Canadian History: That’s ‘Hot’
Thanks Paris Hilton. Those are three words I’d never thought I'd write. But her little mantra circa 2004 seems an appropriate response to Kevin Marshall’s post “Is Canadian History Sexy Enough?”. Marshall admits that what he calls ‘the inherent sexiness factor’ is wildy subjective. I would say then that his assessment that Canadian history is not sexy might be subjective too? And if Canadian History is not as ‘hot’ as it could be, isn’t it the job of Public Historians to ramp up the heat meter?
First, I think we need to define the difference between the sexiness of an object and an historical event. Sure the iron lung may be more ‘sexy’ than the apple corer but I will stand by the idea that the American Revolution is no more interesting than what Louis Riel did. If Granatstein thinks that we should be interested in history because it defines who we are as Canadians then what better example than a Metis leader fighting for his cause. And dying for it. Marshall says “the focus on social history does not give us that definition; hence, the lack of interest.” I would contradict this statement - it is the very focus on social history that engages the public. These are the histories that pique the interest of the vast majority of people.
But what makes an historical event sexy? Yes some stories or events are more engaging than others. The funny thing is though, it seems to be the social histories, the human interest stories that have that inherent ‘hot’ factor. The big picture, national history, nation-building stuff - these are the things we need to make ‘hot’. This is our job as Public Historians. Marshall also says “Would I be wrong in suggesting that, quite frankly, no one cares about the Canadian fur trade?" in response to my statement that the public is interested in Canadian History. I think a person would be wrong if he suggested that no one was interested in the fur trade and if that were truly the case, then it becomes yet another challenge the Public Historian should welcome.
I would agree with Marshall’s assessment that the iron lung has a sexiness factor because it saves people’s lives. However, he goes on to say that “No matter how much effort we put into a treatise on the apple corer as savior of mankind, its inherent sexiness deficiency means there exists less of a hook for the public to retrieve that information.” First of all, as historians we would probably never do this. Trying to prove that the apple corer is at least as sexy as the iron lung would be a ridiculous undertaking. The fact of the matter is that yes, some artifacts are inherently more sexy than others either because of their physical or functional characteristics.
I do think however, that an artifact can be made somewhat ‘hot’ by placing it within a narrative and relating its provenance. The apple corer, although not a life saver, could be made sexy by telling the story of its ownership. Perhaps it was owned by someone famous. Maybe it was used as a murder weapon? These are the things that can be used by the Public Historian as hooks to get people interested. The artifact on its own is somewhat inconsequential unless it has the narrative or context to make it relevant in history and isn’t it the job of the Public Historian to make these stories interesting? I am in no way advocating that we make things up or infer an excitement that just isn’t there. But I will suggest that many historical narratives have to be told in an engaging way to make them relevant and ‘sexy’ for the general public.
People are interested in history. Look at the wide variety of museums, historical sites, television programming and web sites which are dedicated to historical topics. Would there be such a thing as The Bata Show Museum if there wasn’t a market, an audience? What about Hockey: A People’s History? In some presentations of history, Public Historians open themselves up for attacks from other scholars and purists, but as Public Historians with a mandate to bring history to the public, we have to be content with the choices we have made. This doesn’t mean the historian should ‘dumb down’ Canadian History, but it should be made accessible and it interesting. Initiatives also have to come from the government and cultural agencies too. The populace needs to see that the people who run the country place value on our history and heritage.
Ultimately, I don’t think we need to make the apple corer sexy. There are enough great stories and artifacts in Canadian history, which if presented in an intriguing way, will have a whole new audience saying “ Canadian History? That’s Hot!”