Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Bringing Back the Past

In a future issue of The New Republic, John Summers has an interesting piece on the ongoing attempt to return the battlefield at Gettysburg to its condition during the 1863 Civil War battle.

Summers, for several reasons, thinks this is not a good idea and points out several practical problems. The fact is, nobody gave two shits about Gettysburg, Pennsylvania before July 1, 1863, so there aren't a whole lot of sources to turn to to figure out what it was like. Post war sources lack the consensus needed to really get it right. As he points out:

To truly experience what it was like to be at Gettysburg, we would need to lie with soldiers as they bled to death, groaning in pain; rotting corpses with missing limbs; streams running red; winds swarming with flies; air smelling of burning horseflesh. As we cannot know the precise cartography of the battlefield, or the movements of every soldier, or the location of every tree, so we should not try to leap backward into authenticity, or expect to become an eyewitness to history simply by showing up. The arrogance laid up around this expectation is astonishing. At Gettysburg, as elsewhere, the parties of preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation seek to transport us forward into the past by scrubbing off the blemishes of time. But, in offering the illusion of authentic experience, inviting us to 'almost feel the bullets,' they promise both too much and too little: They forget that historical suffering must be regarded from a distance if tragedy is to make us humble--or even be understood at all.
Burgess's article dances around an interesting question without ever actually asking it: what should we want people to get out of historical sites like Gettysburg?

I tend to agree with him that trying to recreate the "reality" of history is a fool's errand. I think it does a disservice to future generations to present something as an accurate depiction of how something happened. It gives them a skewed version of the event and a great misunderstanding of history.

History is messy. History is constantly in flux. History is subject to debate about exactly what happened, why, and what it means. Presenting people with a "definitive" account takes the event and seals it away from reconsideration, at least for the majority of folks. It would be better if people learned, early and often, about how history really worked. It's much more interesting than most people think it is, to boot.

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