The Pathways of Contemporary History

The idea of what constitutes contemporary history is one for which there remains much ambiguity. National standards say it is fifty years before something enters the historic realm. But when we consider the very idea of “the past” as experiences at any point and time that somehow shaped what came after, those responsible for studying, interpreting and drawing connections to history must broaden their focus. Notions of time elapsed and separation should not become so arbitrary that we overlook compelling issues; rather than content alone, it is how something is explored that truly underscores its significance as “of the past.”

I spoke about contemporary history with Ilene Frank, chief curator of the Connecticut Historical Society. She said one of the real challenges for museums is interesting people in matters separated from their own experiences. With contemporary history, more people are opened to a past that can recognize and understand through the course of their own lives. It creates what Ilene called “pathways to the past,” where people see the significance of their own experiences by understanding how it relates to larger networks of historic issues in contemporary history.

Of course, if we are not careful, this can become a trip down nostalgia lane. Perhaps the greatest challenge of contemporary history is interpreting difficult facets of what people still remember. There is no easy answer here, but is the challenge of doing so that opens museums to pathways that can intimately link so many to a deeper appreciation of the past.


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10 Responses to The Pathways of Contemporary History

  1. thankyouluke says:

    Great post Andrew! How do you feel about the idea that museum professionals need to take caution when interpreting contemporary issues? I know some horrific events, such as the Holocaust and 9/11 are still fresh in the minds of many around the world. How should museums try interpret events so fresh in the minds of so many?

  2. pnorman02 says:

    I think that LGBT history is perfect for the examination of the past, present and future. I don’t think we need to wait 50 years in order to discuss the human rights issues that many people are still fighting for. It’s a great part of history that can lead to discussion on a variety of topics and while it does present challenges, I think those challenges are worth dealing with.

    • at01lang says:

      Exactly; we cannot have arbitrary standards of x amount of years constrict our ability to explore relevant issues, and hopefully come to new insights about them in the process.

    • I agree. If we were to wait 50 years to talk about these issues then museums would be perpetually outdated. In order to remain relevant, museums have to respond to contemporary issues. There’s no way they can be “forums” if they don’t. Also, people want to see themselves represented in museums. If this can be done in a way that, as you said, avoids becoming purely nostalgic, it can be a good way to engage new audiences and inspire meaningful discussions.

  3. mickcr says:

    I think that those who can still remember the history that is being discussed could be a great resource for a museum attempting to explore contemporary history. I definitely see how nostalgia could cloud fact and experience, but any input could be useful in figuring out how to present information in an approachable way.

  4. hoffsm90 says:

    Interpreting contemporary history has both its pros and cons, opportunities and risks. Many argue that some issues in contemporary history are too close to home or controversial to even discuss it objectively, like Gretchen talked about with their exhibition on TB to discuss the AIDS/ HIV epidemic. However, if museums won’t talk about these issues, how is the general public supposed to talk about them? Having people around who remember these events is an amazing opportunity to get oral histories and the like too which helps with interpretation. Bethel Woods is a good example of this. Essentially, I think it depends on the topic and how it is presented, but museums certainly have the opportunity to present contemporary history and some may say the obligation.

  5. emerbr84 says:

    Living memory does play a huge role here. I personally have a hard time with how to keep people from coming in and claiming the museum is wrong because of their own memory. Although that can still be a problem with exhibits centered around older topics, it becomes imperative with contemporary history to have a plan and educated staff that can handle issues as they arise.

  6. Leanne says:

    I agree. Contemporary history is an interesting subject which should be talked about within museums, but you need to walk a fine line. it might be too soon to talk about some conversational issues that are still in living memory.

  7. peteglog says:

    I am glad that memory is brought up. Also what happened the day before is history. Time distorts what history is remembered as. Controversial topics are relevant if they can bring everything together in a way to aid us today.

  8. joshdtaylor says:

    Contemporary history is a tricky thing. On one hand they need to be talked about but on the other hand much of the public does not want to talk about it. It is a balancing act that museums have to walk in order to stay fresh while also keeping the doors open.

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