Making the Past Visible: Introduction

Curator's Note

From newly indexed collections in brick and mortar archives, to “official” online sources, to hidden or just under-funded collections, there is an expanding universe of historical artifacts to access. What do we do with those artifacts once we copy, photograph, or download them? This workshop will bring together scholars at SCMS 2015 who work with historical film, television, and digital artifacts and archival documents to have a discussion about how best to bring these materials into scholarship, into the classroom, and to the public. As historians we sometimes gain access to unofficial, unprocessed collections. What are the appropriate ways to use, share, and cite this material? How can we help the organizations who lack the funding and staff to properly preserve and manage their collections? This workshop will discuss different ways of organizing and sharing artifacts, not just to gain access or manage them, but to see and hear them in ways that instigate historiographical thought. Still and moving images can speak more powerfully than words, but are more challenging to quote in traditional publication. How do we make the past visible (or audible) in the scholarly products we produce?

In this video, I talk about some of the ways I dealt with “making the past visible” in my research on the 1960 NBC special, Story of a Family, a program I believe is an early forerunner to the family-reality genre. I wanted to make a documentary to show parts of the program and show the family talking about the program—especially the way it reflected and distorted their lives. But even in research for writing an article about the show, I struggled with “seeing” the historical materials I had collected in productive ways. What do you do when you stubble into an abundance of material you need to wrap your head around? What are the best ways to productively access and use those materials in your research, present them in your scholarship, and preserve them for others to see and use in the future, too?


Thanks for this video, Ethan, and for putting together the conference workshop that we are all looking forward to. I think the proprietary feelings many of us have are one among a number of obstacles to sharing archives and making them visible. Saving materials for publication (or for the screening of a finished documentary), which is of course a slow process, inhibits us from learning as much as possible within communities of scholarly practice. I'm in favor of circulating research materials rather than hoarding them. We should assume that our original contributions will come from the analysis and interpretation, not from our "scoop." There are other inhibitions that go along with these feelings: respecting copyright and the fuzziness of fair use; informal online publication and uncertainty over whether it "counts"; and being unsure if there are others who see value where we see it, whether they are scholars or amateurs or whoever may be interested. Maybe there are others. How to see and hear these materials once they have been shared seems like a key point, because sources don't interpret themselves. Sharing things is not the same as making sense of them. I hope we can talk more about this.

Good point, Michael. I propose banning all proprietary feelings in academia! Only half joking here. We don't own ideas; we don't own archival material. What we can ask for is credit for how we express our ideas, how we engage others with those ideas, how we employ and interpret archival material in exploring those ideas, and, finally, how we make that archival material visible and useful to others. (We should get points for sharing rather than for hoarding!) Thanks, Ethan, for bringing up these issues in this workshop.

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