditions do users get to examine the records? Are all who seek
access treated equally? Are there legal or donor’s restrictions on certain
records about copying them, even seeing them? Does the archival reposi-
tory have rules on where and when the records can be used; on how many
records the user can see at one time; and on the use of pens, pencils, and
computers? What methods of retrieval exist to locate specific documents
and collections? What sorts of finding aids have archives and other repos-
itories produced to help users locate the collections and even specific
documents relevant to their purposes and projects? What is the role of
electronic media in offering access? Are the catalogs and other finding
aids online so potential users can search them from other locations?
Increasingly, archives and libraries offer access to their collections online.
What kinds of documents do archives and libraries select to digitize for
research online?7
Archivists generally apply the term “processing” only to the core of
their efforts to gain intellectual and physical control over a set of records.
These efforts at analysis and organization of the records they usually call
“arrangement” and “description,” and they constitute the conceptual
heart of the archivists’ job according to books on archival practice and
theory. That the word “archives” derives from the Greek term for “govern-
ment house” suggests the corporate or bureaucratic nature of the records
that need arranging and describing in this kind of institution. France
established the first centralized national archives in 1794. In the United
States Alabama created the first state archives in 1901, but the National
Archives was established only in 1934. The British combined the centuries-
old Public Records Office and the Historical Manuscripts Commission

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96 • Fashioning History

under the name of the National Archives of the United Kingdom in 2003
to create one of the largest collections of public documents in the world.8
If archives originally contained the records generated by governments,
the term today applies to any body of documentation produced by a cor-
porate body or organization that has a specific name and acts as an entity.
Thus schools and universities, stores and business firms, churches and
religious denominations, sports teams and recreation associations, social
organizations and clubs, philanthropic associations and charity societies,
museums and historical associations all generate archives of documents or
records in addition to all those produced by various levels of govern-
ments. Technically speaking, archives contain the noncurrent or discontin-
ued records of such a group. The term “archives” today refers at one and
the same time to the records themselves, the institutional agency han-
dling them at present, and the building or part of a building housing
As part of their original generation and subsequent use, such records
probably had some filing arrangement and system of organization employed
by the creator whether a person, an office, or an agency. The fundamen-
tal, most sacred principle of archival arrangement is to “respect,” that is
preserve, that “original order” and filing system. If the records arrive in
disarray, then archivists try to reconstruct both the order and the filing
system. In pursuit of this goal, archival theory and practice stress that
each agency’s deposited collection (or fonds, the term used by the French
who originated the principle in the nineteenth century) should be main-
tained as a separate entity and not be intermixed with even similar records
from another agency. Thus the arrangement and system of organization
of a set of records both exhibits its “original order” and reflects its origin
or “provenance” in how the records were generated, used, and filed.10
Preferably in practice and certainly in theory, archival arrangement
and description moves from the overall fonds to groups of records, to
series and subseries, to file folders and finally individual documents. In
that sense, the hierarchical arrangement of the records and their descrip-
tion replicate the bureaucratic system of the creating organization and
probably its functions and structure. Thus the records themselves are evi-
dence documenting the functions and activities of their creators at the
same time as they contain evidence about what the creators were thinking
and doing about their worlds. By 2003 the National Archives of the
United States divided its over 4 billion items into 568 record groups, sub-
divided by series.

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Texts as Archives and Histories • 97

Such a hierarchical approach to archival arrangement and description

presumes that documents exist in one or a few copies so that their place
in the system is clear. But what are the implications for these fundamen-
tal archival principles when the same document has simultaneous multi-
ple locations in the electronic age, because the communications structure
if not the managerial hierarchy and the social organization of an agency
resembles a network more than a simple tree chart?
If the initial purpose of “description” is to give archivists control over
their holdings, the ultimate purpose is to facilitate users’ access to the
records. As a general practice, the more voluminous a set of records, the
more the description of its contents is collective and the less reference to
individual items or even file folders. Archivists’ inventories, registers, cat-
alogs, guides, and other “finding aids” provide description by sets, groups,
or series of records rather than individual items as is done in libraries or
at times manuscript collections, because a set of records may measure
hundreds, even thousands, of cubic feet. As their name suggests, finding
aids are meant to provide the user with an overall introduction to a set of
records. They typically discuss the record set’s individual or organiza-
tional origins, the context and evolution of the records and creator
agency, the resulting filing structure, the physical forms and amount of
the records, their general subject matter and contents, their relationship
to other records in the repository (and perhaps elsewhere), and the chief
persons, activities, and organizations mentioned in the records. When
card files and printed catalogues were the common finding aids, libraries
and archives could pursue their own individual methods of classification.
Increased use of electronic records demands the same kind of standard-
ization that libraries have long used in describing their contents.11
In performing these functions, archivists become what might be called
historians of first resort. First, they identify the survivals and authenticate
them as actual sources for the use of other scholars. To do this they inves-
tigate accession documents, peruse the contents of the records, and
research the larger context of the collection. In the process, they may
attribute dates to the undated, surnames to first names, and even names
to the anonymous. To arrange and describe a set of records, they investi-
gate the contents in light of its filing system and reconstruct one where
necessary. They research how the records and the filing system changed
and evolved over time. To achieve these ends, archivists must not only
derive information and clues from the records themselves but also under-
stand the larger history of their creation and the context of their use. In
that sense archivists act like other historians in deriving facts from evidence

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98 • Fashioning History

and making inferences. They must use knowledge from outside the col-
lection to help with arranging and describing it, so that other historians
can use the surviving records as sources. To do so, they must have a gen-
eral knowledge of communications systems and filing and management
styles at the time the records were created and subsequently.
Identification of persons and activities in a set of records depends upon
historical investigation and knowledge outside the records as much as
research in the records themselves and therefore upon interpretation and
synthesis like any other historian.
In the end, the various finding aids and inventories constitute their
own form of history of the origins of an organization, its changing inter-
nal functions and structure, its personnel and their activities all the while
offering guidance to the records themselves. The inventories and other
finding aids are therefore one form of historical product just as the arranged
records are another. A third product is the knowledge an archivist gains of a
record set as she researched its contents in preparation for its arrangement
and description. Although the published finding aids orient a researcher
to locate and use a collection, the unwritten but deep knowledge archivists
have of their holdings can be of even greater help to an investigator in
uncovering evidence pertinent to a project.
Thus the point at which so many historians and others begin the trans-
formation of survivals into sources according to the historical method is
the end product of the archivists’ identification, authentication, classifi-
cation, description, preservation, and storage of their holdings. And this
difference in customary beginning point for the historian as user of
sources as opposed to that of the archivist as producer of them is also true
in general of those survivals historians research in rare book collections,
manuscript repositories, and various kinds of museums. Although it is
common to categorize the differences among all these various institutions
by purposes, sources of funding, nature of management, subject matter,
physical forms of their holdings, and their different histories and cultural
traditions, they all perform similar general tasks in preparing their hold-
ings for public use, whether by historians, genealogists, students, lawyers,
local historians, filmmakers, or others.
At the risk of oversimplifying the differences among and within insti-
tutional types, I want to summarize briefly some of these common tasks
as prelude to considering their implications for the first degrees of inter-
pretation and intervention in the historical process. On one hand, such
examination is rendered more difficult by a traditional lack of common
terminology stemming from the diverse histories and purposes of these

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Texts as Archives and Histories • 99

assorted institutions; on the other hand, all the pertinent professional

associations today seem to be searching for a more uniform theory of
practice and a set of common standards in describing holdings and apply-
ing technical vocabulary. That search for uniform standards and common
terminology goes hand in hand with the trends to increased formal training
of archivists and librarians since the 1950s and the greater use of com-
puterized data and catalog dissemination in the last few decades. The
wider dissemination of finding aids online as well as increased attention
to theory in professional training courses encouraged common solutions
to common problems.12
Even though these institutions may differ from archives by types of
holdings (books, manuscripts, sound recordings, photographs, paintings,
or material objects for example), they too must acquire their holdings
through gift, purchase, permanent loan, or other means. They too must
have principles for the selection of their contents, their retention, and their
culling through disposal or deaccession. They too must employ some sys-
tem of classification to describe, arrange, and retrieve their holdings.
Libraries generally catalog their books and pamphlets individually by
author and title according to alphabetical, topical, or other curator-deter-
mined system as opposed to the collective record group or series used by
archivists. (Book classification systems like those of the Library of Congress
or the Dewey decimal system, for example, allow each volume an indi-
vidual number even though grouped according to general categories.)
Given the mixed nature of their holdings, manuscript repositories usually
classify their holdings both by individual items like libraries and by col-
lective series and files like archives. To the extent that the original context
of creation or maintenance no longer exists for items acquired by manu-
script curators, they classify their holdings no matter when or how acquired
by producer (especially famous persons), dates (regardless of how filed
originally), subject and topic, and/or nature of materials and format (diaries,
letters, maps, artwork, sound recordings, film). For those manuscript col-
lections with few or precious items, the library approach to authorship,
chronology, topic, and general classification is preferred. For large manu-
script collections, the archival approach to collective identification of the
series or file folder is used. Even in the latter case, however, manuscript
collections are generally classified and identified from the bottom up
unlike the archival preference for arranging and describing from the top
down because the records come ordered that way. Libraries and manu-
script repositories too must look to the preservation of their holdings
through the conservation and restoration of the originals or their protection

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from users through duplication on microfilm or by electronic means. So

too must they solve problems of storage, whether of finding space, regu-
lating temperature and humidity, or providing security.
They also must decide the degree and nature of access and the condi-
tions of use. Small manuscript repositories, rare book libraries, and museums
like small archives may differ from their large brethren in size and train-
ing of staff, capacity to preserve and catalogue their holdings, or ability to
provide for their protection and storage, but they, just like their bigger
siblings, must perform the same general tasks of acquisition, classification
and physical and conceptual arrangement, selection and disposal, preser-
vation and restoration, security and access, storage and exhibition. In per-
forming these tasks, manuscript librarians and museum curators, like
archivists, transform survivals into their own kind of historical products.
Through their several interventions, they shape the nature, quantity, and
use of the survivals historians research as sources to develop their histo-
ries. Without pretending to a definitive analysis of the general implica-
tions of these institutional intermediary activities for historical research,
let us look at some of the most obvious consequences of these transformed
historical products.
Of first importance in the public eye is these institutions’ claim that
their holdings are unique or unusual.13 All institutions not only point to
the singularity of their collections as overall aggregations or assemblages,
but also to the uniqueness of the individual items. Thus archives and man-
uscript repositories stress the uniqueness of each of their records, letters,
and other items in their possession, even if copies of letters sent or other
kinds of duplicates of missing items occur among their paper records or
manuscripts. Art museums presume the singularity as well as originality
of their paintings, sculpture, and many other artifacts, just as historical
museums do for their historic buildings and many of their material
objects. Although rare book libraries or special collections may contain
items that were produced originally in multiple copies, the limited sur-
vival today of such matter makes their collection unusual if not unique.
Likewise, historical museums contain many (some almost only) things
that were produced in multiple copies or versions, but their association
with a famous person, a governmental regime, a specific business, a par-
ticular religious group, or definite historical event or movement makes
the collection unique as a whole. Museums of technology and popular
culture may contain nothing but items mechanically produced or intended
for mass distribution, such as photographs, films, or sound recordings,
but the extent and completeness of the collection makes them remarkable

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and unusual if not unique. For the public, singularity or scarcity trans-
lates into the prices the paintings by renowned artists, the letters of
famous persons, or rare books fetch on the auction block. For the histo-
rian, the worth lies not in their monetary value, their uniqueness, or their
scarcity but in the continued availability of these survivals as (re)sources
for the study of the past.
From the historian’s viewpoint, the most important claim archives,
manuscript repositories, rare book libraries, historical, and other muse-
ums make about their holdings is that they are actual survivals from a cer-
tain date and place in the past. The survivals may be textual, auditory,
pictorial, or three-dimensional material objects; they may be restored,
mended, or altered in other ways; and they may be unique or multiple,
but they are always the authentic objects and certified original to the
times of their production (or as close as the historian can get). How they
achieve this status through modern institutional means calls attention to
the earliest degrees of interpretive intervention in the historical process.
Interpretation commences with the recognition and identification of
survivals as possible sources as we learned in the first chapter. Since, in
theory, there is no or little intervention by the historian in producing the
survivals, we might be tempted to say it is the zero point in our scale of
intervention. Some theorists even argue that survivals as such are unin-
terpreted, but the skills needed for their identification suggest otherwise.
Even the recognition of the pastness, or historicity, of a survival involves
some degree of interpretation, and surely the recognition of its usefulness
to any given historical inquiry requires more interpretation. Given that
not all survivals are considered relevant for each historical project, the cri-
teria of usefulness must be based upon some interpretive goal. If the his-
torian must always construct one or more contexts to transform survivals
into sources, then such interpretive intervention is at least one step
removed from the survivals themselves and certainly more from the time
and, therefore in a strict sense, the place of their creation.
But to speak as if interpretation and intervention begins with the his-
torian studying previously unresearched survivals as sources neglects the
(elaborate) institutional apparatus that intervenes today between most
past artifacts and their present use. These institutions serve as the chief
intermediaries between the residue of the past and the present-day histo-
rian’s use of it through what and how they identify, preserve, store, orga-
nize, catalog, and grant access to these potential sources in their collections.
Historical sources are the products that museums, rare book libraries,
archives, manuscript repositories, and record centers offer historians and

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102 • Fashioning History

other potential users. And so it is to the historians of the first resort that
we must look for the initial relationships between interpretation and
intervention as degrees of removal from the original production, time,
and location of the survivals themselves. We must always consider to what
extent interpretation of the past is shaped by what is in archives, muse-
ums, manuscript and rare book libraries. In what ways, therefore, do
these repositories help determine the interpretation of the past as history
through their various activities? Digitization of archival materials may
disseminate more broadly their use, but it does not alter their institu-
tional origins and culling.14
Interpretive intervention commences with the recognition and identi-
fication of survivals as possible sources and affects importantly what is
preserved and eliminated through accession and disposal. Historians
must always ponder what is not as well as what is in a collection and why.
In the case of recent manuscripts, records, objects, and books, their abun-
dance makes retention and disposal a conscious decision. Interpretation
grounds the judgment about what is saved and what discarded; what is
considered of permanent value and what seems to possess no historically
redeeming value. The older and scarcer the survivals, the more likely the
entire surviving corpus is retained as sources today. The winnowing of
earlier records arose from both the accidents of time and conscious deci-
sions made long ago. The survival of survivals depends upon the serendip-
ity of fires, invasions, insects, and other calamities natural and man-made.
What survives from longer ago also depends upon what earlier elites and
others considered important and otherwise. No wonder political, reli-
gious, and diplomatic records predominated until recent times, con-
cerned mostly with elite men rather than women and children and all too
often focused on events at the national level.
Interpretation and intervention continue with the arrangement and
classification of the records, books, manuscripts, objects, and visual and
sound documents in institutional holdings. Arrangement and classifica-
tion depend upon historians of the first resort contextualizing those hold-
ings as sources awaiting further research by potential users. Historians of
the first resort, like their peers in the profession, must not only interpret
the survivals for them to become sources but, as part of that process,
imagine them in the context that produced them. In general, these kinds
of survivals no longer exist in the specific and never in the larger context
that produced them. The problem of providing proper context to inter-
pret survivals is highlighted particularly in the preservation and presenta-
tion of historic sites, which will be covered in the next chapter. The older

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the period of production, the more likely the social and intellectual and
even the physical environment has changed. Even contexts from recent
times disappear quickly enough leaving their survivals needing recontex-
tualization. Archives, museums, libraries, and other repositories provide a
new context for their holdings through their arrangement and classifica-
tion systems. Even archives stressing provenance and original order only
embody the shell of context that created the records in the first place.
Even those museums that preserve and restore historic buildings seem-
ingly unchanged from the past exist in a changed physical, social, and cul-
tural context, as any city, college campus, or countryside demonstrates.
Last, interpretation and intervention occurs in description and exhibi-
tion. Short of a catalog of each book or a calendar of each document in a
collection, interpretive choices must be made about what is featured,
what is only mentioned, and what is omitted or suppressed in a finding
aid or an exhibit. Perhaps the most conspicuous interpretive intervention
is the title archivists and manuscript curators give a collection, for, unlike
books and pamphlets, many collections come with many authors or none
at all. Should the collection, for example, be named after a famous per-
son, the chief creator, or the major donor? Should it be named after an
organization or agency, and at what stage of change and evolution?
Because material objects cannot speak for themselves, museum exhibi-
tions particularly reveal the depth and nature of interpretation in arrange-
ment, classification, titling, and display (covered in the next chapter). In
the remainder of this chapter, we discuss textual products of various kinds
and degrees of interpretation.

Reproductions and Re-presentations

When we turn from texts as sources to the production of historical texts
of various kinds, we enter the processes traditional to history writing and
the predominant focus of the historical profession until recently. Historical
syntheses normally resulted in texts of different sorts just as the historical
method was developed primarily to study textual documents. Those texts
may vary from such reproduced sources as diaries and other documents to
transcribed oral histories, from school textbooks to learned articles and
lectures, from biographies to essays, from narrative histories to analytical
monographs, from dissertations to general histories. The amount of inter-
pretation and the nature of intervention between the supposed raw mate-
rials and evidential sources and the finished product range from the
reproduction of the textual sources at one end to the construction of

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full-fledged histories at the other. For the sake of organizing the discus-
sion, I have grouped the various kinds of interpretive intervention into
three general categories: reproduction and re-presentation (in this sec-
tion) appears to use less intervention and seemingly interpretation
between sources and finished product, while construction of a full-
fledged history (in next section) demands more of both. Greater interpre-
tations such as grand narratives and metastories providing ultimate
context(ualization) are left for the last section of this chapter. Historians
interpret in all instances but in different ways and proportions in each
kind of history.
The least obvious interpretive intervention beyond identifying textual
survivals and processing them as sources re-presents them in some form.
When we turn to the reproduction and re-presentation of textual arti-
facts, differences in amount and kind of interpretation lie in whether the
survival is reproduced as a whole, only in part, or merely paraphrased.
Each kind has basically different uses and results in different products
from the viewpoint of historians. The uses of the re-produced products
may vary from their employment as accurate substitutes for the original
sources to their supposed ability to convey the unmediated experience of
the past directly to the reader. The products may range from electronic or
photocopies to printed scholarly editions and classroom sourcebooks,
from quotations to paraphrasing or summarizing what is in the sources.
Reproducing all of a source. At first remove from the surviving textual
sources are reproductions of them. Historical products at this level of
intervention range from photographic, xerographic, and digitized or
computer-scanned copies to typographic facsimiles; from edited printed
diaries and journals to multivolume editions of correspondence and pub-
lic records; from variorum editions of classic authors to classroom “source-
books.” What historians seek in and through these forms are reproductions
of the originals that are as accurate, complete, and authoritative as possi-
ble. What is possible depends upon the nature of the original source, the
medium of duplication, the degree of editorial intervention and interpre-
tation, the purpose of reproduction—and of course time and money.15
The nature of the original texts influences the ability to replicate them
exactly and conveniently. Are the originals in modern printed or hand-
written script or in older even obsolete forms of writing, perhaps using
symbols no longer used? An example of such a symbol is the Old English
thorn (|p), which indicated the “th” sound. It was replaced in Middle
English by y so that ye is “the” (often mispronounced and lampooned
today in such phrases as “ye olde shoppe”). Do the originals obey modern

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conventions of spelling, punctuation, and grammar; the less uniform

practices of an older period; or an author’s idiosyncratic spelling, punctu-
ation, abbreviations, and grammar? Is the original a clean copy with con-
sistent formatting, or does it contain marginalia, canceled words, interlining,
or erratic spacing? Is the reproduced source an exact copy of the actual
original; the only surviving copy of the original which is no longer in exis-
tence; a draft or proposal of the original; one of many successive variants
of the original as it evolved through various drafts to finished document;
only a copy of other copies, or even just a summary of what no longer
exists? Were older copies mechanically accurate because created from the
original by pressing thin paper on a freshly inked original, or produced
mechanically and simultaneously by a pantograph or by a typewriter on
carbon paper? Are the newer copies accurate because of photography,
xerography, or computer scanning? Or, were the copies entirely new ver-
sions of the original dependent upon the skills and attention of the
author, a clerk, or copyist? Do the sources contain secret codes, mathe-
matical or other symbols, maps and scenic pictures, statistical tables and
graphs, architectural sketches and drawings, photographs, sound record-
ings, telegrams, or electronic messages? In what language or languages are
the relevant documents? Are the originals in a well-preserved state, or are
they faded or decayed, full of holes and tears, and missing sections? Last,
are the records scarce and few or abundant and voluminous? Are the
sources part of a collection deposited in one or a few places, or are the
related texts scattered across nations and oceans? And, of course, what is
the purpose for reproducing the documents in the first place? Different
means of textual reproduction have their advantages and disadvantages in
coping with these differences.
The accuracy of the medium of reproduction and the amount of edi-
torial apparatus vary in light of purpose and audience. The less editorial
intervention through annotation of the text and introductions, the more
specialized knowledge the user must bring to the form and nature of the
script, the names and events mentioned, and the context of its creation.
The more editorial intervention between original and reproduction, the
more the reproduction tends to resemble other more interpretive histories
in the profession. Thus no one type of reproduction can be all things to
all its potential users. Yet each form is considered an accurate re-presenta-
tion in its way of the original. The following sampling of forms moves
from less to more intervention and interpretation measured by editorial
intrusion between what the reader finds in the original sources as opposed
to what the reader encounters in the reproductions.16

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106 • Fashioning History

The most accurate reproductions employ photographic, xerographic,

or computer-scanning techniques to duplicate the text exactly. Such exact
duplication solves the problem of reproducing the spelling, grammar, the
nature of the writing and language, pictures, symbols, and formatting in
general, but even such duplication frequently alters the size and color of
the original, its general appearance, and certainly its “feel.” Archives and
manuscript repositories increasingly try to preserve their fragile original
documents and records through limiting their patrons to such reproductions.
The compiler of such reproductions must decide like any other editor
what texts to include in a series and in what order. Is the reproduction to
be comprehensive or selective of its collection or archive? Should the
reproduction merely duplicate a given collection in one archive or repos-
itory, or should all relevant texts be included no matter where located?
Should, for example, a person’s letters sent be included with the letters
received, when only the latter are in the person’s collection in a manu-
script repository? If the comprehensive route is chosen then the editor
must identify the location of each document, as in any other edition
assembled from various places.
A lesser level of accurate reproduction is a typographic facsimile pro-
duced by modern printing technology. A facsimile attempts to reproduce
through modern printing as exactly as possible the appearance of the orig-
inal text. This form of reproduction works best for already printed books
and pamphlets. But even in such cases, should the facsimile duplicate
exactly the typeface, spacing and formatting, headings and marginalia,
lines and line breaks, spellings, grammar, and punctuation, very long sen-
tences, and frequent or erratic capitalization? The ideal of accuracy demands
reproduction with little or no editorial intervention to distinguish this
copy from the original book or pamphlet. Once again identifying the cur-
rent location of the source, its history or provenance, and something of its
context poses a dilemma for the editor. The insertion of an introduction
or appendix providing such information violates the exact simulation of
this level of reproduction at the same time as it helps the user.
The problems of transcribing handwritten letters, diaries, notebooks,
legal documents, and other records into printed text increase the diffi-
culty in accurately conveying the originals. The results can vary from fac-
similes to letterpress editions, which are still another lesser level of
reproduction. Special type fonts may reproduce or resemble typographi-
cally what was once handwritten script or symbols but are only a limited
version at best of handwriting itself. Modern printing conventions
accommodate poorly the many varying sizes of characters in handwritten

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documents. Even computer-scanned documents are forms of edited tran-

scription if converted into modern typefaces, spacing, capitalization, and
so on. And again, what about obsolete or archaic symbols or abbrevia-
tions? What should be done, for example, about eighteenth-century
abbreviations that superscript and underline the last letter? Should, for
example, the editor lower the “r” in the eighteenth-century abbreviation
of “Mister” to the line and replace the underlining with a period in accord
with American use today, “Mr.”? In the best of many authoritative letter-
press editions today, spacing and formatting are not necessarily that of the
originals. Marginalia, interlineations, crossed out or deleted words, idio-
syncratic capitalization and punctuation, long run-on sentences, and
word and line breaks all present problems of duplication. Computer-dri-
ven typesetting ameliorates some but not all of these problems today.17
To what extent do both the conventions of modern printing and the
expectations of the modern reader demand or make desirable the “nor-
malization” of the transcribed text in line with today’s standards of punc-
tuation, spelling, and so on? Modern readers are accustomed to shorter
sentences and paragraphs, fewer dashes, and more commas than many
older documents contain. (The English historian and editor P. D. A.
Harvey offers the example of a royal charter of 1682 that is a single para-
graph of ten thousand words divided into perhaps fourteen sentences.)18
To what degree should the editor accommodate the technological limits
of printing and the readers’ expectations about sentence length, punctua-
tion, and formatting when producing a transcribed source? The more
accommodation the editor makes, the more the reproduced text becomes
less of a simple re-presentation: more of an edition than a simple replica.
To what extent should editors indicate to their readers the nature of the
changes they made because of normalization or standardization of spac-
ing, sentence length, spelling, punctuation, or otherwise? The more the
editor reveals the practices explicitly, the more the transcription becomes
a full-fledged published edition. Editors of transcribed facsimiles should
describe the changes they made in the introduction or appendix rather
than annotate the text itself in order to keep the facsimile looking more
like its original. There too the editors can notify the user of the location
and nature of the original texts.
Printed editions of historical documents and records can run from sin-
gle volumes to dozens even hundreds of volumes, but the general choices
confronting the editor remain the same across projects. How can the
reproduced text be sufficiently true to the original to serve as an adequate
substitute for purposes of research and yet still prove understandable and

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108 • Fashioning History

useful (and affordable) to a variety of readers? The array of published edi-

tions and their different editorial practices shows no one solution is best
for all kinds of records in satisfying these somewhat conflicting goals.
Online, CD-ROM, and PDF (Portable Document Format) expand the
media but do not solve all the editorial problems. These new media, however,
allow editor and user alike rapid, systematic, and complete electronic
search in a way even the best indexes of the past could not.
How open should editors be about the modifications they make in the
text, and what forms should that disclosure take? What changes are made
silently in editing the original source, and what are revealed openly to the
reader through the editorial apparatus accompanying the reproduced
record? Adjustment of spacing and indentation, addition of periods and
maybe commas or elimination of dashes, the substitution of new for old
alphabetical letters and symbols, or spelling out abbreviations may all
occur with no indication in the text and only discussed in general, if at all,
in the introduction or appendix. Other editors employ different or special
type fonts in the text itself and use footnotes to indicate such changes as
crossed out words, interlinear corrections and additions by the author;
marginal comments by author or reader; missing words and the editor’s
best guesses; deciphering coded passages or spelling out shorthand words;
and foreign or technical words that the editor translates or explains. Such
editorial additions as italics or other type font variations, superscript note
numbers, daggers, and asterisks should not confuse the user about what
symbols, word placements, and formatting appeared in the original text.
The more the editor’s superscripts, typographical devices, and notes, the
less the reproduced text appears like the original. Some edited texts so
bristle with these devices that the lines resemble barbed wire guarding the
original appearance of the source from serious reconstruction by the reader.
How far an editor may take normalization and standardization depends
upon the nature of the original documents. While an editor might correct
the spelling, punctuation, or grammar of a learned or professional person
silently or with minimum notice, such a practice destroys the peculiarities
and dialect of many documents, especially those produced by the less lit-
erate in a society. The conundrum of normalization arises particularly in
the transcription of oral history tapes, which are verbal in origin and only
become textual when transcribed. The transcriber as opposed to the inter-
viewee inserts the spelling and punctuation, if not the grammar, unless
the subject reserves review rights. The earlier custom in oral history tran-
scription of omitting in the text the interviewer’s questions that elicited

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the answers given by the interviewee particularly sinned against the most
basic tenet of full disclosure in modern editorial practice.19
Which version of a document should be published when several vari-
ations exist? Such variations arise in several ways. The handwritten and
the printed originals might differ in small or larger ways. Smaller and
larger variations may have occurred also at each stage as a draft circulated,
was revised, accepted as final, and then published in still another version.
Multiple authors may have produced several texts. Committee members,
legislators, and conferees may have argued for different versions of a report,
a statute, a proclamation, or an announcement. Some authors chose in
later life to revise their earlier writings. In these cases, should editors pub-
lish what they consider the “best” text or all the variations? Should each
variation be published separately, or should the revisions be combined
into one text with italics, underlining, and footnotes indicating the dif-
ferent versions? Such a combined text, of course, resembles no one origi-
nal document.20 Similarly, should the published text of a letter, for example,
include the receiver’s marginal comments and endorsement or only the
sender’s text?
How complete, how comprehensive should a published document
collection be? Should the editor collect relevant documents or versions no
matter where located, no matter who possesses them? Such a goal entails
an extensive search for the relevant documents, not only among all repos-
itories, but also among dealers in autographs and manuscripts and among
private owners. Should the editor in the spirit of comprehensiveness list
known missing letters, include summaries of those that now only exist as
such, or repeat already published ones? What should be the editor’s pol-
icy about enclosures, especially those that are copies of documents in
other collections? The more complete the collation of all relevant texts,
the greater convenience for the user. Likewise, the more comprehensive
the published collection, the easier it is for the user to envision the con-
text of a document and its times. While collation re-establishes some of
the context of the earlier times, it may also juxtapose documents that were
not collectively available as such to readers at the time of their origin.
How selective should the editor be, especially in light of budget con-
straints? What in other words may be safely omitted as well as what must
be included in the name of comprehensiveness? The standards for selec-
tion vary by how scarce or abundant the documents are. Scarcity in one
sense simplifies the editors’ job, for every scrap must probably be repro-
duced. Sheer abundance forces choices because of constraints of space,
time, and money. Should every relevant document in a collection be

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110 • Fashioning History

reproduced even if there are multiple copies of the same or similar docu-
ments? Or should just a sampling be taken of such multiple but formu-
laic items as business letters and bills, deeds and other legal documents?
The more comprehensive the collation of relevant documents, the
more the editor faces the same problem of arrangement as the archivist.
In this instance, how should the editor arrange the documents in an edition
as opposed to how they are arranged in their repository? Should the doc-
uments be ordered by chronology, topic, type, or a combination of these?
Should, for example, a diary be published as a separate, complete entity
in itself, or should its entries be divided and published along with other
items of the same date? Should a husband’s and wife’s letters to each other
be integrated into a separate volume or distributed among all other simi-
larly dated documents by them in other volumes? No one answer to such
questions applies to all projects as various published editions show.
Intervention begins to lapse into interpretation through such selection
and ordering, for the arrangement necessarily influences how the reader
perceives the past revealed through the documents as ordered. Of course,
electronic networking allows the user to become her own editor compil-
ing documents and texts according to her interests.
The more contextualization the editor provides in footnotes, head
notes, introductions, and appendices, the more likely such intervention
becomes interpretive. Interpretation begins in the assigning of dates to
undated items and in attributing authors or recipients to anonymous
documents or correspondence without an address, whether based on
handwriting, internal references, appearance, or chronology. It proceeds
further when identifying persons, events, institutions, and other matters
mentioned in the text or explaining references to obsolete technology, old
customs, ancient legal proceedings, and other obscure material either
in footnotes or appendix. Further interpretation occurs in biographi-
cal sketches of pertinent individuals; glossaries defining archaic, old, or
technical terms; explanations of past events and institutions; and even
timelines in introductions or appendices. Discussions of effects, causes,
impacts of people, events, and institutions help some readers understand
the texts but all these efforts just as surely embody interpretation. The
more the editor tries to elaborate context to help the reader understand
the texts as those at the time supposedly did, the more the editor becomes
a historian interpreting the text. Such an editorial thrust to interpretation
raises the problem of overannotation, in which the editor takes one side
of a controversy or advocates one interpretive school over another with-
out warning the reader.21

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In these many ways edited historical documents and records approach

the same degree of intervention and interpretation as that offered in any
full-fledged history, for they too try to shape the readers’ perception and
interpretation of the past even though purporting just to reproduce the
texts. The very choices editors make about which version of a text to
include; what to silently emend in its contents; and what to normalize,
modernize, and standardize produces an already interpreted document as
the foundations of the edited version. As American editor Mary-Jo Kline
concludes in A Guide to Documentary Editing, “In documentary editions,
the patterns of characters, words, phrases, and paragraphs offered to the
reader are seldom the only ones that the edition’s source could have pro-
duced. Instead, they form but one text that the editor might have extrap-
olated from the handwritten, typed, spoken, or printed material that is
the edition’s base.”22 Simple as well as elaborate editorial footnotes, head-
notes, appendices, and introductions proffer interpretations in the name
of supplying information and context by specialists. The more extensive
such editorial intervention, the more interpretation shapes their content
as in any other form of history: reproduction becomes re-presentation
becomes representation. Ideally, the less intervention and interpretation
introduced through the medium of duplication or editorial apparatus, the
better the newly re-presented text serves as a substitute for the original.
However, the less editorial apparatus the more multiple and specialized
the skills the investigator must bring to reproduced texts as with the originals.
There are some clear advantages to using reproduced texts. The increased
ease of access allows the democratization of research, especially through
digitization and the Internet. No longer need research be restricted to
those who can afford to travel to the many repositories. The gathering of
far-flung and scattered originals into an accurate and comprehensive
reproduction enables the easier contextualization of the documents and
their contents by any researcher. The ease of such contextualization is fur-
thered through the editor’s careful collation and comparison of multiple
originals. Although still too many digitized documents appearing on the
Internet neglect or omit provenance or other contextual information, the
ability to use a computer to search their contents makes what was once a
difficult and laborious task quick and almost effortless.
Reproducing a part of a source. According to many historians, the repro-
duction of part of a source is better than none at all, for it offers the reader
some access to the original’s emotion, style, or evidence. Reproducing
part of a source can range from a short quotation to a substantial portion.
In either case, such reproduction is put in context by the editor’s or author’s

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112 • Fashioning History

contextualization of the material. The shorter the excerpt the more likely
the recontextualization, but it occurs with the introductory and other
material surrounding longer excerpts as well.
Historians use quotations from original sources in books, lectures,
documentary films, and museum exhibitions for many reasons: to convey
the flavor of the past, to prove an argumentative point, to reinforce a
moral or political position, to allow the reader to compare the original
with the translation provided by the author, among others. Such use of
quotations is like the display of artifacts in a museum exhibition because
each snippet of source is embedded in a larger context divorced, even
alien, to its original one. It is, in short, recontextualized for modern con-
sumption in the name of insight into the past through partial reproduc-
tion. Problems of transcription, translation, and other editorial choices
apply to the shortest quotation as much as to the reproduction of an entire
source. Should most quotations therefore be considered an aspect of
reproduction or a greater step of interpretive intervention? The same
point holds for photographs of artifactual survivals in a book or on the
Internet. The changed size, appearance, and other problems of partial
reproduction (especially reducing the three dimensions of a material
object to the two of a photograph) only add to the problems of this oper-
ation as much as what surrounds them as text or other elaboration in any
display, film, or book.
The organization of matter in between as well as the order and selec-
tion of the quotations is the historian’s own juxtaposition. As historians
string together the quotations in this step, they usually recontextualize.
Even how the historian introduces the quotation slants its interpretation
by the reader. Does the sentence introducing the quotation say the pro-
ducer of it stated emphatically or matter-of-factly, sarcastically or halt-
ingly, asserted forcefully or resentfully, opined softly or authoritatively,
replied angrily or compassionately, concurred or opposed, and many
another interpretive verb and adverb? The rhetoric of verbs and adverbs
offers the historian ample domain to recontextualize the actual words of
the quoted. Even longer reproduction of sources does not eliminate these
problems of recontextualization through introduction and preface, as
demonstrated in what is called a source or documents book in classroom
Natalie Zemon Davis offers a good example of reproducing sources in
whole and part in her book, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their
Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France.23 She examines how supplicants, notaries,
and perhaps attorneys shaped the narrative and argumentative elements

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of their appeals to king and courts for relief from capital punishment for
the various murders the petitioners committed or attempted. These “par-
don tales” appear to be repeated or re-presented in the letters of remis-
sion issued by the king. While the petitioners’ words may not be
verbatim, Davis believes they are close to the actual stories of events, cir-
cumstances, and motives told by those seeking pardon for homicides
attempted or committed unintentionally, accidentally, or in anger.
As a result of her interest in the exact ways these narratives and argu-
ments were fashioned according to the customs and understanding of the
various social classes at the time, she herself reproduces shorter and longer
excerpts of these remission letters throughout the book. The most exact
reproduction is a photograph of a 1548 clerk’s hand-scripted letter of
remission.24 Appendices A and B reproduce eight complete letters tran-
scribed into modern type from the originals, so her readers get a “sense of
the French behind the translations, paraphrases, and summaries” of what
she presents in the book.25 As she admits, these lightly edited transcrip-
tions retain the original sixteenth-century orthography and use of “et
cetera” of the chancellery copies but modernize capitalization and nor-
malize punctuation and paragraphing to some extent. She offers her
translations of almost entire letters in the several places.26 She employs
numerous translated shorter or longer quotations to illustrate her argu-
ment as she discusses the many different kinds of events considered ger-
mane in the tales; the characterization of petitioners versus the adultery,
drunkenness, and bad behavior of their victims; the language and emplot-
ments used to gain sympathy for commuting the customary death sen-
tence; and the overall mental outlooks, social customs, and other matters
that both caused and mitigated the crimes and justified their forgiveness
or lesser punishment. Even more numerous are her many paraphrases and
summaries of parts of the documents as she fashions her own exposition.
She also reproduces some pictures of the era, including two illustrating a
request for ratification and a pardon.27
Re-presenting through paraphrase and summary. A further degree of
intervention still supposedly re-presents a series of facts or generaliza-
tions, a story, or argument as they appeared in a source. The difference
between this degree and the preceding one of partial reproduction
involves the voice of the historian. In quotation the historian reproduces
a description, generalization, story, or argument with a goal of injecting
the voice and viewpoint of the past person and keeping to a minimum her
own voice and viewpoint. In contrast, the historian in paraphrase and
summary moves beyond reproduction to re-presenting a set or series of

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114 • Fashioning History

facts, a story, or an argument from a source, supposedly still with a mini-

mum intrusion of voice, viewpoint, and interpretation but in the histo-
rian’s own words as opposed to just reproducing those of the source.
The best textual examples of this step are versions of what we might
call paraphrase and summary. Much of what passes for description and
recounting in historical works are the result of historians summarizing or
paraphrasing the words or other matter of the sources in their own projects.
That such descriptions, stories, and arguments come from the sources by
way of the historian’s mind and word-processor makes it less clear whose
voice and viewpoint and even whose context of matters shapes this form
of scholarly borrowing. The extent of what is borrowed, its organization,
and what it proves are the historian’s choice. The historian selects the pas-
sages to be paraphrased or summarized. She may reorganize the borrowed
material to make it coherent in terms of her own argument and story.
Such summary goes a long way towards what historians call a proper his-
tory. A calendar of a manuscript collection produced by an archive or
manuscript library that briefly describes the contents of each document
in a collection is an extreme example of summary.
When the historian re-presents through paraphrase or summary a
story or argument as such from a single source, she is all too prone to
adopt the narrative connections and the argumentative logic of the source
as well. The historian probably also accepts its voice and viewpoint as well
as its evaluations, meaning, and conception of time. The historian, in
short, re-employs the thoughts and feelings, descriptions of actions and
scenes, the explanatory and narrative connections supplied in the source
even while eschewing the exact words. Such re-presenting in the histo-
rian’s words is another version of what the profession calls description or
recounting (in contrast to accounting for).28
When the product derives from two or more sources, then the more
likely it reflects the historian’s voice and viewpoint. As I said elsewhere,
“the ability to paraphrase or summarize is also the power to reconstrue
and to misrepresent what was given in the sources.”29 Paraphrase and
summary offer greater opportunity to recontextualize through organiza-
tion, argument, voice and viewpoint, and therefore they increasingly
resemble proper history. As a consequence, the reader or other audience
has to be more active to counteract historians shaping the story and/or
argument than in the preceding steps of reproduction.
When historians assemble a series of facts or compile stories and
arguments found in a variety of sources, then the product like the prac-
tice might be labeled reconstruction. Such reconstruction points to

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another degree of intervention, because the sequencing of a series of facts

and the stories and arguments as such would not exist without the histo-
rian selecting their components from the various sources. Nevertheless,
the implicit if not explicit goal of reconstruction professes to keep the his-
torian’s voice and viewpoint to a minimum and those of the sources to a
maximum. Once again paraphrase and summary are the primary modes
of exposition and recounting and describing are the chief goal of this
degree of intervention. For example, Natalie Zemon Davis admits using
paraphrase and summary throughout her Fiction in the Archives. Like
Davis, both Carlo Ginzburg in his The Cheese and Worms: The Cosmos of
a Sixteenth-Century Miller and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in his Montaillou:
The Promised Land of Error use long quotations and paraphrases to con-
vey their subjects’ thoughts and actions.30 Like Davis again, the two
authors depend for the re-presentation of their common people’s ideas
and behavior on its original re-presentation in their evidence. In the case
of these two classics, the authors depended upon seemingly detailed
inquisitorial records. In each case, quotation, paraphrase, and summary
are so artfully melded that the reader finds it difficult to distinguish what
the Italian miller and the French peasants and shepherds thought and did
from how the two historians construct their lives through their extensive
use of re-presentation. Thus these classics manifest the greater synthetic
intervention and interpretation appropriate to a full-fledged history.

Constructing Full-fledged Histories

The combination of empirical methods and textual elements culminates
in the proper or full-fledged history. The more historians link together
factual and other statements into stories and arguments and also com-
ment, arrange, or otherwise interpret, the less their operations result in a
re-presentation of the supposed sources and the more the products
become complex constructions or creations in their own right. A proper
or full-fledged history may use re-presentations of various sorts but
depends for its overall effect on its own additional kinds of interpretation
and invention. The category of full-fledged histories embraces a wide
variety of forms: from dissertations and monographs relying on and con-
veying original research results to interpretive essays, from biographies to
best sellers, from documentary films to museum exhibitions, from some
government historical reports to the narratives supporting the application
of buildings eligible for preservation status, from microhistories to global

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Given the multilayered nature of a synthetic historical text, historians

have ample opportunities to fashion their works. Such fashioning, as we
have seen in the last chapter, occurs in at least three major ways in any
full-fledged historical work: the voice and viewpoint adopted, the organi-
zation and shaping of the work, and the nature of the generalizations and
the explanatory models. Partiality and perspective determine as they are
determined by how and how much the historian “speaks” through the
work and what and whose framework, orientation, or context she uses to
view matters. Selection of the kinds of facts and their use in arguments
and stories result from as well as in the organization and general shape of
the work. The nature and generality of the facts and the kind and abstract-
ness of the concepts employed in a work indicate its overall relationship
to the sources and therefore its overall empirical basis according to tradi-
tionalist standards. Interpretive extrapolation and grand narratives are
perhaps furthest removed from their supposed empirical basis, but they
supply the context used to understand and organize the alleged facts.
How these and other elements come together in a historical synthesis
can best be demonstrated through a specific example. Edmund Morgan
in the 441 pages of his now classic American Slavery, American Freedom:
The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, published in 1975, uses traditional nar-
rative, argument, and analysis to explore, and thereby provide perspective
on, the close connection between the rise of slavery and the quest for lib-
erty in early American history.31 He asks why Virginia, the most populous
state at the time of the American Revolution, should contain both the
largest number of slaves and so many of the new republic’s most famous
advocates of independence and liberty. He sees the contradiction between
American slavery and American freedom as the central paradox of
American history and a challenge to the historian to explain “how a peo-
ple could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity
exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time
have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human lib-
erty and dignity every hour of the day.”32 He finds the answer to the
seeming paradox in the efforts of elite white colonial Virginians to solve
their need for a steady, exploitable pool of labor to work their plantations
and yet keep a class of fellow whites acquiescent in that solution and sat-
isfied with their subordinate place in colonial society. After Native
Americans and indentured white European servants failed to provide the
desired stable supply of labor, the elite turned to African slaves by the last
quarter of the seventeenth century. Slavery guaranteed a coerced but con-
tinuous labor supply for the planters at the same time as it freed other

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whites from doing the harsh and degrading work of raising tobacco.
Racist attitudes towards blacks unified rich and poor white classes, and a
labor system based upon black bondage quieted white economic and
political discontent. Thus slavery and populism, racism and republican-
ism came to coexist in American history according to Morgan with ram-
ifications down to the Civil War and even to our times.
How Morgan proceeded to make his case can be found in microcosm
in the very first paragraph of the book. He begins near the end of his
explicit story. (I have numbered sentences in brackets for the reader’s con-
venience in the subsequent analysis.)

[1] In 1756 the people of Virginia lived in fear. [2] A year earlier General
Edward Braddock had marched against the French and Indians on the
colony’s western frontier. [3] Braddock had been overwhelmed, and now
Virginians faced invasion. [4] The Reverend Samuel Davies summoned
them to battle, lest “Indian savages and French Papists, infamous all the
world over for Treachery and Tyranny, should rule Protestants and Britons
with a Rod of iron.” [5] Virginians, Davies was sure, would never give up
their freedom. [6] “Can you bear the Thought,” he asked them, “that
Slavery should clank her Chain in this Land of Liberty.” [footnote here to
Davies’ book] [7] British troops turned back the French, and Virginia was
spared enslavement to papists and savages. [8] Yet in that “Land of Liberty”
even as Davies spoke, two-fifths of all the people were in fact already
enslaved, under the iron rule of masters who were “Protestants and Britons.”33

My observations on this paragraph only begin to suggest what a critical

analysis might do with it.
The paragraph mixes inference and construction with description and
re-presentation of a brief bit of a source. The first three sentences provide
some dates, 1755 and 1756, as temporal setting and colonial Virginia as
geographical setting. Only sentence 2 offers a factual statement without
speculative inference added. Sentences 3, 7, and 8 combine empirical and
extrapolated or speculative facts: the defeat of the British General
Braddock and the possible imminent invasion of the colony; the British
army’s subsequent defeat of the French (in 1756) and the escape from
“enslavement” by French “papists” and “savage” Native Americans; and the
two-fifths of the Virginia population actually enslaved. Although these
sentences combine generally accepted and verified facts with speculative
inference, Morgan felt no need to footnote any of these assertions. On
one hand, the French and Indian War, as it is called in American history,
is a standard summative concept in the discipline and in survey textbooks.

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118 • Fashioning History

On the other hand, the remainder of the book will supposedly justify his
speculative extrapolations, even though he does not return to these spe-
cific times and events in the rest of the book.
The first sentence extrapolates from what he supposes of that time and
place about the “fear” (sentence 1) of the “people” (sentence 8). The “peo-
ple” refers to all or most whites but presumably not Afro-American slaves
in light of the rest of the paragraph (and probably not Native Americans
in light of the rest of the book). In this sense he accepts his audience’s
sense of “whiteness” as grounding the meaning of “people.” He provides
a surrogate for (white) public opinion about fears of “enslavement” by re-
presenting a brief portion of an original source: Samuel Davies’ tract,
Virginia’s Danger and Remedy, published in Williamsburg in 1756, in sen-
tences 4 and 6 and cited at end of sentence 6. Sentence 5 is a summary of
Davies’ tract from the viewpoint of Morgan’s argument. This mixture of
the empirical and the interpretive, speculation and style is typical of full-
fledged histories.
Viewpoint and voice. Even though Morgan repeats the derogatory
terms “papists” and “savages” from Davies’ bigoted polemic without quo-
tation marks in sentence 7, I take that omission not to be his true view-
point or voice in light of the rest of the paragraph and book. He does put
“Protestants and Britons” in quotation marks in sentence 8. Although an
author frequently uses quotation marks to indicate ironic disagreement,
in these two cases I think the use of both sets of terms is ironic as is the
whole last sentence. Even when using quotations to show actor’s views,
Morgan uses the traditional, seemingly god-like, omniscient viewpoint of
the historian to set all persons and actions into the context of his overall
argument and story. His sympathy for Native and African Americans
comes from his liberal viewpoint rather than from quotations from them.
The quotations about the two groups’ beliefs and activities usually come
from (elite?) white commentary as is true for most non-elite whites as
well. This raises the question whether a past white actor/observer in colo-
nial Virginian society does or can represent black voices and viewpoints
Explanation. Throughout his book, Morgan employs a variety of
explanations: individual agency (particularly intentions), causes, func-
tional correlation, and structural trends, but chiefly narrative sequencing.
The first paragraph, for example, not only sets up the paradox of slavery
and freedom coexisting but also uses a narrative model of events and
opinions to do so. He juxtaposes sentences about the larger international
events impinging on Virginia’s inhabitants, their rhetoric about slavery

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and liberty, and his quantitative analysis of slaveholding in the most pop-
ulous mainland English colony at the time to depict the hypocrisy of such
rhetoric and worldviews. For his purposes in this paragraph, he employs
an implicit social psychology to extrapolate the fears of people from the
logic of the international and intercolonial situation in order to use
Davies’ comments as a surrogate for white Virginians’ public opinion in
that year. Even though Davies was a dissenting Presbyterian minister
from the frontier and not a member of the official Anglican religion of
Virginia, Morgan presumes that the parson spoke for all or most (white)
people. Davies was a revivalist leader of the southern Great Awakening
who evangelized slaves as well as poorer whites. He probably owned a
slave or two as ministers commonly did then and certainly supported
slavery as a system. Does Morgan assume that a frontier dissenting min-
ister represented well the nonelite elements of white Virginian society at
the time? Davies became president of the College of New Jersey (later
Princeton) soon after he wrote this tract in which he made the war with
the French a near-religious crusade. In any case, Morgan here, like other
historians, infers general behavior and attitudes from one or a few written
documents in light of his broad knowledge. Regardless of his rationale for
presenting the tract as indicative of white Virginians’ psychology, the
excerpted words from Davies’ sermon are so apt for his argument that any
author would find it difficult to resist using them. In fact, though, this is
the only appearance of Davies and his tract in Morgan’s entire book.
Methods. Morgan uses mostly standard, traditional textual interpretive
methods throughout the book. However, the reference to two-fifths of
Virginia’s inhabitants being enslaved in the last sentence reveals Morgan’s
considerable attention to the statistics of slave-holding, population growth,
and indicators of social class in the colony. He includes a thirty-eight page
appendix on the sources and calculations of his claims about white and
black population growth, the nature of families, and wealth holding in
seventeenth-century Virginia.
Lessons and meaning. He draws the moral lesson of the paragraph at its
end: the paradox that (white) Virginians held “under iron rule” two-fifths
of the colony’s population as slaves even as they spoke of the threat of
French tyranny to their “land of liberty.” His second paragraph repeats
the lesson as Virginians and other colonists appealed to the inalienable
rights of “all men” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but still
tyrannized their slaves (and women too?). Morgan points out in that
paragraph that Jefferson himself owned nearly two hundred slaves when
he drafted the Declaration of Independence. (He also points out that the

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120 • Fashioning History

acknowledged “Father of His Country,” George Washington, was a slave-

holder as well.) And the next five paragraphs continue to emphasize the
centrality of the paradox in American history.34
The rest of the book argues why this paradox arose, and even con-
cludes with speculation about how that paradox did not end with the
Civil War but extends to this day in the contempt of better-off white
Americans for the poor and the black.35 The greater ramifications of the
paradox throughout American history justify the specific history he tells
of its origins in his opinion. In turn that purpose provides the general
organization of the narrative and the larger point to the arguments he
makes throughout the book. By contextualizing colonial Virginian his-
tory in this way, he hoped to recontextualize (white?) American under-
standing in 1975 of the origins and persistence of seemingly contradictory
long-term American beliefs. His careful fashioning of his first paragraph
like his entire book is an attempt to get his mainly white readers to recon-
sider their premises by controlling their response through his own rhetoric
and analysis. Such a larger goal seems to justify not only individual histo-
ries in his eyes but also the very pursuit of history as an intellectual enterprise.
Perspective. The greatest perspective comes from Morgan knowing the
future of seventeenth-century Virginian history. Does Morgan accept in
the first and second paragraphs the traditional Great Story of American
history in which the French and Indian War acts as mere prelude to the
American Revolution? (Morgan does not refer to the French and Indian
War ever again in the book.) Indeed the overall Great Story of United
States history subordinates the whole “colonial” period to the coming of
independence and nationhood. So too the implications of the American
Revolution receive context from the Great Story that connects the found-
ing of the new federal government with the mixture of tragedy and tri-
umph that constitutes the traditional story of the Civil War. That the
consequences of that war still reverberate in our times is yet another Great
Story. In this situation, Morgan sought in 1975 to confront the long-tra-
ditional grand narrative about the triumph of American liberty and free-
dom with another more modern but equally powerful grand narrative
about the persistence of racism and discrimination in American history.
In exposing the intimate, longtime connection between the two Great
Stories, he hoped in the short run to challenge the traditional one of
American progress in order to bring about greater equality and freedom
in the long run. How successful Morgan was in this hope depends upon
how one fashions a history of those years since he wrote and Morgan’s

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place in it. What, in other words, is one’s own perspective on, and Great
Story of, recent decades?
Rhetoric and politics. Emphasis on paradox usually indicates a predis-
position to satire and irony. Morgan often uses irony to make small as
well as larger argumentive points in his chapters, sometimes underlining
his points with sarcasm. Metahistorian Hayden White considers satire
and irony a liberal way of looking at history. Although satirists and ironists
self-consciously expose the gap between ideals and actual behavior, cer-
tainly according to today’s ethics and maybe even by those of a past era,
they seldom advocate really radical change in the present even while
lamenting conservative policies. Although Morgan sees the results of the
paradox as tragic for American history, he does not advocate in the book
any activist program to correct the injustice he exposes. If conservatives
oppose reform politics as too disruptive of current social arrangements,
radicals castigate those same policies as mere Band-aids patching up a
fundamentally defective social system. In line with these positions con-
servatives decry revisionist history while radicals condemn the lack of
advocacy found in so many scholarly histories. The reader leaves Morgan’s
book with no doubt as to his strong opposition to the brutality of both
indentured white labor and black chattel slavery in colonial Virginia.
Nevertheless the reader is less clear as to how much he believes the American
social system still needs to change in the latter half of the twentieth cen-
tury. Obviously, he feels the Civil War and its aftermath brought needed
change. He wrote the book during a time when many called for the radi-
cal transformation of the American social system. Perhaps the concerns of
those years account for his dramatic final paragraph: “Eventually, to be
sure, the course the Virginians charted for the United States proved the
undoing of slavery. And a Virginia general gave up at Appomattox the
attempt to support freedom with slavery. But were the two more closely
linked than his conquerors could admit? Was the vision of a nation of
equals flawed at the source by contempt for both the poor and the black?
Is America still colonial Virginia writ large? More than a century after
Appomattox the questions linger.”36 In spite of this grand and heartfelt
conclusion, Morgan leaves the reader wondering how his moral vision
should be implemented.
His portrayal of Jefferson may indicate that his politics are what an
author’s resort to irony and satire usually indicate: liberalism. He depicts
the founding fathers, especially the Virginian ones, as men with feet of
clay firmly planted on the necks of their slaves. Nevertheless Morgan still
lauds in 1975 Thomas Jefferson, “whatever his shortcomings,” as “the

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122 • Fashioning History

greatest champion of liberty this country has ever had.”37 Morgan praises
Jefferson because of his ability to recognize the evils of slaveholding (for
its bad effects upon white owners and their children it must be admitted)
and to recognize the sovereign will of the populace (once again white of
course). Morgan’s liberalism may explain the nature of his book, which is
organized and argued to promote a basic attitude change in his readers by
awakening them to the evils of the central American paradox. Is such an
attitude change sufficient to heal the consequences of contempt for the
poor and the black without changing the social system itself? But can
even a basic shift in attitudes transform the very social system reflecting as
it perpetuates those attitudes? He argued, of course, that it was the social
organization of the plantation system and the economy it supported that
perpetuated in a new context the longtime English hatred for the poor.
White Virginians just transferred that contempt for poor white inden-
tured servants to black slaves. So perhaps he expected the Civil Rights
movement of the 1960s to become a second Civil War and Reconstruction.
Surely one can infer from the way Morgan fashioned the book that he
intended it to change white Americans’ opinions at the time of its publication.
Let me turn to the overall arrangement of story and argument in
Morgan’s book as transition to what a proper history entails in added
intervention and interpretation from edited sources, paraphrases, and
other simpler syntheses. Some chapters are mainly narrative, while others
are more analytical. But even chapter 18, which offers an extensive, quan-
titative snapshot of Virginia society around the time of Bacon’s Rebellion,
has narrative elements, and the four seemingly topical chapters conclud-
ing the book present their argument through chronological narratives.
The chapters’ narratives, like the overall emplotment of the book
itself, frequently pair the ideal of freedom with the sad denial of it succes-
sively in practice to Native Americans, indentured white servants, even in
some ways to poor white freedmen and yeoman farmers, and most of all
to African slaves. Although the textual or discourse time of the book
begins with a flashforward to the French and Indian War and the Revolution,
the chronological time of Morgan’s history starts three-and-a-half pages
later with English exploration of the Americas and raids upon Spanish
shipping in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. He points out in the
first chapter, ironically titled “Dreams of Liberation,” that one ostensible
purpose of these raids was to free the New World Native Americans from
enslavement by their Spanish conquerors. Some of these English raiders
in the name of liberation took Spanish slaves and resold them, thus begin-
ning the contradiction between American freedom and American slavery.

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The second chapter treats “The Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island and the
ambiguous English attitudes toward the native inhabitants as friendly
allies and exploitable workers supplying English needs. It is not until the
third chapter that Morgan gets around to seventeenth-century Virginia
with the founding of Jamestown. The ordeal of the early white inhabi-
tants was only increased as their dreams of acquiring land easily from the
Indians were undermined by the warfare resulting from English racism
and techniques of expansion. The difficulties of the colonists were ren-
dered even more perilous by their ideology of disdain for useful work and
for those who did it. Thus did Morgan provide prelude and exposition of
the origins of the paradox of freedom and slavery as it came to be worked
out in the rest of the seventeenth century.
In eleven succeeding chapters he shows how opportunity and equality
(according to English values and outlook) promised by cheap and plenti-
ful land (taken from its Native American occupants of course) is under-
mined by tobacco monoculture with its demands for an ever-larger, fully
controlled labor force. His argument and his story culminate in how the
splits within the white elite and between rich and poor whites were bridged
by turning to a major increase in black slavery after Bacon’s Rebellion in
1676 and the plant cutters’ revolt in 1682. In other words, he argues that
the white elite purchased the loyalty of the poorer whites by substituting
black slave labor for white indentured labor in the plantation system and
allowing free white men to exploit their legal “inferiors” economically if
they could afford to and always ideologically no matter what their wealth
and social standing. Any further tendency to rebellion among the whites
was effectively snuffed by giving them more of a share in the system that
still exploited them in the end for the benefit of the larger planters, the
British merchants, and even the English crown (through tax revenue on
Morgan is unsure whether this solution to an adequate supply of con-
trolled labor through bondage, a politics of white solidarity based upon
racial contempt, and an improved social status for even poor whites grounded
on racial degradation was entirely a “conscious decision”38 until near the
end of the seventeenth century, but he sees it applied deliberately and
consistently throughout the next century. He concludes the book with
four topically named chapters summarizing the movement from the legally
sanctioned brutality towards white indentured servants to the even greater
cruelty backed by law as well as physical force to enslaved Africans; racism
with its shift of contempt from poor whites to blacks and Indians; how
that shift resulted in enhanced status for the white middling and lower

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124 • Fashioning History

classes and the elite’s resort to populist appeals; and, last, the adoption of
republican ideals of freedom and equality as foundation for a new American
nationhood by those holding slaves and those who condoned the practice
both North and South. Just as the book had several textual or discourse
beginnings versus a chronological one, so Morgan has several textual or
discourse endings depending upon whether measured chronologically by
the end of the seventeenth century, the American Revolution, the Civil
War, or the present.
As even this brief analysis of Morgan’s book as a specific example of
historical synthesis suggests, the historian intervenes actively, frequently,
and in many ways between the existential present and the evidence of the
once extant past to produce a full-fledged or proper history. Above all,
Morgan’s book illustrates how (proper) histories are multilayered assem-
blages of description, generalization, rhetoric, narrative, argument, chronol-
ogy, perspective, and evaluation. At the same time, it shows that such an
assemblage is organized to tell a story and make a general argument. His
book also exemplifies how the different kinds and degrees of inference and
interpretation apply to the parts as well as the whole of a history, that sub-
plots contribute to the overall emplotment of a larger story, even perhaps
a Great Story, and his many points sustain arguments that in turn support
a general thesis. In good histories, the interweaving of story, argument, gen-
eralization, inference, perspective, lesson, and rhetorical style is so seam-
less, the reader is persuaded to accept the underlying web of interpretation
as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
That Morgan’s book is so thesis driven from its title to the selection of
factual details highlights the chief characteristic of histories at this stage of
inference and interpretation. At this level of historical synthesis, stories,
arguments, and even descriptions and recounting move beyond, some-
times far beyond, paraphrase and summary. If descriptions, stories, and
arguments are partly re-presented, they are done so selectively with a larger
story or argument in mind and more in the words, visualization, or other
medium of the historian. The overall mixture or synthesis of facts, stories,
and arguments are ultimately the creation of the historian, for the com-
plete stories and arguments as developed in an individual history at this
level are not given in any one document or even a few as such. The over-
all story and argument may not appear as such in all of the sources used,
even though those sources are said to support them. In the end, the his-
torian’s voice and viewpoint fashions the materials into an overall (hi)story
that is unique as such. In the process the historian recontextualizes the
material to make and support her story and argument. Such extrapolation

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is not only integral to a proper history but is considered the very essence
of a good history. Such fashioning is generally (and correctly) designated
an “interpretation” in the profession.
A proper history at this advanced level of interpretation provides a
larger context for its subject matter that points beyond the sources even as
it extrapolates from them. The stronger the interpretive thrust underlying
a proper history, the more the historian can draw conclusions beyond the
evidence strictly speaking and even make educated guesses about the
empirically missing facts in the argument or story. Although a historian
does not create facts counter to the evidence, she does generalize and expand
upon stray hints in the sources to fill out their larger silences. Thus Morgan
seeks substitutes for population growth in the absence of parish regis-
ters,39 guesses about the amount of tenancy among freemen for lack of
records about it,40 makes “tenuous estimates” about the costs of Virginian
tobacco versus West Indian sugar production because of absent docu-
mentation,41 and wonders about the rise of republican opinion in the
eighteenth century when there are so few newspapers and no information
about their readership.42 Although many county returns for the crucial
May 1676 election of Assembly during Bacon’s Rebellion no longer exist,
none of the twenty-three known delegates fit the standard description of
rebels in his opinion. He thus supposes: “If the members were sympa-
thetic to Bacon, it was because men of standing were ready to back
him.”43 Lack of crucial slave-trading records even made it necessary for
Morgan to extrapolate “from stray bits of evidence” numbers of slaves in
various periods and their prices in his argument about the crucial transition
to slave labor.44
Responsible historians disclose their degree of speculative interpreta-
tion to their readers. They use such words and phrases as “perhaps,” “prob-
ably,” “might conclude,” “not impossible,” “might have been true,” “not
unlikely,” “only guess.”45 Sometimes these words and phrases conceal that
the historian is empirically skating on thin or even no ice. Correlation
turns into causation; Morgan opines that “it was possible” that the
decline of white servants coming to the colony may have fostered the
transition to slavery.46 Important as he argues the adoption of slavery was
to the social stability of (white) Virginia, he believes that the planters
making the switch between white servants and black chattels did so
unconsciously—or so the lack of evidence would indicate to him.47
Sometimes Morgan piles inference upon inference, confident of his
speculations being supported by his basic thesis and each other, his
understanding of general English and Virginian culture at the time, and a

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126 • Fashioning History

psychological theory about the unruliness and discontent of freemen frus-

trated by lack of land and opportunity according to what he understands
of their values. The “distribution of discontent” was uneven, with the
“gravest concentrations of unhappiness and unruliness” lying probably in
those counties attracting the largest number of freemen “living on the
edge of subsistence.”48 The widespread ownership of guns combined with
the freemen’s presumed disrespect for authority leads him to conclude “it
took a brave man to put himself at the head of a troop of ragged but armed
tobacco farmers who might regard him, and not without reason, as a
source of their misery.”49 Morgan, citing a then-recent book arguing that
the most acculturated slaves were the most rebellious, goes on to specu-
late: “One might say, in other words, that the more slaves came to resem-
ble the indigent freemen whom they displaced, the more dangerous they
became.”50 The ultimate proof for his contentions about the discontent
and tendency to unruliness is his interpretation of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676.
Still more speculative is his hypothesis about Jefferson’s and other
slaveholders’ enthusiasm for, and appreciation of, republican liberty.
“The presence of men and women who were in law, at least, almost totally
subject to the will of other men gave to those in control of them an imme-
diate experience of what it could mean to be at the mercy of a tyrant.” As
a result, Virginians perhaps had “a special appreciation of the freedom
dear to republicans, because they saw every day what life without it could
be like.”51 So their solution to the labor problem and discontent of the
freemen caused them ultimately to oppose the “slavery” of the mother
country in the name of freedom for all (white males of course). In that
way, Morgan hopes to redeem somewhat Jefferson’s character from the
charge of hypocrisy and bad faith.
Historians are most likely to recontextualize the past for their audi-
ences when they offer lessons and meaning. Although lessons are drawn
in the present and with a present-day audience in mind, historians do not
believe that such lessons need make their histories present-minded in the
sense of denying evidence or attributing anachronistic thoughts and
actions to past peoples. Thus Morgan derived important lessons about
the close relationship between racism and equality in his own time by
exploring what he considered the roots of the paradoxical twinning in
colonial Virginian history. Even though he organized his entire book
around the evolution of the paradox as he saw it, he did not believe he
fabricated the facts. Rather he selected statements about them to fit his
thesis. Morgan hoped to avoid the charge of rewriting the past solely
according to his own prejudices by confessing responsibly to the reader

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both his speculations and (some of) his values. Thus he hoped to enlighten
his readers through his interpretation of the past without oversimplifying
or propagandizing. Whether he succeeded depends upon his readers’ per-
spectives (and prejudices) as much as his.
As Morgan’s book demonstrates, an author’s perspective, whether
defined as viewpoint or prejudice, enters into a proper history in at least
two major ways. First, perspective as viewpoint provides the sieve, so to
speak, to strain the inferred (alleged?) facts of history for relevancy to any
given synthesis. Without a definite viewpoint, the historian would not
know what to explore in the past, whether pertinent evidence existed, and
what to include and omit from a book, film, or lecture. Second, perspec-
tive as meaning gives point to the past for the present. Perspective in this
sense provides the context on the past that makes it relevant or at least
interesting to those in the present. The interaction between these two
senses of perspective would appear to justify for Morgan the kind of his-
tory he presents in American Slavery, American Freedom.
So how typical is Morgan’s book as a full-fledged, proper history? As a
type of proper history, it is of course only one among many, being a book
rather than movie, lecture, or exhibition for example. Likewise, it is only
one kind among books, such as biography, popular history, research
monograph, or comparative history. That it unites perspective and analy-
sis, story and meaning, voice and viewpoint, explanation and interpreta-
tion, facts and generalizations however makes it typical of a proper
history. That he fuses these elements into a particular combination so that
they embody a style that is his individual interpretation is also typical.
Accordingly, his thesis-driven book is both typical in its components yet
unique in how they are used and fashioned.
That his interpretation is challenged is typical as well. The reader gets
quite a different version of the same people and events from Anthony S.
Parent, Jr.’s, Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society, 1660–1740.52
He emplots his recent book as consistent, deliberate, and organized efforts
by the great planters from the beginning to secure their hegemony eco-
nomically, legally, and ideologically throughout the period covered by
Morgan. He stresses not only the resistance of small planters but those
neglected or omitted by Morgan: women, Native Americans, and most of
all African Americans to this elite quest for power and control. But to
make his case, he too must combine the various components typical of a
full-fledged proper history. And he too has those who oppose his inter-
pretation in turn.53

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128 • Fashioning History

Greater Interpretation:
From Histories to History
General histories, interpretive schools, historiographies, and metanarra-
tives all point to products beyond constructed full-fledged histories in the
proportion between empirical sources and interpretive synthetic elements
by the historian. Although full-fledged histories appear the culmination
of historical method according to the ideals of the profession, they do not
exhaust the amount of interpretive invention exhibited in historical syn-
theses as texts and products. Just as there are the survivals themselves at a
more minimal end of interpretive intervention, so there are historical syn-
theses almost totally dependent upon other histories at the other end. The
beau ideal of the full-fledged, constructed history in the profession pre-
sumes the predominance of primary sources as the raw materials of good
histories. In this section I want to consider those histories when the raw
materials for the synthesis become generally accepted historical knowl-
edge, other historical syntheses, and greater interpretive creativity.
That the author of American Slavery, American Freedom depends at
times for factual information on other historians’ findings and stories
points to these other types of historical products. Reliance on findings of
fact found in other historians’ articles and monographs is common in and
at the level of constructed history discussed in the preceding section.
What distinguishes such common use of secondary authorities at that
level from a far greater level of interpretive intervention is just how depen-
dent overall is a work on so-called secondary sources. In other words,
just how much of the empirical grounding of the work depends upon the
use of other historians’ generalizations, arguments, and stories as opposed
to what are traditionally categorized as primary sources? At the higher lev-
els of interpretation between past evidence and present product, the
empirical base of a work is derived primarily or entirely from secondary
(maybe tertiary) sources according to traditional historical method. As a
consequence, historical projects at this level are based either on histories
constructed by others or knowledge presumed common to the profession
at the time.
By common acknowledgment, general histories are more comprehen-
sive in geographical or temporal scope than most other proper histories.
Geographically, they may survey whole regions or even the world. Temporally,
they may examine the entire history of a nation, a continent, or even the
planet. They may be transnational, comparative, or about the world cap-
italist system. Topically, they may cover a history of warfare, disease,

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trade, religion, or numerous other subjects. They may take the form of
popular best sellers, classroom survey textbooks, or even sociological trea-
tises.54 Generally speaking, the broader the author’s scope, the more likely
she must depend upon the information and knowledge of others as the
basis of her own data and generalization. The statements in a general his-
tory depend more on historical monographs and other full-fledged histories
than the author’s own research into the original sources. In that sense, the
empirical grounding of a general history depends upon the research of
other historians and therefore is usually considered secondary. (Often the
word “synthesis” is reserved by the profession for this specific kind of his-
tory.) Thus, general histories rank higher than full-fledged histories in the
amount and proportion of authorial interpretive intervention in a text
because of their greater distance, so to speak, from the supposed empiri-
cal base of survivals as sources. Nevertheless, authors of general histories
confront the same elements of story, argument, explanation, interpreta-
tion, voice, viewpoint, and meaning as in any other historical synthesis.
In those categories, a general history may be no more—and no less—con-
structed and interpretive than the usual full-fledged history. It also claims
to be equally truthful in representing past peoples and events.
The more general the history the more likely one or more Great
Stories provides the interpretive armature holding together all the ele-
ments. The role of Great Stories in synthesizing history in general partic-
ularly shows in the efforts to divide the past conceived as history into
periods. Historic time like all time must be divided in order to be told.
The tripartite division of Western history into ancient, medieval, and
modern periods rested upon a particular Great Story that was clearly
Western European in origin and application.55 Why call some period
Middle? Middle in what and whose (hi)story? Attempts to apply such
concepts as medieval or renaissance to other societies reveals both the eth-
nocentrism of the scheme and the need to find a way of telling the story
of their past.56
Even recent arguments over defining postmodernism and postmoder-
nity by distinguishing them from the modern and modernism illustrate
the quest to periodize through telling a Great Story. The ultimate irony of
postmodern theorizing is how many of its theorists relied on their own
versions of a historical metanarrative to make their cases. Part of the post-
modern Great Story was to repudiate the grand and metanarratives that
modernist historians and others used to depict the history of the modern
period as fulfilling such Enlightenment ideals as social and moral progress,
the increased role and autonomy of the individual, and the rise and

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130 • Fashioning History

extension of democratic institutions. To contrast the Enlightenment and

the postmodern era required its own kind of Great Story. That Great
Story turned what were considered the virtues of the Enlightenment into
the vices of the modern era, but the salient thinkers, events, and trends in
the past often remained the same in outline.57
Whether conceived of as one or more great stories or as some big pic-
ture of the past, the image of History as the understanding of the past
itself is extrapolated or hypothesized from numerous histories (and mem-
ories). As such a hypothetical entity, History itself (capitalized here to
show this special meaning) is at the extreme pole of textualist interpreta-
tion, but still claims a basis in empirical findings through its supposed
synthesis of full-fledged and proper historical products. The greatest
metanarrative about History as such an entity is that it corresponds as a
whole to the (an?) actual past itself. But the Past conceived as a whole
(and therefore also capitalized) is an extrapolation far from the concrete
interpretations of specific survivals from the past. While derived from his-
tories, the idea of history in general as a great story or big picture extrap-
olates and interprets its supposed sources like any other good historical
synthesis. Since the raw material of any overall version of history is only
other histories (no matter what they are based upon), I place History con-
ceived as some grand scheme at the extreme opposite from the existence
of those survivals from the past identified as historical sources. From this
standpoint, all of the past is not the same as history and all of what we
understand as history is not identical with the entire past.58
The past and history only combine through interpretation according
to certain presuppositions basic to the modern historical discipline and
profession. As argued in this chapter, methods of interpretation so evi-
dent in full-fledged histories play their own kind of role in the processing
of survivals and their reproduction and quotation. All kinds of historical
texts depend upon one or more forms of interpretation. Whether that
interpretation is done inadvertently or deliberately, it is always part of the
historical enterprise, for both methods and syntheses are always from
some viewpoint or perspective; always in some voice or style; always as
some argument or story; always with some explanation or other method
of understanding; always with some meaning or lesson. Even no message
at all is a message.
The greater the amount of interpretation in the construction of the
text, the more fashioning, the more inventive, and, some postmodernists
would say, the more fictive a history is on the whole. To call attention to
the literary and artistic side of historical practice and its products raises

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Texts as Archives and Histories • 131

questions about the relationship between interpretation on one side and

factuality and truthfulness in any given history (and of history in general)
on the other side. Although the amount, kind, and proportion of inter-
pretation in a product may vary by its nature, each product professes to
be factual and truthful. Yet even the identification of a survival as a source
involves interpretation, and that is deeply entwined with interpreting that
survival as a source for factual statements and larger historical representa-
tion. Organizing those factual statements into some sort of historical syn-
thesis necessitates still further interpretation as facts are selected and
combined with other synthetic elements to that end. In that way all tex-
tual products, whether printed source editions or full-fledged histories,
whether technical monographs or Great Stories, share some kind or
degree of invention. No matter how inventive or interpretive the product,
on the other hand, all claim to present facts and represent the actuality of
the past accurately, if not always literally. This hybrid nature of all histo-
ries perplexes philosophers of history but seems not to bother historians
or their audiences.

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Things in and as Exhibits,

Museums, and Historic Sites

he three dimensions and material concreteness of objects, build-
ings, battlefields, and other things surviving from the actual past
seem to convey a more tangible, more insistent sense of history
than the contents of most texts. Those material objects surviving from the
past that I call in general “things” range from pins and needles to swords
and spears; from tables and chairs to rooms and houses; from caves and
cabins to mansions and palaces; from machines and offices to mills, fac-
tories, and whole industrial complexes; from barns and taverns to farms
and villages; from pistols and cannons to warships, forts, and battlefields;
from boats to sunken ships and ports; from ceremonial objects and graves
to temples and churches. Material artifacts may be found stored or dis-
played individually in public museums and private collections, or they
may be their own out-of-doors or open-air museums. They may remain
in the same location and environment in which they functioned origi-
nally, or they may be removed from any original context. They may serve
a nostalgic, patriotic, educational, or egotistical function. They may be
preserved or restored from actual past objects, or they may be reproduced
and simulated. They may be assembled by a specific place and time or
jumbled together. Some still function today as they always did; others
have been adapted to new uses. Still others are found in museums or
become museums of their own because of their nature and size.
Some kind of history museum seems to exist for every kind of artifact,
activity, place, and period: folk customs, clothing, furniture, ships, light-
houses, photographs, sports, military arms and battlefields, agricultural
tools and farms, historic houses and slum tenements, toys, industrial
machines, wagons and coaches, boats, and railroads among many. The

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134 • Fashioning History

institutional settings may be small or large and supported at public

expense, operated for private profit, or maintained by philanthropic
foundations. Their audiences come for many reasons: for amusement and
entertainment, for education and inspiration, for knowledge and escape,
for a sense of place and cultural or ethnic identity, for fantasy and wish
fulfillment, for feelings of superiority to the past or a desire to return to
the times of yore, to legitimate social status and cultural credentials, or
even to buy a reproduced artifact or how-to manual.1
In spite of their concreteness and actual presence, material objects
contextualize themselves even less well than most textual sources. If his-
tory books interpret context through other texts, then museums interpret
context through the juxtaposition of other objects. But they also use texts,
pictures, interactive displays, and docents and tour guides to explain the
temporal and other contexts of their displays and collections. Interpretation
of things as with texts requires intervention between object and audience.
Some idea of the nature and amount of intervention in museum practice
is conveyed by the distinctions curators and other museum people make
among objects, displays, exhibitions, and sites; among preservation,
restoration, reconstruction, and reproduction of objects, buildings, and
other structures; and among various forms of interpretation from labels
to docents to reenactments.2
At the risk of oversimplifying where these terms overlap in meaning
and practice, I have organized them into three broad groupings: by the
general processes for coping with the objects themselves, by the nature
and methods of explicit interpretation, and by the combination of mate-
rial context (kind and amount of juxtaposition of various objects) and
supplementary interpretive materials as found in exhibitions and muse-
ums. Topics within each of these categories are ordered roughly from less
to more interpretive intervention.3

Processing Objects
Institutional processing of objects includes the same general operations as
for texts: accession or acquisition, appraisal or evaluation, conservation or
preservation, classification and description, arrangement and access. As
mentioned in the last chapter, all of these operations demand interpreta-
tion and intervention between the past and present of artifacts. Rather
than describing the general operations again, I want to focus in this sec-
tion on the amount of interpretive intervention involved in preserving,
restoring, reconstructing, and reproducing objects. Preservation and

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Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites • 135

restoration deal with actual historical objects themselves, while recon-

struction seeks to duplicate original objects no longer in existence. The
objects may be as simple as a tool or a stool or as complex as a mansion
or factory or even an entire neighborhood, battlefield, or mine.
Preservation requires the least intervention to produce its historical prod-
uct because it starts with the existing object itself. Reconstruction
demands the greatest interpretation because it simulates a product that no
longer survives as such from the past. Reproductions are newly created
objects that can or cannot be compared to an existing original.
“Preservation” and “conservation” are overlapping, sometimes com-
peting, terms to designate the processes of stopping time for an artifact,
to maintain it in as stable a condition and steady a state as possible now
and into the foreseeable future.4 The interpretive questions and the impli-
cations for and of intervention are several. Which objects from the past
are to be saved for the present and future and why? What parts or aspects
of them can be saved? How aggressive, how active must such saving be?
At the least intrusive on the object itself, conservation seeks to continue
the life of the artifact by means exterior to it: protection from humidity,
temperature, sunlight, theft, vandalism, and harm. Preservation, as it
name suggests, also involves maintaining some artifact, historic building,
battlefield, plantation, or other site as it has come down from the past,
and that may well mean more active intervention hence increased inter-
pretation. What needs to be done to halt natural deterioration from
insects, climate, and the decaying nature of the materials themselves?
What needs to be done to make up for years of wear and tear, neglect, war,
pests, or previous botched repairs and misguided attempts at preservation?5
Even seemingly cosmetic touchups involve ever-greater interpretive
interventions. How much dust and dirt is normal in the existence of an
object? Should cleaning be as gentle and moderate as possible or more
radical to make the object seem new, as the debate over how to clean the
statue of Michelangelo’s David showed? The more aggressive the cleaning,
the more preservation becomes restoration, as the controversy over The
Last Supper attests. Should the object’s patina or the state of its repair
remain as they are now, or as we presume they were when brand new, or
after they were in use for a while? (Why are not ancient Greek statues
restored to their original bright colors?) Should rust, for another example,
be eliminated, preserved, or left to continue its natural course? Should or
must worn upholstery or carpets be left alone to show their condition
after years of use, be repaired to look like new, or replaced entirely with
other original fabrics or newly woven ones? Old wooden buildings need

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136 • Fashioning History

to be repainted and their roofs replaced just to preserve them from the
elements? Are the original materials still available today for repairs? Are
the required skills and techniques still practiced today? In each instance,
whether conservation or preservation, the original object persists from the
past as the ultimate physical foundation for the interpretation.
The division between preservation and restoration lies in who makes
the choice about what is the proper state of the object and when in a sense
that choice was made. Is the time and nature of the object fixed as inter-
preters presume the original creator produced it or the first possessor
wanted it or had it when new? Or, do the interpreters hypothesize its
appearance and condition after some or many years in use? Or, should the
interpreters just accept the current state of an object as it has come down
to us? Those who restore an object presume to know the viewpoint of its
creator, its first or later owner, or some other user as they “freeze” or sta-
bilize the object according to that perspective. Even simple cosmetic
touchups, however, depend upon the interpretive imagination of the
preservationist to re-create the past of the object.6
To conserve an object allows preservationists to leave the condition of
the object as it has been modified over time without deciding on one best
past state. Changes in function, shifts in style or fashion, effects of war or
neglect, or previous updating and renovation may still be manifest, or
they may be concealed by subsequent alterations over time. Thus an
object’s general pastness or historicity is evident, but not as of any one
time necessarily as generations modified or transformed it. To understand
its place at any one point in history demands still further interpretation.
It therefore acts as not one but many sources. Needless to say, being one
or more sources does not preclude historians from still interpreting its
larger context just as in any other history. Just as the layers of writing over
writing are recorded in the palimpsest of certain manuscripts, so the
changes over time in, say, a building can be found in its coats of paint,
built over fireplaces, and covered over once-fashionable decorative features.
Restoration aims to return an existing object, especially a building or
site, to a specific earlier appearance or condition. That appearance and
condition may be at the time of its creation or a subsequent era. The
object may range from an artifact or room to a house or farm, fort or bat-
tlefield, shop floor or factory, a neighborhood or a whole town. The
amount of alteration and even reconstruction may be small or extensive.
The aim of restoration may be to show an object as typical of its time or
maker or owner, or it may connect the object to a famous person or event.
Under either impetus, later additions are removed, and missing items are

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Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites • 137

replaced or crafted anew in order to get its appearance as close to a docu-

mented, specific past time as possible. In the case of buildings, the pur-
pose may be to show the context of a historic event, for example, Ford’s
theater on the evening Lincoln was shot; to exhibit how a historic per-
sonage or family lived at some time, for example, Jefferson’s Monticello or
Washington’s Mount Vernon; or to present structures and sites typical of
some time and place, like the early nineteenth-century Old Sturbridge
Village in Massachusetts or Connor Prairie in Indiana.7
Just how a house, say, looked outside or inside at any one time demands
interpretive choice as well as research.8 Were there once additional wings
and different decoration outside or other buildings and landscaping, and
should they be reconstructed as part of the restoration? Or, should cur-
rent additions be eliminated as inauthentic to the era chosen for restora-
tion? Which wall coverings and colorings from what time should be
reestablished and for what historical reasons? Are the furnishings original
to a house from the beginning; authentic to the period of creation but
gathered from other places; or merely new reproductions of earlier pieces?
If none of the original furnishings remain, is it better to leave the build-
ing unfurnished?
What choices do the yards, gardens, and grounds present? Should the
plantings imitate when a garden was first planned and planted, after the
garden first “matured,” so to speak, or as they exist today? Should present-
day bushes and trees, for example, be left as they now are, trimmed back
severely, replaced by younger specimens, or removed entirely? How should
grounds be maintained if representing an era prior to the mower coming
into common use in the late 1860s? Gardens, yards, and landscapes pre-
sent, in brief, the same dilemmas of conservation, restoration, reconstruc-
tion, and simulation as any other historic artifact.9 The great problem is
whether and how to contextualize the historic site itself when modern
society surrounds it.
Restoration presumes greater knowledge of an object’s past and results
in greater interpretation than preservation. The restorer reproduces from
pictures, textual descriptions, archaeological research, and historical
imagination what the “ideal” or optimum state of the artifact was once,
and then suspends it at that time through removals or additions. Whose
intentions and uses are presumed in that supposedly ideal state: producer,
first owner, later user, or current museological and historical thinking?
And how does one know? All are interpretive judgments based upon
research as in other history projects. Thus even the most fastidiously
researched restoration depends upon the interpretive talents of the restorers,

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for they must imagine the past of the object as they select its preferred
If preservation resembles the historian’s processing of survivals as
sources, restoration seems akin to using those sources to re-present them
as edited. Are, for example in a house, the furnishings original, authentic,
or reproduced? Should once incomplete rooms be finished and furnished?
The heirs of the George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina,
are still decorating rooms in the mansion left undone from when it was
built in the 1890s. To what extent must restorers substitute materials for
those no longer available? What compromises are necessary to meet cur-
rent safety and other laws? Should worn or dilapidated but original furni-
ture be reupholstered or otherwise refurbished? Should machines be put
back into working order in home, farm, factory, or mine, and where do
the parts come from: crafted anew or cannibalized from other old machines?
Reconstruction, as the term suggests, constructs again supposedly
what once was, but in actuality creates an entirely new artifact. While
restoration works with remnants from the past, reconstruction fabricates
the tool, clothing, furniture, and building or even site environment from
scratch. As with restoration, the process depends heavily upon various
forms of documentation to reproduce the colors, materials, and general
looks and feel of the original. The results may be reproductions copied
from other originals of the era or compiled from descriptions, pictures,
and plans of the time. No matter how authentically old the result seems,
reconstructions are entirely new products. In that sense they are replicas,
even though they may be as accurate as research, memory, or tradition
can make them. Some reconstructions like the rebuilding of old parts of
European cities after their destruction by bombs in World War II can
depend upon memory and tradition as well as research.10 Some recon-
structions depend entirely upon research such as Plimoth Plantation, which
reproduces the 1627 Pilgrim settlement in Massachusetts; the thousand
year old Jorvik Viking Village in York, England; or the two-thousand-
year-old Celtic Village in the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff. Such
reconstructions are just like any other full-fledged history; although con-
structed according to the best available information, the actual structures
like textual syntheses are still the doing of the curator-historians.11
Simulated or reproduced artifacts range from items based upon a
museum’s collections and sold in its store to replacements for fragile and
missing originals in a display or exhibit, from tourist attractions in theme
parks to souvenirs vended there. Their purpose varies from interpretive
need or explanation in an exhibit to desire for profit in the store or roadside

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attraction. Although “fakes” in a sense, their reliability depends like other

constructed histories upon documented research and careful synthesis.
Whether the reproduction should be considered a copy, a simulation, or
a model depends upon its scale and accuracy in relation to the presumed
original. Models as opposed to copies reproduce past reality on another
scale than the original. Common models used in museums are small-scale
replicas of trains, machines, soldiers and battlefields, and village or other
landscapes, and, of course, models used to obtain patents. (See Ironbridge
Gorge and Viking village models discussed later) Sometimes the replicas
are full-sized like Michelangelo’s statue of David or Lorenzo Ghiberti’s fif-
teenth-century bronze doors for the Florence Cathedral. Both replicas
now stand where their originals were once located, while the genuine
originals are protected indoors from the weather and other hazards. The
first director of Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in
Tel Aviv, used mainly replicas to tell the story of Jewish dispersal around
the world.12
Reconstructions demand the most interpretation and therefore the
most intervention, hence most problematic. Should reproductions dupli-
cate the original in scale as well as appearance? Historians prefer full-size
replicas of artifacts at this step of intervention when possible. Thus the
Mayflower II, now docked in Plymouth harbor, resembles the boat that
brought the first pilgrims in 1620, and the modern Half Moon approxi-
mates the vessel that Hendrik Hudson sailed up the river named after him
in 1609. Since no detailed descriptions, plans, or pictures exist for either
vessel, each one is constructed like boats of the era. Modifications include
the extensive use of epoxy and an engine for the Half Moon, although it
does sail under its own power, and stairs instead of ladders, and some elec-
tric lights and safety alterations for the Mayflower II, so its modern-day
visitors can board.13 Does it make any difference that a reconstructed
eighteenth-century building conceals the modern steel beams used in its
structural framework, such as Library Hall in Philadelphia? And what
about electricity, modern plumbing, and modifications required by law
for public access these days?
The terms “simulation” and “imitation” in museum practice suggest
historical products further removed from originals and therefore their
resulting forms more interpreted. Simulation and imitation suggest to
historians a less than careful attention to reproducing the style and char-
acteristics of the original. In other words, interpretive freedom triumphs
over research, fantasy trumps accuracy in the eyes of historians. At best
such collections present a mere assemblage of artifacts without context; at

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worse they offer fake, out-of-scale imitations of what they supposedly

reproduce, as at times in Disney theme parks or the Las Vegas strip.
This corruption and distortion of history is associated with what its
critics call the “heritage industry.” And no name and enterprise is more
associated with this distortion and corruption in historians’ eyes than the
various historic theme parks associated with Walt Disney. Complaints
about the “Disneyfication” of the past and present in the theme parks run
by the Corporation range from the reduced-size replicas of famous build-
ings and deliberate omissions of their context, to the cleanliness and order-
liness of the parks which gentrifies historic locales, to “cleaning up” the
past itself and the general oversimplification of history. Such an approach
to history all too often sentimentalizes past activities and events; glorifies
militarism, chauvinism, and liberal capitalism; and always patronizes the
audience in substituting nostalgia for an idealized past over a more accu-
rate and challenging version. Disneyfication domesticates the past by
reducing it to entertainment and deliberately conceals the complex and
conflicted nature of the past from its audience. Its interpretive narratives
are either too simple or conceal too much of what went on, with incon-
venient events and stories suppressed entirely. The actual past is all too
often hidden by making it seem too alike or too irrelevant to the present
of the audience without challenging them to a more complex understanding
of either history or the present.14
In the eyes of many historians, the difference between theme parks and
the heritage industry and proper museums and historic sites is whether the
educational or the entertainment function reigns supreme, whether inter-
pretive complexity triumphs over simplicity, and whether the audiences’
stereotyped views of the past are challenged or confirmed. Of course, these
criteria depend upon professional judgment and perspective derived from
the practices and ideals of the historical profession. Thus the evaluative
and the cognitive aspects of historical synthesis combine in judging, and
those judgments are reinforced by the policing of museum practice through
reviews, control of funds, and professional training. According to these
standards, preserved and restored artifacts and buildings are better than
reconstructed ones, and well-researched reconstructed ones are better than
poor imitations and simulated ones. Historians debate whether simula-
tions or imitations are better than none at all. But what about the virtual
cyber-tours now offered on the Web sites of museums and historic sites,
to say nothing of the promise of holography?
If active preservation of objects parallels the processing of texts as survivals
and restoration resembles edited collections of sources, then reconstruction is

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Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites • 141

equivalent to the full-fledged interpretations framing proper histories.

The effects of combining these categories in practice can be seen in
Colonial Williamsburg, which aims to re-create the Virginia capital for its
visitors in the decades just before the American Revolution. Through the
financial largesse of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of Standard Oil’s
founder, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation acquired the historic
part of the town, tore down or removed 720 buildings constructed after
1800 and restored 82 structures surviving from the period. (This editing
process forced a relocation of the area’s inhabitants, including many of the
poor.) In the end, the Foundation reconstructed, that is built anew, 341
buildings according to colonial documents and archaeological evidence,
including the burned down Governor’s Palace, the Capitol building
(which held the House of Burgesses), and the Raleigh Tavern, where the
Burgesses went to conduct legislative business after the Governor dis-
solved the body in 1774. Concrete streets and sidewalks were torn up and
replaced by dirt and gravel. Electric poles and wires were removed or con-
cealed. Gas stations and other anachronisms were eliminated. Later,
modern air conditioning and heating and modern sanitary and kitchen
facilities were discretely concealed from the public’s eyes. Some water
fountains were disguised as barrels. Law required modern fire hydrants,
but some were hidden in the shrubbery. The same principles of removal,
restoration, and reconstruction also governed such matters as the selec-
tion of furniture and the colors of wall surfaces, the types and uses of
rooms, the nature of outside grounds and outbuildings, the layout of
fields and farms, and the plan of village and vicinity.15
The many gift shops in or near the “Historic Area” as well as online
stores offer “authentic reproductions of antique furnishings, historically
accurate accessories, and an interpretive lifestyle collection.” These his-
torical items vary from rugs, china, silverware, linens, jewelry, fireplace
equipment, wooden and metal accessories, and garden decorations to
wreaths, cookbooks, and miniature porcelain buildings and persons.
Colonial Williamsburg licenses commercial companies to manufacture
authentic wall paint colors and approved reproductions of furniture,
lamps, dishes, and silverware from its collections.
Anomalies to the categories of preservation, restoration, and recon-
struction test their application as they reveal the nature of intervention
(and invention) involved in each. Are authentic original structures torn
down, moved, and carefully re-created in a new location preserved,
restored, reconstructed, or all of the above? Such anomalies or hybrids
include various buildings gathered from different locations and times but

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142 • Fashioning History

now sited in one place, such as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village near
Detroit, Michigan; Skansen, the outdoor folk museum in Stockholm;
and the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff (all discussed later in this chap-
ter). The preservation of wooden structures like ships and houses demands
so much replacement of parts after time (and extreme tourist use) that
what was once the original artifact becomes a replica in actuality. The
USS Constitution, now a museum ship in Boston harbor, is the oldest
commissioned ship in the United States Navy and the oldest warship
afloat and still sailing in the world. Originally commissioned in 1797 and
called “Old Ironsides” as a result of a battle in the War of 1812, the three-
masted frigate was completely repaired and rebuilt many times through-
out the nineteenth century even before Congress declared it a national
monument in 1907. Since that time repairs have been equally often and
extensive, even to replica guns and reconstructed major structural hull
components.16 The holiest and arguably oldest Shinto shrine in Japan is
an extreme example of this constant rebuilding and replacement. An
exact duplicate in size, materials, and appearance of the Ise main shrine
has been constructed every twenty years for over thirteen hundred years
on two alternate sites. Using ancient techniques, and without nails, the
special artisans take years replicating the temple through selection and
seasoning of wood, tool use, and patient craftsmanship. What appeals to
the Japanese in this meticulous reproduction of the shrine is not the phys-
ical object itself so much (for the old one is destroyed every twenty years)
but the accompanying ritual process and continuity of tradition in con-
structing the shrine.17

Museums as Interpretive Context

Not all old objects are in museums and not all old buildings and battle-
fields are historic sites. The difference between museum artifacts and
other old things lies in the institutional purpose and organization of them.
Similarly, the difference between a historic site and an aging mansion, fac-
tory, battlefield, or farmstead is the nature of its management and inter-
pretive purpose. A museum is an institution devoted to the perpetual
preservation and display of its objects, whether they are housed indoors
or they constitute the museum itself, as in what are called open-air or out-
door museums. How museums organize and display their collections and
historic sites contextualize their holdings are the museological equivalent
of historical method and synthesis.18

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Objects receive contextualization in museums through two main

means: in relationship to other objects as in an exhibit, a period gallery, or
outdoor environment and by such interpretive devices as labels, diagrams,
charts, lectures, or other means. Both involve and are methods of inter-
pretation of various degrees. Interpretation by and through the material
environment of objects can range from displays of individual objects to
more organized and extensive exhibitions in museums to the even more
extended environments of battlefields, industrial complexes, plantations,
and villages and city districts. More explicit interpretation includes tex-
tual, pictorial, or other explication and provides story, explanation, per-
spective, and meaning.
We can ask the same questions of material as of textual contexts. Who
provided the setting and how and when was it provided? Did the juxta-
position of objects come from then, later, or now? What is the principle
of organization and who chose it when? The difference between a natu-
rally occurring and aging community of buildings and context and a
museum is selection and editing, so to speak. Were the objects and struc-
tures created for the site and are they still used on site, even though now
called a museum? Or, are the objects and structures now removed from or
relocated off their original site? What is the size and extent of the display,
exhibit, building or structure, site, village, or urban district? The greater
the size, the more opportunities exist for interpretation through what is
selected, how it is organized, and modes of presentation. Curators can
show trends by presenting a story of objects through time. They can draw
the lesson or meaning of progress through explicit or implicit comparison
of past with present. They can appeal to nostalgia by implying that some
things were better then than now.
At the lowest level of display and interpretation are those individual
three-dimensional objects totally divorced from their original location or
context. They exist in museum storage with little more than their acqui-
sition number and information. They appear in a display with little clue
to original context or use. They possess no label or only a minimal iden-
tification. They may be grouped in a showcase with similar objects, or
they may stand alone on a wall or in a room. They may be artistic or util-
itarian, large or small, simple or complicated. They may be a coach, wagon,
locomotive or whole train; sword, fort, or World War II flying fortress;
kitchen utensils, house, barn, and other building; tools, looms, giant
engines, or whole factories. Such a minimal institutional setting descends
from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cabinets of curiosities.
Although collected and displayed, the objects seem to be sources as much

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144 • Fashioning History

as historical products at this minimal level of interpretation. A museum

on this long-outmoded model is essentially a warehouse of and for artifacts.
The fewer the interpretive aids provided at this level, the more the
objects are given context by the audience’s memories, traditions, and
other self-interpretation. Some artifacts seem at first self-interpreting: the
precious metals and jewels of crowns, the complicatedness of a machine,
the beauty of an artifact, the esoteric uniqueness of an object, but such
audience interpretation all too often substitutes the views and values of
the present day for those of the past in the eyes of historians. Today’s
views and values all too often conceal how the object functioned at the
time in a social and cultural network, and the further back in time the
more the possibility of misunderstanding, hence the increased efforts of
modern museums to interpret their holdings for their audiences.
Modern museum practice is therefore more organized in presentation
of artifacts, large and small. Context as intervention comes from how the
artifacts are assembled and associated with each other and from how they
are interpreted as such assemblages, whether exhibitions, period rooms,
or historic sites. Interpretation as intervention between object and audi-
ence comes from textual descriptions, charts, photographs, lectures, com-
puters, and reenactments. The audience learns in such displays about the
original locations, functions, persons, and events associated with the arti-
facts in addition to their dating and identification. The most interpretive
displays discuss the economic, social, religious, and/or political context of
the objects and point out their “place in history.” Such environmental
and interpretive contextualization is the hallmark of modern museum
practice just as with any other history.19
Exhibitions are even more organized, interpreted, and contextualized
than good displays. Context comes from multiple objects from either a
period and place or from a trend, all ordered in display cases, rooms, or
the whole museum. In a diachronic exhibit, the audience moves through
time following a trend or story by walking through the sequenced series
of spaces. What was once hailed as progress is now more frequently
depicted as changes in armament, clothing, lighting fixtures, spinning
devices, transportation modes, or other objects. Period rooms may be
organized to show changes over time in fashions, uses, consumption pat-
terns, and ways of understanding. What objects belong in a period room
and even how a period is defined demands much interpretation by the
curator.20 In a synchronic exhibit various rooms and perhaps the whole
museum are organized to represent, even to re-present, a definite era and
place. Historic farms and villages are often keyed to some specific year or

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era. In both cases, increased interpretation is provided by additional text,

photographs and other pictorial matter, from docent lectures, audio cas-
settes, pamphlets, and films among the many forms of interpretation.21
A museum using such interpretive strategies has started the transition
from a warehouse of artifacts to an interpretive theater. Increased inter-
pretation began in earnest in history museums in 1970s with the adop-
tion of a social history approach, which changed not only what newer or
newly transformed museums held but also what they showed and who
they tried to reach as an audience. It was at that time, for example, that
the Henry Ford Museum (in a building modeled after Independence Hall
in Philadelphia) moved from displaying a multitude of machines, loco-
motives, automobiles, and other objects to reducing their numbers and
increasing their interpretation.22
What museum professionals term historic sites and open-air or out-
door museums range from individual houses, outbuildings, and their sur-
roundings to entire farms, plantations, factories, battlefields, and villages
and their environs. Although some buildings, boats, and other large struc-
tures are located inside museums, most are found outdoors. Unlike a
museum complex itself (like the Smithsonian Institution with its sixteen
or more museums), an open-air museum contains historic buildings and
structures. (Of course, the oldest original Smithsonian building, the red
brick “Castle,” completed in 1855 can be and is treated as historic in its
own right. It was even restored inside to its Victorian semblance in the
late 1960s.) While all institutionally managed historic sites may be con-
sidered outdoor museums, not all outdoor museums are historic sites.
What distinguishes a historic site in museum parlance from a normal
aging structure or community is its institutionalized interpretive methods
and management. It constitutes itself a historic site through interpreting
itself as such. What distinguishes one kind of site from another is its age,
extent, the nature of its structures, its purposes, and its methods of inter-
pretation. Sizes may range from a small cabin or mill to large palaces and
factories to entire estates and plantations; from farms, mines, and city dis-
tricts to whole towns and rural countrysides. In a historic site, unlike in
many an outdoor museum, the buildings and other structures are not
only original themselves but also existed always in their current location
in the larger sites and bear the exact same relationship to each other as in
the past.23
Many out-of-doors museums therefore are not strictly speaking his-
toric sites. Even if the structures in an outdoor museum are authentically
original themselves, they may not be original to the location. Part of the

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146 • Fashioning History

institutionalized management and purpose of such an outdoor museum

was to bring together its buildings and artifacts from their various origi-
nal locations. They have been relocated from other places and juxtaposed
in a manner not found in any one place in the past. Even if their build-
ings and other structures are authentically original themselves, those
buildings may be from different periods as opposed to a single era. Arthur
Hezelius founded Skansen on an island in Stockholm in 1891 as the first
outdoor museum in order to show his fellow Swedes what they were soon
going to miss as industrialization changed the countryside. He relocated
cottages, farm buildings and equipment, workshops and mills, from
around Sweden to preserve traditional crafts and ways of life before they
disappeared. Today almost 150 buildings, ranging from manor houses to
farmhouses and outbuildings, churches and village tradesmen’s shops and
mills exemplify how different social classes lived and worked and amused
themselves during mainly the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.24 At
Greenfield Village, near his home and factory outside Detroit, Michigan,
Henry Ford began in 1929 to rescue buildings from the very fate his auto-
mobiles helped seal. He brought the Wright brothers’ cycle shop from
Dayton, Ohio; Noah Webster’s house from New Haven, Connecticut;
and Robert Frost’s Michigan home, because he admired the inventors of
the first successful airplane, the compiler of the first American dictionary,
and the poet. (The popular laboratory complex of Thomas Edison in the
village is mainly a reconstruction.) Today the ninety-acre Greenfield Village
contains more than eighty relocated structures demonstrating over three
centuries of history.25
Other museums relocated original buildings of one era to their sites.
Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts moved authentic original build-
ings from all over New England to depict a small town during the years
1790 to 1840. The buildings were originally built from 1704 to 1840.
One set of farm buildings displays in microcosm the gathering process
from four different places (and dates) in its relocated house built around
1810, a barn and corncrib both from the 1830s to 1860s, and a smoke-
house from 1800.26 The Beamish North of England Open Air Museum
relocated a pit mine operation and a row of miners’ cottages, an operating
tramway and railway with station and signal box, shops, public house,
and park and bandstand to re-create a typical industrial town about 1913
on three hundred acres that was originally a farm with a 1780s house as
well as a manor whose hall dates to around 1400 with additions around
1810.27 In each of these cases, the presence of these buildings and their
relationship to each other is a product of their museum location and not

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the past. No matter how authentic each of the relocated buildings may
be, the setting is not authentic. Each presents an environment edited, so
to speak, through selection and prettified through interpretation. All cur-
rent pretty buildings are in a way untrue to their presumed actual past,
even though the buildings are authentic descendants of what they once were.
Other outdoor museums offer environments composed of structures
from different times that may be a combination of preserved, restored,
reconstructed, reproduced, and relocated buildings. The Shelburne
Museum in Vermont claims to have one of the most eclectic collections of
fine and folk art, artifacts, architecture, and Americana in the United
States. The site contains relocated and restored original buildings from
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, two freshly constructed houses
supposedly showing life in a typical 1950s American suburb and an art
collector’s 2001 home, and new exhibition buildings. Thirty-nine gal-
leries and exhibitions show some of Shelburne’s over 150,000 objects
including collections of toys, miniature circuses, quilts and other textiles,
folk and decorative arts, and paintings from the nineteenth-century
French impressionist Claude Monet to twentieth-century American folk
artist Grandma Moses. A popular tourist sight is the restored Ticonderoga
built in 1906, the last surviving side paddlewheel steamer with a vertical
beam engine in the United States.28
Some museum sites reconstruct a village from the ground up. Some of
these villages are built in their original location, but others of necessity
must be reconstructed nearby or elsewhere. Viking villages reconstructed
at or near their original locale can be found in Newfoundland, Sweden,
Denmark, and England. Historic Jamestowne in Virginia is the original
site of the first permanent English settlement in what became the United
States. It is administered jointly by the Association for the Preservation of
Virginia Antiquities and the National Park Service primarily as an archae-
ological site, but encourages visitors.29 Jamestown Settlement, which is
located near the original site and contains some reconstructed buildings
and ships, is administered by an agency of the State of Virginia as an edu-
cational and tourist destination.30 Plimoth Plantation had to be rebuilt
three miles south of its original location, now covered by its modern-day
successor Plymouth, Massachusetts. The accuracy of such reconstructions
depends upon detailed research into maps, diaries, pictures, descriptions,
and archaeological digging. They thus resemble any other full-fledged
history in their relationship to sources, interpretive imagination, and syn-
thetic construction.

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Concerns over the immediate environment of historic sites and out-

door museums are always part of their context for interpretation and
understanding. How does the researched past setting compare with the
actual modern-day setting as a whole for the historic site or outdoor
museum itself? How should museum curators and others contextualize
the site itself to show how the built or other environment appeared at a
specific time? (Changing settings are harder to show over time, except
through film or other interpretive devices.) Such anachronisms as electric
wires, telephone poles, communication towers, and modern-day tall
buildings must be eliminated, if possible, from the immediate environ-
ment. But what of the presence today of anachronistic sights, sounds,
smells, sanitation, and even the multitude of modern visitors themselves?
What compromises must be made with modern-day legal requirements
for safety, hygiene, disabled access, and other of today’s considerations?
What are the audience members meant to experience as their own
interpretation as they enter and go through the historic site or outdoor
museum? In some sites and museums the number of buildings and the
adjacent areas are extensive enough to re-create the supposed context of
those who once lived or worked there. Plantations and estates with sur-
rounding lands on one end of the social scale or factories and surround-
ing buildings at the other end survive with perhaps some restorative work
to suggest the authenticity of the larger settings. In all these cases, cura-
tors and other scholars attempt not only to reproduce the individual
buildings but also provide the context of the farm or town as well.
One quest for overall environment as historical context focuses on the
nature of the vistas from the site. Electric and communication towers, tall
buildings, and modern highways all remind historic site visitors of their
own rather than past times. The clash over vistas is fought frequently over
what can be as opposed to what should be seen from historic battlefields.
In the United States, preservationists, historians, and Civil War buffs fight
real estate developers and corporations, including the Disney corpora-
tion, encroaching on the lands or erecting anomalous structures next to
or near to the historic battlefields.31 The vista across the Potomac River
from George Washington’s Mount Vernon is preserved by a foundation
using the area as an outdoor living history museum. The National Colonial
Farm Museum presents a 1780 dwelling and the outbuildings and garden
typical of an eighteenth-century yeoman class tobacco farm. Its Web site
boasts of the beautiful view of Mount Vernon on the opposite bank.32
How mark the boundary between the everyday present of the visitor
and the assumed past of the site? How persuade the audience to suspend

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belief in contemporary approaches to life for the past supposedly repro-

duced in the historic building, fort, farm, village, or battlefield? Whether
large or small, all historic sites need zones of transition to persuade the
visitor to adopt an open attitude and mind to the past as provided by the
museum. Most such site museums hope that the displays and films
offered in the orientation center prepare the audience to experience the
past as presented on site. Some hope that fences and other barriers help
the audience make the leap from the present to a past world. Visitors after
passing through an orientation center at Plimoth Plantation encounter a
twelve-foot-high reconstructed palisade surrounding the fifteen struc-
tures within the town itself. Colonial Williamsburg uses in addition to a
large orientation center a three-thousand-acre buffer zone to separate the
historic area of the eighteenth-century town from its twenty-first-century
At the other end of the interpretive scale in outdoor museums is what
happens inside the preserved, restored, reconstructed, or relocated struc-
tures. Curators confront the same kinds of choices about the interior
environment of the structures as they did in the exterior environment.
How many rooms or spaces are needed to show what went on inside the
buildings? Do they show all the rooms of a house, factory, shop, barn, or
fort as they were once used? Or, do they select some for exhibit and con-
vert the remainder to administrative offices, staff quarters, shops, lounges,
and rest rooms? What of legal and other requirements for safety and secu-
rity: fire alarms and sprinklers, security and communication systems?
Should rooms be left empty if original equipment or furnishings are miss-
ing? Should, for example, unfinished rooms in historic houses be com-
pleted today, as happens at the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina? If
the original furnishings have disappeared, should curators produce a
period setting using original furniture and objects typical of the place,
period, and social position of the owner? Are accurate reproductions
In each case, the interpretive issue revolves about the curator’s ability
to re-present a past setting using as much as possible the original design
of the room and authentic contents as they have descended from the past
versus the need to re-create as accurate a setting as possible from docu-
mentary, pictorial, archeological, and other research. Both choices depend
upon interpretation of what was original, but re-creation demands greater
inference and intervention than re-presentation, as with other historical

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Similar decisions must be made for forts and ships, mills and factories,
shops and stores, barns and farm outbuildings if original tools, machines,
furnishings, and supplies are missing. Should they remain empty or
should other authentic objects or even reproductions be substituted?
Should mill sites, for example, restore machinery to working condition or
merely display it? To continue this example, must missing machines be
assembled from authentic parts produced and used elsewhere originally,
or will reproductions serve as well? In each case, should the space look as
if its occupants, workers, clerks, or customers just stepped out of it? Each
curatorial decision has its interpretive consequences and resulting kind of
At the greatest degree of interpretation and intervention are living his-
tory museums, which use reenactment of past persons’ behavior and activ-
ities to give a living, breathing sense of history to modern audiences. Such
museums use present-day people to portray typical or famous persons in
the past. These reenactors utilize past real or reproduced artifacts as they
were once used, appear in past structures and environments as they were
once occupied, perform in the roles past persons once lived, and talk
about things as those persons once spoke. Such reenactments signify the
ultimate effort of museum practice to supply the hidden context of the
site and therefore embody the most interpretive intervention. They need
more and receive more interpretation than any preceding set of interven-
tions, because they attempt to re-create the past as it was once actually
lived. Such intervention moves from the use of costumed guides to
explain what the audience observes in the way of artifacts and structures
to interpreters acting as the persons who once inhabited and used those
structures and artifacts.
Short of time machines to carry historical tourists back to the past, liv-
ing history museums are the next best thing we have now. As their name
suggests, such outdoor museums present the audience with a three-
dimensional living reenactment of the past. To that end, artifacts, build-
ings, vistas, and the activities of costumed interpreters are all assembled to
depict the chosen time and place. The ultimate aim of such museums is
to create a complete larger environmental context for the visitor that is as
accurate to a specific past as research and reenactment can make it—all in
the hope of prying the audience from today’s worldviews and activities in
order to understand or at least consider those of the past. No matter how
well researched in textual and artifactual sources and no matter how real-
istic it appears to an audience, such interpretive intervention is as con-
structed and inventive as any full-fledged history, perhaps more so due to

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the comprehensiveness of many large, what one might call, “full-service”

Once again Colonial Williamsburg provides a good example of the
full-service museum. Colonial Williamsburg now claims to be the largest
living historical museum in the United States, employing more than four
thousand persons in the early twenty-first century with approximately
one thousand individuals “working closely with the collections.” In 1985
attendance peaked at 1.1 million. Paid visitors had declined to 745,000
in 2006, but the off-site audience reaches even more people through edu-
cational and other outreach. The “Historic Area” now contains 301 acres
of land with more than 500 buildings, containing 225 exhibition rooms,
and 90 acres of greens and gardens. Today a three-thousand-acre green-
belt surrounds the Historic Area to control the general vistas and larger
environment. Five museums supplement the Historic Area by displaying
some of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s collections: 2,600 folk
objects of the period; 4 million archeological objects; 500,000 pho-
tographs, negatives, drawings and blueprints; and 25,000 rare books and
Coexisting with and sustaining the Foundation’s many historical activ-
ities are substantial commercial enterprises. In addition to the many gift
shops in or near the “Historic Area” as well as online stores, the Foundation
also manages five kinds of hotels or other lodging places with over a thou-
sand guest rooms, eleven or more restaurants varying from historical sim-
ulation of menu and environment to modern fast food, and three golf
courses with no roots in the eighteenth century at all. Colonial Williamsburg
advertises for convention business as well as historical tourists. Information
about all the matters in these paragraphs and more can be found on the
many pages associated with the Foundation’s Web site. Its very title
echoes the confidence of the museum in its standing in the United States: This Web site provides among other things the
annual reports, virtual tours, hotel and inn accommodations, merchan-
dise for sale, educational opportunities, jobs, and instructions for making
donations in addition to providing historical information and educational
Reenactments occur everywhere in the colonial capital. The many
“costumed interpreters” ply such crafts as blacksmithing, carpentry,
millinery, wig making, shoe making, basket weaving, barrel making, sil-
versmithing, weaving, harness making and other trades at twenty sites.
They act as masters and mistresses, journeymen and tavern owners, cooks
and servants in the shops, homes and outbuildings (according to gender

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and race of course). They reenact militia musters and crucial military
engagements, dramatic trials in the Courthouse, or the dissolution of the
House of Burgesses with the members moving to Raleigh Tavern as pre-
lude to the American Revolution. They perform songs, dances, and dra-
mas in the evening entertainments. They play and march in the Fife and
Drum Corps (restricted to the ages of ten to eighteen as then but now
including girls as well as boys). Recent new programs include walking
“About Town” with “People of the Past” or being met by such eighteenth-
century personages as Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Patrick
Henry to explain and debate matters.
Colonial Williamsburg also finances and manages extensive educa-
tional outreach programs. The Foundation supports and produces the
traditional books, videotapes, recordings, and other media to get across
the stories, words, and music of eighteenth-century Virginia. It hosts con-
ferences on antiques, gardens, archaeology, architecture, conservation and
preservation, and eighteenth-century history. Its experts publish scholarly
books and monographs. Its outreach also includes “electronic field trips,”
which combine satellite-delivered, interactive television and computer tech-
nology to bring eighteenth-century life to over a million students annually
throughout the United States. Students can query costumed interpreters
and historians and other experts about the times and place, issues and
context of family life, African American slavery, commerce and the con-
sumer revolution, religious freedom, or political events and governmen-
tal institutions. The Colonial Williamsburg Teachers Institute offers
lesson plans and sponsors on-site classes for teachers and students in high
school and college, with the Historic Area serving as “a living laboratory.”
How challenging such a large living history museum can be to its
audience and still attract large numbers of people, educate as well as
amuse them, house and feed them in comfort though in “authentic” envi-
ronment, maintain scholarly standards yet keep up store sales, produce
learned monographs and popular but accurate reproductions is its own
kind of test of modern museum practice. The challenge from the view-
point of historians is to keep such museums from becoming part of what
they derisively term the “heritage industry” by insisting upon responsible
interpretation policed by the profession and not surrendering to entre-
preneurial zeal just to increase audience or gain endowment. Whether
Colonial Williamsburg manages to maintain this delicate balance con-
cerns its critics and supporters alike. Its many lodging places and restau-
rants, not to mention its golf courses, make the Foundation’s offerings
part of the tourist business, and the neighboring businesses view it as a

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major attraction if not an accomplice in their industry as any search of

Williamsburg on the Internet shows. It is clearly a tourist “destination”
along with the Busch Gardens Williamsburg theme park and Water
Country USA, as is apparent from other Web sites about the town. Its size
and multiple sales shops, five kinds of lodging accommodations, eleven
eating places, and three golf courses impress the visitor as much as any
historic restoration, its amusing divertissements as much as their claim to
be authentic re-creations. Last of all, the very large audiences at full-ser-
vice historic sites add to the inauthenticity and anachronism of the museum-
going experience.
Colonial Williamsburg is not only a branch of the tourist industry but
also a big business. Some of the taint of business comes from association
with the Rockefeller name. Although the proposal for restoring Williamsburg
to its historic past was the idea of Rev. Dr. William A. R. Goodwin, the
rector who earlier restored the Bruton Parish Church in town, it was the
financial largesse of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of the great American
entrepreneur or Robber Baron (depending upon your narrative), that
made it possible. His donations to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
began in the 1920s and reached some $79 million before his death in
1960. Revenue from all the stores, lodging, and not least admission fees
added up to over $138 million in 2001, the seventy-fifth year of opera-
tion. Of that $29.6 million came from admission fees, while $61.8 mil-
lion derived from hotels and restaurants and $40.7 million from sales of
products. Operating expenses that year amounted to $221.5 million, and
the endowment exceeded $673 million.33
No wonder some scholars accuse Colonial Williamsburg of being a big
tourist business. Moreover, they think that the 931,000 people admitted
in 2001 saw a past packaged just like any other thing on sale in modern
society. They condemn such museums for commodifying history as just
another part of the service sector in a postindustrial, late capitalist world.
Such commodification of history depends upon fusing simulation and
reality, the past and the present, especially in a living history museum.
The extreme degree of interpretive intervention that living history
museums present so flagrantly should remind us that all historical exhibi-
tions and sites present some degree of interpretive intervention. Usually
the more extensive an exhibition of artifacts, the larger the space covered,
or the more varied the number of structures on a site, the more interpre-
tation needed to contextualize it for present-day audiences. The added
extent or magnitude of such exhibits and sites introduce interpretive
choices at least as complicated if not more so as for any other historical

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154 • Fashioning History

project. For museum exhibitions of all kinds, curators and others must
choose what objects to display and how they should contextualize each
other; how much explicit interpretation should be given as opposed to
presuming traditions and collective memory; and what kinds of interpre-
tation attracts which sectors of audience. Curators and others must
choose for outdoor sites what remains and what is razed, what is relocated
or what is reconstructed from scratch, what is reinterpreted and what is
reenacted. The more the museum tries to re-create the sights, sounds,
smells, tastes, and general experience of some past people and events, the
more the nature and amount of interpretive intervention is the same as
for any other form of full-fledged history. So it is time to turn to what
kinds of interpretive aids museums use today.

Interpretive Aids:
From Labels to Web Sites
Increased interpretation and greater professionalism went hand in hand
in modern museum theory and practice in the last six decades. Growing
professionalization was shown not only by museum people getting more
advanced degrees in academic history but also in the establishment of
programs in museum theory and practice that produced graduates with
degrees in the field itself. Museums began to establish separate depart-
ments of interpretation or their equivalent for researching and planning
exhibitions and training those who explicated them to the public as they
grew in size and numbers in the latter half of the twentieth century. What
had been hostesses and guides became replaced by “interpreters” in
museum terminology. Such books as Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our
Heritage, first published in 1957, and William T. Alderson and Shirley
Payne Low, Interpretation of Historic Sites (1976), marked the transition
in United States museology from artifactual warehouses to interpretive
theaters.34 Even small museums were encouraged to increase interpreta-
tion in their exhibits by the new books devoted to the subject and the
articles appearing in the professional museum journals. Alderson and
Low urged and illustrated what even a small museum or historical site
might do by way of interpretive guides and display techniques.35
The emergence of social history in the 1960s with its stress on nonelite
peoples and everyday life provided new impetus for museum exhibits and
even new kinds of museums with new subject matters, new ways of inter-
preting their displays, and even new definitions of what professional
museum practice should accomplish. Social history, and some would say

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its political agenda, warranted new kinds of exhibits and museums about
previously forgotten peoples in slum tenements, slave cabins, tenants’ cot-
tages, factory lofts, and army barracks.36 Such exhibits and museums
sought to challenge as well as transmit traditional values and heritage by
exemplifying in exhibit and purpose worker exploitation and oppression,
social conflict, class structure, gender subordination and domination,
racial and ethnic cleavage as part of the national past, hence history.
Museums not only sought to portray a broader spectrum of the popula-
tion and their activities than previously but also to pull in a wider audi-
ence than formerly. Educational outreach sought to attract not only
schoolchildren from all backgrounds but also adults from more sectors of
the population in addition to teachers and the better educated. Museums
began studying the nature of their audiences, what attracted them, and
how their numbers might be enlarged.37
In line with these trends larger museums and historic sites emerged as
full-service educational entities and heritage tourist destinations, like
Colonial Williamsburg in the United States or the Ironbridge Gorge
Museums along the Severn River in the English West Midlands. This val-
ley claims to be the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Nine museums
in a six-square-mile area show restored and reconstructed sites ranging
from the blast furnace of Abraham Darby, who invented modern iron
smelting with coke in 1709, to a nineteenth-century Victorian town. The
cast-iron bridge spanning the gorge since 1779 (and after which the
museum group is named) is itself an icon of the industrial revolution,
since it was the first one built in the world.38 Smaller museums did what
they could along these lines.
Ever greater interpretation became basic to what any museum should
do and be, what professional practice meant and aimed for, and how
larger and more diverse audiences might be attracted. The more the inter-
pretation, however, the more museum exhibitions and historic sites resem-
bled any other full-fledged synthetic historical project, or proper history
in short, with its many layers of information, narrative, explanation, per-
spective, meaning, moral and political implications. The more the objects
themselves were organized into a story or contextualized by each other,
the more they became diachronic and synchronic histories in their own
right. The more they were complemented by textual interpretive aids, the
more they literally resembled traditional histories. The more they were
supplemented by spoken words, whether by guides or audiotapes, the
more they tried to control the audience’s interpretive path as in any other
proper history. The more they introduced interpretation into museum

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156 • Fashioning History

displays and historic site presentations, the more they encountered and
were aware of the customary problems of voice and viewpoint and there-
fore who defined meaning for whom and how.
Although interpretation pervades all parts of museum presentations as
we have seen, it particularly can be found in the textual and pictorial mate-
rials that provide the larger context of object or site. Today textual and
other interpretive materials accompany all museum presentations from
the simplest displays to the most elaborate exhibitions to living historical
museums. Such supplementary materials can range from simple identifi-
cation labels to costumed guides and living reenactments. In many muse-
ums today teams of professional designers, curators, educators, and guest
experts organize the exhibitions’ and historic sites’ interpretations, design
the layout and placement of objects and texts, prepare and train the guides,
and produce the pamphlets and audio and virtual tours. Exhibitions and
sites are designed to embody various goals and perspectives, point out
diverse meanings, and appeal to different groups and multiple audiences,
whether schoolchildren, tourists, educated professionals, traditional elites,
factory workers, salespeople, or new immigrants. All such interpretive
aids assume what these audience sectors want to know, should know, and
need to know. Museum designers and planners use increasingly polls and
surveys to aid in this process.39
Increased interpretation in museums results in increased intervention
between artifacts and their presentation, and the greater the intervention
the more such presentations resemble other full-fledged histories. The
more such interpretive aids are textual and the more there are of them in
any one historical exhibition or site, the more the display or site can be
analyzed and judged in the same ways as any other historical synthesis. In
what follows, I categorize common interpretive aids by techniques and
kind of intervention. Within each general category I arrange the tech-
niques in rough order by kind and amount of interpretation. In other
words, I have tried to indicate how the aids in themselves, apart from
their associated objects in a presentation, increasingly resemble any full-
fledged, proper history.40
The oldest such device is the label.41 The choice of even the simplest
label no less than the choice of object indicates how the audience should
perceive and conceive the item. The briefest label provides only a title or
caption or some simple identification of an object by name or function.
Merely to distinguish a crown from a hat, a clock from an ornament, a
short sword from a long knife, a pickax from an axe, a butter churn from
a washing machine, a stove from a fireplace insert works best when the

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observers can depend upon their memories and traditions within a cul-
ture to make these distinctions. The older the object, the less memory and
tradition serve to contextualize it. To the extent that the object is foreign
to the culture as well as the times of the audience, the more the label per-
forms an act of translation in its very naming of an object. To label some-
thing as a crown rather than a headpiece, or a ritual vessel rather than a
drinking cup, prompts the observer to immediately set it within certain
categories of meaning. Such a simple label, however, does not tell observers
of a gold headpiece or ritual vessel heavily encrusted with jewels whether
to remark the craftsmanship of the maker, the society’s governmental and
religious systems, its modern economic worth, or an elite’s exploitation of
the masses.
The simpler a label the more it allows (or forces) the audience mem-
bers to rely upon their memories, traditions, or imagination to contextu-
alize on their own the objects they see. In that sense lack of labeling
resembles seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosities, which presumed an
objects’ interpretation would be based on the ideas and values the
observers held about the rare, exotic, or traditional. Some critics of the
increased interpretive intervention displayed in modern museums seem
wistful about the observers’ freedom in those old cabinets of curiosities
even as they condemn the lack of popular access to them at the time.
Augmented text and description on a label indicates increased inter-
vention by curator and historian. Whether it lists past or current owner,
creator or user, when and where it was created or where and how it was
used, it offers some interpretive clue to what classificatory system was
applied, by whom then or now, and when in the past or present. The
more the label expands upon antiquity, authenticity, authorship, func-
tion, value, or significance of what the audience views, the more it offers
interpretation as part of the description. Even the briefest label indicates
whether the object should be judged by aesthetic, utilitarian, ritual, or
patriotic importance. Should tableware and apparel, for example, be
described no matter how briefly for their customary function at the time
of their creation and use; by their historic importance in commerce and
consumer taste, or by their aesthetic beauty to us today? Should, for
example, religious regalia and ritual objects from various societies be cat-
egorized for their beauty as perceived by us or for the role they played in
past worship? This dilemma seems particularly a problem the more the
culture of the users seems strange, even exotic, to the culture of a present-
day audience. Hence the division perhaps between the same kinds of
objects shown for aesthetic qualities in art museums, as exotic cultures in

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158 • Fashioning History

ethnographic and archaeological museums, and as products of the past in

history museums. One can see these divisions in the exhibitions about
past Native Americans and other aboriginal peoples around the world.
While the history of these peoples is no longer confined to natural history
museums as opposed to historical ones, their histories are all too often still
segregated from the overall course of a national or regional history in spite
of the efforts of many native peoples and historians.42
When a label adds information about whether an object was the first
or last, typical or unique of its kind, it is even more interpretive, because
it can only assign these attributes according to some classificatory system
based on comparison. Objects do not proclaim their uniqueness or typi-
cality. Rather assessment of being first, last, typical, or unique comes from
someone’s interpretation of history. Such an attribution can only come
from the interpretation of other objects as sources or from texts as sources
about the objects. Sometimes it can only come from knowing the future
of the past. For example, was the object created by a competent seamstress
or a patriot (like the fabled Betsy Ross); a famous potter or an accom-
plished businessman (like Josiah Wedgewood); a gifted silversmith or
famous revolutionary (like Paul Revere); an English thief of spinning
machine’s plans or an honored American entrepreneur (like Samuel Slater)?
And what about the prolific Anonymous?
The more a label gets into the provenance or biography of an object
the more chances for interpretation. Sometimes an object’s historical
importance follows from its various owners and not from its creator or
function. The more the label describes and explains the relationship of
the object to an owner, particularly a famous one, the more curators and
historians must interpret to establish this connection. But to describe or
explain this importance probably requires more than a brief label. Of
course, simple labels may be sufficient if an entire room, building, or site
contextualizes the object, but then this larger context needs to be expli-
cated. Objects do not divide themselves into periods and places on their
own. Most interpretive of all at times are the slogan-like titles given to
exhibitions or even museums themselves, such as the “birthplace” or “cra-
dle” of democracy, the Industrial Revolution, or the nation.
Labels often provide information about donors or how the museum
acquired an object. The more a label provides an object’s recent prove-
nance or a biography of its custody, the more it advances another step
along the scale of interpretation. What does such information, for exam-
ple, show about modern museum patronage, or yesterday’s and today’s

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class and wealth systems, or even ways of looking at and classifying

Labels usually apply to single objects or at most a few and contain less
information than what might best be designated in general as an infor-
mation “panel.” Panels apply to whole displays as well as showcases of
objects. They contain more text since they offer more description and
more perspective. As a result of applying to more objects and offering
greater amounts of text and picture, they are also more interpretive and
exemplify greater curatorial mediation between artifacts and audiences.
Panels introduce exhibitions as a whole and contextualize entire displays.
They describe functions and roles textually and illustrate them pictorially.
They use words, pictures, old photographs, diagrams, maps, and charts of
various kinds to trace the genealogy of a person or family, to provide a
timeline and temporal location, to explicate and interpret what the audi-
ence sees, and to provide the unseen background and larger context of
perspective or meaning. Panels help the audience to follow the diachronic
story in a sequence of spaces in an exhibition or to grasp the synchronic
significance of a period room setting in museum or historic home.
Of course the more information a panel offers the more interpretation
it includes. Describing and explaining how artifacts functioned in a soci-
ety is interpretive history at its finest and shows best in such contexts as
period room settings, historic houses, mills, factories, forts, and historic
sites of all kinds. What holds true for the origins and nature of the classi-
ficatory and interpretive systems underlying labels goes doubly, triply, or
more for panels. What aspects are selected for attention, according to
whose criteria, from then or now? What aspects are neglected or suppressed
and for what reasons? What is the underlying system itself of the inter-
pretation? 44
What labels and panels initiate in textual interpretation culminates in
pamphlets, monographs, and books. Such traditional texts as pamphlets
and books provide greater description, explanation, context, and perspec-
tive than even a series of panels (or docent lectures). They may include
pictures, statistical tables, diagrams and charts as well as analysis and
argument, description and story. Museums sell pamphlets and books that
offer more complete written introductions and interpretations of the muse-
ums’ exhibitions than can be included in the exhibition itself. Historic sites
sell pamphlets and books to describe and explain the site itself and its
temporal and other contexts at greater length than can usually be done on
a guided tour. In larger museums and historic sites today expert curators or
other professional historians usually write these monographs and histories,

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160 • Fashioning History

or the research branch of the institution may produce them. Such books
may range from detailed technical monographs on collections of artifacts
and their creators to histories of the historic site itself, from who lived or
worked there to more general histories of the times and locality.45 Their
contents are organized like any other full-fledged history and should be
analyzed and judged by the same standards.46
Pictorial matter to supplement the material objects takes many forms
in modern museum practice. Panels contain diagrams and drawings, as
mentioned earlier. Sometimes paintings, either original or reproduced,
illustrate the function of an object, the conditions of workers, the spaces
of elite and other persons, the original or earlier appearance of a house or
building, the nature of agriculture and shape of the landscape, the imple-
ments and forms of warfare, or the modes, uses, and role of transporta-
tion. As paintings depict these many matters, they also provide clues to
the context of their use. Photographs can play the same interpretive role
as paintings for the times after the invention of the camera. Of course,
paintings and photographs are doubly interpretive in such uses for they
provide their contents as contextual interpretation according to the aes-
thetic, perceptual, and conceptual biases of their creators (and their
patrons). Thus when they appear as themselves in period rooms and his-
toric chambers, they become sources for the tastes, economic worth, and
social standing of their possessors as well as the skills of the painter or
photographer. When they are used to contextualize objects and settings in
museums or historic sites, they become interpretations for the audiences
and sources for those who would understand modern museum practice.
When they are considered on their own, the interpretive eye of the painter
or photographer may conceal as much as it reveals. If a picture is worth a
thousand words, it often takes as many to explicate the ways in which its
creator manipulates the framing and visual perspective to organize what
is shown and not shown. Thus museum visitors are confronted with sev-
eral layers of interpretation just in trying to construe for themselves what
they observe in pictures.47
What I have called pictorial interpretation here culminates in slide
shows and films. Both are used frequently to provide an audience with a
quick overall introduction to an exhibit or historic site. They also are used
as part of exhibits to show the workings, role, or other context of the objects.
Their contents may range from still paintings and photographs to filmed
reenactments. The pictorial contents themselves may have been created
contemporaneously to the objects being contextualized, that is they may
use or reproduce old paintings, murals, photographs, and films. Or, the

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pictures may have been created long after what they depict through sim-
ulation, reenactment, or scenic extrapolation from present-day landscape
and artifacts. Regardless of the sources of such pictorial content, they
embody the dilemmas of visual interpretation. If they reproduce still pic-
tures, they pose the interpretive problems of such pictures. If they are
filmed reenactments, they pose other problems of living interpretation to
be discussed further in the next section. Needless to say, the overall sequence
of slide show or film exemplifies the same problems of organization,
interpretation, and increasing mediation as with all full-fledged histories.
Museums sometimes use scale models to give a third dimension to
interpretation. One of the oldest examples of this approach is to use
model soldiers, weapons and armaments, and landscape contours to illus-
trate battles. Museums use models of machines to show how they worked
or what their context was. Sometimes a building, village, or landscape is
constructed to scale as accurately as documentary, archeological, and
other resources allow. The Ironbridge Gorge Museums in northern
England display a forty-foot scale model of three miles along the Severn
River to show how its industrialization might have appeared when the
Prince of Orange visited August 12, 1796. Two Swedish filmmakers con-
structed a 1:30 scale model of Birka, a medieval Viking village that arche-
ologists had excavated during the 1990s near modern Stockholm. They
used the detailed research of the excavation not only to build the model
as accurately as possible but also to have actors reenact scenes to appear in
the composite film of the model and actors. The model is now housed in
the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm.48
Dioramas depict historic scenes through real or reproduced artifacts,
modeled figures of humans and animals, and painted backgrounds or
replicated landscapes. The manikins may be life size or smaller. Three dio-
ramas in the New York State Museum depict Native American life in a
Mohawk Village about 1600 before “European influence greatly changed
Iroquois culture.” The dioramas present a scale model of a village, part of
a full-sized longhouse with furnishings, and an agricultural field raising
the “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash. Appropriately sized manikins,
animals, plants, and artifacts appear in the various dioramas. The Museum
warrants their accuracy based upon extensive research. As the introduc-
tion to “The Three Sisters” agricultural field states, “This exhibit strives
to be authentic in all respects, from the major setting to the smallest
details. The plants and animals displayed are accurate replications of
those that inhabited the Iroquois world.”49 Although dioramas are three-
dimensional, they are static and lifeless in their alleged re-creations of past

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162 • Fashioning History

persons and environment. Nevertheless those representations result from

the same interpretation of the sources and resulting intervention as other
forms of history. The more the diorama employs virtual reconstruction as
opposed to actual artifacts, the more speculative and imaginative the rep-
resentation. The farther back in the past said to be represented the more
speculative and imaginative.50
An important goal of the modern museum is to involve the audiences
more through interactive exhibits. Sometimes that means merely that
users in some way activate the sounds or sights of a display. Other times
interaction has audience members learning by doing. They may handle
objects, either authentic or reproduced. Or, they may participate in some
activity: bake bread, tar a boat, render lard, load a gun, or even dress a
doll, depending upon the interests and the ages of the audience.51 Once
again such learning by doing and reenactment of past activities involves
interpretation of the sources by the curators if not audiences to produce
the semblance of a product, explain its functioning and role in the past,
and offer perspective and explanation to understand how the simulated
activity fit into the life of the past society.
With the increased use and ownership of computers, small and large
museums alike developed Web sites. Sometimes a museum’s Web page
gives little more than directions to its location, hours open, a concise
mention of aims, and a brief description of its collection or site. Larger
museums have extensive Web sites offering virtual tours, research publi-
cations, online gift shops with reproduced artifacts, documentary sources,
and teachers’ materials and lessons. 52 The Monticello Web site (http:
//, for example, offers among its many pages a vir-
tual tour through Jefferson’s mansion, guides to and pictures of the gar-
dens and grounds, a map and description of the five thousand acre plantation
and its working parts, biographies of some of the slaves, streaming speeches
by experts on Jefferson and his times, expositions of his political and reli-
gious ideas, descriptions of his farming practices, the tasks and duties of
slave and free African Americans, the controversy over Jefferson’s rela-
tionship to his slave Sally Hemings, and an online catalog for the museum
shop gifts, heritage plant seeds, and extensive publications. As part of its
educational outreach to schoolchildren, the Web site allows them to ask
Jefferson a question and receive a reply in his name and provides peda-
gogical hints for using the Web site in teaching about him and his times.
Although the Web site seems to allow its users greater freedom of maneu-
ver and therefore choice of interpretation than the traditional book or lec-
ture, one soon realizes that it, like any historical representation, organizes

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Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites • 163

and limits the options it allows through its hypertext markup links. Like
any other interpretive work, the Web site controls how it represents Jefferson
as a person, farmer, politician, inventor, slave owner, architect, and intel-
lectual; the plantation community around him; and the larger world in
which he lived.

Interpretive Aids:
From Lectures to Living Reenactments
One of the most common methods of interpretation in a museum or a
site is through the spoken word. Most familiar is the long, traditional,
formal or informal lecture by a docent or guide, often a volunteer, geared
to the ages and presumed interests of the various audience members.
Popular replacements these days for such tour guides are audiocassette
tapes. This mechanical aid allows visitors to wander through the exhibi-
tion or site at their own speed, stopping here and there at will, and listen-
ing to the interpretations produced by museum professionals. Although
this mechanical aid frees the visitors from the tyranny of the live guide’s
program, it is no substitute, however, for the interactive give-and-take
between a good guide and alert audience. Such interaction and interpre-
tation is enhanced when the guides appear in accurate period costume,
talk about what visitors see, and answer their specific questions. The
effect is further enhanced when costumed interpreters demonstrate
domestic duties like cooking, candle dipping, spinning, and gardening;
farm chores like haying, sheep shearing, and butchering; or trades like
blacksmithing, barrel making, clerking, and soldiering (according to his-
toric gender roles of course). Since these costumed guides and demon-
strators still interact with their audiences by speaking of past persons and
activities from today’s point of view and knowledge, museum practice
people refer to this method as “third-person interpretation.”
That interpretive and interactive trend culminated in the last quarter
of the twentieth century in costumed interpreters adopting the roles of
famous or typical past persons by expounding their religious, political
and other worldviews; demonstrating their everyday activities; portraying
their personal attributes, family relationships, and social positions; and
always appearing and acting in general in appropriate character. Since
reenactors speak and act as if they were their characters, museum practice
people call this method “first-person interpretation.” Such first person
interpretation embraces a wide range of past characters in United States
living history museums today: servants and masters, slaves and owners,

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164 • Fashioning History

housewives and farmers, soldiers and officers, store clerks and artisans,
American presidents and judges, tavern owners and dance hall girls, Native
Americans and European immigrants, whalers and fur traders, preachers
and frontier pioneers, businessmen and workers.53 First-person interpre-
tation demands that reenactors be as accurate in their speech patterns as
their manners, their cosmologies as their amusements, their travel modes
as their occupational skills, their treatment of inferiors and superiors as
their clothing, their interaction with friends and neighbors as their
knowledge of local plants and animals, and their understanding of their
times and place in the world as their food and drinking customs.54
One of the first and most complete conversions to first-person inter-
pretation as the living part of a history museum was at Plimoth Plantation,
founded in 1947 to commemorate the “Pilgrim Fathers” of Thanksgiving
legend. Since modern Plymouth covers the original site of the plantation,
the supposedly re-constructed fort–meeting house and the first dwellings
were built initially on open land near Plymouth Rock. Guides and host-
esses, clad in clean, starched copies of supposed period clothes, conducted
traditional third-person interpretations of the site. Manikins illustrated
activities in the buildings. The museum began construction of a new,
more accurate fort–meeting house and the other dwellings at its current
site about three miles south of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1957 and
started operating as a full-fledged outdoor museum the next year.
The Plantation attempted an even more authentically accurate recon-
struction at the urging of James Deetz, a young Harvard-trained anthro-
pologist who conducted archeological research in the area and eventually
became Assistant Director. Beginning in 1969, the Plantation removed
the anachronistic antiques from the houses in favor of barer rooms;
returned the oyster shell walkways to plain dirt; tore up the rose bushes,
planted flora or left yards unplanted as more original to the times; substi-
tuted weathered simple frame houses for the previous charming cottages
with Elizabethan glass windows; and constructed the twelve foot high
wooden palisade around the village. In the 1970s the manikins disappeared
from the buildings, and the guides and hostesses increasingly became
first-person “interpreters” by doing tasks rather than just describing
them. By 1978 they chopped wood, hauled water, plucked chickens, held
musket drills, said prayers, ate with their hands, feasted, danced, and sang
in less immaculate but more authentic clothing in design and textile.
When the reenacting interpreters talked to visitors, they even spoke in
one of the four regional dialects of the original settlers. Later such collec-
tive events as a simple wedding, a funeral, court trials, and regular military

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Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites • 165

muster were performed. Attracting large audiences were the more elabo-
rated (and extrapolated) festive wedding, grand muster, and three-day
harvest feast. Of course, the audience always remains anachronistic no
matter how authentically accurate the setting.55
By 1978 Plimoth Plantation had become a complete living history
museum committed to first-person interpretation. Such interpretation
like the reconstructed village itself depended upon good documentary
sources and archaeological research. Because the village was twice visited
and described at some length in 1627, the layout and appearance of Plimoth
Plantation were keyed to that year. (On the other hand, the reconstructed
Mayflower II, docked in modern Plymouth’s busy port, re-created the
activities of 1621, to the sometime confusion of those who visited both
town and ship.) For the sake of authentic reenactments, the interpreting
must be inferred from sources as close to that year and place as possible.
In the mid-1980s, the interpreters attended a two-week training ses-
sion, which included lectures on seventeenth-century worldviews, the
social order in Plimoth, the colony’s military organization, and the foods
and eating habits of the period. They read two large training manuals pro-
duced by the research and interpretation departments that covered these
matters and other information pertinent to life in England and the colony
in 1627. They listened to audiotapes to learn one of the four dialects spo-
ken in the village. They received historical texts pertinent to the times and
their character and were encouraged to supplement their knowledge in
the three thousand book library. New interpreters attended additional
lectures on “informant method and characterization” and received point-
ers from their more experienced colleagues. Rehearsals were limited to the
dress rehearsal preceding the season opening and some of the major col-
lective reenactments such as court days, the “Festive Wedding,” and the
“Harvest Feast.” Rehearsals were usually informal in order to keep the char-
acterization of the reenactors improvisational or extemporaneous. In the
end, the ideal first-person interpreters at Plimoth Plantation became
so immersed in the outlook, knowledge, behavior, and demeanor of those
they portrayed that they could serve as “ethnohistorical informants” for
their audiences. In line with their assumed roles they professed to know
nothing beyond 1627 and never stepped out of character, even when baited
by a determined heckler.56
Scholars debate whether first-person interpretation is more acting and
theater than scholarship and history, but all agree that the intended result
is to bring the static sets of historic sites to life by creating accurate, animated,
and interactive living dioramas in effect. Proponents of this interpretive

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166 • Fashioning History

method stress the extensive research reenactors do to create as authentic a

characterization as possible. As with any other historical project, reenac-
tors must extrapolate from the sources to their finished product(ion). They
must interpret the role to create the character they portray. The stories
they tell and perform, the perspectives and explanations they offer, the
demeanor and behavior they enact all supposedly come only from the
world of their assumed past characters as inferred from the sources. The
degree of commitment to playing a historical role as accurately as possible
may be measured by whether the reenactor refuses to understand audi-
ence questions posed from a modern point of view or about modern matters.
Historians question how authentic such first-person interpretations
are and what authorizes them. A curator, educator, or these days a whole
department of research or interpretation may script the words or actions.
Or, the words may be extemporaneous and the actions improvisational
based upon training sessions or guided reading in the sources provided by
the curators or departments of interpretation. In either case, their accu-
racy no less than their perspective depends upon a great deal of interpre-
tation. The question is always how much can be re-presented and how
much must be constructed, how much reenacted and how much just
acted? Like other histories, first-person interpretations offer representa-
tion and construction as if it were re-presentation and reconstruction,
because documentation is never complete enough to nail down all the
details on one hand or to give all the generalizations on the other hand.
First-person interpreters create. For example, they may hypothesize emo-
tions and posture on one side and extrapolate meaning and perspective
on the other. Both interpretive sides may be educated guesses but guesses
The commitment to historical authenticity and accuracy is strained
when it comes to reenacting roles and behavior deemed questionable,
uncomfortable, or immoral by today’s standards. How should living his-
tory museums handle past race relations, ethnic cleavage, inequality of class
and gender, harsh working conditions, midwifery and childbirth, and
poor health and sanitary conditions? The pained reaction of some in the
African American community to the slave auction staged by Colonial
Williamsburg in 1994 shows the delicacy of the problem. To what extent
should or can reenactments put past toilet habits, alcoholism, domestic
quarrels, death, sex, and human and animal cruelty on public view? Wife
beating, sexual intercourse, severe illness, maimed bodies, brutal flog-
gings, bear baiting, opium usage, drunkenness, and cursing all so much a
part of some past lives are hardly mentioned let alone portrayed in today’s

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Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites • 167

museums. What was considered normal and morally acceptable in a past

community may draw protest today. The butchering of animals on living
history farms can cause protests as well as fainting. The subordination of
women may elicit outrage as well as argument. The use of racial and eth-
nic slurs may anger as well as embarrass.
Many living history museums today seek as one of their goals to pro-
voke their audiences to rethink the present as well as to reconsider the
past. (Plimoth Plantation interpreters, for example, try to teach the site’s
visitors how differently the Pilgrims celebrated the harvest from what
Americans associate with Thanksgiving Day now.) At the least, they show
different viewpoints in the past in the hopes of challenging modern pre-
sumptions and prejudices. At most, they reenact alternatives to today’s
ways or depict events that were repudiated or repressed by those creating
modern times. Such first-person interpretation as with any other repre-
sentation of the past relies on emplotment, organizes by perspective,
extrapolates meaning, and offers political and moral lessons either explic-
itly or implicitly. As process and product, then, first-person interpreta-
tions, like all museum exhibitions and historic sites, are just like all other
full-fledged proper histories.
Opponents of first-person interpretation question just how much any
performance is legitimate inference from research and how much is impro-
visational extrapolation or even sheer invention inspired by the interactive
moment. This problem of proportion bedevils all historical reenactments
in general, including those in computer simulations, board games, and
even documentary films. No matter how well researched and seemingly
authentic fur traders’ rendezvous, battle reenactments, militia musters,
and Indian encampments are, for example, most of the actor-participants
must improvise, that is, invent, much or all of their specific behavior,
voice quality and dialect, dialogue, habits, posture, and other details in
any collective event. That is, the best research into the past only outlines
the role but rarely provides the complete characterization for the reenac-
tor, no matter how comprehensive the script. As even James Deetz admit-
ted, “the possibility of any such simulation being true to what it is
attempting to re-create is exceedingly slim. There are just too many vari-
ables that are beyond control. If Myles Standish were to reappear in mod-
ern Plimoth Plantation, it is certain that he would not quite know where
he was.”58 The more reenactors and the larger the event, the more inter-
pretation replaces evidence and inference.
Which elements are easiest to infer and which hardest seem no differ-
ent than for any other proper history. Once again the question becomes:

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168 • Fashioning History

what proportion of the reenactment is a re-presentation from docu-

mented sources as opposed to how much stems from inference and imag-
ination. Detailed records of religious services and court trials, for example,
allow greater re-presentation of those events from the viewpoint and
actions of those conducting them than for the onlookers in the church or
courtroom. Officers’ and soldiers’ diaries or oral histories allow greater
reconstruction of general battle maneuvers or some people’s feelings than
of the actual actions of the majority of soldiers or even what they ate at
meals. Must the reenactors be of the same physique, gender, and race and
ethnicity as those persons being portrayed? At Hobbamock’s Homesite
near Plimoth Plantation, the guides are Native Americans, most descended
from the Wampanoag who originally lived in the area. Although dressed in
traditional tribal clothing and surrounded by two reconstructed native
houses and gardens of the 1600s, the interpretive staff do not reenact the
past but speak from a modern perspective in order to refute rather than
reinforce white and other visitors’ stereotypes of “Indians.”59

Critical Museum Practice and Preserving Heritage

Although first-person interpretation and living history seem near the
interpretive extreme in museum practice today, they only seek to do what
all the interpretive devices from labels to books, from pictures to models,
from live lectures to audiotapes aim for in the way of providing context.
In that manner, all historical museums and sites as products can be and
must be treated the same as any full-fledged synthetic history. That
approach is only reinforced as the ideals of museology and curatorship
have changed over the years from offering minimal information in addi-
tion to the artifacts themselves to providing a fuller and more organized
interpretive path to certain conclusions. The increasing role of interpreta-
tion in museum practice and educational outreach was at the heart of
transforming many museums from warehouses of artifacts to theaters of
interpretation in the latter half of the twentieth century. To some scholars
museum specimens became so contextualized under this trend that the
objects seemed to illustrate their description rather than vice versa.60
The evolution of Colonial Williamsburg from just another old Virginia
town (albeit with the second oldest United States college) to the largest
outdoor living museum in the United States illustrates the changing rela-
tionship between interpretive goals and means as museum practice mutated
throughout the second half of the twentieth century.61 In Rockefeller’s own
words, the important goal of the initial, massive restoration was to teach the

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Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites • 169

“patriotism, high purpose, and unselfish devotion of our forefathers to

the common good.”62 Thus, in re-creating the Virginia capital as it sup-
posedly was in the decades before the American Revolution, the architects
and other planners began the rebuilding with the politically important
buildings: the Governor’s Palace, the Capitol with the House of Burgesses,
and the Raleigh Tavern. As part of this interpretive aim, the enterprise
stressed the quaint and refined aspects of colonial Virginian life unbur-
dened by racism, internal conflict, rampant social inequality, or future
industrialism. In this spirit, the first interpreters were genteel (white and
gentile?) local women dressed in eighteenth-century style clothing. They
acted as “hostesses” and lectured in third-person mode about the found-
ing fathers and their tough choices in those perilous times.
During the Second World War and the subsequent cold war, Rockefeller
and his son John III wanted the restored and reconstructed town to exem-
plify and thereby inculcate classic American liberalism and traditional
democratic values. Visits arranged for foreign dignitaries after the Second
World War as well as regular tourists were to prove by words and sights
what made United States institutions the great antidote to Communism
during the cold war. A thirty-four-minute orientation film, Williamsburg—
The Story of a Patriot, introduced its audience to “the issues and condi-
tions facing Virginians on the eve of the American Revolution” and has
been shown daily in a specially constructed theater since April 1957. (It
so deteriorated that it needed its own restoration by 2000). The film
stressed the successive choices and actions of white elite male “patriots” in
opposing the policies and proceedings of the mother country from 1769
to declaring independence in 1776. In that spirit the film followed the
thoughts and actions of John Frye, a fictional member of the Virginia
Assembly. His privileged status allowed the film to portray such Virginia
heroes as Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee
among others. The film emphasized cherished American political princi-
ples and national ideals.
As the founding generation of Rockefellers and managers turned over
control of the enterprise to professionals more committed to social his-
tory and the new museum practices, Colonial Williamsburg altered from
a white elite experience reinforcing traditional dominant American ideals
and institutions to a more challenging view of who was embraced and
omitted by those values and institutions in the past. By the mid-1970s
the new goals were expressed in the Foundation’s commitment to “repre-
sent the eighteenth-century community from top to bottom.” Inclusion
of gender, class, and race became the interpretive order of the day, and

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170 • Fashioning History

“reconstructing, restoring, refurnishing, and reinterpreting” a slave quar-

ter (on a plantation outside Williamsburg), a mental hospital, a county
courthouse, additional artisan workplaces, and creating domestic settings
to highlight women’s and children’s activities all fulfilled this goal.63
Interpretation had expanded from portraying the political ideals and
important role of the founding fathers in the formation of the new nation
to reenacting the diverse role of the common people in shaping and sup-
porting their community and their contribution to the formation of
America as a nation of transplanted peoples. “Becoming Americans: Our
Struggle to be Both Free and Equal,” the title of a mid-1990s thematic
plan for interpreting the town, encapsulated the newer grand narrative
just as The Story of a Patriot had the earlier great story. The central theme
of this new interpretive plan was, in the words of one of its authors,
“about two transplanted peoples—one African, the other European—
who met in a land unfamiliar to both. Over the course of several genera-
tions, they developed distinctively different, yet distinctively American,
white and black cultures.”64
In keeping with the newer interpretive goals of museum practice,
Colonial Williamsburg beginning in the late 1970s gave up some of the
manicured grounds and the bright paints for peeling or no paint and
ragged or unkempt grounds, added African American interpreters as
slaves and free blacks to those whites portraying artisans reenacting such
trades and crafts as shoe making, basket weaving, and harness making to
better show the community and era as a whole. Colonial Williamsburg
faced a “racial” problem common to interpretation of the colonial and
antebellum South.65 Half of the town’s two thousand or so eighteenth-
century inhabitants on the eve of the American Revolution were of African
descent. Just how was such diversity to be portrayed in occupation, living
accommodations, and social and personal relationships? The mock slave
auction in 1994 was greeted with controversy among whites as well as
blacks, even though it was intended to show the humiliation and cruelty
of that phase of the African American experience.
How far can or should efforts to re-create and reenact the past go in
light of modern sensibilities and moral sympathies? Should the costumed
historical interpreters re-creating the eighteenth-century people be shorter
than common now to reflect the average height of the time or pock-marked
to demonstrate the health of the era?66 Should the animals and plants be
bred back to the scrawnier animals and prehybrid plants of that time?
Colonial Williamsburg maintains some rare breeds of sheep, horses, and
milk cattle; produces heritage plants and seeds; and promotes training

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Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites • 171

classes in ancient or obsolete artisan crafts. And what of the quantities of

horse manure in eighteenth-century streets and maybe sanitary and
health conditions in general? Some horse manure was left in Colonial
Williamsburg’s streets by the 1990s.
Historians in and out of museums separate historical theme parks,
such as Disney’s efforts, from living history museums by the latters’ atten-
tion to historically accurate simulations based upon extensive research
into documents and artifacts. They distinguish the educational from the
entertainment function of the enterprise in the same way they distinguish
professional history from historical fiction. Although both kinds of insti-
tutions may measure their success by attendance figures and survey
research, only the living history museums profess to provide fully docu-
mented simulations to their visitors. While actors in both institutions
extrapolate their characters’ behaviors and views, only first-person inter-
preters in living history museums govern their performances and limit
their roles by what the sources contain or can be inferred “legitimately”
from them. What one scholar calls “staged authenticity.67
The critics of first-person interpretation like those of many historical
museums in general see less of a difference between theme parks and liv-
ing history museums, because both institutions produce spectacles with a
view to attracting an ever-larger attendance. They believe that many of
the large museums but especially the outdoor ones have blurred the dis-
tinction between their educational and entertainment functions so much
that the former suffers from the latter. Even Plimoth Plantation stretched
historical accuracy in the early 1980s by substituting a more festive
English country wedding for the simpler ceremony of the Pilgrims. One
of its officials admitted that “historical consistency” had been subordi-
nated to “good public relations” in order to please the three to four thou-
sand spectators the show attracted.68
What sales tell writers about their works and teaching evaluations
remind professors about their efforts, attendance figures and survey
research inform museum professionals how well they are fulfilling their
goals of outreach. As museums extended their coverage of everyday life,
they also hoped to widen their audience beyond the better educated and
the more prosperous. They varied exhibits or at least geared the messages
to different sectors of the populace in order to increase their attendance as
well as their educational outreach. At their most innovative, their oppo-
nents would say political, museums try to combat racial, sexual, and other
social inequalities and injustices by what we might call critical museology.
Such critical museum practice seeks to fulfill an expanded social responsibility

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172 • Fashioning History

through inclusion of groups usually considered marginal to or invisible in

traditional exhibitions and audiences. Such practices ranged from new
topics of displays calling attention to past and present social and eco-
nomic injustices; to involvement of community groups new to planning,
even seeing, exhibits; to using museums and historic sites to challenge the
values and practices of the larger society and dominant culture.
Perhaps these goals are best summarized in the International Coalition
of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, founded in December 1999,
and dedicated to “assist the public in drawing connections between the
history of our sites and its contemporary implications. We view stimulat-
ing dialogue on pressing social issues and promoting humanitarian and
democratic values as a primary function.” At their most insistent, such
museum people become “memory activists” as one phrased it.69
The more critical museology tried to challenge traditional history and
traditional audiences’ views of it, but the more museums attempted to
appeal to and embrace more sectors of the society, the more the various
aims and audiences competed even conflicted. The more inclusive muse-
ums or sites tried to be of who had participated and thereby constituted
and constructed the past as history, the more their efforts to stress or
highlight the multiplicity of past peoples, sexes, classes, races, and ethnic-
ities divided as well as united their present-day audiences, supporters, and
communities. Some reacted negatively because they not only thought but
preferred that museums reflect and reinforce the existing power structure
of a society through how they classified, described, and displayed their
contents. No less of a reaction could be expected by those challenging
past and present cultural hegemony. Yet to people persuaded of current as
well as past injustices, nothing less was worth accomplishing in a museum
or on site. The continuing culture wars over museum practice attest to the
conflicted interests.70
Audience response or reception theory reminds us that consumers do
not always accept the interpretive experience as planned for them by museum
professionals and historians. British children shout about Indians, guns,
and teepees as they play among the roundhouses in a reconstructed two-
thousand-year-old Stone Age Celtic village in Wales, or their parents
express concerns about lack of proper plumbing and heating.71 Surely what
people appreciate and how they understand what they witness depends
upon their ages, socioeconomic background, religion, nationality, gender,
and other now standard analytical categories. An object, photograph, or
exhibit that draws out reminiscence and delight for one generation or one
group of persons may draw stares and incomprehension from another

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Things in and as Exhibits, Museums, and Historic Sites • 173

cohort. But another exhibit may elicit exactly the reverse reactions in the
same groups of people. At the same time, individuals have their own spe-
cific memories and experiences to guide their own interpretations, even
counter-interpretations.72 Sometimes the best-intentioned curator efforts
at multiculturalism and inclusiveness in exhibits elicit nationalistic and
ethnocentric, even racist, reactions from some audience members. Similarly,
exhibitions attempting to depict new understanding of gender relation-
ships in the past provoke snickers, even bravado, among some spectators.73

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Films as Historical Representations

and Resources

ncreasingly how the public understands the past is through its repre-
sentation in films, videos, and television programs. So ubiquitous are
these media that they constitute a significant part of modern memory.
In many nations, most citizens cannot remember a time without motion
pictures nor can younger generations remember a time without television
programs. Filmed representations of the past more and more shape pop-
ular historical consciousness, particularly as the memory of what was
taught in school, if not the actual teaching of history, declines.1
Movies from the very beginning of the industry frequently used the
past as setting and background, as vital to the plot, or even for the story
itself. The first epic feature-length motion picture, D. W. Griffith’s The
Birth of a Nation (1915), depicted the Reconstruction of the South after
the Civil War, using the most vicious stereotypes of the former slaves as it
promoted the superiority of the “Aryan race” by lauding the Ku Klux
Klan.2 One of the all-time blockbuster films, Gone with the Wind (1939),
also propagated stereotypes of blacks and whites alike in depicting the
Civil War and Reconstruction.3 These days the History Channels in var-
ious English-speaking countries ostensibly devote their entire program-
ming to representing the past as history, but the British Broadcasting
Corporation, the Public Broadcasting System in the United States, and
other national and private television channels also sponsor and present
films as histories.4
Historians, documentary filmmakers, movie and television producers,
and others debate both the benefits and disadvantages of the medium for
representing history. These debates, like so many about the nature of his-
tory, oversimplify the great variety of forms films can take as histories.5

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176 • Fashioning History

What I call “films” in this chapter cover a broad gamut of cinematic and
other moving image media just as “texts” and “things” embraced a wide
variety of forms in chapters 4 and 5. Historical films can include every-
thing from didactic classroom historical films to grand Hollywood spec-
tacles swathed in a historical setting like Cleopatra (1963) or Titanic
(1997). Films also embrace both the distinguished historian Simon
Schama’s fifteen-part series on A History of Britain (2000–2001) for the
British Broadcasting Corporation and the prizewinning documentary
filmmaker Ken Burn’s eleven-hour series on The Civil War (1990) for the
Public Broadcasting System in the United States. Popular and full-feature
films range from the efforts of Oliver Stone arguing the conspiracy
behind the assassination of JFK (1991) to adaptations of famous histori-
cal novels, like the most recent version of James Fenimore Cooper’s The
Last of the Mohicans (1992). Films have been made from microhistories,
but Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982), supplemented in a book by the
chief historical advisor Natalie Zemon Davis, and A Midwife’s Tale
(1998), based on a book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, are quite different
from each other in their approaches to the medium and how it should
represent the past.6 Historic sites frequently offer documentary films as
an overall orientation to their enterprise, for example, Williamsburg—
The Story of a Patriot (1957). The History Channels in the United
Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere show visual depictions of his-
tory ranging from a miniseries on Sex Life in Ancient Rome (2005) to the
history of sewers from ancient Rome to modern Los Angeles as Modern
Marvels of technology (2005) to seemingly endless programs on the
Second World War. And who can say how much popular historical con-
sciousness around the world was permanently affected by such film sta-
ples as the swashbuckling pirate, the British costume drama, the gangster
movie, and the American Western? (Remember those British boys playing
cowboys among the Iron Age Welsh roundhouses in the last chapter.)
It is this very profusion of products that creates some of the problems
about what and how well a film can represent the past from a professional
historian’s view. So first we look briefly at some of the arguments raised by
historians and filmmakers about each other’s proclivities and products.
Second, we observe one customary division of film genres classified by
their supposed proportion of factuality and fictionality. Then, we turn to
investigating films as evidential sources for the historian through ques-
tions akin to the external and internal criticism of texts. Next, we exam-
ine films as histories, as representations of the past, in their own right.
The last section offers some brief conclusions about films and history.

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 177

Complaints and Issues

Given the vast variety of films that present history in some way, no won-
der historians and other scholars argue about the ability of films to repre-
sent the past as history. In fact, much of the discussion of films by historians
concerns how much they must present fiction rather than the facts pro-
fessional historians accept, purvey simplified heritage more than complex
proper history. A major point of comparison seems to take as its standard,
full-fledged written histories. Historians and media people argue over
whether a film can be as scholarly as written history. The number of pages
in a script for a full-length film version of history seems very short in
comparison to the number of pages even in a learned article.7 Although
films interpret the past, it is difficult for them to discuss explicitly various
interpretations or the conflicts over their application in any given
instance. In other words, historians lament the lack of annotation parallel
to the text that informs the reader of disputes over evidence, counterin-
terpretations, or controversial application of a thesis in a book or article.
Thus films are often accused of oversimplifying circumstances and usu-
ally omitting the larger context all together.8
To some critics the very strengths of films are considered weaknesses:
their visual and aural complexity and eyewitness quality. Films commu-
nicate through the alleged reproduction or simulation the looks and
sounds of the past as they also convey the activity and other matters at the
center of focus. Films need to show a physical setting visually while books
can generalize, merely sketch, or even neglect that aspect. Thus buildings,
landscapes, artifacts present the same problems of setting and interpreting
the scene that any museum or historic site confronts. The demand that
the persons appearing in films use words, develop thoughts, and show
activity accurate to those of past peoples presents problems similar to liv-
ing reenactments. Such common activities as eating and walking or phys-
ical details of surroundings may be finessed by a writer of a history but
not by a filmmaker. But this problem seems no different conceptually
than any other living reenactment. Problematic as their achievement may
seem, films appear to convey the very “look” and “feel” of a particular era
or place. Old films, whether a short newsreel or full-length feature movie,
appear to offer “windows” on the era of their making. They communi-
cate, seemingly directly, how people lived and behaved then.
Some complain that the need for a clear narrative line makes matters
seem too certain in a film. Even if the lack of footnotes is somewhat com-
pensated by the appearance of historians and other experts as “talking

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178 • Fashioning History

heads” in, say, a documentary, a film shows the “noise of events” better
than the structures that shaped them. “Great Men” and “Great Women”
photograph better than great trends. Just as history from the top down
needs embodiment through some concrete individuals rather than
abstract organizational entities, so too does history from the bottom up.
Unless complicated situations can be reduced to personal trials and solu-
tions, they are usually omitted or oversimplified. If ambiguities are not
neglected entirely, they are not developed very often unless they can be
dramatized. To show change over time through film is easy enough, but
to show why is far harder. The juxtaposition of various shots and scenes
convey the what of change but less so the how and rarely the why. Historians
believe that long, annotated texts do a better job at showing the com-
plexity of representing the past. Filmmakers believe that films convey an
experience of the immediate and the memorable that no book can com-
municate. Historians worry that far too many popular films embrace cher-
ished metanarratives rather than accurate narratives, promote heritage
more than history.
To the extent that films “personalize, emotionalize, or dramatize” spe-
cific historical situations, their creditability as history is on the line.9 In
that sense the factuality of film as history seems more immediate to the
viewer/listener, for films are both aural and visual. Film is a show-and-tell
medium. Films use words like texts but can show things better than texts
can. They can show things like museums and historic sites but integrate
words and sound into the showing. But what and whose criteria should
be used to judge the result? All too often, historians would seem to want
filmed books, while filmmakers want a product that translates the past
into what is appropriate for the medium of film and the nature of its mass
audience. Even successful documentary filmmakers measure the audience
for their products by the tens of thousands, sometimes even hundreds of
thousands, while many of the best proper history books count success in
the thousands, except for the breakout best sellers.
Films have their own language, so to speak, as a medium that the his-
torian needs to appreciate and understand in order both to evaluate them
as evidence for a history of her own and for judging the accuracy of those
films claiming to be histories in their own right. Filmmakers and those
historians long interested in both the use of films as evidence and in the
production of histories through film warn that the technical aspects of
lens focal length, camera angles, framing, composition, lighting, editing,
and other filmmaking techniques must be understood in order to fully
comprehend what goes on in a film. Presentation in a film like on the

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 179

stage depends upon the mise en scène, or the arrangement of actors, cos-
tumes, props, and lighting to convey the overall effect. Such editing tech-
niques as the fade, dissolve, wipe, and cut tighten plot; convey temporal,
spatial, and causative connections through juxtaposition of shots; and
enhance or establish viewpoint, among other things. In many ways the
techniques of filming influence not only how something can be presented
but as a result what is presented. Historians must recognize the “visual
language” employed in a film in order to interpret it as evidence.10
Just as film has methods and approaches unique to it as medium like
both texts and things, so too it shares with them the problems of repre-
senting the past as history. In the end, films like texts and museum
exhibits are complex, multilayered syntheses that combine narrative and
arguments, explanation and understanding, perspectives and meaning,
and Great Stories. Thus historians must understand how films put these
elements together according to cinematic methods in order to infer the
facts and generalizations they will incorporate into their own syntheses or
to evaluate films as histories in their own right.11

Fact, Fiction, and Film Genres

Film critics and theorists categorize films by many genres, but those of
most interest to historians classify by proportion of fact to fiction in the
medium. By distinguishing among documentaries, docudramas, and dra-
mas, theorists and critics along with filmmakers acknowledge a crude sys-
tem of classifying films by their faithfulness and accuracy in depicting the
present or the past. Some indication of the system occurs in the phrases
“a true story,” “based on a true story,” and “inspired by a true story” that
appear on screen or through voice-over at the beginning of a film. Even
those films claiming to be “a true story” or “based upon a true story” usu-
ally contain smaller or larger amounts of fictional invention. Those claim-
ing to be “inspired by a true story,” as the phrase suggests, take still greater
artistic license. So let us look at this crude but customary system prelim-
inary to a more detailed examination of films first as sources for their
times and then as historical representations in their own right like any
other history.12
What are called actuality footage or films supposedly record just what
came before the camera lens without any intervention by the filmmaker
beyond operating the camera. Thus they presumably offer direct evidence
of what the footage shows. They differ from documentaries therefore by
their relative lack of intervention by the filmmaker, for documentary

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180 • Fashioning History

filmmakers deliberately emplot the elements in their works to promote a

goal or message. Documentary filmmakers at times use actuality footage
to re-present past persons and activities as originally recorded. Such re-
presentation serves the same function in a filmic historical representation
as a quotation does in a textual historical representation. 13
Among the most famous actuality footage is the twenty-six-second
home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder of the shooting of John F.
Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.14 Still photographs from it
appeared in the national media soon after, but no public showing of the
complete footage occurred until March 6, 1975. The Warren Commission,
investigating the assassination in 1963–64, issued a twenty-six-volume
report that relied heavily on minute analysis of its 486 frames. The House
Select Committee on Assassinations examined it frame by frame in
1977–78 to answer lingering questions about how many persons were
involved in the shooting. The director Oliver Stone re-presented the
silent, black-and-white footage repeatedly in his feature film JFK (1991)
along with his own invented black-and-white footage to argue the case for
a high-level cabal. A Google search on the Internet of the film or of the
Kennedy assassination reveals that the issues of who shot the President
and how many were involved directly and indirectly still generates con-
troversy supported by references to the film. Some even argue it was faked
or altered in order to support their opinion that the assassination required
the work of several persons at a minimum.15
Old-time movie newsreels and modern television interviews and on-
the-spot coverage combine actuality footage and interpretive shaping of
the narrative. Movie theaters showed weekly newsreels until television
news programs superceded their venue and adapted their format. Newsreels
and television news coverage frequently insert stock footage of a previous
similar event, place, or people to supplement a presentation or provide
visual accompaniment to a spoken text. Sometimes an event is created
through editing, such as Hitler’s little jig at the surrender of Paris. Other
times a seemingly documentary news film is a reenactment. Newsreels of
World War II and the Korean War were staged at times for propaganda
purposes. Most scenes from battles in earlier wars were reenacted, because
the cameras and other equipment were technologically inadequate to
record the real fighting. Actual sequences, inserted stock footage, faked or
reenacted scenes, and director’s or other interpretations can all be grist for
the historian’s mill to produce facts, albeit of a different kind perhaps
from those presented as such in the film under study.16

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Film theorists usually separate documentary films from docudramas

and biographical pictures (biopics) on the nature of their implicit promise
to the audience of actuality and/or a true story, entirely nonfiction as
opposed to any invention. Documentaries, as their name implies, seek to
document actuality in the present or the past either through direct film-
ing of a slice of life, as it were, or re-presentation from archival or other
sources.17 Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) is generally acknowl-
edged to be the first important documentary. He supposedly filmed the
actual harsh life of the Canadian Inuit (one of those peoples lumped
together as Arctic Eskimos), but he staged traditional customs and events
no longer practiced by them.
Documentaries can vary by length, subject matter, location, veracity,
intended audience, and moral and political purpose. Such films range in
intended audience from classroom and other instructional settings to art
houses and mainstream theaters, from the History Channel or Public
Broadcasting System to an exposé on one of the major television chan-
nels. They can support or oppose their government, as two controversial
films show. Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant Triumph of the Will (1934) employed
great artistry in filming the 1934 Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg
and thereby supported Hitler in spite of her professions to the contrary
after the Second World War. Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
mixed his own filmed interviews with edited clips of George W. Bush, his
aides, battle scenes, and casualties to fashion a controversial case against
the election of a sitting president, how he responded to the bombing of
the Twin Towers, and steered the nation into wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq. Documentaries can focus on individual biographies, groups, social
problems, or nature among many subjects. They can be about musical events
and even the making of movies themselves. For example Woodstock—3 Days
of Peace and Music (1970) documents that iconic festival. Eleanor Coppola’s
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) takes the audience
behind the scenes to witness the difficulties her husband had filming his
version of the Vietnam War in the heralded Apocalypse Now (1979).18
Docudramas, cinema verité, and biopics all mix documentary ambi-
tions with dramatic development. They can be about the present or the
past. Rather than reproducing film or other documentation, this genre
uses actors to portray actual persons and reenact events and its makers
construct sets to replicate the original environment. No narrator on
screen or in voice-over describes the action; rather it is depicted as if it
were really taking place as it happens. The chief characters represent per-
sons who actually lived, and the events shown actually occurred, even

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182 • Fashioning History

though staged. The dialogue, costumes, and sets attempt to avoid anachro-
nisms as does the movie or television show as a whole. Docudramas employ
typical dramatic devices to arouse such emotions as happiness, suspense
or anguish and evoke such moral reactions as empathy, indignation, and
alienation. As the difference between the American word “docudrama”
and its English cousin “dramadoc” suggests, theorists dispute the propor-
tion of documented actuality and dramatic invention, even melodramatic
license, this genre entails. The dispute shows that the genre contains a
spectrum of exemplars ranging in their proportion of factual documenta-
tion and narrative invention.19
Biopics are by far the most prevalent films in this category. Biographies
are a popular subject in all genres ranging from documentaries to dramas,
but they define the very category of biopics. Biographies have been the
subject of films since Jeanne d’Arc (1899) till today. A person’s life offers
filmmakers both a focus and a story with beginning, middle, and end that
an audience can follow and even identify with. Biopics treat in various
ways famous persons in the past like Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon,
two of the most prevalent; infamous persons like Jesse James or Al
Capone, also popular; and nonfamous persons, like a union organizer or
a counterfeiter. In the present, they explore the lives of politicians and
prostitutes, scientists and singers, elite and common people.20
Docudramas, biopics, and cinema verité all seek to combine a story-
line about actual persons and events with typical dramatic film tech-
niques. A curious example of success was the widely acclaimed 1965 film
La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) by the Italian director Gillo
Pontecorvo. Some early critics and viewers thought that the director had
produced a documentary of a guerilla movement fighting for Algerian
independence from France in the mid-1950s. Pontecorvo, however, had
conveyed the illusion of actuality by employing many unknown nonpro-
fessional Algerians to act the scripted scenes. (Some of the dialogue had to
be dubbed because of the actors’ inexperience before the camera.) The
one professional actor portrayed a composite of French military officers.
Moreover, the movie was shot in newsreel-like grainy black and white to
further the appearance of filmed actuality. Thus what appeared as a doc-
umentary to some was in reality a docudrama or a staged drama, although
the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) leader, producer, and actor
Saadi Yacef (but not Pontecorvo himself ) claimed the film was based
upon a true story. Although the two-hour film depicted atrocities on both
sides—terrorist tactics by the insurgents and torture by the French mili-
tary—Pontecorvo sympathized with the FLN in its efforts to overthrow

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 183

the colonial occupation of the Algerian homeland. As a result of the film’s

politics, the French government banned its showing in France for some
years. The vivid and naturalistic portrayal of what we now call terrorist
tactics in asymmetrical warfare became a virtual handbook for radicals
around the world.21
Documentaries and docudramas, as is evident, proffer the same basic
quandary to historians whether used as historical sources or judged as his-
torical representations. This is not just the problem of distinguishing
those documentaries, docudramas, and biopics presenting historical as
opposed to present-day subjects. Rather all combine varying degrees and
kinds of factuality and interpretive invention. Documentaries, like news-
reels, promise their audiences actuality and true stories, but like newsreels
they too combine the inventive with the re-presented, even at times reen-
acting and staging what their or some other camera failed to capture in
reality. They usually offer their contents organized by viewpoint and
interpretation. If docudramas are guided by past actuality, they also seek
to enhance that reality through staging and dramatic techniques. Thus
the historian must investigate each of these film forms for what is factual
and what is fictive in order to evaluate their use as evidence or to judge
them as history.
To designate a film as “dramatic” indicates this grouping is more a left-
over or residual category than a very precise or descriptive one according
to this genre classification. It embraces feature films of many genres in
their own right from gangster movies and westerns to adventure films and
historical epics. Such films range from avant-garde and so-called inde-
pendent films to big budget and mainstream movies plus the many in
between. They depict times in their present as well as in the past. They
range from describing actual persons and events to using “artistic license”
to come up with characters, plots, and locale. Dramatic films thus range
greatly in their factuality as well as their subject and temporal content
from a historian’s viewpoint.
Hollywood has long played fast and loose with past persons, events,
social practices, and values in the cause of art or commerce. Some histo-
rians delight in pointing out misrepresentations of the past in the
“Hollywood versus History” tradition. Thus historians authored books
with such titles as Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies and Reel
v. Real: How Hollywood Turns Fact into Fiction.22 The History Channel
offered in 2001 a series on History vs. Hollywood in which historians and
others discussed the accuracy of various films. Some scholars questioned
the criticism of the show’s experts.

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184 • Fashioning History

British director Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is a good example of an

action-adventure film that greatly pleased the popular audience but
whose historical details and larger perspectives were challenged by the
experts. The Australian actor Russell Crowe starred as a Roman general,
Maximus, who is sent off to slavery by the jealous Emperor Commodus,
played by Joaquin Phoenix. He is trained as a gladiator in a distant Roman
province and eventually wins his way to fight in the Coliseum before
Commodus and the crowds. In the climax the two fight a duel in the ring.
Inspired by the typical sword-and-sandal movie, Gladiator pursues a plot
based upon vengeance, the struggle for imperial succession and power
among the elite, and a supposed yearning for the return of the republic—
all leavened with plenty of blood and gore. The blood and gore and the
disdain for life whether in battle or in the arena may have represented
Roman reality of the latter decades of the second century CE, but few if
anyone at the time wished a return to the republic.23
The time between the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in March
180 CE to the assassination of Commodus in December 192 CE is com-
pressed into perhaps two years in the movie for dramatic purposes and
focus. The deranged Emperor Commodus did fight in the arena to the
disapproval of the Roman elite. He was light-haired and left-handed but
played by a brunette, right-handed actor. Maximus was invented, possi-
bly inspired by stories of Spartacus and Cincinnatus, and seemed to
embrace twentieth-century American democratic values more than sec-
ond-century Roman politics. In the movie Maximus kills Commodus,
but in reality the emperor was assassinated by a man named Narcissus.
The twenty-five hundred weapons, the ten thousand costumes, and the
battle and arena scenes appeared authentic to the layperson, but critics
found fault with small details as well as big themes. The grandeur of
imperial Rome was probably inspired by earlier movies and was computer
enhanced to match the director’s imagination. No such climatic battle
took place between the Roman army and the Germanic tribes that starts
the movie (and certainly not in the English forest where it was staged and
Film historian Robert Brent Toplin believes that in recent decades
filmmakers have come up with narrative strategies that blur fairly suc-
cessfully the line once so evident in films between fact and fiction. Thus
those concerned with facts have a harder time criticizing a film’s factual
content these days, especially in light of its larger moral truths. He coined
the term “faction” for this merging of fact and fiction:

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 185

Faction-based movies spin highly fictional tales that are loosely based on
actualities. Their stories identify some real people, events, or situations
from the past but blend these details into invented fables. Often the lead-
ing characters in faction are fictional people who represent a composite of
several historical figures or are largely invented to advance the drama.
Drawing inspiration from myths and legends as well as traditional prac-
tices of cinematic history, the creators of faction employ history in a man-
ner that is less subject to debate over veracity than are the biopics or
historical epics of earlier years.

He concludes: “From beginning to end, these movies send only a nebu-

lous message about truth claims. Faction references history, but does not
represent it specifically.”24
Supposed greater historical awareness by filmmakers has produced
films that more successfully combine fact and fiction into a seamless web
for the viewer. As a result, historians must work more systematically to sep-
arate professionally accepted facts from fiction in judging a film as a his-
tory. If the job is harder, it is more interesting as we shall see. Only
extended questioning of the film’s contents distinguishes fact from fiction
in our postmodern era.
Since feature and dramatic films also depict their own times as well as
other eras, they can also serve the historian as sources for historical research
about a period. In depicting their own times, they convey, seemingly
directly, the “look” and even the “feel” of an era. As with other texts and
things, inferences made from film sources need corroboration from other
kinds of evidence. Dramatic and fictional films can and do serve as evi-
dence for social and cultural and even political and economic history, but
in these cases the facts must be inferred by sophisticated methods. Even
in representing other times, films suggest clues to the popular historical
consciousness and collective memory of their own era.25 Once again only
extended questioning of a film’s contents can produce the facts historians
seek about an era as we shall see in the next section.

Evaluating Films as Sources

All films, like all aural and pictorial media, artifacts in general, and texts
come from the past and therefore can be interpreted as historical sources.
Film technology has existed for only a short time compared to the span of
history covered by texts and things, and so films can only serve as primary
sources for persons and events for little more than a century. Even for this
relatively short time, different kinds of films can produce different answers,

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186 • Fashioning History

or the same film might prove a primary source for one question and a sec-
ondary one for another, as with any other historical survival. Once again,
evidence and investigative purpose unite in the interpretive questions put
to the source and the answers re-presented or constructed.
Like other survivals, films too pose problems of credibility, authentic-
ity, and whether they are to be used for re-presentation or construction of
specific facts or more general depiction of an era. As with other sources, a
film (or more likely a frame, shot, scene, or sequence in it) can be a pri-
mary or secondary source depending upon the question asked and what
answers it most accurately. That so many films present history as an
explicit narrative in addition to embodying directly the past through their
contents complicates their use as sources. (The historian Robert Rosenstone
called the first “film on history” while he termed the second “history on
film.”)26 Thus the seemingly obvious distinction between films consid-
ered as evidential sources in themselves versus historical representations in
their own right depends both upon the nature of the film’s contents and
the investigator’s interests. Hence the historian must consider both the
different kinds of interpretation as well as the degree of invention by the
filmmaker in using various kinds of films as sources.
Although types of films differ greatly in their factual content, their use
as historical sources hinges upon the same quintessential question asked
of all texts and things: what (and how much) can a movie, television pro-
gram, or video tell us about the times of its creation and production?
Questions akin to those used in textual external or source criticism estab-
lish the credibility and reliability of films. Before an investigator can derive
facts from a film as source, she must establish that the film is a reliable
source for what she hopes to find out about specific individuals, their val-
ues, their behavior, and their institutions during a specific era and in a
specific place. As with other sources, therefore, films must first be authen-
ticated as being what and from when and where they claim or purport to
be. Thus, of prime importance are questions about its genesis: who, what,
when, and where was it produced? Moreover, when was the film made as
opposed to when was it shown? Dating is as important in historical
research using films as it is for texts and objects. Such dating establishes
the exact era to which a film can offer clues. Was it created and produced
not only when but where it supposedly takes place? Who produced the
film and what was their purpose? In order to gauge the nature of its
authorship, so to speak, the investigator must ascertain whether the film
was produced by an individual, such as home movie; a small team, such
as an independent film; or a very large group, as in modern feature films

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 187

and television shows. The multiple skills needed in putting together a

major film leads to vast collaborative effort among directors, actors, cos-
tumers, set designers, camera operators, editors, and the host of other per-
sons listed these days at the end of a film or television program. Yet the
auteur theory of filmmaking ascribes to the director not only the overall
coordination of the film but also the eventual perspective and even “feel”
of it as an author/artist.27
Second, is the film the original version, a copy of it, or a copy of a
copy? Is the modern or surviving version of a film, for example, the direc-
tor’s initial or final cut, an edited or abbreviated version? Has the film as
made by the director been abridged to fit an allotted time in theater or
television? Did the director reedit the film for another audience or add
previously cut footage for a DVD version? Has the film been resized from
movie screen aspect ratio to that for television screen, for example, so the
audience and investigator see different things in the two versions? If an
old film, has it been restored from a faded to a fresh, supposedly like-new
version, or even colorized from a black-and-white version? As with the
cleaning of museum objects, each of a film’s versions offers its audience a
somewhat or greatly changed view from what the director intended or
was seen earlier. Some older films were filmed at a different number of
frames per second than today’s, and, unless shown at the original speed,
the viewer gets quite another impression of the film. All versions of a film
afford facts to the historical investigator but not necessarily the same facts.
If the cinematic counterpart of external criticism establishes the authen-
ticity and credibility of films as sources, then the equivalent of internal
criticism inquires what the investigator needs to consider in deriving reli-
able and accurate facts about specific persons, places, and eras from them
as original sources. Does the film not only come from the indicated time,
but is it also about that time? To ask this question is to explore to what
extent the film can be accepted at face value or prima facie evidence as to
what it shows about a time, regardless of whether the historian adduces
constructed or re-presented facts. That is why stock footage, faked scenes,
and propaganda pieces misrepresent their role in documenting the film’s
supposed era. Nevertheless, they all offer their own kind of facts about the
creators and their times.
Of equal importance is the basic question: whether what is seen and
heard in the film is actual or acted? Were the various aspects of the film’s
content staged or planned by the scriptwriter, the director, or even the
actors, for example? Or, did the filmmaker just film the actual behavior of
everyday people being themselves? Individuals and groups, of course, can

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188 • Fashioning History

and do plan their words and actions, especially in certain events deemed
newsworthy. Such questions begin to suggest what can be considered pri-
mary and secondary about a film’s contents, always depending, of course,
on the questions the historian asks.
To apply basic internal criticism to a film’s contents as source for the
derivation of facts about its time and subject requires attention to the fol-
lowing aspects at a minimum:
Persons. Are actual individuals featured in the film? Or are they actors
impersonating actual persons or even just playing imaginary characters in
a story? If actual persons, has their behavior been altered by the camera’s
presence? If the actors are portraying people contemporary to them, even
if fictional, then their posture, habits, language, and so on, might be more
authentic than if they were reenacting past persons from a time before
their own experience and memory. As with a text, the more contempora-
neous the times depicted in a film to the actors in it, the more likely the
action, dialogue, hairstyling, fashions, and gestures are accurate. Likewise,
the closer in time to the actors’ memories of the events, colloquialisms,
clothing, bearing, and body language, the better they will recall them,
and the more likely the portrayal can be trusted as such.
Setting. Are the people and their actions in the actual locale in which
they lived or the actions took place? Or, is the film location merely simi-
lar or even unlike what is supposedly represented, as in many an old
movie? Or, are the environs and buildings on studio sets created by a set
designer? In modern movies, were they digitally created? Moreover, are
the objects used by the persons in the film the actual ones, or are they
stage props supplied from the prop room or bought by the properties
buyer? Once again, the setting and the props, if contemporary to the time
of the film, would seem more accurate than those created for times before
the experience and memory of those providing them.
Costume. Is the clothing worn by the film’s subjects their own, or are
they designed by the costumier or supplied from wardrobe. Of course,
actual people may appear in noneveryday costumes if dressed for a parade
or a religious or academic procession, for example. Once again, actors
would know better how to wear modern clothing and wardrobe people
would know better what to provide if the garments and the fashions come
from their own times.
Dialogue. Is the film’s dialogue unscripted and unrehearsed; impro-
vised by an actor; or provided by the scriptwriter. Of course, actual cere-
monies and similar events are usually planned, and political and other public
speeches are written, even rehearsed for such occasions. Colloquialisms,

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 189

speech mannerisms, accents, and dialects contemporary to the actor’s and

movie’s time would appear to make for their more accurate delivery in
Sound and music. Are the ambient sounds actual and customary to the
action and the location? Or, are they scripted by the writing team and
produced by the sound technician? What of the music accompanying the
film? Was it part of a parade or other actual ceremony, or was it composed
to enhance the action and plot of the film? Was the style of music selected
to further delineate the culture and outlook of the actors? Would the per-
sons appearing in the film have listened to or at least heard of such music?
Action. Is it authentic? Is that what really happened? Or, is it rehearsed
and/or reenacted? Once again, the more contemporary the action is to the
time of its portrayal, the more probable its representation is accurate.
That is why stock footage from another time or place in a film betrays the
trust of the viewer.
Interpretation. Who supplies the viewpoint(s) presented in the film?
Does the film show only the viewpoint of the director or also the sup-
posed ones of past persons as well? Are the viewpoints therefore multiple?
Do they conflict? To what extent is viewpoint explicit in dialogue, say, as
opposed to shown through camera angles and framing? Whence derive
the story and plot: from actual everyday persons and their activities or
from the team of writer and director? Does the film portray the perspec-
tive and meaning held by the actual subjects in it, or does it embody those
of the writer and director? Many a film contains a Great Story, either as
central message or theme, through symbol and metaphor, as popular ide-
ology or implicit metanarrative. Cowboy movies long embodied the
American myth of individualism. Movies, like textual histories, presumed
race and gender even when they did not focus on these matters as such.
Even dramatic fictional films could show racial and gender etiquette com-
mon to a time.
The Time. Does the film depict the times when it occurred, that is, in
its own era or not? If the film portrays actual events, then presumably the
time is coincident with the time of its occurrence (unless it is stock
footage inserted for the sake of “authenticity”), and the historian can treat
it as first hand evidence of what it shows. That a dramatic feature film
portrays action and attitudes contemporary to the time of its filming
means it too can serve in its own way as firsthand evidence of those times.
Thus whether a dramatic film constitutes firsthand or secondhand evi-
dence of what it shows depends to some extent on whether the writer,
director, actors, cinematographer, wardrobe and prop room managers,

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190 • Fashioning History

and others associated with the film experienced or at least remembered

first hand what they film. In the end, of course, what is first hand and
second hand evidence for the historian studying films as sources always
depends upon the question asked. Thus almost all types of films offer
some form of primary evidence for certain questions, just as all films can
be considered secondary evidence for other queries.
What kinds of facts can the various categories of films tell us that we
want to know? Does a specific film tell us the facts we want to know directly
or indirectly, simply or interpretively, plainly or symbolically? Factual
statements can derive from and be about shots, scenes, sequences of
scenes, or whole films. Facts can be re-presented or constructed.
Constructed facts are common in discussing films as with other visual
materials. Constructed facts can be developed from shots, scenes, sequences,
and perhaps whole films. They thus become the historian’s representations
based upon the film’s representations, especially when discussing values,
memory, culture, and traditions. What does the historian need to know
about the production of a film that would influence answers to questions
about social institutions and cultural values? How did producers, direc-
tors, and actors take into account current events and contemporary prob-
lems in making a film? On the other hand, what was the impact of current
events and contemporary issues in general on a film as seen in its con-
tents? How much does the historical investigator need to understand
technical and other aspects of filmmaking in order to derive such facts?
Last, to what extent does the investigator develop facts that presume the
reception of a film by one or more audiences? A film’s contents do not
convey its actual reception, nor does the reaction by a viewer today to a
film from years ago indicate how an audience responded when it was first
Re-presentation of facts from films can range from still photographs of
single frames and shots to a moving visual re-presentation of facts by
reproducing scenes even sequences from films as part of another docu-
mentary or other film. Such facts can be simple or summative but are
always interpretive and more often than not demand some text to eluci-
date their relevance. Still pictures, for example, usually are captioned
beneath to give the proper guidance to the viewer.29 Words from inter-
views and other dialogue can be quoted in a written text or reproduced in
a recording or another film. Scenes can be described or summarized in a
text. Visual re-presentation of facts can show people, costumes and fash-
ions, the use of artifacts and environment, and the physical world in which
the action takes place and the people live, fight, or otherwise occupy.

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 191

As the reader has concluded by now, types of films and kinds of facts
do not correlate in any single, simple way. Actuality films and perhaps
newsreels and on-the-spot news seem to offer their factual contents suffi-
ciently directly that the historian can re-present them through photo-
graph, transcribed dialogue, or, perhaps, another film in her own interpretive
representation. Since amateur and journalist movies, for example, seem to
offer everyday or extraordinary events with minimum interpretation,
they provide greater opportunity for re-presented facts through reproduc-
tion. To the extent, however, that home movies and newscasts are pro-
grammed and interpreted by their creators, the historian needs to exercise
great inferential care. Feature films about their present, on the other
hand, would seem to require even more inference and interpretation by
the historian to derive facts from them. Hence facts from them would be
constructed more often than re-presented, but the proof of a generaliza-
tion about the habits and values of some group in an era might come
from reproduction of a still frame, transcribed dialogue, or a filmed scene
or sequence (for a documentary historical film). A documentary film or a
docudrama about its own times presents the historian with an in-between
case for developing facts. To the degree that these film types depict actu-
ality they can result in re-presented facts, but not as text of course, unless
quoting dialogue. Depending upon how the films present their interpre-
tations, historians can derive their own re-presented and constructed facts
according to the interpretive questions they ask. Even grand historical
epics, however, can be explored for what they show about popular histor-
ical consciousness in the era in which they are created.30
The most direct use of all kinds of films as sources would seem to be
for histories of filmmaking and films themselves. Filmmaking, of course,
has its own history. Films, like documents and other artifacts, reveal nei-
ther their own reception nor their own larger context of production. Such
reception and context is a key concern of those historians of film who
investigate documentary and other trails to discover the organizational
nature, the economics, the creative inputs, and impact of the film indus-
try in various countries. Since movies are by definition central to the
notion of mass media, that field particularly argues about how to measure
and discuss audience reception. The history of films and filmmaking pro-
vide valuable background and context for understanding films as primary
and secondary historical sources. Such contextual use ranges from authenti-
cation of a film’s contents to the external analysis in general of a film as a
source of facts about it.31

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192 • Fashioning History

Essential to such research these days are modern film archives. Many
early motion pictures have disintegrated because of the fragility and
flammability of the film stock.32 Perhaps 50 percent of films made before
1950 have disappeared. Early television programs exist only in obsolete
and deteriorating formats. Institutional collection, preservation, and orga-
nization began rather late. The Library of Congress, for example, only began
collecting movie films in 1942 but added television films by 1949.33
Second only to the Library of Congress in the United States in size of its
holdings is the University of California at Los Angeles Film and Television
Archive Collections. It claims to be the world’s largest university-held col-
lection of motion pictures and broadcast programming.34 Its holdings
include 220,000 films and 27 million feet of broadcast programming.
The International Federation of Film Archives was founded in 1938 with
four members and today has more than 127 groups affiliated.35 The
expansion and proliferation of such archives make easier primary research
in the actual films and broadcasts. Likewise, as various archives and man-
uscript libraries collect the personal and business papers of directors, pro-
ducers, actors, distributors, and others as well as company records,
researchers can investigate the production and reception side of filmmak-
ing and television programming. To fulfill this role, film archives, like
other archives and manuscript libraries, have instituted procedures for
acquisition, preservation, arrangement, cataloguing, and granting access.
As a result, the staffs of these archives have increasingly become historians
of first resort for moving visual images.36
Last, films can be used in other films to re-present the past. The most
common use is in documentaries, but biopics, docudramas, and perhaps
period films might employ such excerpts. Producers of a historical film
can use such films as settings for their own reconstructions and guides to
their own narratives. The director Oliver Stone reproduced the Zapruder
actuality footage to good effect in JFK. Historical documentarians can
make such films objects of their own analysis.

Judging Films as Histories

A film whose chief purpose is to represent the past as a history like any
text or museum exhibition must cope with the problems common to all
historical syntheses: factual re-presentation and construction, narrative
interpretation and invention. It too faces the problems of form and con-
tent, story and argument, perspective and meaning, structure and
sequence, grand and metanarratives—all using the various techniques

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 193

open to filmmakers. Films as representations of the past can range from

re-presenting evidential material to constructing an overall interpretive
synthesis itself to speculative, highly inventive, even fictionalized versions
of the past; from a filmed lecture with good illustrations to carefully
researched reenactment to creative acting; or from purporting to be true
and accurate to the past to speculative interpretation to merely using “his-
tory” as backdrop, setting, or supposed story.
Distinctions among film genres recognize these differences somewhat
by distinguishing historical documentaries from the class of films called
cinema verité, biopics, and docudramas about past subjects and those in
turn from period dramas, action adventures, romantic melodramas, west-
erns, and gangster movies that use a historical setting. These genres range
filmed histories along a continuum from nonfiction to the fictional, from
attempted re-presentation and reconstruction to the purely inventive. On
one side of the continuum are those films, or more likely some of their
parts, which are unstaged and essentially show what came before the cam-
era. On the opposite side are staged, scripted historical films that resem-
ble historical fiction in their high degree of invention. In between are
biopics, docudramas, and cinema verité, all of which combine documen-
tary and melodramatic elements. As with other historical representations,
the various kinds of films combine the factual and the inventive, the re-
presented and the constructed in varying proportions.37
It is just this proportion among the reproduced, the reconstructed, the
simulated, the speculative, and the entirely fictional that so concerns his-
torians when reviewing a film purporting to represent the past. When
considering films as historical representations of the past, one can raise
the same basic questions and issues in relation to the general and specific
contents of films as applied to texts and things as histories.38 Without pre-
tending to either an extended analysis or application, let me sketch some
of the possibilities for exploring this mix of re-presentation, invention,
and interpretation in relation to the historical evidence. In each of the fol-
lowing general categories, filmmakers have a range of choices or options
open to them for representing the past as history. In each of the following
categories, historians can assess the nature and amount of interpretation
producing a given kind of filmed history, just as was done for texts and
things in chapters 4 and 5.
Re-presentation of sources. Films can reproduce visual sources such as
paintings, photographs, and maps as well as parts of other films from the
past. They can use images of actual textual documents such as handbills,
newspapers, letters, and court documents from the past. Films can show

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194 • Fashioning History

up close or in background such authentic material artifacts as tools, cook-

ing utensils, rooms, houses, and landscapes. Last, they can reproduce the
sounds and music of an era. In each instance, the viewer must ask how
authentic are the images and sounds relative to the times and places
shown. Are the pictures and moving visual images on the screen, for
example, of whom or what is talked about by the narrator or others? Or,
are they some generic pictures of persons or scenes at or near the time, or
even pictures made later. Ken Burns seemed to animate actual still pic-
tures from the Civil War era through the use of a rostrum camera that
moved slowly across the image in line with narration and music to give a
sense of action and animation. But he also used a film of a 1920s march
of the Ku Klux Klan to illustrate his documentary about the period
immediately after the Civil War, when motion pictures did not exist.39 In
the end, then historians ask whether the visual images are reproduced
from past sources or created in the present for any given film. Are the
material artifacts authentic or reproductions or simulations? Is the dia-
logue based upon actual diaries, letters, and other authentic documents,
or is it scripted by a modern writer? Is the music from the period or com-
posed in the present to affect mood or enhance story?40
Dialogue. Whence derive the words used in a filmed history? Do they
come only from authenticated documents, from people remembering the
persons and events in their past, from historians and other experts (so-
called talking heads), or from written scripts? If they come from scripts,
then how much is constructed like any other proper history? Who deliv-
ers the words? Options range from a hidden or on-camera narrator deliv-
ering the constructed script to various disembodied actors reading the
words of a real letter or edict to the actors on the screen delivering the
purely scripted lines. (Ken Burns used over nine hundred quotations
from documents in his Civil War series and more than three dozen
“remarkable voices” to deliver them.)41 If the viewer sees the narrator on
screen, is she a historian, a well-known actor, or a character in the story?
Should the narrator appear in the buildings and landscape of the time as
they have survived or been reconstructed or just in some present-day
environment? Should the narrator dress like and act along with the char-
acters in the film?42 What voice quality should historic leaders, everyday
people, and others possess? How depict various persons through their
voices? Should the voices be plainly male and female, young or old,
accented or in dialect? Is the language that of the characters and place
depicted; an accurate or plausible translation of what was or might have
been said; or is the dialog in modern-day language and idiom? Do the

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ancient Romans speak Latin or modern English in a film? Do actors por-

traying modern French and Germans in an English-language film speak
standard English or with a supposed foreign accent? For example, the
German-speaking reenactors in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) suddenly
switched from German to English during the fictionalized trial of four
Nazi judges tried for complicity in Nazi crimes against humanity after
World War II. Do the scripts mainly repeat the documented words of the
actual individuals being impersonated on the screen? In one case, the
actors portraying revolutionary-era persons in the PBS series Liberty! The
American Revolution (1997) only delivered lines from letters, newspaper
articles, military accounts, and other authentic documents from the
time.43 Or, are the scripts like any reenactment: created from extensive
research so as to seem plausible and realistic? Or, perhaps the scripts result
from imaginative forays into a supposed past by the writer, director,
actors, and others.
Sounds and music. What of the other sounds in a film, particularly the
ambient ones? Are the sounds from the scene at the time, or are they
added by the filmmaker to enhance her interpretation of the event? Can
one use the sound in general of a horse’s gallop or blacksmith’s hammer to
represent those sounds centuries or millennia earlier? Perhaps all horses
sound alike no matter when on grass or cobblestone streets, but surely
wagons and carriages do not. Should the sound of a carriage come from
an actual one of the period shown? Beyond making sure that specific guns
and cannons sound as they once did, can the filmmaker simulate a gun
firing rather than using a real one and still maintain authenticity?44 Is the
music throughout the film authentic to period, or was it newly composed
to enhance plot and message? When listening to the sound track, the
investigator must always ask from where comes the sound: from the char-
acters, from within the scene, from outside the scene, and from whom.
Many of the tunes in Ken Burn’s The Civil War were from the period but
one of the most memorable songs was composed for the series and served
as its principle musical theme.45 Does the sound extend from one scene to
the next to suggest continuity regardless of what is being shown?
Characters. Should a filmed history restrict the characters appearing on
the screen to only those historically identified in documented research, or
can the filmmaker employ characters invented to make a point or fill out
a scene? How does the filmmaker portray those many unnamed persons
in the past who appear as servants, workers, shopkeepers, and the public
in a filmed history? To what extent must such people be invented and
“fictional” to be as “realistic” to the best of documented knowledge? What

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196 • Fashioning History

justifies their physical appearance? Some few persons exist in statues,

murals, and paintings and more in photographs that allow filmmakers to
suggest realistic or at least plausible dress, hairstyles, posture, and maybe
attitude for the featured actors. More often, as in many a reenactment,
the actors adopt gaits, gestures, dialects, demeanor, and behavior pre-
sumed authentic or plausible from extensive research into the times and
place. In some ways, details will always need invention, but such details
are easier at times than the interpretation needed to depict the subtler
aspects on film of gender, racial, and other roles. Once again, these seem
the same problems as any good reenactment, and once again the viewer
can ask what is reenacted from documented sources; what is acted with
educated guesswork; and what is derived from the actor’s instincts about
the role? Even serious documentaries invent fictional characters to focus
and carry a story. For example, as mentioned in the last chapter, the hero
in the Colonial Williamsburg orientation film, The Story of a Patriot, is a
fictional member of the Virginia Assembly. Filmmakers sometimes com-
bine several real persons into one character to simplify and carry the story.
Historians protest such composite characters, but filmmakers justify their
use to aid the viewer in following the narrative thread. Particularly noto-
rious was The Patriot (2000), which featured Mel Gibson playing a hero
very loosely based on two or three men at the time of the American
Revolution (as was his antagonist). In the opinion of many historians
who study that era, not only were their original prototypes misrepre-
sented but so were their actions and times.
Setting and environment. What is the source of the material objects,
built environments, and landscapes appearing in a filmed history? The
options range from reproducing old film of the earlier era, to using
authentically old museum objects, historic sites, and landscapes, to con-
structing buildings and landscapes as sets on a studio lot. At times, for
example, the United States military loans ships, rockets, and other war
paraphernalia to favored films and their makers. When the narrator dis-
cusses locale or an actor reads a diary or letter about a place, is it legiti-
mate for the filmmaker to show a modern version of that river bend or
bank, of a mountain or plains or desert? How does the filmmaker find a
built urban environment to represent earlier eras without electric wires,
tall buildings, and other modern anomalies? Remember the producers of
Benjamin Franklin (2002) who resorted to Lithuania to represent eigh-
teenth-century London and Paris. Even in filming a battlefield or other
landscape today, the camera must avoid communication towers on the
horizon, modern roads, and even car sounds in the neighborhood. At

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other times, computer-driven graphics can restore, so to speak, a ruined

environment. Such computer-driven graphics particularly can summarize
and dramatize how people in the past constructed an ancient Egyptian
pyramid, a Roman coliseum, a medieval cathedral, the Brooklyn Bridge,
or a modern skyscraper.
Viewpoint. Technically speaking, point of view in a film results from
both camera position and editing, but a filmed history incorporates the
same kinds of viewpoints as any other history: perceptual, conceptual,
evaluative, and emotional. Does the viewer perceive the action and scene
from the viewpoint of a character, of several characters, or with a bird’s-
eye or godlike and seemingly omniscient view? Does the editing indicate
from whose view matters are to be conceived and understood by the
viewer? Whose viewpoint shapes the overall film and how many view-
points are represented throughout the film? Is the film mostly presented
from the viewpoint of the past actors of from that of the modern film-
maker? Does, in other words, the viewpoint come from inside or outside
the actors’ world? If it comes from inside that world, how does the writer,
director, and others know that? If it comes from outside that world, is it
particularly present-minded? Or, are multiple viewpoints, past and pre-
sent, displayed? To what extent should conflicting viewpoints be pre-
sented in a film and how should they be shown? The director John Sayles,
for example, believes that an audience finds it difficult to follow more
than three points of view in a film: omniscient, protagonist, and antago-
nist.46 Conflict of ideas and actions can be dramatic, but most filmmak-
ers believe that too much interpretive conflict can be confusing in a film.
Is such interpretive conflict depicted by the actors, discussed by talking
heads, or declared by a narrator? Last, what feelings or emotional view
should the viewer carry away from the film? Should the viewer sympa-
thize with or condemn the characters in the film? (Hence the delicate task
of the director of the German film Downfall (2002), which portrays the
last days of Adolph Hitler, his chief henchmen, and others in his under-
ground bunker.) To what extent is nostalgia for the past reinforced by the
look of a film or the beauty of its setting? To what degree is the viewer
repelled by the past through deliberately colorless or gray and dark scenes?
British director Ridley Scott in Kingdom of Heaven (2005) depicted the
cultural backwardness of twelfth-century Europe by gray or dark scenes
and the advanced civilization of the Muslims at the time by bright, sun-
drenched scenes. Film techniques and interpretive choices mutually inter-
act in viewpoint, but even more so in plot and perspective. Questions
about viewpoint, especially emotional and evaluative, shift the analysis

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198 • Fashioning History

from the mainly factual side of historical representation to the overall

nature of the synthetic side.
Story and Plot. Unlike paintings and photographs but like music and
books, films are a sequential medium. Whereas the viewer of a painting
for example sees it in a sense as a whole all at once, the viewer of a film
like the reader of a book must “consume” it over time. The fact that movies
depict time and yet take their own time necessitates both the nature and
need for emplotment plus techniques for showing the passage of time.
Emplotment in films as in texts transforms events into episodes and
chronicles into stories. Plot turns an aggregation of materials into a sig-
nificant narrative structure showing continuity, coherence, causality, con-
tingency, or other type of connection. Agents, goals, means, interactions,
circumstances, and ambient environments are organized into coherent
temporal structures through plot and subplots in films (as in books).
Agents, aims, actions, settings, and outcomes are plotted as narrative in
films as in other histories to reveal a story. Filmmakers use such narrative
devices as turning points, crises, and resolutions to advance their stories.
Moreover, a film’s depiction of events in time rarely coincides in the order
or duration of their supposed chronological occurrence. The sequence in
which the story’s events are told is usually different from how and when
those events supposedly took place in calendar time. This is particularly
evident in when a film begins and ends compared to the actual beginning
and ending events in chronological time, as the frequent use of flashback
at the commencement of a film demonstrates. Needless to say, the actual
length and duration of events in a film is usually less than the referred-to
duration in actual hours and time. Cutting between scenes and events
throughout the film shows the manipulation of time through the distinc-
tion between the chronological sequence of events and their narrative
sequence and the duration of actual time as opposed to its depiction on
the screen.
The big picture. That all genres of films can use these same narrative
means raises the question about how films claiming to represent the past
as history differ from other films. Thus the difference between historical
documentaries and docudramas on one hand and semifictional or com-
pletely fictional representations of the past on the other results not from
film techniques as such but from the purposes to which they are put. The
particular plot and subplots in a filmed history purporting to be true to
the past, like the emplotment of the film in general, are guided by what
the professionally accepted, documented historical record shows. To eval-
uate the overall emplotment of a film or television series against such a

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 199

record demands the reviewer compare her overall interpretation of the

persons and events against that of the filmmaker. In other words, one syn-
thesis is compared to another synthesis, for evaluating the nature of an
overall synthesis as such is more than a matter of the particular facts. The
truthfulness of any synthesis is more than the truth of its component
facts. Even though a wrong fact can disprove a synthesis, all of the facts
combined do not necessarily prove a synthesis. On the other hand, a mul-
titude of questionable, let alone wrong, facts can justify distinguishing
between a good and bad docudrama as history and whether a feature film
should be considered mostly historical or mainly fictional.
It is the many-layered nature of a synthesis as opposed to the evalua-
tion of its facts per se that makes for both the interpretive diversity among
films as histories and the arguments over the proper criteria for judging
them better and poorer history. Thus the director John Sayles, in dis-
cussing his film Matewan (1987) about a bitter 1920s coal mine strike
that eventuated in a “massacre,” looked beyond minor factual errors or
omissions to being “true to the larger picture, so I crammed a certain
amount of related but not strictly factual stuff into that particular story.”
In line with this approach to overall synthesis, he admits employing his-
torians the way most directors do: for advice on specific details but not for
“the big picture.” 47 Arguments between historians and filmmakers over
the big picture in the end turn on the issues of perspective and meaning
and the nature of the Great Story.
Great Stories. Whether explicit or implicit, whether as grand narrative
or metanarrative, Great Stories provide the larger context for organization
of a history. Films, like other histories, long depended upon such stan-
dard Great Stories as progress and decline, the superiority of one nation-
ality or race over another, the rise of the West or the inevitability of liberal
democracy. Even the criticism of such explicit or implicit, standard, old
Great Stories substitutes new ones for old. A Great Story as the ultimate
context in a film is frequently discussed in terms of the film’s main
theme(s). Thus the noted American historian Eric Foner points out that
Sayles in Matewan does more than “chronicle a particularly dramatic
episode in American labor history”; Sayles offers “a meditation” on “the
possibility of interracial cooperation, the merits of violence and nonvio-
lence in combating injustice, and the threat posed by concentrated eco-
nomic power to American notions of political democracy and social
justice.”48 But Foner also notes that Sayles omits the larger historical and
political context in which these themes operated by leaving out the coal
mine owners and their control of the West Virginian government; the

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general restrictions imposed by the court system and the state and
national authorities at the time; the long history of efforts to unionize the
mines; and most of all for giving the miners “no sense of their own his-
tory, forcing them to rely on an outsider for lessons in union organization
and racial tolerance.” In spite of high praise for Matewan, the historian
Foner faults the filmmaker Sayles in the end for evoking nostalgia for a
time when the “brawny industrial worker” did the “real” work and women
were only their “loyal helpmates.” Thus ultimately what Sayles pictured
as the real history of that era, Foner sees as still promoting a male-domi-
nated heritage downplaying actual women’s roles in the labor movement
then and subsequently.49 Foner’s assessment demonstrates the salience of
context to the historian’s arsenal of criticism and sense of professional
authority. It also illustrates the importance of perspective and meaning in
films as in other representations of the past as histories.
Perspective and meaning. All films, but especially narrative ones, use
emplotment and various film techniques to make their larger point. In
the terms of this book, that larger point is perspective and meaning. As
Foner’s critique of Matewan suggests, viewpoint, emplotment, and Great
Story all convey and result from perspective and meaning in films as in
other histories. In current jargon perspective and meaning constitute the
“agenda.” In older terminology, they comprise the “message.” In any case,
they express explicit and/or implicit purpose. Sometimes a film’s perspec-
tive and meaning flow from a writer’s, director’s, or sponsor’s avowed rea-
son for making a movie: to reveal a particular injustice, to expose human
suffering, to sympathize with the downtrodden, or to depict the horrors
of war, for example. Other times historians and other critics point out the
covert message or the hidden agenda that undermines or contradicts the
filmmaker’s avowed aims. When historians juxtapose a film’s interpretive
synthesis against their own, they often contrast their perspective on the
past and the meaning it should have with that of the filmmaker. When
Foner criticized Sayle’s manly worker and passive female helpmate, he was
measuring the perspective Matewan suggested against his own conception
of the actual as well as potential role of women. When Foner accused
Sayles of neglecting the agency of workers, one witnessed his own per-
spective on the efficacy of agency from below. In the end, Foner appears
to believe that Matewan, like all history, derives its meaning from the con-
tinuing struggle of workers and others for economic justice and interra-
cial harmony.

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Foner’s critique of basic perspective is even clearer in his judgment on

how (and why) Ken Burns and his colleagues mishandled the end of the
Civil War and the era that followed.

Issues central to the Civil War and of obvious contemporary relevance—

self-determination, political democracy, race relations, the balance of force
and consent in maintaining political authority—are never addressed. The
abolition of slavery is never mentioned explicitly as part of the war’s mean-
ing, while the unfulfilled promise of emancipation is all but ignored as
central to its aftermath. Nor is it ever suggested that the abandonment of
the nation’s post-war commitment to equal rights for the former slaves was
the basis on which former (white) antagonists could unite in the romance
of reunion. In choosing to stress the preservation of the American nation
state as the war’s most enduring consequence, Burns privileges a merely
national concern over the great human drama of emancipation. The result
is a strangely parochial vision of the Civil War and its aftermath, and a
missed opportunity to stimulate thinking about political and moral ques-
tions still central to our society.50

At issue here is more than a scholar specializing in the history of

Reconstruction asking for another kind of film than Burns produced.
The difference from Foner’s viewpoint revolves about the proper perspec-
tive on American history and its meaning for today. Foner is concerned
that a “romantic” stress on reunification reinforces Jefferson’s worry that
slavery was bad for white society, and so he prefers to emphasize that slav-
ery was bad for African Americans then and subsequently. In short, he
believes that the series attributes too much agency to the whites and too
little to the African Americans both in what happened during the war and
in its outcome.
Burns denies these criticisms. He thinks his narrator and “talking
heads” handle this problem. (His chief writer argues that Foner asks for
an entirely different film series than Burn’s The Civil War.)51 Regardless
of how the reader resolves this dispute, it underscores how perspective
and meaning result from and in viewpoint and emplotment, shape a
Great Story, and presume a Big Picture. At this level of disagreement,
facts as such are not the issue but rather whose grand narrative and Big
Picture should prevail and therefore which facts should be included along
with all that goes into a history.52

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A Matter of Interpretive Mix

The preceding outline of categories—re-presentation of sources, dia-
logue, sounds and music, characters, setting, viewpoint, story and plot,
big picture, great stories, perspective and meaning with the many possible
options within them—may be too few, too brief, and too schematic, but
even so it points to seven general conclusions about films as historical rep-
resentations of the past.
First, the categories and their many options suggest the limitation of
the three-fold division of filmed historical representations as documen-
taries, docudramas, and dramas. True, this three-fold division suggests the
factual basis of the scheme, but it oversimplifies any approach to the syn-
thetic side of historical representation in a film. Even the most resolute
documentarian includes inventive and speculative elements in a film, as
we shall see below. Even outright works of historical fiction can include
factually accurate elements such as costumes, settings, and even charac-
ters. Once again, as with other forms of historical representation, the dis-
tinction rests on the relationship between evidential sources and their
interpretation on the factual side and the overall nature of the interpretive
synthesis on the other. Documentaries strive to stick closer to the evi-
dence than docudramas and biopics. If they cannot re-present the sur-
vivals visually or aurally, they try to interpret the past within the bounds
of disciplined professional reconstruction, especially through historians as
advisors or on-camera experts. Thus documentarians hope not only to be
as accurate as possible to past words and sounds, characters and actions,
and props and setting, but also be true to past viewpoints and events.
Historical documentaries do not make up stories or plots, even though
the film’s sequence of events may not be in strict chronological order of
their happening for narrative reasons. In the end, documentary films
hope to offer perspective and meaning, Great Stories, and even a big pic-
ture that is compatible with current historical scholarship. The difference
among the three general genres comes down to what guides the emplot-
ment and their Great Stories in relation to what (most?) historians accept
as the big picture. Documentaries use current historical scholarship as
their guide; historical dramas use artistic license and intuition to reach a
higher truth—or at least a larger audience. But even the extreme racism
manifested in The Birth of a Nation (1915), so evident to us today,
embodies the prevailing (white) professional historians’ interpretation of
black freedmen and Reconstruction at the time of its filming just as it

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exemplifies the racial repression and white terrorism of the early twenti-
eth century.
Second, the ten categories outlined in the preceding section on “judg-
ing films as histories” and their countless associated options certainly sug-
gest and perhaps explain why such a range of film genres can purport to
represent the past as history. Certainly quite different films result from
different choices among the many options within the ten categories.
Surely this profusion of filmed representations of the past as history
accounts also for the variety of opinions existing on the ability of (a) film
to convey history. As a result of these numerous differences, it seems less
useful for historians to complain about films in general or even particular
genres than to examine individual examples. Thus it seems more perti-
nent to ask of a particular film whether it presents too little history and
too much heritage, stresses story and character over long-term causes and
complex context, or caters too much to the audiences’ emotions rather
than their intellect as opposed to asking these questions of all kinds of his-
torical films lumped together. The wide range of film genres means that
examples can be found for each kind of criticism. As with histories in gen-
eral, no one generalization fits all kinds of films.53
Third, every film like every text and thing can serve as primary evi-
dence if the right questions are asked of it. Both the New Deal sponsored
documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and the movie made
from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1940) treat the impact
of the severe drought that affected farmers in the American heartland
during the 1930s Great Depression.54 The latter dramatized the migra-
tion to California of a fictional poor rural family forced from their Dust
Bowl lands in the period, while the Plow interpreted the social and eco-
nomic background that led to the ecological disaster and then showed
what happened to 1930s farm families’ lives as a result. The well-studied
documentary and the Academy Award–nominated movie were con-
demned as socialist propaganda at the time and as politically conservative
in more recent times. Both serve as evidence for particular facts about the
1930s, but not always in the same ways. Even though the movie followed
a fictional family and chronicled fictional events, some classify the film as
a docudrama because it deals with the era’s real social problems. Both
have been studied for what they tell us today about the social practices,
cultural values, and the politics of their era. (Even lavish 1930s Busby
Berkeley musicals and Disney animated films can provide primary evi-
dence for certain questions about depression-era America, especially
larger social and cultural trends.) As these brief remarks suggest, what is

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204 • Fashioning History

primary and secondary evidence in or about any film depends upon the
questions posed. The answers range from particular facts to generaliza-
tions about large-scale social and cultural phenomena to Great Stories
and metanarratives.55
Fourth, even documentary films praised for their historical accuracy
can make different choices of options about how they represent history.
Various documentary films show different attempts to reconcile interpre-
tation and reconstruction, invention and re-presentation. I have chosen
three examples to show diverse but equally valid approaches to represent-
ing the past as history.
The seventy-four-minute Home Box Office documentary production
of Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives (2002) relies,
as the title suggests, on the seventeen volumes of transcripts of slave nar-
ratives in the Library of Congress. The film gives voice to a few of the
more than 2,300 first-person ex-slave accounts gathered between 1936
and 1938 by mainly white and some black interviewers working under-
the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress
Administration of the New Deal. Eighteen prominent African American
actors give expressive readings of selected excerpts from as many ex-slaves.
The well-known African American actress Whoopi Goldberg provides
contextual commentary throughout the film on the nature of slavery as
an institution and its place not only in the South but also the entire
American economy and society during the antebellum period. The film
has no plot as such but covers systematically a multitude of topics from
childhood to work to punishment to marriage to running away and
Most of the film is in black and white because it combines still and
moving images spanning from the decade before the Civil War to the
time of the interviews themselves. A few of the images reproduce ante-
bellum handbills and broadsides about runaway slaves and slave auctions.
Most, however, derive from the twentieth century, especially the movies
of cotton picking and the living conditions of a poor Southern black pop-
ulation. The photographs of ex-slave interviewees in the collection are
also mainly twentieth century, as are the pictures of the actual typed nar-
rative transcripts that are scattered throughout the movie. Even the
African American actors appear in modern black clothing before a black
background, so as not to attract attention away from the words they deliver.
The few instances of color in the film indicate modern times: a few
reenactments and the singing and dancing of the McIntosh County
Shouters. The few reenactments show scenes without people, such as a

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 205

moving horse-drawn coach, an empty plantation dining room, and

bloody footprints in the snow. The McIntosh County Shouters sing recon-
structed slave songs throughout the film and are shown at times singing
and performing some dance steps.
In all these visual ways, the film illustrates as it concentrates on the
words of the narratives themselves. The actors deliver their monologues
with the emotions and voice quality they think appropriate to what they
see on the page and in the photograph of an interviewee. So some read-
ings are humorous or sad, others cynical or angry. Since the interviewers
were instructed to try to transcribe the actual language of the ex-slaves,
the actors pronounce the words and grammar or speak in dialect as ren-
dered on the page. (The name of a dialect coach appears in the credits at
the end of the film). So although the film depends upon re-presentation
of its primary source, both that source and its reading are reconstructions
in fact. (In one case, for example, a relatively young actress depicts a 103-
year-old woman, and the sounds of a supposed slave auction accompany
the handbill advertising such a business transaction.)
Because Unchained Memories concentrates so single-mindedly on the
transcripts themselves, even to showing photographs of some pages, any
praise or complaint must begin with them as an example of oral history.
The project has proved immensely valuable to historians, and one of the
best authorities on the history of slavery served as senior historical advisor
to the film. His own approaches to slavery showed up in the voice-over
commentary of Whoopi Goldberg about slave life. Both the methods
used to obtain the interviews in the first place and their subsequent tran-
scriptions have raised questions. Just as the film fails to mention the
grounds for the few interviews chosen for monologues, so the Federal
Writer’s Project seemed equally random in who was interviewed among
the estimated one hundred thousand ex-slaves still living in the 1930s. By
that time all of the ex-slaves were old, at least over seventy and some
claimed to be over one hundred years old. Thus they were usually quite
old people remembering experiences three-quarters of a century earlier
with all the problems associated with such oral history. The interviewers
were given a list of questions but allowed to follow their own best
instincts. Did the race and gender of the interviewer make a difference in
how present and past were described by the ex-slave men and women?
How were the interviews recorded? In at least one case, a woman recalls
being ten years old when she took down in short hand the interviews
done by her father, who was an Arkansas African American educator and
minister.57 How accurate are the transcriptions, since the interviewers

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206 • Fashioning History

employed their own methods of rendering their interviewees’ vocabulary

and pronunciation into written versions? How much were the transcripts
edited? The interviewers were encouraged by the project’s Washington,
DC, administration to take down their interviewees’ statements “word
for word.” We know some editing of ideas and sentiments as well as lan-
guage did occur. Presumably, the historical experts advising on the film
considered if not solved all the problems the transcriptions presented as
My second choice is more conventional in its approach to the docu-
mentary as a genre and to historical representation itself. Northern Light
Productions’ Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters, which premiered May 25,
2005, on the History Channel, consists mainly of reenactments by actors
and interviews with five historians as experts. As the title suggests, the
one-hundred-minute film emphasizes the agency of the African American
slaves as much as that of their white owners and oppressors. Unlike the
previous documentary, this one downplays re-presentation of archival
documents in favor of thirty-two actors playing slaves and their white
owners, slave patrollers, and the paid catchers who plied their nefarious
trade in the North as well as the South. The chronological story, if not the
film itself, begins around the turn of the eighteenth century in South
Carolina with the formation of patrols to control the lives of slaves, par-
ticularly when off plantation. It ends with the founding after the Civil
War of the Ku Klux Klan to continue illegally the psychological and phys-
ical intimidation of the now-freed population. In between the film
stresses the multiple and creative ways African American slaves used in
escaping slavery as well as the brutality and physical punishment the
whites employed to maintain the system. The film covers at some length
the 1739 Stono Rebellion and the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion as well as
the mass escape of slaves to the English during the Revolution and to the
Union side during the Civil War. These conflicts make for good drama as
well as prove the case for the slaves’ continuing desire for freedom.59
Although the filmmakers re-present some images of old paintings and
prints, authentic broadsides and newspaper advertisements, old maps and
pamphlets, and old photographs, they mainly rely on reenactment to
convey the action amidst generic scenery. The documentary images come
from both the period being discussed and later (especially once again the
movie of the Ku Klux Klan). The actors are both African American and
white to portray the respective races in the slave system, and mainly male
to depict who did most of the running away and the enforcement of slave
codes. Past slaves, slave owners, and catchers are named as well as the time

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and place where the events occurred. The actors (and their horses), how-
ever, appear recycled through the centuries depicted. The locales and
buildings are not readily identifiable by the viewer. Much of the action
takes place in nonspecific fields, swamps, and woods, and, since the slave
patrols operated from sundown to sunup, often in dark or poorly lit
scenes. The only locations listed specifically at the end of the film are all
in Massachusetts, the home of Northern Light Productions.
There is no dialogue from the actors, only a few readings of diaries and
other documents. The professional narrator mostly tells the story from
the omniscient viewpoint so common in written history. The five histori-
ans are all experts on slavery in general or on patrols in particular. They
offer up-to-date interpretations of the nature of slavery, the role of a white
“racial police,” and the natural and normal resistance of African Americans
to their enslavement. They all stress the immorality of that part of American
history and how deeply the slave system was entwined in the American
legal and political system, the national economy, and Northern as well as
Southern society. Some of the experts venture controversial interpreta-
tions of numbers of runaways, and all speculate on the psychological
dynamics of the master–slave relationship, the motives of runaway slaves
and slave catchers, and particularly ten generations of white brutality and
African American resistance. Last, the music in this film does not try to
replicate old tunes but only sounds synthesized as background for the
events being narrated.
All in all, this film treats history like most history books except for the
concrete visualization of the action. Even with the visualization most of
the interpretation is spoken by the omniscient narrator or by the five his-
torians. In this sense, the film is more like a textbook with living illustra-
tions and boxed interpretive quotations than an innovative documentary
film in its own right. Nevertheless, the interpretation is professional and
current in the discipline. On the whole, the mise en scènes represent the
past accurately enough. (But did one see a modern zipper on an actor’s
pants?) As with other historical representations, Slave Catchers, Slave
Resisters combines re-presentation with invention, speculation with evi-
dence. After all, almost all the people portrayed, their actions, their cloth-
ing, and their environment (including the kinds and colors of their
horses) are educated guesses at best. Like so many histories, this film con-
ceals the proportion of speculation to re-presentation behind the façade
of continuous narration. The hard work of investigating and synthesizing
history is hidden by the seemingly simple nature of the overall presentation.

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The third documentary film was inspired by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812.
This prizewinning microhistory about a Hallowell, Maine, woman
inspired the filmmaker to bring it to screen. The film, using only the
short main title, was first shown in 1997 on the American Experience
series on the Public Broadcasting System. It very deliberately explores the
role of the historian in fashioning representations of the past. Laurie
Kahn-Leavitt, writer and producer, decided that the film should inter-
weave scenes of Ulrich piecing together the story of Ballard’s life from the
usually very short, sometimes cryptic, references in the voluminous diary
with reenactment by actors of the midwife’s various daily activities. As
part of this process of showing the self-conscious construal of persons and
events in the film, Kahn-Leavitt writes at some length on all her own
activities in constructing the historical documentary on the extensive
Web site covering the diary.60
In accord with this dual focus on past actors and present historians,
two sequences of scenes open the eighty-eight-minute documentary. The
film starts with a woman rowing a canoe across the vaporous waters of the
Kennebec River in 1785 and then delivering a baby. The words in voice-
over are spoken by the actress playing the midwife and come from the
diary. The second sequence shows Ulrich studying the diary and other
documents as she describes the problems of piecing together the stories
behind the often cryptic diary entries and in general the importance of
documentary evidence to the historian. She admits that in spite of the
nearly one thousand diary entries, she still does not know what Martha
Ballard looked like, where the children slept in the crowded house, or
much of the family dynamics as well as many other minor and major mat-
ters. On the other hand, the film like the book reveals that Ulrich feels
confident in reconstructing the female domestic economy of the era, even
suggesting some of the larger political, social, and religious conflict and
change occurring during the twenty-seven years the diary records.
These two opening sequences begin two narrative trajectories. One
trajectory follows Martha doing her various tasks as housewife, mother,
healer, midwife, and domestic economy manager, with the words coming
from the diary and voiced by Kaiulani Lee, the actress playing her.
Another trajectory follows Ulrich as she researches the diary entries, con-
strues their context, and infers the stories and subplots they imply. The
process is described in her words, sometimes on camera, sometimes as
voice-over. As the film proceeds, Ulrich’s appearance on camera declines
and Martha’s increases until her life and times are the only subjects on the

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 209

screen and sound track. Nevertheless, the viewer is always aware of the
different perspectives on the past as lived, researched, and reenacted, espe-
cially since almost all the words come from the diary via the actress play-
ing Martha or from Ulrich herself. These perspectives are only enhanced
by the long discussion by Kahn-Leavitt on all aspects of preproduction,
production, and postproduction of the film on the Web site. The film
seems a close collaboration between Kahn-Leavitt as producer and writer
and Ulrich as historian and expert. In the film, and more so on the Web
site, the viewer learns the limits of historical reconstruction and the neces-
sity for imaginative invention—in spite of Ulrich’s explicit denial of the
latter on camera.
Both speculative reconstruction and disciplined invention are done
with care by the producer, Ulrich, seven other historians, and many for-
mal and informal advisors. Thirty-nine actors play husband Ephraim
Ballard, sons and daughters, neighbors, town worthies, mothers in labor,
servants, “white Indians,” persons in a parade, and ordinary and/or
female roles mentioned in the selections dramatized from the diary. How
these persons appeared, dressed, walked, and otherwise thought and
behaved had to be done by inference. Even how Martha herself looked is
unknown, but the actress playing Martha was in her forties and so had to
be made up to appear to be fifty years old when the diary and its drama-
tization begins and seventy-seven when it ends and she dies. Even the
newborn babies in the film were nearly so, being borrowed from recently
delivered mothers, often through the cooperation of their own midwives.
Yet for all this care, neither Ulrich nor the other experts knew how close
or far apart various persons from different classes stood, or whether she
touched a person of elite status when she examined him, or even the
dynamics within the Ballard family. Social standing and class are not dis-
cussed explicitly in the film but exemplified through terms of address,
clothing, and house furnishings, among other indicators.
Since present-day Hallowell, Maine, and its sister city across the river,
Augusta, were too modern, the location scout had to hunt up a site that
still looked more like one from the revolutionary era. He found such a site
in a Loyalist-founded town in New Brunswick, Canada, which had a
river, some old postrevolutionary-era houses, and even a mill that might
have looked like what Ephraim Ballard owned. Thus, all the exterior
scenes like the interior ones are educated guesses. The mise en scènes used
both authentic period pieces and simulated artifacts, and building interi-
ors and exteriors were both actual in their new location and faked. The
filmmakers always knew, however, what the weather outside was, because

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210 • Fashioning History

Martha recorded season after season whether the day was clear or rainy,
warm or cold. Ambient sounds are constant and frequent, but the char-
acters engage in little dialogue—perhaps because such language departed
from the diary in being scripted by the writer or delivered impromptu
by the actors. Even the words by Martha are mainly voice-over from the
diary as the scene plays. Pronunciation was an issue of course. Many of
the ambient sounds came from the Foley room and were created to fit the
scene. The composer for the film used some old songs but created new
music in the supposed spirit of the project.
The film employed the same basic approach to story and emplotment
as Ulrich did in her book. Thus the film presents some selected diary
entries and then reenacts the supposed story each set contains: midwifery
and healing, household activities, gardening, and spinning; land disputes
and surveying; conflict with male doctors over who would control obstet-
ric events; rape by a prominent judge; illegitimate childbirth and mar-
riage; funeral preparations and autopsy; conflict between Martha and son
and daughter-in-law; and murder among others. These events and hap-
penings appear to follow chronology so plot and subplot look as if they
follow Martha’s life.
The film like Ulrich’s book relies on a Great Story about social and
political change and resulting conflict in the decades after the revolution.
That Great Story is not featured so much as relied upon to provide the
larger context for such events as uppity servants, squatters on the lands of
rich merchants, the assault of Ephraim by “white Indians” while survey-
ing those lands, and the jailing of husband Ephraim and son Jonathan for
debt. Martha and Ephraim disliked the new, more democratic social
order coming in, but her husband and son engaged in the speculative new
commercial economy emerging. Martha preferred the older order when it
kept servants in their place but lamented it when a town notable escaped
rape charges because of social rank. Since this Great Story of these
changes is so male-centered, they receive little explicit, let alone extended,
mention in Martha’s diary.
The film, like Ulrich’s book, makes a virtue of the limited viewpoint of
the diary in order to highlight the role of women in the economy and
society of the period. Midwifery was the best paid occupation of women
at the time. Martha also exploited her growing daughters’ labor to spin
and weave cloth for the market. The film emphasizes the multiplicity of
activities and managerial capacity Martha needed to organize the domes-
tic economy of her household. On the other hand, her husbands’ sawing
and mill management, land surveying, and tax-collecting duties were

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“foreign” in a sense because they were male. Thus Martha says little in her
diary about the roles of doctors, except for their interference in her mid-
wifery; ministers, unless through their wives; public officials, unless jailed
like her husband; or even farmers who comprised the bulk of male popu-
lation. She omits politics and religion to a surprising extent, even though
she attended church regularly (except for four years when irked that
Reverend Foster was hounded from the pulpit). The relationship between
male and female roles is seen in the film in the 1800 parade honoring
George Washington after his death the preceding year. Sixteen maidens
from better families marched in front to symbolize the states in the union
at the time, but the body of the procession was male and arranged by
social rank. In fact, the account of the procession is in a male diary and
not Martha’s. Ulrich emphasizes the legal inferiority of women by point-
ing out that Martha could not own house or land in her own name under
the law of the time while her husband lived.
The film offers explicit and implicit perspective on the nature of his-
torical research and synthesis. Ulrich’s description of her research and
insights in the film emphasizes that history is more puzzle solving and
storytelling than construction and analysis. Disciplined imagination and
invention is played down in favor of “piecing together” the many bits of
evidence and clues, even though Ulrich’s own book, the film itself, and
Kahn-Leavitt’s own description of the film’s making suggest quite other-
wise. If the film plumbs the limits of reconstruction and re-presentation,
it also exemplifies well what disciplined and educated guesswork can
achieve in historical synthesis.
To sum up the implication of this fourth conclusion: historical docu-
mentaries like history texts and museum exhibitions can pursue a variety
of factual and inventive options and still be considered legitimate, proper
history. That documentaries as a genre can contain quite different syn-
thetic combinations of fact and invention suggests the question to ask of
all films, and by extension all histories, is not whether one of them includes
fictive invention but rather of what kind and how much before it crosses
over the line dividing fiction from history as a genre.
Fifth, to return to general conclusions, films have techniques and
methods customary or unique to them as a genre to achieve factual and
interpretive goals. Construction of facts just like perspective and meaning
can be through music, lighting, and editorial juxtaposition among other
techniques. Surely the exterior shot of a cottage or house versus that of a
mansion or castle and scenes from their respective interiors imply as they
depict the social status of the inhabitants, even if that fact is never mentioned

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212 • Fashioning History

in dialogue or text. That fact is further elaborated through dress, lan-

guage, mannerism, and attitude as shown in a film. The physical appear-
ance of a person or of her surroundings can indicate emotional states.
Various editing techniques can imply through juxtaposition of scenes
connections, even causation, as well as temporal sequence. As pointed out
previously, lighting can affect whether the viewer accepts the scene shown
as desirable or the opposite with the corresponding perspective and
meaning for that condition of affairs. The mise en scène reinforces the
facts asserted in a reenactment. Steven Lipkin points out in his captions
for some frames from the motion picture Shine (1996) how they reveal
the mental breakdown and psychological state of the classical pianist
David Helfgott through the use of water.61 Filmmakers use music to estab-
lish the time a film represents as well as enhance a mood. Classical music
often accompanies eighteenth-century scenes just as jazz signifies the
1920s or hip hop the 1990s.
Sixth, what films may lack in complex and abstract argument, they
more than make up for in complex visual and aural detail. Both types of
complexity pose problems for historians and filmmakers alike in both
analyzing and producing films. The complex aural and visual details give
the eyewitness, “you-are-there” feeling to films, but that very complexity
renders historical accuracy so much harder to achieve for filmmaker than
book author. The infinitude of detail enables greater possibility of accu-
rate historical elements at the same time as it almost guarantees the inabil-
ity to be correct about everything no matter how hard the filmmaker
tries. The greater possibilities open the door to invention as the multitude
of details necessitates some solution in the filming. Theå book’s author
can finesse through silence or brief mention what the filmmaker must
provide concretely and specifically to fill, so to speak, the mise en scène.
Complex, abstract argument and analysis of sources so common to books
and so uncommon in films provides further grist for the mill of historical
criticism without solving the filmmaker’s problem of trying to achieve its
equivalent. But in the end, which medium renders better the larger truths
about the big picture of the past for its audience?
Seven, even though films may have methods and approaches unique
to them, they also share general problems of historical representation with
texts and things. Filmed histories exhibit the same hybrid qualities as
other kinds of historical representations. Although the show-and-tell
qualities of the medium may be different than those of texts and muse-
ums and historic sites, films too in the end struggle to reconcile science
and art, fact and fiction, objectivity and propaganda, explanation and

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Films as Historical Representations and Resources • 213

interpretation. They too raise questions about judging the factual accu-
racy of a product’s parts as opposed to the larger truthfulness of it as syn-
thesis. In that sense, films like other historical representations combine
factuality and invention, re-presentation and construction, heritage and
history, narrative and explanation, perspective and meaning. As with texts
and things, it is all a matter of interpretation and mediation. The big
question, as pointed out earlier, is just what kind of invention and how
much before the representation crosses over the line separating history
and fiction.
In line with these conclusions, this chapter on films parallels those on
texts and things in order to indicate comparable problems and their
respective solutions in each genre or medium. The three chapters show
how each medium has methods and approaches unique to it, but collec-
tively they also point out how texts, things, and films share the dilemmas
of representing the past as history. Each of the chapters offered examples
of different kinds of solutions to the common problems within its medium.
In each kind of solution and in each genre in general, it was, to repeat, a
matter of kind and mix, whether of re-presentation and construction,
interpretation or invention.

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The History Effect and

Representations of the Past

rom my review of various processes and diverse products, it is quite
clear what effect historians want to achieve in their representations
of the past. They seek in their various forms of representations to
communicate what they and their readers, viewers, and other consumers
consider a truthful, presumably accurate, impression of some part of past
reality. That means in practice they hope to make their generalizations,
interpretations, and inventive constructions seem to possess the same
authoritative grounding as their assertion of historical facts and empir-
ical knowledge. As the philosopher Louis Mink concluded, “a historical
narrative claims truth not only for each of its individual statements taken
distributively, but for the complex form of the narrative itself.”1 Thus his-
torians in their writings, exhibitions, and films declare that their overall
representations refer to the actual past. Their rhetoric asserts definite,
preferably definitive, statements about the past whether simple fact or
speculative generalization. We can call this effort to make all of a repre-
sentation of a past appear as well grounded as its most empirical portion
“the history effect.”2
The techniques used to achieve the history effect may vary by histo-
rian, topic, type of history, or product, but the goal is the same. Whether
offering argument or narrative, whether fashioned as research monograph
or documentary film, whether employing traditional exposition or exper-
imental effort, all make the entirety of their representations appear to be
as referential, that is refer, to past reality as much and as accurately as pos-
sible. This is as true of newer social and cultural history as older political
and economic history; of transnational as national; of global as microhis-
tory; or of gender and queer history as well as traditional military and
diplomatic history. Viewpoint may be singular or multiple; the voice may
be first person, even autobiographical, or third person and distanced; the

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216 • Fashioning History

synthesis may be unified or fragmented; the narrative sequence may be

chronological or otherwise, but all purport to be nonfiction as opposed to
fictional no matter what their position on postmodernism.3
All rely on facts, although how to derive or develop them may be ques-
tioned in the very process of presenting them. No one claims to make up
the facts, 4 although they may question what and how they can know
what they do. All purport to rely on evidence or accepted knowledge as
their ultimate raw material. All move beyond their evidence in seeking
the greater meaning of their topic. All seek to convey meaning through
larger as well as smaller truths. The postmodern challenge may question
how and whether these goals can be achieved, but even postmodernists
accept their own historical generalizations as true and offer facts in the
defense of their case. They may challenge traditional categories, but in the
very process they hope to expand the potential of history, not destroy fac-
tuality and truthfulness as such (especially their own).
That historical products vary so much by the kinds and amounts of
interpretation they embody complicates any characterization, some might
say theorization, of history as a discipline. The history effect depends upon
the combination of seemingly incompatible intellectual tendencies and
rhetorical strategies. Intellectual efforts to cope with this mixed quality of
historical practice led in the past to discussing history in terms of a long
series of paired oppositions: science versus art, empirical research versus
narrative synthesis, knowledge versus opinion or even error, factuality
versus generalization and speculation, truthfulness versus fictive inven-
tion, objectivity versus partiality and bias, and reality versus representation,
among other antitheses.
Our survey shows that such simple dichotomies are not so much
wrong as inadequate. They are deficient when applied singly, because
each history embraces both sides of the supposedly mutually exclusive
oppositions. Even when all of the binary oppositions are conceived as a
series of continuums or scales and applied together, however, they are still
insufficient to indicate how various kinds of histories rank differently
from continuum to continuum. Thus, an edited series of documents, a
restored building, or a documentary film place differently on the various
scales than does a full-fledged history, a reconstructed building, or a
melodramatic historical film epic.
The dichotomies therefore make good slogans but poor theory,
because they all fail to describe the collective, intellectually mixed nature
of histories as synthetic products. Not only does each history have its own
rank or point, so to speak, on each of the continuums, but each form or

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The History Effect and Representations of the Past • 217

genre of history possesses a different profile when measured by all the

scales. Clearly, an edition of letters or a documentary film ranks nearer
the empirical, re-presentational, and factual ends of the scales than say an
interpretive essay or a docudrama, which in turn are less near the inter-
pretive, inventive, speculative, and imaginative ends on those same scales
than a metanarrative, a historical novel, or an epic historical film. No one
kind of history need share its exact combination of intellectually mixed
characteristics with another kind, yet all histories share such mixture as a
quality in common. Thus, not only is each history as product a combina-
tion in its own way of art and science, and so forth, but history as a disci-
pline is also an intellectual hybrid itself.
That no kind of history lies entirely at the extreme end of any one or
all of the dichotomous scales means all histories combine empirical ele-
ments and interpretation and invention to a lesser or greater degree. The
degree of interpretation and invention differs, of course, in whether the
historian is identifying and investigating sources, fashioning a synthesis,
or presuming a Great Story. Nevertheless interpretation and invention is
involved to a smaller or larger extent in each process and in each resulting
product. And it is this greater and lesser degree that poses the great chal-
lenge to characterizing or theorizing the nature of history as knowledge
and discipline, as science and art, but constitutes the wonder of historical
practice and the appeal of its products.

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Chapter 1
1. Hermeneutics studies how to bridge understanding between today and what
past persons meant in their documents. The standard reference is Hans-
Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer
and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1989), but see David C.
Hoy, The Critical Circle: Literature, History, and Philosophical Hermeneutics
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), for a useful, brief introduction
to the field.
2. For example, Stephen Davies, Empiricism and History (Houndmills, UK:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
3. See Harry Ritter’s attempt to clarify historians’ use of the terms “method”
and “methodology” in his Dictionary of Concepts in History (Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1986), 268–72. The first modern handbooks on method
appeared at the end of the nineteenth century: Ernst Bernheim, Lehrbuch
der historische Methode (Leipzig: Duncker and Humblot (sic), 1889); and
Charles V. Langlois and Charles Seignobos, Introduction aux études historique
(Paris: Hachette, 1898). Rolf Torstendahl, “Fact, Truth, and Text: The Quest
for a Firm Basis for Historical Knowledge around 1900,” History and Theory
42, no. 3 (2003), 305–31, discusses these early guides.
4. Since “documents,” “records,” and “relics” imply from their names how they
are to be used as sources and even “remains,” “traces,” and “artifacts” seem to
connote too much their specific nature as sources, I have adopted the some-
what unusual use of “survival” as the most comprehensive and neutral term.
Of course, the term still presupposes the object comes from the past.
5. David Henige, Historical Evidence and Argument (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 2005), as his title suggests, advances a strong case for the
place of argument in understanding survivals as evidence. He offers many
examples from ancient times as well as non-Western societies in support of
his contention.

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220 • Notes

6. What Miles Fairburn, Social History: Problems, Strategies and Methods (New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 1–2, calls the “old history,” which he sees as
“event-oriented” and narrative in form.
7. Alexander Stille, The Future of the Past (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
2002), provides a broadly interpretive introduction to the nature of survivals.
8. Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method, 2nd
ed. (New York: Knopf, 1969), ch. 5. First published in 1950.
9. Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History, 3rd ed. (Houndmills: Macmillan,
1989), 208–16. Quotation is from p. 208. First published in 1970.
10. Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction
to Historical Methods (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 20–27.
11. See ibid., 17, for example.
12. In addition to Gottschalk, Marwick, and Howell and Prevenier cited above,
see John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods, and New Directions in
the Study of History, 3rd ed. (Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2000), ch. 3; and Neville
Morley, Writing Ancient History (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1999) 53–96.
The division between texts and things is the basis for Chapters 3 and 4 here.
13. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based
on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Knopf, 1990), shows what can be
developed from even very brief entries in a diary.
14. See, among many, Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical
Evidence (London: Reaktion Books, 2001); John O’Connor, ed., Image as
Artifact: The Historical Analysis of Film and Television (Malabar, FL: Robert
E. Krieger, 1990); Michael Ann Holly, Past Looking: Historical Imagination
and the Rhetoric of Image (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996);
Francis Haskell, History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); Alan Trachtenberg, Reading
American Photographs: Images as History (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989);
Robert I. Rotberg and Theodore K. Rabb, eds., Art and History: Images and
Their Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); John Tagg,
The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographs and Histories (Amherst:
University of Massachusetts Press, 1988); and Michael Baxandall, Pattern of
Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1981).
15. On the fragility of such materials, see the Web site of the Save Our Sounds
project of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress,http:// On sounds in general, see Mark M.
Smith, ed., Hearing History: A Reader (Athens: University of Georgia Press,
16. Paul R. Thompson, The Voice of the Past, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2000), is a good introduction to historical practice in general as well
as the practice of oral history. Another recent guide is Donald A. Ritchie,
Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University

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Notes • 221

Press, 2003). See also Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, eds., The Oral
History Reader, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2006).
17. James M. O’Toole, Understanding Archives and Manuscripts (Chicago:
Society of American Archivists, 1990), ch. 1, provides a brief history of
records from the viewpoint of technology of production.
18. Howell and Prevenier, From Reliable Sources, 19. To designate anything as
“evidence” of course assumes that it already communicates to the historian
according to some research agenda.
19. Cf. Morley; Nick Merriman, ed., Making Early Histories in Museums
(London: Leicester University Press, 1999); and Bill McMillon, The
Archaeology Handbook: A Field Manual and Resource Guide (New York: John
Wiley and Sons, 1991), chs. 10–11. Cf. evidence for medieval European his-
tory in Marcus Bull, Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the
Middle Ages (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2005), ch. 3. See also Stille, The
Future of the Past. William M. Kelso, Jamestown: The Buried Truth
(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), offers an example of
what survives from a specific site.
20. “Library of Congress to Treat Acidity in Books,” New York Times, January 1,
2002, National edition, A18.
21. Jeremy Black, Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past (New Haven,
CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 233–34. Cf. for different examples, see
William J. Turkel, “Every Place is an Archive: Environmental History and
the Interpretation of Physical Evidence,” Rethinking History 10, no. 2 (2006),
22. Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf, eds., Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson,
Memory, and Civic Culture (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press,
1999), offer larger context.
23. Stille, The Future of the Past, 299–309, discusses these problems. Cf. Michael
Moss, “Archives, the Historian, and the Future,” in Companion to Historiography,
ed. Michael Bentley (London: Routledge, 1997), ch. 39.
24. Stille, The Future of the Past, 303.
25. Dana Canedy, “Florida Ponders Fate of Historic 2000 Ballots,” New York
Times, February 16, 2003, National edition, A18.
26. The estimate of Luciano Canfora, quoted in Stille, The Future of the Past,
27. The estimate of Michael Clanchy, mentioned in Bull, Thinking Medieval,
28. Gottschalk, Understanding History, 45.
29. The point of Lorraine Daston’s arguments in “Marvelous Facts and Miraculous
Evidence in Early Modern Europe,” in Questions of Evidence: Proof, Practice,
and Persuasion Across Disciplines, ed. James Chandler, Arnold I. Davidson,
and Harry Harootunian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994),
243–74, 282–89.

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222 • Notes

30. See again O’Toole, Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, ch. 1.

31. Cf., for example, what Howell and Prevenier, Reliable Sources, 44–56, call
technical tools with what R. J. Shafer, A Guide to Historical Method
(Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1969), 111–20, calls “auxiliary disciplines.”
32. For example, Black, Maps and History; Burke, Eyewitnessing.
33. Quoted in Janet Owen, “Making Histories from Archaeology” in Making
History in Museums, ed. Gaynor Kavanagh (London: Leicester University
Press, 1996), 207.
34. See, for example, the estimates of Giles Constable, “Forgery and Plagiarism
in the Middle Ages,” Archiv für Diplomatik 29 (1983), 11. Cf. Bull, Thinking
Medieval, 65–66, but see all of ch. 3 on evidence.
35. For an introduction to the topic, see Anthony Grafton, Forgers and Critics:
Creativity in Western Scholarship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
1990). Mark Jones et al, eds., Fake? The Art of Deception (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1990), provides both an introduction and pictures of
paintings, objects, and texts from ancient to modern times from an exhibit
in the British Museum; Kenneth W. Rendell, Forging History: The Detection
of Fake Letters and Documents (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
1994), offers an introduction to its subject by an expert who played a role in
uncovering several modern forgeries.
36. Kirsten A. Seaver, Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vinland Map
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).
37. The authority is Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish
World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of Zion (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode,
38. Burke, Eyewitnessing, 23, 24.
39. George H. Roeder, The Censored War: American Visual Experience During
World War Two (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 8.
40. William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann, The West of Imagination
(New York: Norton, 1986), ch. 20, discuss Curtis’ artistic manipulation to
romanticize the disappearing “red man.” Cf. Robert Flaherty’s similar
manipulation in his documentary film of Inuit natives in ch. 5 below.
41. O’Connor, ed., Image as Artifact, 11. See in general, Susan L. Carruthers, The
Media at War: Communication and Conflict in the Twentieth Century
(Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 2000).
42. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, and History (London:
Verso, 2005), explores the future as well as the past of media manipulation.
43. Provenance is usually used in the arts while provenience is preferred for
archaeological items. Although “provenance” usually refers to origins, it can
also refer to the chain of custody that allows the investigator to establish the
authenticity of the object by tracing it back to its origins. Cf. Lewis J. Bellardo
and Lynn Lady Bellaro, A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and
Records Managers (Chicago: The Society of American Archivists, 1992), 27.

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Notes • 223

44. See examples given in Morley, Writing Ancient History, 65.

45. Thompson, The Voice of the Past, 4. He argues oral history can compensate
for this bias.
46. According to Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of
Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Washington,
DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), even surviving plantation build-
ings are usually interpreted from the perspective of antebellum white elite
values, thereby “trivializing” the experiences of “enslaved” and “enslaver”
47. Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing, 14–15, observes that visual imagery criticism has
the same problems of context, function, rhetoric, recollection, and the like,
as source criticism. Cf. Johnson, Voice of the Past, ch. 4; O’Connor, Image as
Artifact, chs. 2–3.
48. Gottschalk, Understanding History, 54, offers five possible meanings of
“original source” and the two he prefers historians use.
49. Chapter 3, section 2 examines the kinds and degrees of intervention in such
hybrid primary sources.
50. See their Web sites: and http:// On the rebuilding of the HMS Victory, see
Peter Fowler, The Past in Contemporary Society: Then, Now (London:
Routledge, 1992), 11. On reconstructing the USS Constitution, see ch. 4
here. See the interesting speculation of Stille, The Future of the Past, ch. 2, on
the differences between an Asian and a Western sense of preservation of the
original versus its reproduction.
51. The views of the restoration’s director can be found in Pinin Brambilla
Barcillon and Pietro C. Marani, Leonardo: The Last Supper, trans. Harlowe
Tighe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
52. Charlene Mires, Independence Hall in American Memory (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 213–26. If conveying the context of
such relatively recent times proves challenging, imagine the context of, say,
the ancient Egyptian pyramids, which were built it is believed today by a
household village society. See Stille, Future of the Past, 38.
53. Benjamin Franklin, PBS on November 19–20, 2002, now on DVD, PBS
Home Video BENF601.
54. Cf. David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1985), 214–17.
55. Howell and Prevenier, From Reliable Sources, 19. Cf. the use of the terms his-
torical and historiographic contexts in the American Historical Association
pamphlet on Careers for Students of History under “Skills of the Professional
56. Burke, Eyewitnessing, 13.
57. Peter Burke, “Context in Context,” Common Knowledge 8, no. 1 (2002),
152–77, provides a brief history of the term and today’s uses and problems

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224 • Notes

of application. Robert D. Hume, Reconstructing Contexts: The Aims and

Principles of Archaeo-Historicism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999),
offers a new name for a traditional approach to establishing context with
many examples from theater history.
58. For example, Davies, Empiricism and History.
59. See Vernon K. Dibble, “Four Types of Inference from Documents to
Events,” History and Theory 3, no. 2 (1963), 219–21, for a brief overview of
older methods manuals on testimony. Cf. David Cockburn, Other Times:
Philosophical Perspectives on Past, Present and Future (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1997), 246–50, 260–63, 266–70, on testimony.
60. See Fact Sheet G17 from House of Commons Information Office, http://
61. Mildred L. Amer, The Congressional Record; Content, History and Issues”
(Washington, DC: Congressional Reference Service, 1993), http://www–60.pdf.
62. Donald H. Reiman, The Study of Modern Manuscripts: Public, Confidential,
and Private (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), explores
the relationship between the intentions of authors and the nature of their
presumed audiences for understanding and interpreting sources.
63. See the cautionary words of Marwick, Nature of History, 228–31.
64. Gottchalk, Understanding History, 56, 139.
65. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and The Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-
Century Miller, trans. John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, MD:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie,
Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, trans. Barbara Bray (New York:
George Braziller, 1978).
66. The phrase is used by Robert Finlay, “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,”
American Historical Review 93, no. 5 (1988), 571, but see whole dispute,
67. Leonard Labaree and Whitfield J. Bell, eds., The Papers of Benjamin
Franklin, vol. 4 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961), 118–19.
68. See the forum on the larger issue in the William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd
ser., vol. 53, no. 3 (1996), 587–635.
69. David Boucher, Texts in Context: Revisionist Methods for Studying the History
of Ideas (Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1985); James Tully, ed., Meaning
and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1988).
70. C. Behan McCullagh, The Logic of History: Putting Postmodernism in
Perspective (London: Routledge, 2004), 18–36, outlines a comprehensive list
of problems on these issues from his point of view. Cf. the two quite differ-
ent approaches of George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and
Translation, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Roger T.
Bell, Translation and Translating: Theory and Practice (London: Longman,

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Notes • 225

1991). See the special issue of The Journal of American History 85, no. 4
(1999), 1280–1460, which is devoted to “Interpreting the Declaration of
Independence by Translation,” for a practical demonstration of translation
(and retranslation).
71. The larger point of Constantin Fasolt, The Limits of History (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2004).
72. The larger issue is discussed by Michael Pickering, “History as Horizon:
Gadamer, Tradition, and Critique,” Rethinking History 3, no. 2 (1999),
73. Cf. Dibble, “Four Types of Inference from Documents to Events,” 210–13.
74. J. B. Harley, “Maps, Knowledge, and Power,” in The Iconography of Landscape:
Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design, and Use of Past Environments,
ed. Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1988), 277–312, suggests possibilities.
75. See, for example, how much Laurel Thatcher Ulrich contextualizes the arti-
facts she makes the focus of her chapters in The Age of Homespun: Objects
and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York: Knopf, 2001),
especially when she lacks evidence of provenance as in ch. 1.
76. Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., “Jefferson, the Ordinance of 1784, and the Origins
of the American Territorial System,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser.,
29, no. 2 (1972), 231–62; and “The Northwest Ordinance and the Principle
of Territorial Evolution” in The American Territorial System, ed. John Porter
Bloom (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1973).
77. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds., Post-Colonial Studies:
The Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2000), provides an introduction to
terminology and concepts.
78. Fairburn, Social History, tackles these and other problems relevant to this
and the next two paragraphs. Cf. C. Behan McCullagh, The Truth of History
(London: Routledge, 1998), passim.
79. Pat Hudson, History by Numbers: An Introduction to Quantitative Approaches
(London: Arnold, 2000), outlines briefly the history of quantitative analysis
in historical practice as she explicates approaches.
80. For one introduction, see Martyn Thompson, “Reception Theory and the
Interpretation of Historical Meaning,” History and Theory 32, no. 3 (1993),
248–72. Janet Staiger covers reception theory in general and its application,
chiefly to movies and television, in a series of books: Interpreting Films:
Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1992); Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film
Reception (New York: New York University Press, 2000); and Media
Reception Studies (New York: New York University Press, 2005). In addition
to historians of film, audience reaction is also a major concern of museum people.
81. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago,
1919–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

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226 • Notes

82. Clayton Roberts, The Logic of Historical Explanation (University Park:

Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), and Michael Stanford, The
Nature of Historical Knowledge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), ch. 2, wrestle with
the nature of “macroevents,” as Roberts terms them. Cf. McCullagh, Truth
of History.
83. Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s
Rebellion in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
1957), 98–99. Cf. 107–9.
84. Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of
Bacon’s Rebellion and its Leader (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
1940); Stephen Saunders Webb, 1676: The End of American Independence
(New York: Knopf, 1984).
85. Cf. the statements on George Washington in Berkhofer, Beyond the Great
Story: History as Text and Discourse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1995), 53–56.
86. See for some guidance to the documents, George J. Olezewski, A History of
the Washington Monument, 1844–1968 (Washington, DC: Office of History
and Historic Architecture, Eastern Service Center, National Park Service,
87. The seemingly clear-cut distinction others make between what is theory or
generalization versus fact in this paragraph and the next three depends upon
who is making the distinction according to what framework. What is theory
or generalization to one person according to her framework is fact to another
and her system of beliefs (and vice versa at times) and this is the point of the
88. See Frances R. Keller, Fictions of U. S. History: A Theory and Four Illustrations
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), ch. 2, for one woman histo-
rian’s general statement on the myth and “pathology” of patriarchy. Gerda
Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press,
1986), is classic.
89. Cf. Constantino Brumidi’s 1865 fresco The Apotheosis of George Washington
in the dome of the Capitol’s rotunda: Barbara A. Wolanin, Constantino
Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol (Washington, DC: Government Printing
Office, 1998), ch. 9.
90. Cockburn, Other Times, 54–58.
91. See the important role living memories can play in museum collections and
exhibitions of recent material objects as opposed to those in ancient times by
comparing most of the essays in Kavanagh, ed., Making History in Museums,
with those in Merriman, ed., Making Early Histories in Museums. See also
Gaynor Kavanagh, Dream Spaces: Memory and the Museum (London:
Leicester University Press, 2000), chs. 7–11.
92. Cf. Anna Green, Cultural History (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan,
2008), chs. 5–6, on remembering and memory, with Paul Ricoeur, Memory,

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Notes • 227

History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 2004).
93. Of the multitude of books and articles on memory, I found valuable for
overall perspective: Wulf Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning in Memory: A
Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies,” History and
Theory 41, no. 2 (2002), 179–97; Hue-Tam Ho Tai, “Remembered Realms:
Pierre Nora and French National Memory,” American Historical Review 106,
no. 3 (2001), 906–22; Kerwin Lee Klein, “On the Emergence of Memory in
Historical Discourse,” Representations, no. 69 (2000), 127–50; Alon Confino,
“Collective Memory and Cultural History: Problems of Method,” American
Historical Review 102, no. 5 (1997), 1386–1403; Paul Hutton, History As an
Art of Memory (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993); Paul
Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1989); and Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, 193–210. See
also Jacob J. Climo and Maria Cattell, Social Memory and History:
Anthropological Perspectives (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002); James
Fentress and Chris Wickham, Social Memory (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1992).
94. See Lowenthal, Possessed by the Past, chs. 8–9; Kavanagh, Dream Spaces, pas-
sim. See, for one example of different groups in a society having varying col-
lective memories, the various articles in W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed., Where
These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
95. From the translation that appeared in Representations and reprinted in
Jacques Revel and Lynn Hunt, eds., Histories: French Constructions of the
Past, trans. Arthur Goldhammer et al (New York: New Press, 1995), 642–643.
See Tai, Remembered Realms, for an extended review and critique of this posi-
tion and project. For the British, see Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory,
vol. 1 (London: Verso, 1994); and the uncompleted second volume, pub-
lished as Island Stories: Unraveling Britain, ed. Alison Light et al (London:
Verso, 1998). For the United States, see Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of
Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York:
Knopf, 1991); and John Bodnar, ed., Remaking America: Public Memory,
Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1992).
96. Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us, offers a general introduction to media
and memory. See on television, Gary R. Edgerton and Peter C. Rollins, eds.,
Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age (Lexington:
University Press of Kentucky, 1999). As his title states, Wulf Kansteiner, In
Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz
(Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006), chs. 6–8, examines the important
role television played in creating modern Germans’ memory of their earlier
twentieth-century past.

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228 • Notes

97. These questions are inspired by Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning in Memory.”

Cf. Bodnar, ed., Remaking America, 13–30, 245–53.
98. Revel and Hunt, eds., Histories, 633.
99. Lowenthal, Possessed by the Past, 121–2. Cf. his The Past is a Foreign Country,
212–14, for the same position.
100. Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning in Memory,” 180.
101. David Farber, ed., The Sixties: from Memory to History (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1994). Cf. Steve Gillon, Boomer Nation:
The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America (New
York: Free Press, 2004). Pierre Nora, “Generation,” in Realms of Memory:
Rethinking the French Past, ed. Pierre Nora, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, vol.
1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), ch. 13, offers a good intro-
duction to the concept in general as well as its use in a French context.
102. Ellen F. Fitzpatrick, History’s Memory: Writing the American Past, 1880–1980
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), which searches for the
historical forebears of interpretations favored today, can be read as an exer-
cise in changing the official memory of one nation’s profession of itself
through historiography.
103. See, for one example of national identity and collective memory fashioning
professional historical works, Joshua A. Fogel, ed., The Nanjing Massacre in
History and Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000);
and Takashi Yoshida, The Making of the “Rape of Nanking”: History and
Memory in Japan, China, and the United States (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2006),
104. Carl Bridenbaugh, “The Great Mutation,” American Historical Review 68,
no. 2 (1963), 315–31.
105. See, for example, Brundage, Where These Memories Grow.
106. Such as in the classic that created the term, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence
Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1983).
107. Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning in Memory,” 195.

Chapter 2
1. In order of schools, see Ernst A. Breisach, American Progressive History: An
Experiment in Modernization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993);
Bernard Sternsher, Consensus, Conflict, and American Historians (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1975); and Gene Wise, American Historical
Explanations: A Strategy for Grounded Inquiry (Homewood, IL: Dorsey,
1973). What Wise called “New Left” history,” I christened “neoprogressive”
to indicate its larger implications in “Two New Histories: Competing
Paradigms for Interpreting the American Past, Organization of American
Historians Newsletter 11, no. 2 (1983), 9–12. Cf. Dorothy Ross, “Grand

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Notes • 229

Narrative in American Historical Writing: From Romance to Uncertainty,”

American Historical Review 100, no. 3 (1995), 651–77; and Peter C. Hoffer,
Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and
Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (New York: Public Affairs,
2004), chs. 1–3.
2. See the case presented by H. Stuart Hughes, History as Art and as Science:
Twin Vistas on the Past (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1964). The modern
argument about empiricism versus textualism and postmodernism can be
read as another version of the long debate over art versus science. See, for
example, Ann Curthoys and John Docker, Is History Fiction? (Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 2005).
3. See Patrick Gardiner, ed., Theories of History (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959),
344–75, for the earlier argument in philosophy over the so-called “covering
law” versus narrativist models of explanation in history.
4. Peter D. McClelland, Causal Explanation and Model Building in History,
Economics, and the New Economic History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 1975).
5. Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), especially ch. 4.
6. For example, Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question”
and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1988).
7. This chapter’s basic categories are inspired by my Beyond the Great Story. Cf.
Hayden White’s theory of the historical work in his Metahistory: The
Historical Work in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1973), 1–38. I have omitted from this chapter a
section on the important role of style and rhetoric, but see Beyond the Great
Story, ch. 4. See for two quite different examples of stylistic and rhetorical
analyses of histories: Philippe Carrard, Poetics of the New History: French
Historical Discourse from Braudel to Chartier (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1992); and Ronald H. Carpenter, History as Rhetoric: Style,
Narrative, and Persuasion (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press,
1995). Cf. Paul Atkinson, The Ethnographic Imagination: Textual Constructions
of Reality (London: Routledge, 1990).
8. I follow Beyond the Great Story, passim., but especially 77–90, 117–20. Alun
Munslow, Narrative and History (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan,
2007), offers a recent, general introduction.
9. Too much, so argues Sande Cohen, Historical Culture: On the Recoding of an
Academic Discipline (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
10. Geoffrey Roberts, ed., The History and Narrative Reader (London: Routledge,
2001) excerpts important articles in the debate over narrative in history in
the latter half of the twentieth century. I develop these matters at greater
length in Beyond the Great Story, 36–40, 77–90, 109–129, 133–36, 142–45.

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230 • Notes

William Guynn, Writing History in Film (London: Routledge, 2006), pro-

vides a sophisticated analysis of historical representation versus fiction in
films. See also the forum on the fiction/history boundary in Rethinking
History 9, no. 3 (2005), 141–335; and Curthoys and Docker, Is History
11. Especially in the so-called new economic, political, and social histories of the
1960s. A major cliometrician, outlined the goals and methods of social sci-
ence history in Robert W. Fogel and G.R. Elton, Which Road to the Past? Two
Views of History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 5–70. Cf.
McClelland, Causal Explanation and Model Building in History, Economics,
and the New Economic History.
12. Jacob Burckhardt in his classic synchronic history, The Civilization of the
Renaissance in Italy (1860), trans. S. G. C. Middlemore (New York: Random
House, 1954), “froze” in his middle chapters the two centuries from 1350 to
1550 to make his point about the wholeness of the period but used the first
and last chapters to show the rise and decline of the characteristics he
ascribed to the Renaissance.
13. Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in
History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 11, but cf.
14–15 on causation in the narrative.
14. Nancy Isenberg, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History,”
American Studies 36, no. 1 (1995), 98.
15. Most notably David A. Carr in Time, Narrative, and History (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1985). Some of the participants in this argument
are anthologized by Roberts, ed., History and Narrative Reader, pt. 3.
16. Margaret R. Somers, “Narrativity, Narrative Identity, and Social Action:
Rethinking English Working-Class Formation,” Social Science History 16,
no. 4 (1992), 603–6. See her application of her scheme to clarifying com-
peting approaches to English working-class history.
17. Cf. on how historians explain matters, Miles Fairburn, Social History:
Problems, Strategies, and Methods (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999);
McCullagh, Truth of History; Roberts, Logic of Historical Explanation;
Christopher Lloyd, Explanation in Social History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986);
Miguel A. Cabrera, Postsocial History: An Introduction, trans. Marie McMahon
(Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004).
18. In Niall Ferguson, ed., Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
(London: Picador, 1997), chs. 1, 9.
19. Inga Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1999), 17, but see 16–20 on “Understanding Large Events.”
20. See Peter Burke, History and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 1992). Cf. his
What is Cultural History? (London: Polity, 2004); Donald M. MacRaild and
Avram Taylor, Social Theory and Social History (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave

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Notes • 231

Macmillan, 2004); Cabrera, Postsocial History; and Simon Gunn, History

and Cultural Theory (Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2006).
21. See Fogel in Which Road to the Past? 5–70, for a brief overall statement of the
approach. McClelland, Causal Explanation and Model Building in History,
Economics, and the New Economic History, offers an example.
22. Terrence McDonald, ed., The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996) marks the heyday of the movement.
23. Cf. Susan James, The Content of Social Explanation (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1984), with Christopher Lloyd, Explanation in Social
History, and The Structures of History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), on these
two approaches.
24. Burke, Varieties of Cultural History, 170, suggests that methodological holism is
more congenial to the French intellectual tradition and methodological indi-
vidualism to the English tradition. Matt Perry, Marxism and History
(Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), provides an introduction to
a very large literature.
25. James Henretta, “The Study of Social Mobility: Ideological Assumptions
and Conceptual Bias,” Labor History 18, no. 2 (1977), 167.
26. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism
and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988),
27. Jesse Lemisch, “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up,” in
Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, ed. Barton Bernstein
(New York: Pantheon, 1968). Cf. Edward P. Thompson’s phrase “history
from below,” in his 1966 essay of the same title now reprinted in Dorothy
Thompson, ed., The Essential E. P. Thompson (New York: Free Press, 2001),
28. Most vividly shown in the glossary of Robert R. Alford and Roger Friedland,
Powers of Theory: Capitalism, the State, and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1985), 444–51.
29. See the four overlapping categories of Thomas Holt, “Explaining Racism in
American History,” in Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the
Past, ed. Anthony Molho and Gordon S. Wood (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1998), 107–19. Les Back and John Solomos, eds., Theories
of Race and Racism: A Reader (London: Routledge, 2000), provide a multi-
tude of excerpts. Cf. Siân Jones, The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing
Identities in the Past and the Present (London: Routledge, 1997).
30. Laurel T. Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of
an American Myth (New York: Knopf, 2001), 20.
31. See Barry Barnes, “The Macro/Micro Problem and the Problem of Structure
and Agency,” in The Handbook of Social Theory, eds., George Ritzer and
Barry Smart (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001), 339–52, for a general ori-
entation. Two terms and names are most associated with such theorizing these

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232 • Notes

days: the “structuration” of the English sociologist Anthony Giddens and the
“habitus” of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. On Giddens, see Ira J.
Cohen, “Structuration Theory and Social Praxis,” in Social Theory Today, ed.
Anthony Giddens and Jonathan H. Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Press, 1987), 272–308. For an introduction to Bourdieu, see Pierre Bourdieu
and Loic J. D. Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1992). See also the theme issue “Agency after
Postmodernism” of History and Theory 40, no. 4 (2001).
32. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-
Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1980). Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” in
Peter Burke, New Perspectives on Historical Writing, 2nd ed. (Cambridge:
Polity, 2001), 97–119; and David A. Bell, “Total History and Microhistory:
The French and Italian Paradigms,” in Kramer and Maza, eds., Companion
to Western Historical Thought, ch. 13, provide brief introductions to micro-
history. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, eds., Microhistory and the Lost
Peoples of Europe: Selections from Quaderni Storici, trans. Eren Branch
(Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), offer some exam-
ples as well as a brief overall introduction.
33. Alf Leudtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical
Experiences and Ways of Life, trans. William Templer (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1995), offers a general introduction. See Brad S.
Gregory, “Is Small Beautiful? Microhistory and the History of Everyday
Life,” History and Theory 38, no. 1 (1999), 100–110, for a critical comparison
of the two schools.
34. Patrick Joyce, ed., The Social in Question: New Bearings in History and the
Social Sciences (London: Routledge, 2002); Gabrielle Spiegel, ed., Practicing
History: New Directions in Historical Writing After the Linguistic Turn (London:
Routledge, 2005); Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the
History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005); Geoff Eley
and Keith Nield, The Future of Class: What’s Left of the Social? (Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 2007).
35. Steven Seidman and Jeffrey C. Alexander, eds., The New Social Theory:
Contemporary Debates Reader (London: Routledge, 2001), 2. Cf. the new
entry “Ethical Turn” in Munslow, The Routledge Companion to Historical
Studies, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2006), 95–98; Howard Marchitello,
ed., What Happens to History: The Renewal of Ethics in Contemporary
Thought (London: Routledge, 2000).
36. Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 1991).
37. Ernest R. May, “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in
American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973). Cf. the

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Notes • 233

title of Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World
Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
38. Ernest R. May and Richard Neustadt, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History
for Decision Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986).
39. Diane Ravitch and Maris Vinovskis, Learning from the Past: What History
Teaches Us about School Reform (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1995).
40. See the preface of Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American
History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), ix–xii, on this tendency.
41. James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American
History Book Got Wrong (New York: New Press, 1995). On textbooks, see
Frances Fitzgerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth
Century (Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1979); Marc Ferro, The Use and
Abuse of History; or, How the Past is Taught to Children, new ed. with a new
preface, trans. Norman Stone and Andrew Brown (London: Routledge, 2003).
42. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
43. For example, Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History: Rediscovering Women
in History from the 17th Century to the Present (London: Plato Press, 1973);
and Martin B. Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncy, Jr.,
Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (New York: New
American Library, 1989).
44. Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical
Practice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Johanna Alberti,
Gender and the Historian (Harlow, UK: Longman, 2002).
45. Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982).
46. See Jörn Rüsen, “How to Overcome Ethnocentrism: Approaches to a
Culture of Recognition by History in the Twenty-First Century,” History
and Theory 43, no. 4 (2004), 118–29, for an analysis and proposed intercul-
tural solution to such problems.
47. All quotations are from the Museum’s Web site of on-going exhibitions,
48. Duane Blue Spruce, ed., Spirit of a Native Place: Building the National
Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC: National Geographic
and Smithsonian, 2004), presents the “official” pro views in a well-illus-
trated book. Amanda J. Cobb, “The National Museum of the American
Indian as Cultural Sovereignty,” American Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2005),
485–506, discusses the critics in writing a favorable review of the museum.
Cf. Kreps, Liberating Culture, ch. 4.
49. Cf. my summary of earlier critical history principles in Beyond the Great
Story, 214–19, with the symposium on “What is Left History?” Left History:

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234 • Notes

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Historical Inquiry and Debate 11, no. 1 (2006),

12–68. The immensely popular, oft-reprinted Howard Zinn, A People’s
History of the United States, 1st ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), is a
good example of the genre. For museum practice, see last section of ch. 4 here.
50. Jeremy Black, Using History (London: Hodder Arnold, 2005), surveys pub-
lic uses of history by governments and other organizations over time and
across continents. Recent systematic introductions to purposes are Stephen
Vaughn, ed., The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History (Athens: University
of Georgia Press, 1985); Beverly Southgate, History: What and Why?:
Ancient, Modern, and Postmodern Perspectives, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge,
2001). See also Joep Leerssen and Ann Rigney, eds., Historians and Social
Values (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000); “The Good of
History” issue of Rethinking History 2 no. 3 (1998), 309–404; and “Historians
and Ethics” theme issue History and Theory 43, no. 43 (2004).
51. Carlo Ginzburg, “Distance and Perspective: Reflections on Two Metaphors,”
in Leerssen and Rigney, eds., Historians and Social Values, 19–32.
52. For example, Greenwood Press publishes a series entitled “Events That
Changed the World,” edited by Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Finding,
with some books covering events as early as the sixteenth century.
53. Shakespeare’s words “What is Past is Prologue” is carved on a statue outside
the National Archives Building in Washington DC.
54. Leo Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1985). Michel de Certeau speaks of the otherness of the
past in The Writing of History (1975), trans. Tom Conley (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1988), passim. See also Peter Fritzsche, Stranded
in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2004).
55. James Cracroft, “Implicit Morality,” History and Theory 43, no. 4 (2004),
31–42. Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth points out the ethical and other assump-
tions underlying the historians’ use of time as a seemingly neutral and nat-
ural container most recently in “Ethics and Method,” ibid., 61–83.
56. See my Beyond the Great Story, chs. 6–7, for more on voice and viewpoint.
Cf. Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 2001), ch. 3, for voice and viewpoint in films.
57. A particular theme of Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History,
3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
58. Cf. Natalie Zemon Davis’ statement in her interview in Visions of History,
ed. Henry Abelove et al (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 112–15. See also
Antoon de Baets, “A Declaration of the Responsibilities of Present Generations
toward Past Generations,” History and Theory 43, no. 4 (2004), 130–64.
59. For a general introduction, see Paul C. Adams, Steven Hoelscher, and Karen
Till, eds., Textures of Place: Exploring Humanist Geography (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2001); and Alan R. H. Barker, Geography

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Notes • 235

and History: Bridging the Divide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

2003), chs. 3–4. Many disciplines contribute to historical landscapes and
perceptual geography. See for a sampling, Simon Schama, Landscape and
Memory (New York: Knopf, 1995); Peter J. Ucko and Robert Layton, eds.,
The Archaeology and Anthropology of Landscapes: Shaping Your Landscape
(London: Routledge, 1999); John R. Stilgoe, Common Landscape of America,
1580–1845 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982); and Sheena
Mackellan Goultry, Heritage Gardens: Care, Conservation, and Management
(London: Routledge, 1993).
60. See the speculations of James O’Donnell, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus
to Cyberspace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
61. The archipelago metaphor became common in anthropology during the
62. Cf., for example, the essays in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground:
Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: Norton, 1995); Michael
Soulé and Gary Lease, ed., Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern
Deconstruction (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1995); “Environment and
History” theme issue, History and Theory 42, no. 4 (2003); and William J.
Turkel, “Every Place is an Archive: Environmental History and the
Interpretation of Physical Evidence,” Rethinking History 10, no. 2 (2006),
259–76. Andrew Isenberg, “Historicizing Natural Environments: The Deep
Roots of Environmental History,” in Kramer and Maza, eds., A Companion
to Western Historical Thought, ch. 19, presents a brief overview of the field’s
63. See in general on England, France, Germany, and Italy, Stefan Berger, Mark
Donovan, and Kevin Passmore, eds., Writing National Histories: Western
Europe Since 1800 (London: Routledge, 1999).
64. For convenient introductions to the issues as seen today, see introduction
and articles in Geoff Eley and Ronald G. Suny, eds., Becoming National: A
Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); and George Steinmetz,
ed., State/Culture: State-Formation after the Cultural Turn (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1999). Cf. David Boswell and Jessica Evans, eds., Representing
the Nation: A Reader; Histories, Heritages, and Museums (London: Routledge,
65. Martin W. Lewis and Karen E. Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of
Metageography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). See 207n2
for their distinction between metageography and Hayden White’s metahistory.
66. As Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), points out. Cf.
Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American
Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Knopf, 1978).
67. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American
History,” American Historical Association, Annual Report for the Year 1893
(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894), 199–227, reprinted

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236 • Notes

in Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt, 1920),
ch. 1.
68. The turning point in the history of the Turnerian School might be marked
by the publication of Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as
Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950), which
transmuted supposed historical reality according to Turner into ideology and
social construction.
69. The essays in History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Iain
Hampsher-Monk, Karin Tilmans, and Frank Van Vree (Amsterdam: Amsterdam
University Press, 1998), provide a brief introduction to German, English, and
Dutch approaches to the field. See also James Tully, ed., Meaning and
Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1988); and Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History:
Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Samuel Todd Presner et al (Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).
70. Anna Green, Cultural History (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan,
2008), suggests a brief history of the field as she outlines its various
71. Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms.
72. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error (1975),
trans. Barbara Bray (New York: George Braziller, 1978).
73. See Burke, Varieties of Cultural History, and What is Cultural History? for
introductory surveys of the field. See also Gunn, History and Cultural
Theory; and Cabrera, Postsocial History.
74. Historicism is a controversial term. See, Henry Ritter, Dictionary of Concepts
in History (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 183–88; Alun Munslow,
The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge,
2006), 140–42. Its continuing importance as well as its internal contradic-
tion is argued by Frank Ankersmit, Historical Representation (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 2001), ch. 4. Preston King points out the moral
relativism of historicism at the same time as he connects historicism and
context in the conclusion to his “Historical Contextualism: The New
Historicism?” History of European Ideas 21, no. 2 (1995), 223–32.
75. John W. Cook, Morality and Cultural Differences (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999), discusses anthropological and philosophical
approaches to moral relativism.
76. This was a major complaint in the so-called history wars of the mid-1990s.
Opponents of the National Historical Standards for revising the school cur-
riculum and the proposed Smithsonian exhibit of the Enola Gay (the B-29
Flying Fortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) argued these
projects painted too gloomy a picture of the American past, one that pro-
moted pessimism and guilt. See, for example, Edward T. Linenthal and Tom
Engelhardt, eds., History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American

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Notes • 237

Past (New York: Henry Holt, 1996). Hoffer, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions,
and Fraud . . . , ch. 4, foregrounds political stances in these debates as does
Michael Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American History
(Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1996), 269–318.
77. Cf. the notions of interpretive community of Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in
This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1980), with a modern definition of “problematic”
as defined by Ellen Rooney in Seductive Reasoning: Pluralism as the Problematic
of Contemporary Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 50, the
“historically determinate structure of presuppositions that constitute a dis-
course, its enabling conditions . . . a conceptual matrix that defines objects
within a field, fixes lines of inquiry, sets problems, and thereby determines
the ‘solutions’ that can be generated within its limits.”
78. Novick, That Noble Dream, is now standard on its subject.
79. That a range of opinion can exist on these issues because of varying onto-
logical and epistemological assumptions is always the point of Alun
Munslow, but see his view on these matters at their most succinct in his
entry on “Objectivity” in his Companion to Historical Studies, 191–94.
Novick, That Noble Dream, offers a case study of conflict within American
professional practice over the “objectivity question.”
80. Compare Allan Megill, ed., Rethinking Objectivity (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1994), on various kinds of objectivity, and also see his
Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), ch. 5.
81. Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error, 83.
82. Haraway, “Situated Knowledges,” 582–83.
83. Haskell, Objectivity is Not Neutrality, 150, but see 150–56.
84. Jörn Rüsen, “Historical Objectivity as a Matter of Social Values, in Leerssen
and Rigney, eds., Historians and Social Values, 63.
85. Quoted in Frank R. Ankersmit, Historical Representation (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 2001), 100. Of course, the converse holds true
also: as Kenneth Burke noted, “every insight contains its own special kind of
blindness.” Quoted in Michael Pickering, “History as Horizon: Gadamer,
Tradition and Critique,” Rethinking History 3, no. 2 (1999), 177.
86. See especially Rüsen, “Historical Objectivity as a Matter of Social Values.”
87. Cf. Alberti, Gender and the Historian; Laura Lee Downs, Writing Gender
History (London: Hodder Arnold, 2004); and Helene Bowen Raddeker,
Sceptical History: Feminist and Postmodern Approaches in Practice (London:
Routledge, 2007), on the evolution and implications of women’s history.
88. Smith, The Gender of History.
89. In addition to Ritter, Dictionary of Concepts in History, 243–50, for earlier
references, see Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural
Criticism (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), ch. 2;

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238 • Notes

Murray G. Murphey, Our Knowledge of the Historical Past (Indianapolis, IN:

Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), 101–34; C. Roberts, Logic of Historical Explanation,
ch. 11; and McCullagh, Truth of History, ch. 4. Steven Mailloux,
“Interpretation,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentriccia and
Thomas McLaughlin, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1995), 121–34, introduces the topic for another discipline. Some authors in
Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore, eds., Philosophy of Interpretation
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), discuss history specifically as well as interpretation
in general. Interpretation is fundamental to museum practice; see ch. 5 here.
90. For example, Thompson, The Voice of the Past; Pat Hudson, History by
Numbers: An Introduction to Quantitative Approaches (London: Arnold,
2000); Peter Loewenberg, Decoding the Past: The Psychoanalytical Approach,
2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996).
91. One example is Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An
Introductory Analysis (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984). In general see Perry,
Marxism and History.
92. Among the many introductions to the School in English: George Huppert,
“The Annales Experiment,” in Companion to Historiography, ed. Michael
Bentley (London: Routledge, 1997), ch. 35; Traian Stoianovich, French
Historical Method: The Annales Paradigm (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 1976); Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales
School, 1929–89 (Cambridge: Polity, 1990); Carrard, Poetics of the New
93. The terminology in this and the next paragraph is revised from my Beyond
the Great Story, 39, 300 n52. Cf. for somewhat different definitions, Megill,
Historical Knowledge, Historical Error, ch. 9, “‘Grand Narrative’ and the
Discipline of History.”
94. “Grand récit” and “metanarrative” are the terms of Jean-Fran3ßois Lyotard,
The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington
and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
95. See my extended argument in Beyond the Great Story, passim, but especially
38–44, 122–28.
96. Daniel T. Rodgers, “Exceptionalism” in Molho and Wood, eds., Imagined
Histories, ch. 2; Cf. Konrad H. Jarausch and Michael Geyer, Shattered Past:
Reconstructing German Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
97. Peter Kolchin, “Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America,”
Journal of American History 89, no. 1 (2002), 154–73; “Whiteness and the
Historians’ Imagination” symposium in International Labor and Working-
Class History, no. 60 (2001), 1–92, 203–21.
98. Cf. the versions given by Geoffrey R. Elton, The English (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1992), ch. 1; and Hugh M. Thomas, The English and the
Normans: Ethnic Hostility, Assimilation, and Identity, 1066-c.1220 (Oxford:

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Notes • 239

Oxford University Press, 2003), especially chs. 2, 15; with that of

Christopher A. Snyder, The Britons (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003).
99. See, for example, the volumes in “The Peoples of Europe” series edited by
James Campbell and Barry Cunliffe, published by Blackwell, and devoted to
histories of origins. See also Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The
Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).
100. This was the first of four projected volumes: (London: Free Association
Press, 1987).
101. For example, the essays collected in Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy McLean
Rogers, eds., Black Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1996). Bernal’s replies to his many critics are collected in
David C. Moore, ed., Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to
His Critics (Durham, NJ: Duke University Press, 2001). Cf. the debate over
Afrocentrism with its claim that human civilization began in Africa, for
example, Mary R. Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an
Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: Basic Books, 1996). See David
Lowenthal, Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of
History (New York: Free Press, 1996), chs. 8–9, on priority and innateness as
the basis of histories.
102. Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (London:
Routledge, 1990); Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology
Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989). Cf. François
Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the
Writing of History, trans. Janet Lloyd (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1988).
103. Gaby Porter, “Seeing Through Solidity: A Feminist Perspective on
Museums,” in Theorizing Museums: Representing Identity and Diversity in a
Changing World, ed. Sharon Macdonald and Gordon Fyfe (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1996), 105–26, offers general observations from a postmodernist
104. Simon James, “Imag(in)ing the Past: The Politics and Practicalities of
Reconstructions in the Museum Gallery,” in Making Early Histories in
Museums, ed. Nick Merriman (London: Leicester University Press, 1999),
117–35; Marie Louise Stig Sørenson, “Archaeology, Gender and the
Museum” in ibid., 136–50; Joan M. Gero, “Genderlithics: Women in Stone
Tool Production,” in Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, eds.
Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 163–93,
but see also the whole book.
105. See, for example, the attempted historiographic revisionism of Ellen F.
Fitzpatrick, History’s Memory: Writing the American Past, 1880–1980
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
106. Berkhofer, Beyond the Great Story, especially 38–40. Cf. Leonard Krieger,
Time’s Reasons: Philosophies of History Old and New (Chicago: University of

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240 • Notes

Chicago Press, 1989), on the long-term quest for coherence in historical

107. See among many, for example, Thomas Bender, ed., Rethinking American
History in a Global Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002);
Deborah Cohen and Maura O’Connor, ed., Comparison and History: Europe
in Cross-National Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2004); Eckhardt Fuchs
and Benedikt Stuchtey, eds., Across Cultural Borders: Historiography in
Global Perspective (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2002); Dipesh
Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical
Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Benedikt
Stuchtey and Eckhardt Fuchs, eds., Writing World History, 1800–2000
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
108. Notably Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth in Sequel to History: Postmodernism and
the Crises of Representational Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1995), and also see her personal reflections in “Beyond History,”
Rethinking History 5, no. 2 (2001), 195–215.

Chapter 3
1. Statement is conceived broadly here. Cf., for example, John O’Connor, ed.,
Image as Artifact: The Historical Analysis of Film and Television (Malabar, FL:
Robert E. Krieger, 1990), 302, who likens a movie shot to a sentence and a
scene to a paragraph as a way of introducing text-oriented historians to the
“language” of moving visual imagery.
2. For the broader definition, see Lewis J. Bellardo and Lynn Lady Bellardo, A
Glossary for Archivists. Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers (Chicago:
Society of American Archivists, 1992), 27. Cf. Michael J. Fox and Peter L.
Wilkerson, Introduction to Archival Organization and Administration, ed.
Suzanne R. Warren (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Information Institute, 1998);
and Frederic Miller, Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts
(Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1990), for a narrower definition.
The contested nature of archival theory and terminology is illustrated by
Trevor Livelton, Archival Theory, Records, and the Public (Lanham, MD: The
Society of American Archivists and the Scarecrow Press, 1996). These books
plus James O’Toole, Understanding Archives and Manuscripts (Chicago:
Society of American Archivists, 1990), provide good overall introductions to
the work of archivists. See also Bruce W. Dearstyne, The Archival Enterprise:
Modern Archival Principles, Practices, and Management Techniques (Chicago:
American Library Association, 1993); and Randall Jimerson, American
Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice (Chicago: Society of
American Archivists, 2000). Bernadine Dodge, “Re-imag(in)ing the Past,”
Rethinking History, 10, no. 3 (2006), 345–67, provides a valuable postmod-
ernist perspective on the work of archivists.

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Notes • 241

3. For example, in February 2008, the American Historical Association only

allowed access to its archives from 1979 and before according to its Web site,, and the Organization of American
Historians from ten or more years ago depending upon the nature of the
4. Miller, Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts, 21.
5. Many of the articles in Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and
Records in Modern Society, ed. Richard J. Cox and David A. Wallace (Westport,
CT: Quorum, 2002), provide these and other examples of the informational
and ethical implications for what is saved and what destroyed and why in
archives. See also Jimerson, ed., American Archival Studies, chs. 9–13.
6. Jimerson, ed., American Archival Studies, ch. 22; cf. ch. 23 for audio.
7. For one example, the “American Memory” project of the Library of Congress,
8. All three archives maintain Web sites: the Archives Nationales, http://; the National Archives and Records
Administration,; and the National Archives of the
United Kingdom,
9. Bellardo and Bellardo, Glossary, 3.
10. See Jimerson, ed., American Archival Studies, ch. 14, on the principle of
11. David Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering,
Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2006); and Dennis A. Trinkle and Scott A. Merriman,
eds., The History Highway: A 21st-Century Guide to Internet Resources
(Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2006), provide introductory guides.
12. The prevalence of glossaries and standards in the archival and library profes-
sions illustrates both past diversity and newer trends of uniformity. The con-
tested nature of archival theory and terminology is illustrated by Livelton,
Archival Theory. For one such glossary, Bellardo and Bellardo, Glossary.
13. James O’Toole, “On the Idea of Uniqueness,” reprinted in Jimerson, ed.,
American Archival Studies, 245–77.
14. See Dodge, “Re-imag(in)ing the Past,” for perspective on archival creation of
the past and history.
15. Two standard, contrasting introductions to historical editing are P. D. A.
Harvey, Editing Historical Records (London: British Library, 2001); and
Mary-Jo Kline, A Guide to Documentary Editing, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, MD:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). Cf. Michael C. W. Hunter, Editing
Early Modern Texts: An Introduction to Practices and Principles (Houndmills,
UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), for more recent developments. Michael E.
Stevens and Steven B. Burg, Editing Historical Documents: A Handbook of
Practice (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1997), offers a systematic guide
to the choices editors face with a multitude of transcribed examples of them.

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242 • Notes

Lou Burnal, Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe, and John Unsworth, eds.,

Electronic Textual Editing (New York: Modern Language Association, 2006),
is one learned association’s effort to inform scholars of a rapidly changing
and growing approach.
16. Cf. Stevens and Berg, Editing Historical Documents, ch. 5; and Hunter,
Editing Early Modern Texts, 109–33, for a brief sampling of various editing
17. Stevens and Burg, Editing Historical Documents, 80–82, illustrate five forms
of documentary editing using the first sentence from Jefferson’s draft of the
Declaration of Independence.
18. Harvey, Editing Historical Records, 43.
19. Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2000), 257–64; and Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral
History: A Practical Guide, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003),
64–75, discuss briefly transcription.
20. What Stevens and Berg, Editing Historical Documents, 120, call a “conflated
21. Kline, A Guide to Documentary Editing, 219–20.
22. Kline, A Guide to Documentary Editing, 136. And never more so than when
the original is oral and undergoes transcription.
23. Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers
in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).
24. Ibid., 19.
25. Ibid., 117–39.
26. Ibid., 12, 30–41, 77–79.
27. Ibid., 54, 56.
28. Cf. the distinctions of Allan Megill on “Narrative and the Four Tasks of
History-Writing,” in Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary
Guide to Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), ch. 4.
29. Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 149.
30. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-
Century Miller (1976), trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, MD:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980). Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou:
The Promised Land of Error, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: George Braziller,
1978). Criticisms of the use of sources by these authors suggest the degrees
of interpretive intervention: Dominick LaCapra, History and Criticism
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985); Renato Resaldo, “From the
Door of His Tent: The Fieldworker and the Inquisitor,” in Writing Culture:
The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George E.
Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 77–97; and
Leonard E. Boyle, “Montaillou Revisited: Mentalité and Methodology,” in
Pathways to Medieval Peasants, ed. James E. Battis (Toronto: Pontifical

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Notes • 243

Institute of Medieval Studies, 1981), 119–40. Ginzburg replies to some of

these criticisms in “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist,” in Clues, Myths, and
Historical Method, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1989).
31. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of
Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975).
32. Ibid., 4–5.
33. Ibid., 3.
34. Ibid. 4–6.
35. Ibid., 387.
36. Ibid.
37. Ibid., 376.
38. Ibid., 292.
39. Ibid., 160.
40. Ibid., 221.
41. Ibid., 302.
42. Ibid., 370–71.
43. Ibid., 261–262.
44. Ibid., 307–8.
45. Ibid., 356, 371, 373, respectively.
46. Ibid., 299.
47. Ibid., 308.
48. Ibid., 227, 230.
49. Ibid., 241.
50. Ibid., 309, 47n.
51. Ibid., 376.
52. Anthony S. Parent Jr., Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society,
1660–1740 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
53. For example, Philip D. Morgan, review of Foul Means in Journal of American
History 91, no. 3 (2004), 990.
54. Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel:
The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 1997), states his goal in the
subtitle and the forces he says explains those fates in the title.
55. Even the histories of such efforts illustrate as they combine the Great Stories
of Western European history as the grand narrative of the past with the
Great Story of historiography as the master narrative of the discipline’s
understanding of that past. Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval,
and Modern, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); and
Donald R. Kelley, Faces of History: Historical Inquiry from Herodotus to
Herder (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), offer two recent his-
tories of the field. Older but still valuable is Dietrich Gerhard, “Periodization
in History,” in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Philip P. Wiener, vol. 3
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 476–81. See also the brief surveys

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244 • Notes

in Lloyd Kramer and Sarah Maza, eds., A Companion to Western Historical

Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), chs. 4–11.
56. See in general Jörn Rüsen, ed., Western Historical Thinking: An Intercultural
Debate (New York: Berghahn, 2002). Efforts to periodize world history
reveal the problems of the traditional Western approach. See, for example,
Benedikt Stuchtey and Eckhardt Fuchs, eds., Writing World History, 1800-
2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
57. A good starting place is Breisach, On the Future of History, but see also my
conclusions in Beyond the Great Story, 224–26.
58. Best observed perhaps in the long traditional division between prehistory
and history based upon the invention of writing. As the English historian
John Vincent, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History (London: Duckworth,
1995), 4, encapsulates this view, prehistory is “history minus the alphabet.”

Chapter 4
1. Books I found especially helpful in making the distinctions I do throughout
this chapter: Peter Vergo, ed., The New Museology (London: Reaktion Books,
1989); Peter van Mensch, “Towards a Methodology of Museology” (PhD
diss., University of Zagreb, 1992); and Kenneth Hudson, Museums of
Influence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Eilean Hooper-
Greenfield, Museums in the Shaping of Knowledge (London: Routledge,
1992); Eilean Hooper-Greenfield, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual
Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2000); Susan M. Pearce,
Museums, Objects and Collections: A Cultural Study (London: Leicester
University Press, 1992); and David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), ch. 6. Cf. Bernard M.
Feilden on “degrees of intervention” in his Conservation of Historic Buildings,
3rd ed. (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2003), 8–12. Randolph Starn, “A
Historian’s Guide to New Museum Studies,” American Historical Review
110, no. 1 (2005), 68–98, provides bibliographical guidance.
2. In traditional museum parlance a display is permanent while an exhibition
is temporary. But since both are interpretive sites, I follow Hooper-Greenhill,
Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, 163n1, in using the terms
interchangeably except when specified otherwise.
3. Most useful on conflicting definitions of terms and on the theory of muse-
ology is van Mensch, “Towards a Methodology of Museology,” but George
Ellis Burcaw, Introduction to Museum Work, 3rd ed. (Walnut Creek, CA:
AltaMira Press, 1997), especially 13–17, offers definitions of terms common
in museum practice, as does Stacy Roth, Past Into Present: Effective Techniques
for First-Person Historical Interpretation (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1998), 183–85. Cf. Sharon Macdonald and Gordon Fyfe,
eds., Theorizing Museums: Representing Identity and Diversity in a Changing

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Notes • 245

World (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pts. 1–2. Christina F. Kreps, Liberating

Culture: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Museums, Curation, and Heritage
Preservation (London: Routledge, 2003), attempts a broader view as her title
4. Cf. the “Definitions of Conservation Terminology,” provided by the American
Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, for example,
on their Web site,, with the defi-
nitions given by the references in the preceding note.
5. The elaborate efforts of a multiyear project to preserve the Star Spangled
Banner, the flag that inspired the words in 1814 that became the United
States national anthem, are described at the Smithsonian Web site,http:
6. Cf. van Mensch, “Towards a Methodology of Museology,” chs. 18, 20.
7. These and other museums mentioned in this section are discussed in the
next section. Gerald Gutek and Patricia Gutek, Experiencing America’s Past:
A Travel Guide to Museum Villages, 2nd ed. (Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 1994), and Jay Anderson, The Living History Sourcebook
(Nashville, TN: American Association of State and Local History, 1985),
offer a historical tourist’s guide to such places in the United States. Cf.
English sites,
8. The various authors in Jessica Foy Donnelly, ed., Interpreting Historic House
Museums (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002), apply general museum
practices to their subject. See also Patricia West, Domesticating History: The
Political Origins of America’s House Museums (Washington, DC: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1999).
9. Sheena Mackellan Goultry, Heritage Gardens: Care, Conservation, and
Management (London: Routledge, 1993), offers a brief history of garden
design in Europe and America, the problems of conservation and mainte-
nance, and eleven case studies. Rudy J. Favretti and Joy Putnam Favretti,
Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings: A Handbook for Reproducing
and Creating Authentic Landscape Settings, 2nd rev. ed. (Walnut Creek, CA:
AltaMira Press, 1997), covers the American scene by centuries from this
10. See, for example, the contrasting photographs of the exterior of the Museum
of History of the City of Warsaw in 1945 after German destruction and in
1980 after rebuilding in Hudson, Museums of Influence, 134, 135, but this
could be repeated for any number of post–World War II European cities.
11. Peter G. Stone and Phillippe G. Planel, eds, The Constructed Past: Experimental
Archaeology, Education and the Public (London: Routledge, 1999), discusses
specific reconstructions around the world.
12. Hudson, Museums of Influence, 140–3.

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246 • Notes

13. See for the Half Moon,

.htm, and for the Mayflower II,
14. Karel Ann Marling, ed., Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of
Reassurance (Paris: Flammarion, 1997), is basic. Michael Wallace, “Mickey
Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World,” in History Museums
in the United States, ed. Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1989), 159–80, is the oft-cited, sharp indictment
of its title topic. A spirited critique of the British heritage industry by one of
the early users of the term is Peter J. Fowler, The Past in Contemporary
Society: Then, Now (London: Routledge, 1992), but see also Kevin Walsh,
The Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Post-Modern
World (London: Routledge, 1992), on the British scene. David Lowenthal,
Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (New
York, Free Press, 1996), provides a wide-ranging essay on the relationship
between heritage and history. See also Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory,
vol. 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso, 1994), 205–312.
15. In addition to its extensive Web site,, see Richard
Handler and Eric Gable, The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the
Past at Colonial Williamsburg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997),
and Anders Greenspan, Creating Colonial Williamsburg (Washington, DC:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).
16. Online chronologies indicate the many times of restoration and reconstruc-
tion, The most
recent reconstruction is described by Patrick Otton, “USS Constitution
Rehabilitation and Restoration,”
17. Kenzo Tange and Noboru Kawazoe, Ise: Prototype of Japanese Architecture
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965). Whether the modern replicas exactly
duplicate the original temple is disputed.
18. Definitions of just what is a museum are many and contested. See Burcaw,
Introduction to Museum Work, 18–21; Leon and Rosenzweig, eds., History
Museums in the United States, xiii-xvi; Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums
and the Shaping of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1992), ch. 1; Kenneth
Hudson, “Attempts to Define ‘Museum,’” in Representing the Nation, ed.
Boswell and Evans, ch. 16; and various essays in Macdonald and Fyfe, eds.,
Theorizing Museums.
19. Pearce, Museums, Objects and Collections, especially chs. 6–9, covers how
museums give their objects meaning.
20. See van Mensch, “Towards a Methodology of Museology,” ch. 22, for more
on period rooms.
21. Gary Kulik, “Designing the Past: History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale
to the Present,” in Leon and Rosenzweig, eds., History Museums in the United

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Notes • 247

States, ch. 1, examines four examples of changing exhibition practices over

two centuries. Many books treat exhibitions as such, for example, Amy
Henderson and Adrienne Kaeppler, eds., Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of
Representation at the Smithsonian (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution
Press, 1997). The reviews of museum exhibitions in historical and other
journals frequently address the larger issues of their particular shows.
22. Hilde S. Hein, The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective
(Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), protests this tran-
sition from an object-oriented stress on “real things” to the new people-cen-
tered, idea-oriented, story-centered, heavily contextualized production of
experience in modern museum practice.
23. Jay Anderson, The Living History Sourcebook, 5, distinguishes between his-
toric site and outdoor museum in this way. Hudson, Museums of Influence,
divides chs. 6 and 7 on the same basis.
24. See Hudson, Museums of Influence, 120–25, for a brief history and the Web
site,, for a current description of its buildings and
25. See the Greenfield Village section of
26. The buildings, their original location and dates, and the time of their relo-
cation are given on the Web site, William Alderson and
Shirley Payne Low, Interpretation of Historic Sites, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN:
American Association for State and Local History, 1985), 12–14, discuss its
founders and founding.
27. Hudson, Museums of Influence, 126–31; Tony Bennett, The Birth of the
Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995), 111–4. See
also, and
28. The eclecticism of the Shelburne Museum can be found in the descriptions
of its “Collections and Buildings” on its Web site, http://www.shelburn
29. See The “Historic Jamestowne” Web site, http://www.historicjamestowne
.org, which describes its approach. sponsorship, goals and activities.
30. The different purpose of the “Jamestown Settlement” is indicated in the
URL of its Web site,
31. On the so-called Second Battle of Gettysburg, see John S. Patterson, “From
Battle Ground to Pleasure Ground: Gettysburg as a Historic Site,” in Leon
and Rosenzweig, eds., History Museums in the United States, ch. 6.
32. See the “National Colonial Farm” and “Piscataway Park” on the Accokeek
Foundation Web site, http://
33. These figures come from the annual report for 2001, http://www

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248 • Notes

34. Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1957), but new editions in 1967 and 1977, and William T.
Alderson and Shirley Payne Low, Interpretation of Historic Sites (Nashville,
TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1976), new edition
in 1985.
35. Alderson and Low, Interpretation of Historic Sites, especially in the appen-
dices. Books and booklets from the American Association of State and Local
History fostered this trend in the United States.
36. Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, eds., History Museums in the United
States: A Critical Assessment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), pt.
2, includes essays on “The New History and the New Museum.” See also,
for example, Gail Lee Dubrow and Jennifer B. Goodman, eds., Restoring
Women’s History Through Historic Preservation (Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 2003).
37. Gail Anderson, ed., Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary
Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004),
sees this transition to a wider audience as the “paradigm shift” of her title.
Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and Their Visitors (London: Routledge,
1994); John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, Learning From Museums: Visitor
Experiences and the Making of Meaning (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press,
2000); David Uzzell, ed., Heritage Interpretation, vol. 2 (New York: Bellhaven
Press, 1989), all exemplify as they examine the trend to research audience
38. See The Ironbridge Gorge Museums’ Web site, http://www.ironbridge for descriptions of the various museums and sites.
39. For a summary of an important British audience survey, see Nick Merriman,
“Museum Visiting as Cultural Phenomenon,” in Vergo, The New Museology,
149–71. See again the books mentioned in note 37 in this chapter.
40. My efforts at distinguishing the degree and kinds of intervention is based
chiefly on information found in van Mensch, “Towards a methodology of
Museology”; Burcaw, Introduction to Museum Work; and Hooper-Greenhill,
Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture.
41. Beverly Serrell, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach (Walnut Creek, CA:
AltaMira Press, 1996), discusses labeling in relation to the intended audience.
42. On the history of this division in the United States, see Steven Conn,
Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876–1926 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1998).
43. Pearce, Museums, Objects and Collections, ch. 11, surveys briefly the “prob-
lems of power.” See also Richard Sandell, ed., Museums, Society, Inequality
(London: Routledge, 2002); George C. Bond and Angela Gilliam, eds.,
Social Construction of the Past: Representation as Power (London: Routledge,
1994); and Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Miller, and Steven D. Lavine, eds.,

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Notes • 249

Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture (Washington, DC:

Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992).
44. See Hooper-Greenfield, Museums in the Shaping of Knowledge, and Museums
and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, chs. 5–6, for an introduction to these
45. A notable example is the well-illustrated 111-page booklet authored by
Thomas Dublin, Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City: A Guide to Lowell
National Historical Park and Lowell Heritage State Park, Lowell, Massachusetts
(Washington, DC: Division of Publications of the National Park Service,
46. See for example the exhibition reviews in the Journal of American History,
which added them to its regular book reviewing section with an introduc-
tion by the section’s own editor, Thomas Schlereth, starting in 76, no. 1
(1989), 192–95. Cf. his report after five years in 81, no. 1 (1994), 183–87.
47. See, among many, Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical
Evidence (London; Reaktion Press, 2001); Michael Ann Holly, Past Looking:
Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of Image (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1996); Francis Haskell, History and Its Images: Art and the
Interpretation of the Past (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); Alan
Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs; Images as History (New York:
Hill and Wang, 1989); Robert I. Rotberg and Theodore K. Rabb, eds., Art
and History: Images and Their Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1988); John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographs
and Histories (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988); Michael
Baxandall, Pattern of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981).
48. The story of this model and its uses can be found at “Explore a Viking
49. The Web site, “A Mohawk Village: An Exhibit at the New York State
Museum,” found at “ provides
a good introduction to the dioramas with pictures of them. Do these diora-
mas still present the Native American as prehistoric?
50. See Nick Merriman, ed., Making Early Histories in Museums (London:
Leicester University Press, 1999), especially Moser, ch. 5 and James, ch. 6 on
51. See the various Web sites of living history museums for the many kinds of
interactive activities offered audiences.
52. Even museum associations have their own Web sites. See, for example, that
of the Association of Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums at, which in turn lists the Web sites of over eighty such
museums in the United States and elsewhere. Other kinds of Web sites were
first reviewed regularly in the Journal of American History beginning with
volume 88, no. 1 (2001), 317–23.

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250 • Notes

53. Drawn from descriptions of these museums in Roth, Past Into Present;
Anderson, Living History Sourcebook; and my sampling of such museums’
Web sites.
54. See Roth, Past Into Present, especially “The Ultimate Character Development
List,” 186–93.
55. Stephen Eddy Snow, Performing the Pilgrims: A Study of Ethnohistorical Role-
Playing at Plimoth Plantation (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1993).
See also James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early
American Life (Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1977).
56. Snow, Performing the Pilgrims, 124–30, describes his experience as an inter-
preter in the mid-1980s.
57. How perspective shapes a script is evident in the “model interpretation”
given by Alderson and Low, Interpretation of Historic Sites, 165–83. That per-
spective is even more evident in the tour guidelines and “facts” presented in
appendix 1. At the end of the script, the authors warn interpreters not to
memorize the script but to select what appeals to them and might interest an
audience. They even suggest that the interpreters add other “authenticated”
material if they choose—all “to bring the people and the period alive for visi-
tors.” Compare manual for Half Moon, http://www.hrmm/halfmoon/
58. Quoted in Warren Leon and Margaret Piatt, “Living-History Museums,” in
Leon and Rosenzewig, eds., History Museums in the United States, 89.
59. See the “Wampanoag Homesite” at
site.php. See also Laura Peers, “Playing Ourselves: First Nations and Native
American Interpreters at Living History Sites,” Public Historian 21, no. 4
(1999), 39–59.
60. I do not intend to present a history of museums in the past six decades.
Bennett, Birth of the Museum, especially pt. 1, suggests what a critical, theo-
retically informed history would include. Cf. the many suggestive essays in
Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago, eds., Grasping the World: The Idea of the
Museum (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004).
61. Once again, see Handler and Gable, The New History in an Old Museum;
Greenspan, Creating Colonial Williamsburg; and its extensive Web site at
62. Quoted in Cary Carson, “Lost in the Fun House: A Commentary on
Anthropologists’ First Contact with History Museums,” Journal of American
History 81, no. 1 (1994), 145.
63. The quotations are from one of these new museum planners, Carson, “Lost
in the Fun House,” 146.
64. Carson, “Lost in the Fun House,” 147. The plan was published as Cary Carson,
ed., Becoming Americans: Our Struggle to be Both Free and Equal: A Plan of
Thematic Interpretation (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation,
1998). Note that Native Americans were slighted in this bicultural emphasis.

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Notes • 251

65. Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of Slavery: Race and
Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Washington DC: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 2002), provide context as they discuss the problem of cul-
tural memory and the plantation museum.
66. The question of average height and longevity in the colonial period is dis-
cussed in the “Myth and Reality,”,
along with Thanksgiving
67. Dean MacCannell quoted in Snow, Performing the Pilgrims, 208. Both Snow,
Performing the Pilgrims, and Roth, Past Into Present, offer favorable views of
living history re-enactments.
68. See Snow, Performing the Pilgrims, 102, for quoted words from rationale.
Warren Leon and Margaret Piatt, “Living-History Museums,” in History
Museums in the United States, 86–91, critique roleplaying.
69. Quotations from Ruth J. Abram, “Harnessing the Power of History,” in
Sandell, ed., Museums, Society, Inequality, 125, 126.
70. Most of the essays in Wallace, Mickey Mouse History, exemplify this critical
spirit, but see especially 115–29. In addition to Sandell, Museums, Society,
Inequality, see on the issues, George C. Bond and Angela Gilliam, eds.,
Social Construction of the Past: Representation as Power (London: Routledge,
1994); Karp, Miller, and Lavine, eds., Museums and Communities.
71. Angela Piccini, “Wargames and Wendy Houses: Open-Air Reconstructions
of Prehistoric Life,” in Merriman, Making Early Histories in Museums, 160,
72. Gaynor Kavanagh, Dream Spaces: Memory and the Museum (London: Leicester
University Press, 2000), discusses individual and collective memories as
interpretive bases for museum exhibitions.
73. Richard Sandell, Museums, Prejudice, and the Reframing of Difference (London:
Routledge, 2007), examines problems and solutions.

Chapter 5
1. The essays reprinted in Marcia Landy, ed., The Historical Film: History and
Memory in Media (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001),
introduce the problems of representing history in motion pictures and tele-
vision. See also the observations of Pierre Sorlin, The Film in History:
Restaging the Past (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980). Cf. the approaches of historian
Marnie Hughes-Warrington, History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on
Film (London: Routledge, 2007); and film theorist William Guynn, Writing
History in Film (New York: Routledge, 2006).
2. Leon F. Litwack, “The Birth of a Nation,” in Past Imperfect: History
According to the Movies, ed. Mark C. Carnes et al. (New York: Henry Holt,
1995), 136–41.
3. Catherine Clinton, “Gone with the Wind,” in Past Imperfect, 132–35.

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252 • Notes

4. The History Channel Web sites in the United States and United Kingdom
are and
home/, respectively.
5. For a sample of such debates, see the essays in David Cannadine, ed., History
and the Media (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
6. Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1983); Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of
Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Knopf, 1990).
7. Eric Stange, “Splitters versus Lumpers or How I Learned to Love the History
Police,” OAH Newsletter 33, no. 1 (2005), 8, points out that the entire script
for a 4-hour PBS documentary on the Seven Years War in America was only
75-pages long, while the standard history on the subject these days was 746
8. Complaints and issues in this section compiled from Cannadine, ed.,
History and the Media; Robert Brent Toplin, Reel History: In Defense of
Hollywood (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002); Robert Rosenstone,
Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); and the forum “History in
Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting
History onto Film,” American Historical Review 93, no. 5 (1988), 1173–1227.
Cf. Guynn, Writing History in Film, 1–19; and Hughes-Warrington, History
Goes to the Movies, 18–24,
9. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past, 59.
10. John O’Connor, ed., Image as Artifact: The Historical Analysis of Film and
Television (Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger, 1990), ch. 5, offers “An
Introduction to Visual Language for Historians and History Teachers.” See
also Hughes-Warrington, History Goes to the Movies, ch. 3. David Bordwell
and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 7th ed. (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 2004), is a standard introduction to the many aspects of its
subject. Cf. Toby Miller and Robert Stam, A Companion to Film Theory
(London: Blackwell, 1999). Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), offers a historical approach to a century of
changing theories.
11. See, for example, Nina Gilden Seavey, “Film and Media Producers: Taking
History Off the Page and Putting It On the Screen,” in Public History: Essays
from the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia (Malabar, FL:
Krieger, 1999), 117–28.
12. Cf. the rough classification system Robert Rosenstone, History on Film, Film
on History (Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2006), uses in republishing his newer arti-
cles. See also Hughes-Warrington, History Goes to the Movies, chs. 2, 6–7.
13. O’Connor, ed., Image as Artifact, 169–216, provides a good starting place.
Most of the films included in the American Memory collection of the Library
of Congress are actuality footage,

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Notes • 253

14. Stella Bruzzi, “The Event: Archive and Imagination,” in New Challenges for
the Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal and John Corner, 2nd ed. (Manchester,
UK: Manchester University Press, 2005), 419–31.
15. Michael L. Kurtz, “Oliver Stone, JFK, and History” in Oliver Stone’s USA:
Film, History, and Controversy, ed. Robert Brent Toplin (Lawrence:
University Press of Kansas, 2000), 166–77.
16. Several authors in O’Connor, ed., Image as Artifact, 169–216, passim, warn
about these problematic practices. See Raymond Fielding, The American
Newsreel: 1911–1967 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).
17. The difficulties in defining the documentary and whether it constitutes a
genre are explored in Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in
Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Nichols,
Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press,
2001); and Michael Renov, ed., Theorizing Documentary (New York:
Routledge, 1993). Cf. Carl R. Plantinga, Rhetoric and Representation in
Nonfiction Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Keith
Beattie, Documentary Screens: Nonfiction Film and Television (Houndmills,
UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), analyzes as he describes the various kinds of
films and television programs comprising the genre.
18. Sam B. Girgus, America on Film: Modernism, Documentary, and a Changing
America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), discusses the
nature of documentaries in light of changing interpretations of what is
American over time. A standard reference is Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A
History of the Non-Fiction Film, 2nd rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1992), but see also Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLean, A New History
of Documentary Film (New York: Continuum, 2005); and the articles
reprinted in the second edition of Alan Rosenthal and John Corner, eds.,
New Challenges for Documentary (Manchester, UK: Manchester University
Press, 2005).
19. On the genre, consult Steven N. Lipkin, Real Emotional Logic: Film and
Television Docudrama as Persuasive Practice (Carbondale: Southern Illinois
University Press, 2002); and Derek Paget, No Other Way to Tell It:
Dramadoc/Docudrama in Television (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1998). Cf. Beattie, Documentary Screens, ch. 8. Alan Rosenthal, ed.,
Why Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV (Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1999), anthologizes articles on the genre. Janet
Staiger provides a brief but excellent introduction in her article “Docudrama,”
in Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television, ed.
Horace Newcomb, 1st ed. (1997), also available at
20. George F. Custen, Bio/pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

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21. The newly independent Algerian government put up 45 percent of the film’s
financing. The best sources on the film are the two extra DVDs that are part
of the 2005 Criterion Collection reissue of the 1999 Italian restoration of
the film that had been distributed in England, the United States, and France
the preceding two years by Rialto Pictures. These discs contain among other
matters interviews with Pontecorvo and others involved in making the film
as well as historians and others discussing the war and its representation in
the film.
22. Carnes, ed., Past Imperfect; Frank Sanello, Reel v. Real: How Hollywood Turns
Fact Into Fiction (Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade, 2003).
23. See the essays in Martin M. Winkler, ed., Gladiator: Film and History
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), particularly ch. 3.
24. Toplin, Reel History, 92, but see 91–97. Among the examples he discusses are
Gladiator and Patriot, but perhaps Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
is a better example. A second disc accompanying that film on DVD discusses
at length the efforts of all concerned with the film to make it look historical.
Scholars nevertheless disagreed with details as well as the larger points made
in the film.
25. Leger Grindon, Shadows on the Past: Studies in the Historical Fiction Film
(Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1994), argues for analyzing this
category of films for these purposes.
26. Both phrases are found in the title of his book, History on Film, Film on
27. James Naremore, “Authorship” in Miller and Stam, eds., A Companion to
Film Theory, 9–24.
28. As O’ Connor, Artifact as Image, warns repeatedly, but especially 19–23.
O’Connor argues throughout this volume that production and reception are
as important as contents if one is to understand what appears in a film. Cf.
the questions editor Peter C. Rollins posed to the contributors to The
Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have
Portrayed the American Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003),
xiv–xvii. See Janet Staiger, Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical
Reception of American Cinema (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
1992), for both theories of reception and its application to American films.
Her Media Reception Studies (New York: New York University Press, 2005),
covers reception theories in general, but particularly in relation to television
and film.
29. Cf., for example, the highly interpretive captions in Kenneth Cameron,
America on Film: Hollywood and American History (New York: Continuum,
1997), with the much less interpretive ones in Lipkin, Reel Emotional Logic,
most of which merely mention their filmic source.

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Notes • 255

30. Grindon, Shadows on the Past, for example, analyzes the interaction of a
time’s political dynamics and the shaping of historical fiction films of the
31. See, for example, the essays reprinted from the English journal Screen in
Annette Kuhn and Jackie Stacey, eds., Screen Histories: A Screen Reader
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), grouped under the categories: reception,
social, institutional, and textual histories.
32. As the title states of Anthony Slide, Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film
Preservation in the United States (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Co., 1992).
33. Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound
Division, Motion Picture and Television Reading Room, http://www.loc
34. UCLA Film and Television Archive,
35. The International Federation of Film Archives,
36. Sklar, “Paradigms for Historical interpretation,” 128–30, notes briefly the
transformation of the “field of inquiry” due to increased documentation.
37. Lipkin, Real Emotional Logic, discusses the hybrid qualities of the genre. Cf.
pp. 53–54 on his “kinds of proximities” in shaping actuality in a film with
my scheme below of degrees of interpretation between source and product.
38. As can be seen in the film reviews in the American Historical Review and
Journal of American History among others.
39. Robert Brent Toplin, ed., Ken Burn’s The Civil War: Historians Respond
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 106.
40. The producer/writer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt discusses throughout the “Process
of Making a Historical Film” the “thousands” of choices of music and sound;
location and built environment; costumes, hair, and makeup; and the
research and expert advice necessary in trying to be true to the past in mak-
ing her documentary of A Midwife’s Tale (1998), http://www.dohistory
41. Toplin, Ken Burn’s The Civil War, xxii, 165.
42. As the male narrator did in the History Channel series on Sex in Ancient
Rome (2005), even smiling as he entered what he said was a brothel at the
end of one narrative commentary.
43. The making of the series is given at The writer
admits modernizing the language occasionally for clarity, but Joanne
Freeman in a review in Journal of American History 86, no. 3 (1999), 1416,
noted some inaccurate quotations, some language out of context, and ques-
tioned the trustworthiness of some sources among other criticisms.
44. For example, Pro Sound Effects claims on its Web site to have over a quarter
of a million royalty-free sounds from thirty organizations ranging from the
Library of Congress and British Broadcasting Corporation to major film
45. Toplin, Ken Burn’s The Civil War, xxii.

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256 • Notes

46. “A Conversation Between Eric Foner and John Sayles,” in Carnes, ed., Past
Imperfect, 13.
47. Carnes, Past Imperfect, 13, 16. Cf. his comment on p. 16 on getting the facts
straight versus being “true to the spirit of the story.”
48. In Carnes, ed., Past Imperfect, 204.
49. Carnes, ed., Past Imperfect, 206–7.
50. Eric Foner, “Ken Burns and the Romance of Reunion,” in Toplin, ed., Ken
Burn’s The Civil War, 105–6.
51. Burns’ and the writer’s rebuttals are in Toplin, ed., Ken Burn’s The Civil War,
chs. 8, 9.
52. Foner’s own film, Reconstruction: The Second Civil War appeared in 2004 in
the American Experience series on Public Broadcasting, and it featured the
themes that he argued Burns neglected.
53. Hence the basic argument in Hughes-Warrington, History Goes to the
Movies, that historical films should not be distinguished from other forms of
54. O’Connor, ed., Image as Artifact, ch. 4, provides a case study of Plow. Cf. the
quite different treatments of The Grapes of Wrath by Alan Brinkley in
Carnes, ed., Past Imperfect, 224–27, and Vivian C. Sobchack in Rollins, ed.,
Hollywood as Historian, ch. 5.
55. Such books, for example, as Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Social
History of American Movies (New York: Random House, 1975); Sorlin, The
Film in History; Rollins, ed., Hollywood as Historian; Cameron, America on
Film; Rollins, ed., The Columbia Companion to American History on Film;
Tony Barta, ed., Screening the Past: Film and the Representation of History
(Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998); and Pam Cook, Screening the Past: Memory
and Nostalgia in Cinema (London: Routledge, 2005), all study in their own
ways the larger themes and Great Stories in films as well as other matters.
56. Unchained Memories has been issued by HBO Cinemax Documentary Films
as a DVD item no. 1888686. The Library of Congress includes the “Slave
Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews
with Former Slaves” in its American Memory Collection, http://memory
57. Interview with Yvonne Beatty under “Special Features” on Unchained
Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives (2002), HBO Documentary
DVD, no. 1888686.
58. Norman R. Yetman discusses these and other problems in his extended
introduction to the “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the
United States from Interviews with Former Slaves,”
59. Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters (2005), History Channel Digital Library, no.

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Notes • 257

60. A Midwife’s Tale is available from PBS Home Video no. AMER603. The
Web site devoted in general to the diary is
Kahn-Levitt discusses “The Process of Making a Historical Film” beginning
61. Lipkin, Real Emotional Logic, fig. 19, 20. See pp. 103–4 for elaboration.

1. Louis Mink, “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument,” in The Writing of
History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding, ed. Robert H. Canary
and Henry Kozicki (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 144.
2. My notion of “history effect” was inspired of course by Roland Barthes,
“The Reality Effect” (1968) in French Literary Theory Today: A Reader, ed.
Tzevetan Todorov, trans. R. Carter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1982), 11–17, and “Historical Discourse,” trans. and reprinted in Michael
Lane, ed., Introduction to Structuralism (New York: Basic Books, 1970), 154.
Cf. Frank Ankersmit, “The Reality Effect in the Writing of History: The
Dynamics of Historiographical Tropology,” History and Tropology: The Rise
and Fall of Metaphor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), ch. 5.
3. See some experimental efforts to test limits in Alun Munslow and Robert
Rosenstone, eds., Experiments in Rethinking History (London: Routledge,
4. Simon Schama stepped over the line between fact and fiction in the opinion
of many historians in his fictional invention of a diary and highly imagina-
tive speculation about a murder at Harvard in Dead Certainties (Unwarranted
Speculations) (New York: Knopf, 1991). He compounded this historio-
graphical sin in a 2003 television program devoted to retelling The Murder
at Harvard through dramatic reenactment on the PBS American Experience
series, Cf. the strong condemna-
tion of the latter by American historian Louis Mazur, “History or Fiction,”
Chronicle of Higher Education, July 11, 2003, B15, for one example of pro-
fessional reaction.

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access, 95, 99,100 Articles of Confederation, 33–34, 38

accession process, 93–94, 100, 102, 134 artifacts
acquisition process, 93–94, 100, 134 in films, 177, 185, 190, 191, 194,
actuality films, 179–80, 187–88, 191, 209
192 in museums, 133–42, 149, 150–56,
African Americans, 36, 116–27, 152, 159–62, 168, 171
162, 166, 170, 201, 204–7 as sources, 3–20, 22, 23, 41, 45–48
See also slavery as texts, 85, 100–101, 104, 112
agency of individuals, 53, 61–62, 72, audience response, 172–73, 155
83, 85, 118, 198, 200–201, 206 auteur theory of film, 187
Alderson William T., 154 auxiliary sciences, 12
Algiers, Battle of, 182–83
alltagsgeschichte, 62–63 Bacon’s Rebellion, 38–39, 123, 123,
American Revolution, 37, 39, 116, 120, 125, 126
124, 141, 152, 169, 195, 196 Ballard, Martha, 208–11
arrangement process, 95–98, 99, 102–3 Battle of Algiers, The (1965), 182–83
American Slavery, American Freedom, Beamish North of England Open Air
116–27 Museum, 146
Annales School, 50, 62, 82 begriffsgeschichte, 74
annals, 50, 86, 87 Benjamin Franklin (2002), 196
Apocalypse Now (1979), 181 Berkhofer, Robert. F., Jr., 33–34, 86
appraisal process, 94, 100, 134 Bernal, Martin, 84
archaeology, 9, 12, 18, 85, 152 Beth Hatefutoth Museum, 139
archives, 17, 18, 90, 93–100, 101, 103 bias, 18, 26, 29, 34, 35, 50, 61, 63–68,
film, 192 73, 77, 79, 80, 85, 160, 216–17
archivists, 93–99 See also partiality; perspective; view-
arguments, 51, 52–54, 55 point; voice
See also synthesis big picture, 87, 130, 198–200, 201,
Armenian massacre, 46 202, 212, 213
arrangement, 95–98, 99, 102, 134 Biltmore (Ashville, NC), 149
artistic side of history, 49–50, 88, 130, biopics, 80, 181, 182, 202
216–17 biographies, 69
See also literary side of history Birka, Sweden, 161

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260 • Index

Birth of the Nation, The (1915), 175, in archives, 103

202–3 in films, 177, 199, 201–2, 203,
Black Athena, 84 204, 208, 210
British Broadcasting Corporation, in museums, 134, 142–54
176 in proper histories, 124–26
Burns, Ken, 176, 194–95, 201 contextualization, 81–83, 86–88,
Burke, Peter, 22 112, 142–53
Bush, George W., 10, 17, 181 Coppola, Eleanor, 181
Coppola, Francis Ford, 181
Cahill, Thomas, 67 critical history, 66, 171–72
Celts, 47, 138, 142, 172 critical museum practice, 168–73
Cheese and Worms, The, 29, 115 criticism
chronicles, 50, 86, 87 See external criticism; internal criti-
Civil War, U.S., 120, 121, 124, 148, cism
206 cultural history, 5, 29, 49, 63, 73,
Civil War, The (1990), 176, 194, 195, 74–76, 80, 185, 215
201 curators, 93
class, social, 18, 22, 35, 36, 42, 46, See museums
56, 58, 60–61, 63, 65, 69, 86, Curtis, Edward, 14–15
113, 116, 117, 119, 124, 146,
155, 159, 166, 169, 172, 209 Da Vinci, Leonardo, 135
Clendinnen, Inga, 56 Darby, Abraham, 155
Cleopatra (1963), 176 David (Michelangelo), 135, 139
Cohen, Lizabeth, 36 Davies, Rev. Samuel, 177, 118, 119
Colonial Williamsburg, 5, 22, 141, Davis, Natalie Zemon, 112–13, 115
151–53, 166, 168–70 Deetz, James, 164, 167
collective memory. See memory, kinds demographic history, 35–36
of description process, 95–98, 99,
comparative history, 50, 127, 128 102–3, 114, 134
computer, 10, 15, 19, 95, 99, 105, Dewey decimal system, 99
106, 107, 111, 144, 152, 162, diaries, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 14, 27, 99,
167, 184, 197 103,104, 106–7, 110, 147, 168,
See also digitization 194, 196, 207
Congressional Record, U.S., 27–28 See also A Midwife’s Tale
Connor Prairie (IN), 137 digitization of documents, ix, 14, 20,
Constitution, U.S., 21, 34, 38, 40 95, 102, 104, 111
Constitution, USS, 20, 142 dioramas, 161–62
conservation, 94–95, 100, 135–36 diplomatic history, 5, 29, 36, 49, 61,
See also preservation 215
constructed facts, 24–25, 32–41, 69, diplomatics, 12
190, 211–12 discourse, 50, 61, 74, 79, 86, 124
contexts, 3–5, 22–24, 29, 31–32, See also rhetoric
39–40 discourse time, 52, 122

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Index • 261

Disney corporation, 140, 171, 203 ethnicity, 22, 29, 35, 42, 43, 46, 47,
docudramas, 181–83, 202, 217 60, 65, 66, 69, 72, 75, 83, 84,
documents, ix, 5–10, 12–14, 16–18, 134, 155, 166, 168, 172
43, 45–47, 119, 124–25, See African Americans; Mexican
137–39, 141, 149, 161–62, 165, Americans; Native Americans;
168, 171, 182, 191, 194–96, whiteness
198, 216 evaluation process, 95–98, 99, 102–3,
See also archives; constructed facts; 134
editing; A Midwife’s Tale; re- evidence, ix–x, 4, 216
presentation; sources; and films, 179–80, 187–92, 203–4,
Unchained Memories 211–12
documentary films, 19, 21, 41, 66, memory as, 41, 42, 45, 51, 52, 53,
89, 90, 93, 112, 115, 167, 175, 63, 69, 70, 75, 76
176, 178, 179, 180–81 See sources
190, 191, 217, 202, 204–11, 216, exhibits, 22–23, 66, 115, 143–44
217 versus display, 244n2
See also Burns, Ken experimental histories, 215
Donation of Constantine, 13–14 explaining, 54–63
Downfall (2002), 197 explanation, 29, 50, 118–19
dramadoc, 181–83 extrapolation, defined, 90
dramatic films, 216, 217 external criticism, 18–19, 25–26
Durkheim, Émile, 58 of films as history, 186–92
See sources
economic history, 5, 35, 49, 57, 75,
185, 215 factories, 5, 6, 133, 135, 136, 138,
editing, 104–11 142, 143, 145, 148, 149, 150,
editions, 107–8, 109–10, 216, 217 155, 159
Elton, Geoffrey, 35 facts
empirical side of history, 3, 30, defined, 3–4, 25, 28
89–90, 216–17 constructed, 32–41, 211–12
See also methods re-presented, 24–32
emplotment, 87, 113, 122, 124, 167, summative, 37, 60, 117, 190
198, 200, 201, 202, 210 See methods
defined, 91 factuality, 131, 216–17, 265
environment, natural, 71 in films, 177–85, 187–88, 191,
environmental history, 9, 64, 71 192–201, 203, 211–12
environmental setting, 18, 21, 103, versus fiction, 52, 78, 171, 216–17,
138, 143, 145, 148–49, 150–51, 257n4
177, 181, 188, 190, 194, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), 181
196–97 Federal Writers’ Project, 204–6
epigraphy, 12 feminist theory, 40, 79, 80, 85
ethical turn, 76–77 Fiction in the Archives, 112–13, 115
See also perspective; viewpoint; fiction versus non-fiction, 52, 78, 171,
voice 216–17, 257n4

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262 • Index

fiction versus non-fiction (continued) gender, 22, 35, 42, 46, 47, 60, 69, 72,
in films, 176, 177–85, 187–88, 75, 80, 85, 152, 155, 163, 166,
191, 192–201, 203, 211–12 169, 172, 173, 189, 196, 205
film archives, 192 gender history, 50, 80, 215
films general histories, 67, 128–29
and collective memory, 41, 185 generalization, 30, 36, 39, 51, 54, 55,
in museums and historic sites, 145, 56, 62, 68, 81, 82, 83, 113, 116,
148, 149, 160, 161, 169 124, 127, 128, 129, 166, 179,
filmmaking 191, 204, 215, 216, 226n87
technical, 178–79 generations, 42, 45–47, 170, 172,
viewpoint and voice, 69–70 175
film genres and historical representa- genres
tion, 176, 179–85 film, 179–85, 202
finding aids, 97–98, 99 See histories, kinds of
first-person interpretation geography, 33, 72–73
criticized, 165–66, 167–68 Ghiberti, Lorenzo, 139
Gibson, Mel, 196
defined, 163
Ginzburg, Carlo, 29, 63, 75, 115
role-playing, 164–65
Gladiator (2000), 184
Flaherty, Robert, 181
Goldberg, Whoopi, 204, 205
Florida, 2000 election ballots, 10
Gone with the Wind (1939), 175
fonds, defined, 96
Goodwin, Dr. William A. R., 153
Foner, Eric, 199–200, 201
Gottschalk, Louis, 6, 10–11, 28
forgeries, 13–16
Grapes of Wrath, The (1940), 203
Ford, Henry, 14
grand narratives, 39, 45, 53, 54, 68,
museum, 145 79, 82, 120, 170, 192, 199, 201,
Ford’s Theater, 137 202
Franklin, Benjamin, 21–22, 30, 196 See also Great Stories
French and Indian War, 117–18 Great Stories, 86–87, 120, 124,
French Revolution, 37, 38 129–30, 170, 217
Freud, Sigmund, 40 in films, 189, 199–200, 210–11
frontier interpretation of U.S. history, Greenfield Village (MI), 142, 146
74 Griffith, D. W., 175
full-fledged histories, 90, 104, Guide to Documentary Editing, A, 111
111,115–28, 130, 131, 138, 141,
147, 150, 154, 155, 156, 160, Half Moon, 139
161, 167–68, 177, 194, 211, 216 Haraway, Donna, 59, 78–79
See also proper histories Harvey, P. D. A., 107
Haskell, Thomas, 53, 79
gardening, 163, 210 Hearts of Darkness (1991), 181
gardens, 20, 148, 151, 152, 162, 168 Hemings, Sally, 10, 162
Geertz, Clifford, 62 Henry Ford Museum, 142, 145, 146

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Index • 263

heritage, 18, 32, 42, 43, 45, 65, 155, House of Commons, UK, debates, 27
162, 170 House of Representatives, U.S.,
condemned, 64, 140, 170 debates, 27–28
in films, 177, 178, 200, 203, 213 How the Irish Saved Civilization, 67
heritage industry, 140, 152–53, 155 Howard, Michael, 64, 79
hermeneutics, 3, 23–24, 31, 60, Howell, Martha, 6, 8, 22
Hidden from History, 64 identity, personal, 83, 84
historians, 45–47, 66, 69 Independence Hall, 21
historic sites, 7, 41, 49, 66, 70, 71, Indians
133–73, 176, 196 See Native Americans
historical consciousness, popular, 185 industrial revolution, 8, 155, 158
historical method, 4 industrialism, 36, 83, 133, 143, 146,
See also methods 156, 161, 169, 191
historical museums See also factories
See museums inference, 8, 9, 11–12, 24, 25, 32, 33,
historical schools 54, 98, 117, 119, 124, 125, 149,
See schools of historical interpreta- 167, 168, 185, 191, 208, 209
tion defined, 90
historicism, 76, 236n74 intellectual history, 5, 31, 49, 74, 75
histories, kinds of, 5, 49–50, 72, See also cultural history
80–81, 115, 72, 215–17 internal criticism, 18–19, 25–26,
See also full-fledged; general; 187–92
metahistories; proper International Coalition of Historic
histories, fields of Site Museums of Conscience,
See cultural; demographic; diplo- 172
matic; economic; environmen- interpretation
tal; experimental; gender; in archives and libraries, 101–3
general; intellectual; military; in editing, 110–11
political; psychohistory; quan- in films, 189, 197–201, 209–11
titative; social; women’s; world in the idea of history, 130–33
History Channels (TV), 175, 176, in museum practice, 134–35,
181, 183 142–68
history, idea of, 2, 81–88, 93, as practice, 22, 54–59, 81, 90–91
128–31, 175, 198–201, 215–17 as product, 50, 74, 81–86
See also big picture; critical history; in proper history, 115–16, 124–25
critical museum practice; her- See first-person interpretation;
itage; memory; purpose; the- third-person interpretation
ory of history Interpreting our Heritage, 154
History of Britain, A (2000–2001), Interpretation of Historic Sites, 154
176 interpretive community, 68, 78, 79
“history effect,” 215–16 intertextuality, 19, 23
Hitler, Adolph, 14, 15, 180, 197 intervention, 104–5, 111, 115, 122

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264 • Index

defined, 90 Lessons of History, The, 64

invention in historical practice, 216, Lessons of the Past, 64
217 Liberty! The American Revolution
defined, 90 (1997), 195
in films, 179, 181, 182, 183, 186, Liberty Bell Pavilion, 21
192, 217, 204, 207, 209, 211, Library Hall, 139
213 libraries, 5, 7, 8, 10, 16, 17, 18, 20,
invention in historical documentary 93, 95, 97, 99, 100, 101, 102,
films, 209, 211–12 103, 114
Invention of Tradition, The, 47, 48, 63, Library of Congress, 9, 20, 99, 192,
64 204
Iron Bridge Gorge Museums (UK), 5, Lies My Teacher Told Me, 64
155, 161 lieux de mémoire, 43, 44
Iroquois, 30–31, 161 Lincoln, Abraham, 14, 137, 182
Ise Shinto shrine (Japan), 142 Lipkin, Steven, 212
literary side of history, 49–88, 90–91,
JFK (1991), 176, 180 130–31
Jamestown (VA), 123, 147 See also artistic side of history
Jeanne d’Arc (1899), 182 living history museums, 148, 150–52,
Jefferson, Thomas, 10, 33–34, 119, 153, 163, 166, 167, 168, 171
121–22, 126, 137, 152, 162–63, Locke, John, 31, 74
169, 201 Lovejoy, Arthur, 74
Joan of Arc Day, 47 Low, Shirley Payne, 154
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), 195 Lowell (MA), 5, 249n45
Loewen, James W., 64
Kahn-Leavitt, Laurie, 208–11 Lowenthal, David, 45
Kansteiner, Wulf, 45, 48
Kennedy, John F., 176, 180, 192 Making a New Deal, 36
Kingdom of Heaven (2005), 197 manuscript repositories
Klein, Mary-Jo, 111 See archives; libraries
Korean War, 180 manuscripts, 1, 9, 13, 16, 17, 20,
Koselleck, Reinhold, 74 100, 102, 109, 136, 151
Ku Klux Klan, 194, 206 See also editing
maps, 7, 10, 17, 32, 33, 34, 72–73,
labels in museums, 13, 28, 32, 143, 95, 99, 105, 147, 159, 162, 193,
156–59 206
Laden, Osama bin, 17 See Vinland map
Last of the Mohicans, The (1992), 176 Marxist, 23, 50, 58, 82, 83
Last Supper, The, 21, 135 Marwick, Arthur, 6
Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, 29, 75, master narrative, 53, 82, 85, 88
115 material culture, 133
Learning from the Past, 64 material objects, x, 67, 75, 90, 99,
Lee, Kaiulani, 208 100, 101, 103, 112
Lemisch, Jesse, 59 in films, 194, 195

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Index • 265

and museums, 133–73 Mink, Louis, 215

as sources, 3, 6–7, 8, 12, 13, 17, minorities, 5, 18, 29, 35, 41, 49, 65,
19, 20, 28, 32, 41 66, 84
Matewan (1957), 199–200 models in museums, 139, 161
May, Ernest, 64 Montaillou, 29, 75, 115
Mayflower II, 139, 165 Monticello, 137, 162–63
meaning of history, x, 50, 51, 63–68, Moore, Michael, 181
77, 79, 80, 81–88, 119–20, morals and history, 63–64, 66–68,
126–27, 128–31, 143, 155, 156, 76–77, 85–86, 172
159, 166, 167, 179, 192, Morgan, Edmund, 116–27
198–201, 202, 216 motion pictures, x, 8, 9, 15, 17, 41,
See also ethical turn; Great Stories; 175–213
metanarratives; morals; per- Mount Vernon, 137, 148
spective; purpose movies
McIntosh Country Shouters, 204, See motion pictures
205 multiculturalism, 29, 78, 80, 173
Megill, Allan, 78 Museum of Welsh Life, 138, 142
memory, 3, 172, 178 museums, 5, 17, 18, 90,93, 101, 103,
kinds, 41–48 133–73
vs. history, 44–45 defined, 142
memory “activists,” 172 Web sites, 162
mentalités, 74, 75, 82, 115 See also exhibits; labels; living his-
metageography, 73 tory museums; open-air muse-
metahistory, 86–87 ums; out-door museums
See also metanarratives
Metahistory, 87 Nanook of the North (1922), 181
methods, historical, 1–48, 49, 59–61, narrative, 50, 51–54, 55, 61, 76, 79,
89–90, 93, 98, 103, 119, 128, 81, 87, 119–20, 112–13, 122,
142 140, 155
and schools, 82 and films, 177, 180, 184–85, 186,
methodological holism, 57, 58, 59–62 192, 196, 198, 200, 208, 215,
methodological individualism, 57–62 216–17
Mexican Americans, 36, 46 See also emplotment; grand and
metanarratives, 24, 45, 53, 54, 68, 79, master narratives; Great
81, 82–86, 88, 91, 129–30, 178, Stories; metanarratives
189, 192, 199, 204, 216, 217 nation/nationalism, 71–72, 84
See also Great Stories and memory, 42, 43, 44, 46, 47, 54
Michelangelo, 21, 135, 139 historical practice, 5, 18, 45–46,
microhistory, 29, 50, 62–63, 72, 115, 50, 54, 64, 71–74, 82, 83–84,
176 95–96, 102, 128, 158, 201
Midwife’s Tale, A, book, 176, 208 See also heritage
Midwife’s Tale, A (1998), film, 208–11 National Archives, U.S., 10, 95, 96
military history, 5, 29, 36, 49, 61, 80, National Archives of the United
215 Kingdom, 95–96

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266 • Index

National Colonial Farm Museum, as history, ix, 1, 46, 47, 49, 82, 86,
146 102, 177, 198, 203, 204,
National Constitution Center, 21 215–17
National Museum of the American Past Imperfect, 183
Indian, 65 Patriot, The (2000), 196
Native Americans, 14–15, 30–31, 34, period rooms, 137, 143, 144, 149,
35, 64, 65, 128, 161, 168 159, 160, 209
nature, 71 periods, 13, 31, 32, 63, 120, 133,
Nazis, 14, 63, 66, 181, 194, 195, 197 144, 146, 151, 163, 164, 165,
Neustadt, Richard, 64 185, 192, 194, 195, 203, 204,
New York State Museum, 161 206, 210
newsreels, 177, 180, 183, 191 See also times as era
nonfiction periodization, 31, 129, 158, 230n12
See factuality; fiction; truthfulness perspective, 39, 51, 53, 63–66, 67,
Nora, Pierre, 43, 44 68, 82, 83, 88
Northern Light Productions, 206, in documents, 8, 22, 69, 73
207 in films, 179, 184, 189, 192, 197,
Northwest Ordinance, 33–34 199, 200–201, 202, 209, 211,
numismatics, 12 212, 213
in Morgan, American Slavery, 116,
objectivity, 50, 59, 67, 68, 69, 76,
120–21, 126–27
77–80, 212, 216–17
in museum practice, 155, 156, 159,
See also bias; morals; perspective;
162, 166, 167, 250n57
and objectivity, 77–81
Old Ironsides, 20, 142
photographs, 14–15, 112, 220n14
Old Sturbridge Village (MA), 137,
physical environment
See environment, natural; environ-
open-air museums, 133, 142, 145–45
oral history, 7, 11, 28, 41, 45, 46, 69, mental setting
62, 205–6 pictorial matter, interpreting, 7,
Orientalism, 73 14–15, 160–61, 220n14
otherness of people, 84 Plimoth Plantation (MA), 138, 147,
otherness of past, 23, 67, 84–85 149, 164–65, 167–68, 171
out-doors museums Plow That Broke the Plains, The
See open-air museums (1936), 203
political history, 5, 29, 36, 49, 57, 61,
Pacific Rim, 73 75, 80, 185, 215
paleography, 12 politics and historians, 31, 44, 46, 51,
panels, museum, 159 53, 57, 59, 62, 63–68, 69, 77,
paraphrase as re-presentation, 25, 26, 79, 80, 81, 87, 90, 112, 121–22,
28, 32, 36, 58, 59, 69, 71, 77, 154–55, 167, 169–70, 171, 181,
113–15, 124 199–202
Parent, Anthony S., Jr., 127 postcolonial, 5, 35, 83
past, idea of, 1,3 postmodern, as period, 83, 185

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Index • 267

postmodernism, ix, 8, 24, 45, 53, 78, race, 29, 84, 166, 169, 172, 189, 199,
216 201, 206
and Great Stories, 129–30, 131, racism, 46, 61, 117, 120, 124, 126,
216 169, 202
Pontecorvo, Gillo, 182–83 “Rape of Nanking,” 46
Ravitch, Diane, 64
preservation, 94–95, 100, 134–36
realism, 1, 3, 41, 44, 75, 78, 80,
See also conservation
Prevenier, Walter, 6, 8, 22
reconstructed buildings, 5,20, 21, 49,
primary sources, 18–24, 26, 35, 41, 134–35, 136, 137, 138–39, 140,
128 141, 142, 146, 147, 149, 155,
films as, 179–80, 186–92, 203–4, 162, 164, 165, 170, 194, 202,
208–11 204, 216
in archives, 93–103 reconstruction as historical practice,
museums, 134–42 44–45, 60, 63, 75, 114–15, 168,
re-presented, 103–15 193, 205, 208, 209, 211
See also evidence reconstruction of archive files, 96–97
processing Reconstruction Era, 122, 175, 201,
by archives, 93–99, 100, 101 202–3
records, 6, 7, 8, 10, 17, 19, 27, 28,
in museums, 134–39
31, 32, 62–63, 75, 105, 106,
proper histories, 50, 51, 54, 67, 68,
107, 111, 115, 125, 168, 192
114, 115, 122, 124, 125, 127, in archives, 93–103
141, 155, 156, 167, 177, 194, Reel v. Real, 183
211 reenactments, 49, 134, 144, 150,
See also full-fledged histories 151–52, 156, 160, 161, 165–68
Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The, 14 at Plimoth Plantation, 164–66, 168
provenance, 16–17, 96, 103, 106, in films, 177, 180, 193, 195, 196,
111, 158 204–11
defined, 222n43 referentiality, 215
provenience replicas, 20, 107, 138–39, 140, 142,
See provenance 161
re-presentation, 3, 36, 37, 39, 51, 58,
psychohistory, 82
59, 63, 69, 71, 75, 76, 77, 80,
Public Broadcasting System, 175, 181
Public Records Office (UK), 95 as facts, 24–32
purpose of history, 63–64, 66–68, in texts, 103–115
167, 168–73, 215–17 in museums, 138, 149, 166, 168
in films, 180, 181, 183, 186, 190,
quotation, 25, 29, 59, 69, 71, 75, 77, 191, 193–94, 202, 204–6,
94, 111–14, 118, 180, 194 209–10
compare paraphrase representation, historical, 11, 25, 45,
quantitative history, 35–36, 50, 59 48, 81, 90, 91, 111

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268 • Index

in museum practice, 162, 166, 167 Sistine Chapel, 21

through films, 177–79, 183, 186, Skansen (Sweden), 142, 146
10, 192–201, 202–3, 204–11 Skinner, Quentin, 31, 74
reproductions, 20, 103–14, 133, 134, Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters (2005),
138, 139, 141, 142, 147, 149, 206–7
150, 152, 160, 161, 162, 194 slavery, 5, 7, 10, 18, 29, 34, 43, 66,
See also re-presentation 155, 162, 175
restoration in Colonial Williamsburg, 152,
of buildings, 20, 134, 135–41, 216 166, 170
of texts, 99, 100 in films, 201, 204–7
Retour de Martin Guerre, Le (1982), See also American Slavery, American
176 Freedom
rhetoric, 50, 87, 88, 124, 215 slum tenements, 5, 7, 133, 155
in Morgan, American Slavery, 120, Smithsonian Institution, 65, 145
121–22 social history, 35, 49–50, 72, 154–55
Riefenstahl, Leni, 181 social science history, 50, 56–57
Rockefeller, John D., Jr., 141, 153, See also quantitative history
168–69 Somers, Margaret, 54
Rosenstone, Robert, 186 sound recordings, 6, 9, 17, 95, 99,
Rüsen, Jörn, 79 101, 102, 105, 152
Rutledge, Ann, 14 sounds, 19–20, 21, 102, 148, 154
in films, 177, 178, 188, 189, 194,
Said, Edward, 73 195, 204–5, 207, 209, 210,
satire, 26, 30, 87, 121 212
Sayles, John, 197, 199–200 sources, 58–59, 89–90, 129
Schama, Simon, 176, 257n4 films as, 185–92
scientific side of historical practice, 3, idea of, 3–4, 8–9, 24–25
12,71, 50, 71, 216–17 identification of, 11–18, 19
See also empirical side in archives and libraries, 93–103
schools of historical interpretation, kinds of, 5–11, 12, 13
34, 38, 50, 62, 80–82, 83, 86, primary and secondary, 18–24, 26
87, 110, 128 See also editing; external criticism;
schools of U.S. history, 34, 50, 74, internal criticism; processing;
228n1 representation; reproduction
Scott, Ridley, 184, 197 statements, 4, 9, 11, 19, 24, 25, 30,
Scottish Highland tradition, 47, 64 32, 37, 38, 39, 40, 49, 50, 52,
Sex Life in Ancient Rome (2005), 176 53, 55, 68, 69, 83, 88, 90, 115,
Shintoism, 47, 142 126, 129, 131, 190, 215, 240n1
Shine (1996), 212 Standish, Myles, 167
Shelburne Museum (VT), 147 statistical history
simulations, 25, 106, 137, 139, 140, See quantitative history
151, 153, 167, 171, 177, 194 Steinbeck, John, 203
by computer, 15, 167 Stone, Oliver, 176, 180, 192

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Index • 269

storage of artifacts, 10, 17, 94, 95, 98, Tilden, Freeman, 154
100 time, concept of, ix, 4, 24, 44, 50, 51,
story 52, 54, 56, 57, 67, 68, 71, 74,
See emplotment; narrative 76, 81, 86, 87, 97–98, 102, 110,
structure vs. agency, 61–62, 72 114
subalterns, 29, 35, 46, 70 in films, 183, 186, 187, 189
subjectivity, 77, 78 in museum practice, 135, 136, 144,
See also bias; partiality; viewpoint; 147, 148, 164
voice times, as era, 3, 8,9,11, 12, 13, 14,
survivals, 3–4, 5–18, 20, 22, 23, 39, 15,16, 17, 19, 22, 26, 27, 28,
41, 47, 48, 88, 93–104, 129, 31, 33, 34, 41, 42, 44, 45, 52,
130, 131, 186, 219n4 54, 63, 69, 72, 73, 76, 101, 109
synchronic, 50, 52, 55, 143, 144, See also period; periodization
155, 159 Titanic (1997), 175
synthesis, 30, 89–90, 98, 129–31, Toplin, Robert Brent, 184–85
140, 143, 156, 193, 198–200, traditions, 24, 31, 37, 40, 41, 42, 44,
202, 211, 217 45, 46, 47, 63, 64, 65, 85, 138,
as practice and product, 49–88 144, 154, 155, 157, 169, 190
invented, 47–48, 63–64
in Morgan, American Slavery,
compare heritage, memory
translation, 31, 112
traditional definition, 129
Triumph of the Will (1934), 181
television, 14, 15, 41, 43, 49, 175, truthfulness, 24, 37, 38, 52, 53, 56,
176, 180, 181, 182, 186–87, 77, 78, 79, 80, 82, 124, 129,
131, 184, 185, 199, 202, 212,
192, 198
213, 215–16
testimony, 6, 8, 25–27, 41, 59
See also big picture; factuality, fic-
texts, 89–131
tion; invention; objectivity
See also methods; synthesis
Turner, Frederick Jackson, 74
Thanksgiving (U.S.), 47, 164, 167
theory, use in historical practice, 35, Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, 61, 176,
37, 38, 54, 56–57, 59, 61, 62, 208–11
63, 73, 179, 181 Unchained Memories (2002), 204–6
See also methodological holism Underground Railroad, 5
methodological individualism University of California at Los
theory of history, ix, 8, 19, 24, 36, 50, Angeles Film and Television
78,79, 80, 81, 87, 129, 154, Archive Collections, 192
172, 216–17 understanding as interpretation,
Thinking in Time, 64 54–59
third-person interpretation, 163–64, uniqueness of holdings, 100–101
Thompson, Paul, 18 Valla, Lorenzo, 13–14
thorn, 104 Vanderbilt, George, 138, 149
Ticonderoga (steamboat), 147 Victory, HMS, 20

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270 • Index

Vietnam War, 181 Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson, 38–39

viewpoint, 31, 36, 68, 69–81, 90, White, Hayden, 87
113, 114, 115, 215–16 whiteness studies, 84
in Morgan, American Slavery, 118, Williamsburg (VA)
127 See Colonial Williamsburg
in museum practice, 65, 136, 156, Williamsburg—The Story of a Patriot
167, 168 (1957), 169, 170, 176, 196
in films, 179, 183, 189, 197–98, witches, 34, 75
200, 201, 202, 211 Wolf, Eric, 85
Viking villages, 138, 147, 161 women, 18, 40, 41, 46, 64, 75, 128,
Vinland map, 14, 16 167, 169, 170, 178, 200, 205
Vinovskis, Maris, 64 women’s history, 5, 29, 49, 64, 80, 85,
Virginia 102
See Bacon’s Rebellion; Colonial compare feminist theory, gender
Williamsburg; Jamestown; See A Midwife’s Tale
Morgan (Edmund) Woodstock—3 Days of Peace and Music
vistas of historic sites, 148, 150, 151 (1970), 181
See also environmental setting world history, 50, 72, 115, 240n107
visual imagery, interpreting Worldviews, 34, 55, 74, 75, 119, 150,
See films; motion pictures, pho- 163, 165
tographs, pictorial matter, See also perspective
television World Trade Center Towers (NYC), 17,
voice, 68–69, 81, 189, 215–16 43
See also viewpoint World War I, 14, 22, 94
World War II, 14, 74, 82,138, 143, 169,
Washburn Wilcomb, 38–39 176, 180, 181, 195
Washington, George, 39, 40, 120,
169, 211 Xerographic copies, 104, 105, 106
Washington, Martha, 40, 152
Washington Monument (DC), 39–40 Yacef, Saadi, 182
Webb, Stephen Saunders, 38–39
Zapruder, Abraham, 180, 192

10.1057/9780230617209 - Fashioning History, Robert F. Berkhofer Jr.