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.