Showing posts with label public history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label public history. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Depression Under the Sofa: Trauma, Post-Memory and Antidepressants in Northern Ireland


Prescription records in the United Kingdom were released recently by the Health and Social Care Board. Much has been made of the rates at which  antidepressants are prescribed in Northern Ireland -- at  two 
and a half times more than in England, it turns out that the Northern Irish are being medicated to address anxiety and 
depression more often than in almost any other region in the world.  

Journalists have been quick to make knee-jerk observations about use by patients who are too young to be directly affected by the Troubles.  "The disparity is so huge that it warrants closer examination," said Steven McCaffrey of The Detail.


The insinuation in both The Irish Times and the BBC is that the Health Service in Northern Ireland is over-prescribing.  

Health care professionals in Northern Ireland have noted for several years that patients who come to see a professional about mental health concerns tend to expect a prescription and are averse to alternative therapies.  There are good reasons for this.  A society that functioned on silences and secrets for over forty years might not race to embrace talking about and through complicated emotions.  A conservative society with a large rural population may not find holistic remedies or eastern mind-body-spirit practices welcoming. Prozac is far less invasive than a therapist, far less sweaty and well, compromising, than yoga. 


Those issues notwithstanding,  I see some good reasons antidepressant use may be up that have nothing to do with patients opting out of other therapies for mental ill health.  There may simply be more people seeking help.  Why?  Well, here's my take:
  • Post-memory
  • An acknowledgment of the psychological costs of dealing with the conflict  and post 'extreme-life' funk
  • A shift away from self-medication

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Salem Witch Trial Memorial - “What's This Memorial Really About?”



I was supposed to give this talk today, but it got rained out.  I may have the chance to give it again sometime soon, but I thought I'd post this here in case anyone is interested.

The Salem Witch Trial memorial was erected in 1992 to mark the tercentenary of the witch hysteria. It was designed as the first physical structure in the city of Salem to commemorate the trials and the execution of twenty innocent people suspected of witchcraft in 1692.  

What a beautiful, reflective, introspective space.  People often forget just how long the memorial was in coming to fruition.  Historic Salem, Inc. created a committee in 1963 to commemorate what they then referred to as the Witch Delusion.  The idea was that the memorial would rest on Gallows Hill, where the hangings are believed to have taken place.  At that point, the Essex Institute, now part of the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Massachusetts Society for the Preservation of American Antiquities, now Historic New England, had tossed around the idea of purchasing the Gallows Hill lot on Proctor Street.  They intended to erect a granite shaft to honor those who were executed.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Humbling Moments" at the Oral History Association Meeting

While I wait in the airport for my husband to finish running a half marathon and then drag himself to come get me,  it's a good time to write a quick post about the 2014 Oral History Association Meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. 


It was my first OHA meeting.  Seasoned oral historians and experts on reflection and analysis of the interview process Stacey Zembrzycki and Anna Sheftel invited me to participate in a roundtable conversation on humbling moments because of my insistence on discussing failure in community collaborations more openly last spring at the 2014 National Council on Public History annual meeting

The panel also included the trailblazing feminist oral historian Sherna Berger Gluck and Janis Thiessen, a thoughtful and critical historian of Canadian labor, business and religion.  We had really good attendance and a remarkably rich and flowing conversation, given the fact that there were about forty people in the room.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Home Truths, Open Secrets and Women's Memories in Ireland

It is a a painful, poignant time to be in Ireland, as the #800babies scandal breaks.  People speak of little else. Everyone has a strong opinion.  Hello, Pandora's box.

In a nutshell:   Local historian Catherine Corless engaged in a long, tedious process of determining how many babies and children died in the Tuam, Galway Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and 1961.  The project began in an attempt to erect a plaque for an unmarked gravesite on the grounds of the former home run by the Bon Secours order.  Looking to name the children, Corless expected to find a few. The county registrar came back with 796 death certificates.  The historian cross-referenced the list of dead children with many area cemeteries.  None of the names appeared, raising the question of where the bodies were buried.  Further investigation revealed that the gravesite was not the only burial ground at the home; in the 1970s, bones had been discovered onsite, the story silenced.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Return to Sender: Lessons from Boston College' s Belfast Project


On Tuesday, May 6th, Boston College’s Director of Public Affairs, Jack Dunn, announced that ‘The Belfast Project” oral history initiative would honor all requests from participants to return recordings and transcripts of interviews not currently in use as evidence in the murder investigation of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972.  The college will keep no copies. The information in the interviews will remain known only to the interviewers, a few Boston College employees and William Young, a federal district court judge who read the transcripts to determine which ones should be delivered to Northern Irish authorities under a treaty governing exchanges of information between nations for the purposes of law enforcement. 

Boston College’s decision came on the heels of events last week, when the Police Service of Northern Ireland held Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams for questioning about his involvement in the McConville murder.   Evidence came directly from the Belfast Project interviews.  The move by the PSNI invited new scrutiny on an oral history project that has already been the focus of very public controversy, as Beth McMurtrie laid out in her detailed investigative piece published last January in The Chronicle of Higher Education

News that the recordings and transcripts would be returned was surely met with relief by former republican and loyalist combatants who had agreed to share their stories from the front lines of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, a thirty-year period of political turmoil and civil violence which left 3,700 people dead and approximately 10,000 injured.  Those interviewed had been promised confidentiality in exchange for honesty.  Interviewees revealed information about activities “the dogs on the street” may have known about, but which were rarely discussed on the record.  

For Anthony McIntyre, the former republican prisoner and scholar who conducted interviews with fellow ex-combatants, the public announcement was a “symbolic washing of the hands” on the part of Boston College, a way to distance itself from criticism emerging about the project.  While not pleased at being cast adrift by college administrators, McIntyre and others closely associated with the project agree that the information on the recordings was not safeguarded well.

While the case has implications for a wide scope of scholarly research, oral historians in particular have been watching the situation closely since 2011, when information from the interviews was first subpoenaed on the basis of material that project co-director, journalist Ed Moloney, included in his book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland  Moloney’s use of interviews by former IRA Belfast Brigade commander Brendan Hughes was in accordance with contracts signed by each interviewee forbidding access to interviews until after a participant’s death.  Hughes died in 2008; however, many of the people he discussed on the record remained very much alive.

An increasingly public and vitriolic disagreement has taken place about who is to blame for the exposure of paramilitary secrets, heating up over the past week when Northern Ireland’s republican community reacted to Adams’ arrest.  They slammed the Belfast Project as a vehicle for former republicans disgruntled by the way the peace process unfolded to air dirty laundry, lionize themselves and castigate their enemies within the movement. McIntyre has long been a vocal opponent of both Gerry Adams and post-1998 republicanism, fueling these suspicions. 

The project director, Moloney, and interviewers, McIntyre and Wilson McArthur, who have no professional experience with higher education institutions, say they took Boston College at its word that the material would remain confidential.  They believed the college would be an honest broker and that BC’s Burns Library Special Collections would not only process, catalogue and preserve the collection, but would keep the information it contained confidential.  College spokespeople say that project directors knew from the start that the information would only be protected as “far as American law will allow” and that Bob O’Neill, head of the Burns Library, specifically indicated that it was not clear the commitment to protect the information could withstand a federal court subpoena. 

The question remains: What can oral and public historians engaged in collecting and interpreting histories about controversial, divisive and difficult issues and events learn from the Belfast Project and its fallout? 

First, if you are serious about collecting and archiving sensitive historical material, put your publishing ambitions aside for the time being.  Ed Moloney’s use of information
provided in Hughes’ interview and his discussion about it it with a Boston Globe reporter in 2010 (Thomas Gagen, “Adams’ Secret, Now His Shame,” The Boston Globe, January  07, 2010) opened up this can of worms. 

Next, when addressing controversial histories, it is even more important to remember that interviews are not objective, disinterested, or omniscient sources.  We all know this, but in this case, the media keeps forgetting it.  Obsession with “what is on the tapes” obscures the larger issues around collecting histories in conflict and recent post-conflict zones, let alone the interpretative challenges of working with oral testimony. 

Third, in cases like this one, the institutional review board (IRB) is your friend.  Establishing protocols and taking the necessary precautions to locate control of materials with the interviewees, instead of with the institutions, probably would have made a difference in this case, where interviewees didn’t have final say on edits, redactions, deletions, pseudonyms or anonymity, etc.  They talked, and that was that.  Getting involved with high-stakes history means taking seriously that, well, the stakes are high.

Finally, the critical lesson I take away from this is an affirmation of our priorities as public and oral historians: Trust matters.  So does process.  All the players in the Boston College case got involved for different reasons and wanted different things from the project.  Understanding and identifying partners’ motivations is a necessary prerequisite for endeavors like this.  It is only through this process that those involved can gain a clear understanding of the stakes involved and the breaking point at which commitment to the project and to the relationships that sustain it might falter.  As this case proves, sharing authority is no simple proposition and the tools required to do with integrity are not reflexive or intuitive.  The fragile and failed relationships between project administrators, researchers and interviewees in this case should be a cautionary tale for us all.


Monday, May 5, 2014

The Politics of Remembrance in Northern Ireland

I have been thinking about the Troubles for fifteen years,  researching and trying to tell  histories of nationalists in Derry, Northern Ireland for ten.   As a result, many people have asked me what I think of the the recent news cycle, featuring Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams, murdered Belfast widow Jean McConville and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.   

My response has been a vague, "I think it's complicated."  There has been a rash of whataboutery out there, to which I am loathe to add even a syllable ( -- from Martin McGuinness's comment about the "dark forces" in the PSNI,  Northern Ireland's police force to the lachrymose recapitulations of the abduction and murder of McConville, a widowed mother of 10 accused of passing information to the British army whose body was missing until 2003 -- that sounds like "republicans are all evil" masquerading as sympathy for McConville's children.)


  There has also been intelligent and thoughtful discussion -- if you are interested in learning more or trying to understand issues of memory, victimhood and the Troubles, I recommend  Susan McKay's piece in The Guardian and Brian Walker's short op-ed on the Slugger O'Toole online journal.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Art of Memory: On May Day


On May Day, I always take a moment to read the piece below, written by Eduardo Galeano, whose writing intertwines in so many ways with memory, as I've discussed here.  
Long before I sat in a public history class, it was this piece that brought home to me how power constructs memorial narratives and made me wonder if reshaping memorial narratives might alter the architecture of power.  I've become more cynical about that over time, but I still love this prose poem. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Naming the Butterflies: On Discomfort Zones

I am generally blithely unaware of how much time I spend smack dab in the middle of my comfort zone.  People I know.  Places I know.  Experiences I know.

I tiptoe to the edges of it from time to time.  Get lost on purpose.  Walk into a room filled with strangers.  Teach unfamiliar material.  Add a new tool to my digital toolkit.  Ask a new question.  Sit with a new answer. Stretch. I even occasionally wear yellow.

Most of the time, I am comfortable. Even, dare I say it, staid.

But I study and write about Derry, Northern Ireland, a place far from home.  Its culture has been shaped by a history I have come to understand something of -- it often feels just enough to illuminate all that I do not and cannot claim to know.  Derry is simultaneously deeply familiar and quite literally foreign.

Photo by Marty McColgan
People say, "But, you're an historian of Derry.  You've spent years there. You love it. Plus, you are Irish-American and Ireland is really just the 51st state, perched off the Maine coast. You have a Ph.D. based on Derry's history. Surely you are comfortable there."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Art of Memory: Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano is, to my mind, the very best kind of writer. Defying categories, playing with media, voice and form, he is a journalist, novelist and poet.  For me he is also, strangely enough, one of the clearest routes that brought me to public history.  




I found The Book of Embraces on the bookshelf at a friend's house almost 20 years ago.  I asked if I could borrow it and he said it wasn't his cup of tea, "Keep it."  Soon after, another friend saw it on my bookshelf and asked if he could borrow it.  Off it went, just a few short weeks after it had arrived.  

I still have that copy. In it, my friend had inscribed: "I loved this book so much,  I don't really want to part with it. Still, I don't want to hang onto it a second longer when you've not yet read it."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Do You Have a Problem with the Word Failure?

People don't like to talk about failure.  They prefer other terms.  Challenges.  Stumbling blocks.  Hiccups. Preludes to success. Opportunities for growth. They embrace what my friend Elizabeth calls the perky reframe.  (I got fired, but hey, I have a lot more time to devote to my popsicle stick collection.)

Most of all, they prefer you don't openly call something a failure.


Sound familiar, anyone?  There are good reasons people shy away from labeling things, especially programs, projects or collaborative endeavors, failures.  It can be  embarrassing to admit. It may jeopardize your public image or compromise your legitimacy. For those of us who rely on grants, fellowships and donations, it might risk funding. If something with which we are involved fails, it is possible we ourselves will come off looking like failures.



Me, I don't trust people who can't talk openly about failure.  It could be my experience with Irish history. The Irish ability to use, celebrate, even sanctify virtuous defeat is an impressive thing.  It was an Irishman, Samuel Beckett, who penned one of my mantras:



quotation by Samuel Beckett

Yes, we should allow ourselves to be humbled by failure and inspired to try again, try harder, be better. But there is more to it than that. Admitting failure is not giving up, throwing in the towel, being defeatist.  It is not surrender.  Admitting failure is pausing to reflect on why things are not going as planned and learning from that.

How can we hold the moment in which we become aware and genuinely reflective in relation to  failure?   



Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What People Think of Museums

What do people think of when they think about museums? 

Specifically, I am talking about what  college students, most of whom come from eastern Massachusetts, think of when you ask them to do a free association with the word "museums."  Now to be fair, this class of mine, Intro to Public History, has a mixed blend of students.  Some are avid young public historians and they take as many classes as they can in material culture, museum studies, architecture, local history, etc.  Others, ummm, it fit their schedule.   So here's what comes to mind for them:






I am not sure why we had so much fun with this, or why I found the exercise both utterly entertaining and oddly gratifying.  But I did.  We laughed a lot.  We had an intelligent conversation.  

I guess that's it.  We laughed a lot and had an intelligent conversation.  (Not necessarily mutually exclusive activities, but you'd be surprised how rarely the two occur simultaneously.)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Vanishing and Secret Apps: approximating ephemerality?


What we say on the record has changed radically over just the past five years or so.  I think it has also devalued the first-person narrative.  Basic economics, right, 'cause there's an awful lot of it out there.    So, of course, I am interested in how the way we communicate is changing.  There was an interesting article by Hiawatha Bray in the Boston Globe this morning about our reacquaintance with the value of privacy:

"You remember privacy, right? We were quite fond of it until the Internet came along. Then we started handing our personal data to anybody who promised us free e-mail service."  
Bray highlights apps like Wickr, SnapChat and Telegram, where ostensibly, the content of your conversations is deleted and erased.  Like a real time conversation, it is ephemeral.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fun Home Follow-Up

A few posts back, I wrote about teaching Alison Bechdel's Fun Home for the first time.  I thought I'd follow up with a few reflections on how that went.





I love students' honesty.  Jabari commented as soon as we opened up the conversation that while he had originally had no intention of reading the book ("I was just going to read a summary",) he got engrossed and actually read it.  There were lots of nodding heads.  Aside from the whole, "I have no shame about telling you that I consider the syllabus purely as a set of vague recommendations," I considered it a win.  Fun Home had them hooked.

And then there's the motley band of students.  Of course, the debate began immediately with whether or not the dad had committed suicide. One student had spent eight years working in a funeral home and was adamant that a professional in the business would never choose a death as "messy" as getting run over by a truck.  "He never would have done that. Plus he was all about aesthetics and that is seriously not an aesthetically-pleasing way to go."


Monday, February 24, 2014

Dialogue with Racial Violence - Really?

So, turns out that three first year students from the Ole Miss chapter of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity were probably responsible for defacing the statue of James Meredith on the Ole Miss campus last weekend.  The chapter's been indefinitely suspended, but not before it voted to expel the students allegedly responsible for tying a noose around the neck of the statue and enrobing it in a flag emblazoned with the Confederate Battle flag.  Their parents must be so proud.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Teaching Fun Home as Public History

I assigned Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic for the first time in Public History and my students are reading it now. It is an amazing graphic novel that just got turned into a musical.


I assigned it because I wanted to teach something about identity as it relates to the social frameworks of memory and to connect it to the ways in which we localize memories through landscapes, objects and images. I also wanted to do something on family history. 





So, what do I want students to get out of this reading experience?  What questions do I hope they ask and explore as they read the text and examine the graphics?  How do I encourage them to think beyond the coming of age/coming out/coming to terms with a gay dad stories to think about the structure of the text and the relationships between memory and identity?  The things that made the book so fascinating to me actually focused around Bechdel's literary relationship with her father --- she experienced the relationship through texts --- Joyce, Proust, Salinger, Faulkner, the ancient Greek myths. Her dad was an English teacher as well as a part time funeral home director.