Managing History Blog 3, Affinity and Difference

Yellis’s work “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” both informs about Fred Wilson’s innovative work with museums and places this work in the larger context of “history wars.” This leads to a larger discussion and reflection on what makes Fred Wilson’s work seem so vital compared to traditional exhibitions; and furthermore how our connections to the past should be handled as well as why exhibitions should even be put on.

What I found particularly striking were Yellis’s three responses to the assumption made by other museum workers that people in the past are like the people of today. Yellis states that the first reason is that it can’t be true as we don’t do the same things as the people of the past, the second and most convincing is that assuming it is lazy and where there are affinities it should be something discovered, not taken for granted. The third is essentially that it is “boring” and makes for an uninteresting narrative. Yellis concludes this final point by asking “Don’t we go to museums for that kind of transformational experience?” I do genuinely take issue with this section as it simply seems to broad and that I do believe there is value in seeing the similarities between historical actors and modern day people. These observations come off as self-evident on Yellis’s part. There is no doubt experience behind these assertions but they questionable nonetheless.

I originally took issue with this due to my own historical work; while the surrounding circumstances may be difficult for certain political histories in this country the idea that people were vastly different in the past makes this work feel less important and disconnected. When taking this further to our collective work in the class around Elfreth’s Alley it is interesting to consider whether the alley would be better served by historical framing that emphasizes affinity to the past or difference. There’s been a mix of both it seems; the colonial kitsch puts up a superficial barrier between the alley’s past and it’s current visitors but the increased interest in the women of Elfreth’s Alley and their surprising independence certainly reflect a modern sensibility. When proposing what should be done with the alley I’ll certainly be keeping Yellis’s work in mind even if I take issue with parts of it.

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