As an “amateur” historian, it’s little surprise that I like to subscribe to historically focused writers. I’m particularly fortunate that in pushing their new Android Substack app, I was invited to follow a newsletter called Non-Boring History. That seemed right up my alley. The first post I read from the author Annette Laing, entitled “Giving Up on John Brown,” was quite a read. There’s a lot to be said about the article’s main thrust, which is that the National Park Service needs to step it up with proper historical representation. But, the other sense I got from reading this article is that as much as there are good historical exhibits at some National Parks, others seem to have completely given up.
What particularly stands out to me here is that we are dealing with an actual historian and her husband, and yet, they pretty much just wandered around until a volunteer happened to show up and point them in the right direction. That is to say, it took someone who hangs around and points people to actual sites of historic interest out of the goodness of their own heart and dedication to the preservation of history. Otherwise, you just have a pamphlet with thirty-plus places to look at, and most people, as Annette says, are going to just get back on the bus and feel let down.
I highly suggest reading the article in its entirety, as a synopsis won’t do the story justice. But, more than anything else I wish to comment on is how history is often being poorly represented and how much is being lost to current generations. In fact, if you want to learn anything about history, good luck finding any decent guided tours. You’ll have to do a lot of digging and piecing things together to get enough insight into history to make your trip worth embarking upon. Essentially, if you want a bird’s eye view of history, go watch a YouTube video or documentary or take out books from the library on the subject. If you want to actually understand history, you actually have to become an amateur historian yourself.
The funny thing about history is how distorted and twisted its telling often becomes. Annette talks about a ridiculous caricature of John Brown that depicted him during the Civil War, and he was dead two years before the Civil War started. You can’t really trust any one source, or even any handful of sources, to get the facts straight. We often embellish history for the sake of telling a more exciting story, and this isn’t new to humanity; we’ve been embellishing historical tales for thousands of years!
So, as Annette says, don’t use your trip to any historical tourist trap as the basis of your understanding for a historical figure or event; read “actual books by actual historians” as your baseline. But, the other stuff, the ways that history becomes perceived and represented are sometimes just as interesting, if not even more so, than the history itself. This is why I’ve long preferred to look at subjects with an eye towards their place in history and the context around them.
Time has a strange way of distorting human being’s perceptions about facts, people, places, and things. So, I try to focus the lens a bit and provide context. Perhaps that’s why we love history so much, because everyone seems to put a new spin on it; sometimes, the results are pretty hilarious, and other times even disturbing.
Unfortunately, it seems, history is getting lost on too many people these days, and it’s the job of people like Annette and writers like myself to keep the spirit of investigating history alive. After all, history is as much of a living thing as the present, and we can’t exist without the past. As Annette said, “History isn’t the past. It’s how we interpret the past, and we change.” Not only do museums need to be redone and updated from time to time, but they need to be far more of a priority than they already are.
What is your experience with national landmarks? How well do you think they did at offering a good perspective of the history and legacy of that place? Some do it better than others. I’d love to hear about your best experiences, and your worst, too.