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Thursday, June 26, 2014 12:01 am

About history, so what?

Schools are underfunded and people are sick. You want funding to study the past?


Erika Holst, Springfield historian and curator of collections at the Springfield Art Association, is guest columnist this week while Jim Krohe takes a week off.

Your favorite dyspeptic is away this week, so instead of your regularly scheduled dose of Dyspepsiana you have me, leaving the comfort of my niche as an occasional writer of history and parenting articles to dip my toe into opinion. “Write about the importance of local history,” the editor suggested (possibly doubting my ability to spout wit on topics outside my established bailiwick?).

Little did he know his suggestion hit me right in my existential Achilles heel. The question of why local history matters looms large in my life. It has done so, off and on, since a college history class I took 15 years ago, in which the professor instructed his flock of bright-eyed young future historians to measure the viability of any potential topic for research by the yardstick of “so what.” Illinois women were politically active prior to the Civil War? So what? The 18th century was socially stratified? So what?

That little mental exercise was simply designed to get us thinking about if and how our particular topics fit into the context of existing scholarship, but it has continued to nag me, through graduate school and into my career as an historian and museum professional.

All of my “grown-up” jobs have been at nonprofit historical or cultural institutions. History is literally my bread and butter. Furthermore, those institutions survive thanks to the generosity of people who donate their hard-earned money to keep the lights on and the doors open. The question of “so what” hovers relentlessly as funds are unceasingly sought in order to further the exploration and interpretation of local history.

In my current job as curator of historic Edwards Place at the Springfield Art Association, for example, we asked the community for $350,000 to restore the mansion’s first floor. This is an astronomical sum to me, more than I will make in many years of full-time work.

And so what? There are people out there who can’t pay their heating bills. There are people dying of cancer and teachers who buy crayons for their students out of their own pockets and animals being abused. What good does local history really do for a community? Why is it something that anyone should support?

I don’t quite know how to answer that. Not because I don’t have an answer, but because, for me, the answer is something visceral, difficult to put into words.

History for me is the smell of woodsmoke at New Salem, which makes me forget just for a second that I’m in the 21st century and imagine instead that I’m in the 19th. It’s staring at a piece of paper in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and trying to wrap my head around the idea that, 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln put a pen to it and created a document that traveled through time, from his hands to my eyes, and thus creates a link to the past. It’s walking up stairs that generations of feet have walked up before, weaving my experience into the fabric of those who have gone before. These are moments of transcendence, a feeling of connection to something bigger than myself, a glimpse of mystery and wonder in the everyday.

History to me is also the excitement of unearthing something new. It’s taking down a piece of sheetrock and finding a piece of wallpaper installed by people who didn’t yet know whether the Union would triumph over the Confederacy. It’s stumbling across a letter or newspaper article or ledger that gives one little piece of information that links up with the other pieces of information you’ve assembled along the way, and all of a sudden the big picture is clear and something new is understood. It’s the burning desire to find those little bits of information, scattered like breadcrumbs throughout humanity’s written and material record. These are moments of adventure and discovery – the desire to seek out and the thrill of finding.

Finally, history is about stories. Grand stories about men who came from nothing and changed the course of history, and small stories about quiet people history will soon forget. Human beings are surrounded by stories – stories told in books and movies and sports; stories we tell each other; stories we tell ourselves. Our stories inform us, they inspire us, they entertain us, and they give our lives meaning as the pages of our own lives unfold before us.

So no, giving money to fund local history won’t cure cancer or prevent homelessness or bring about world peace. But history does inspire transcendence and adventure and understanding, and those aspects of life are why we try to cure cancer and end poverty and live in peace to begin with. Those are the things that make life worth living. That’s the ultimate “so what.”

Contact Erika Holst at collections@springfieldart.org.

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