Historically Bad Advice

Stepping off a plane at BWI this weekend, I spotted an ad for Saul Ewing, the venerable Philadelphia law firm, across from the gate. Below a headline asking “Will you have the right counsel when you need it?” the ad featured a painting of General George Custer and a quote from an imagined advisor at the Little Big Horn. “General Custer,” the quote read, “I say we attack. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me. Fingers crossed, I went to Saul Ewing’s homepage when I got home, and I was excited to find that the Custer ad is actually part of a larger campaign. (Found History readers may remember that this isn’t the first time this has happened.) Each of the four ads in the campaign features a different “historic” personage and the bad advice his lawyers may have given him, in each case to his tragic disadvantage. In addition to Custer, Saul Ewing invites us to consider the captain of the Titanic, the gatekeeper at Troy, and the chief architect of the Tower of Pisa.

Obviously this is questionable history, as Saul Ewing itself surely knows, but it’s pretty effective advertising and a clever use of history in the marketplace.

Building Histories

I wanted to post this before a new issue came out, but alas I didn’t make it in time. In case you missed it, the May 21st New York Times Magazine featured a series of articles on the question of why contemporary architecture, above all other art forms, inspires popular cultural debates. The editors’ brief introduction suggests a tie to history. “Buildings aren’t always set in stone,” they write, “Over the following pages, four illustrations document places with more than one past.” (The New York Times Magazine, 21 May 2006, p. 67) In other words, according to The Times, arguments over architecture are really arguments over history.

One article in the four-part series makes a particularly good case for the truth of this equation. In his piece Expanding on Jefferson, Washington College professor Adam Goodheart shows how decades-long disagreements over plans to build a new “South Lawn” at the University of Virginia are grounded in deeper debates about the role the past plays or should play in present-day life. He shows how campus architecture has motivated questions about appropriate modes commemoration and homage—in this case for Thomas Jefferson, founder of UVa and architect of the original Lawn. Ultimately, in Goodheart’s analysis, the debate comes down to a historiographical or historiotectural (my term) question: interpretation or imitation?

On one side is the faculty of UVa’s Architecture School, who have consitently argued for interpretation. As Professor Ed Ford says:

It’s like the pantheon, or Amiens cathedral, or the Kimbell museum—it’s not something you can replicate. If you build a copy of it next door, that will diminish the experience of the Lawn, not enhance it. (The New York Times Magazine, 21 May 2006, p. 84)

On the other side are partisans of immitation, including many prominent alumni, with some persuasive arguements of their own:

Whenever we represent the university on a postcard, we show the Lawn. That’s us—and that’s Classical. (Don Pippin, The New York Times Magazine, 21 May 2006, p. 84)

Quotes like this demonstrate how firmly the past is present in UVa’s architectural debates, how deeply it’s bound up with questions of identity. At the same time, Goodheart shows that these aren’t merely local questions. They extend beyond the university and the immediate players both in space and time. On the one hand, Goodheart points a full-page ad placed in the campus newspaper by external supporters of the traditionalist camp (including a representative of Prince Charles’s Foundation for the Built Environment). On the other hand, he points to an old issue of Architectural Forum, which even in 1934 observed:

The shade of Jefferson broods over Charlottesville. Misunderstood, embalmed by little minds in static thought, the revolutionist must turn forever in an angry grave. The grandeur of his University looks down at sycophants who ape his cornices at puny scale, forget his sense of space, and strive forever to repeat the form without the soul. (The New York Times Magazine, 21 May 2006, p. 85)

The built environment, and arguments about it, are thus important places for the popular construction of historical narrative and identity. At UVa and elsewhere, the physical persistence and lasting employment of architecture make the art form a uniquely powerful focus for popular grappling with the past. Of course, this will not come as any great insight to architectural historians or historic preservationists, and nor is it anything really new to me. But being primarily a textual historian and working in this text-based, virtual medium of the blog, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the bricks, mortar, and concrete of buildings. Clearly the public does not make the same oversight in constructing its own historical identities. Found History shouldn’t either.

Storm Stories

Just like VH1 and MTV, The Weather Channel has padded its schedule with history. Filling the gaps between this week’s flood, last week’s blizzard, and the tornado two weeks from now, Storm Stories is one of the Weather Channel’s only non-news programs:

Storm Stories focuses on the inspiring experiences of ordinary people who are placed in extraordinary circumstances due to the weather. Storm Stories features diverse programming ranging from a historical look at a typhoon that battered the Navy during WWII; to a Mid-Western family struggling to survive a tornado; to a group of snow rescuers falling victim to a deadly mountain avalanche.

The Weather Channel, presenting narrative accounts of past weather events, every night at 8 p.m.

Lincoln Billboard

I noticed this billboard on I-84 in Danbury, CT on my way back from Christmas in Massachusetts. Since then, I’ve been kicking myself that I didn’t stop to get a picture for Found History. But now I’m glad I didn’t. As I learned in my online search for the billboard, it turns out to be sponsored by something called The Foundation for a Better Life. Here’s how they describe their operation:

The mission of The Foundation for a Better Life, through various media efforts, is to encourage adherence to a set of quality values through personal accountability and by raising the level of expectations of performance of all individuals regardless of religion or race. Through these efforts, the Foundation wants to remind individuals they are accountable and empowered with the ability to take responsibility for their lives and to promote a set of values that sees them through their failures and capitalizes on their successes. An individual who takes responsibility for his or her actions will take care of his or her family, job, community, and country.

You can draw your own conclusions.

In any case, it looks like they’ve spent an awful lot of money on billboards and TV ads in which not just Lincoln, but a host of prominent historical figures, are used to embody certain selected (family?) values. Thus, Lincoln is “persistence”, Edison is “optimism”, Ghandi is “soul”, and Churchill is “commitment”. Obviously there are serious problems with this kind of historical argument, first and foremost the attempt to write biograpy in a single word. There’s also the choice of subjects, the choice of values, and the parings between the two. Still, I think the billboards do a pretty good job of tapping into popular notions of historical biography and are probably worth paying attention to … if only to know what we’re up against in our pursuit of the popular historical imagination.

I want my HTV?

Many people have commented on the disappearance of music from music television. Fewer people have looked closely at what has been installed in its place. Whereas music videos were once mainstays of MTV and VH1, historical programming increasingly dominates these channels, especially VH1.

The move towards historical programming at VH1 began in 1997 with Behind the Music, a program the network describes as taking, “an intimate look into the personal lives of pop music’s greatest and most influential artists, tracing their struggles, setbacks and successes in more than 150 episodes to date.” The historical orientation was made more explicit and became more entrenched with the hit series, I Love the 80s, in which:

Each one-hour episode takes viewers on a stream-of-consciousness tour of one year of the Eighties with vivid flashbacks of the people, music, movies, TV shows, products, fashions, fads, trends and major events that defined pop culture that year.

This success was followed in turn by I Love the 70s, I Love the 90s, I Love the 80s Strikes Back, I Love the 80s 3-D, and I Love the 90s Part Deux. VH1 now offers a wide range of historical programming, including Behind the Movie, Before They Were Rock Stars, Driven (a sort of celebrity hagiography), and 40 Most Awesomely Bad [blank] Songs Ever. To a lesser extent, MTV has also entered the history biz with programs such as The Social History of Hair and The Social History of Body Piercing.

I suspect that at first the music channels didn’t know it was history they were doing. But they’ve definitely caught on. The producers of one of VH1’s newest shows, When [blank] Ruled the World clearly know it:

When [blank] Ruled The World is a one-hour oral and visual history of pop culture phenomena for VH1. This is not history. This is POPhistory — the story of a cultural history as it was felt collectively by a mass culture.

So by now VH1’s producers know this kind of programming is history. But the apology implied by the use of the term “POPhistory” suggests they’re worried about calling it history lest they turn someone off. This in turn suggests that VH1’s producers think their audiences haven’t yet figured out for themselves that this stuff is history.

I’m not so sure. I suspect audiences have known it was history all along and have liked it in spite—-or perhaps because—-of that. I wonder if VH1 has any research on this.

History and the New Year

checkout.jpgWhen I launched Found History over the weekend, I didn’t fully appreciate the timing. It only occurred to me yesterday in the supermarket that late-December is a great time to start collecting examples of non-professional history. For the next two weeks or so, we will be bombarded by year-end retrospectives, “Best of 2005” lists, “Top 10” countdowns, and the like. Considering that the Romans named next month after Janus, their god of change, this kind of mid-winter popular retrospection probably isn’t a new phenomenon. Maybe the winter solstice, which happens later today, naturally puts us in a historical frame of mind. Whatever the reason, I think I’ll be busy for the next two weeks taking snaps like this one.