Ireland’s history has certainly been tumultuous, violent and complicated. And learning about it made us think about how history is conceived, perceived and how historical knowledge is best transferred.
In our family we are all breathing, telling about and questioning history all the time. I am currently enjoying Tony Judt’s “Memory Chalet”, while Rory is reading Zinn’s “People’s History of the US”. Charlie and I studied the history of Southern Italian migration as we uncovered the stories of his grandparents.
Ten years ago my sister Katinka wrote her diploma thesis about the utilization of time witnesses in German history perception (paraphrasing the title). Today she uses her craft of documentary filmmaking to record the oral histories and lives of people who were affected by the Holocaust.
In Berlin, walking around town you’ll discover “Stolpersteine”, little brass plaques in the ground that remind you of the name of a person who lived at the address and who was killed by the Nazis.
The Holocaust memorial in downtown Berlin is much more abstract: a huge field of stone slabs designed to make you feel uneasy and lost. The Obama family tried the effect the other day.
Back to Ireland. In Dublin, we went to Dublinia - a museum “to lose yourself in Viking and Medieval Dublin”. It is located where old and new Dublin meet, close to a site known as Wood Quay, which was where the Vikings first settled the town in 841. In the early 1970ies, the city’s government decided to build new civic offices right there. Once they had cleared the site to ground level, they discovered the origins of the Viking town.
Yet the government never realized the archeological wealth and importance of the site, and despite years of protests from Dubliners who wanted to protect their Viking heritage, in 1978 excavations were stopped, the whole site bulldozed and the new buildings erected. Today the “Save Wood Quay” campaign itself has become part of Dublin’s history and the subject of documentaries. Even though it failed to preserve the Viking site, it has helped raise awareness of historical preservation.
Back to the Dublinia museum - I guess museum experts would call the style “interactive multimedia.” You could touch stuff, things talked, moved, lit up or made noises. Including a Viking going noisily to the bathroom. The Vikings used moss to wipe their butts, in case you were wondering.
Museums have come a long way from the traditional glass vitrines with rows and rows of arrowheads. Today they want you to feel like you are right there and to get a sense of what life was like. Yet, it comes across a little too “bemueht”. Curators (or are they now designers?) work too hard to hammer all your senses constantly, and strain (like the shitting Viking) too much to help you “lose yourself”. I am just glad the medieval exhibit didn’t have an olfactory element to it. The coughing mannequin dying from black death was enough.
Then in Drogehda, we visited the little museum at the foot of the Millmount tower. If you had walked through the place on your own, it would have been a somewhat random collection of local artifacts donated to the museum from private collections. But we walked the exhibition and the tower accompanied by three different narrating guides. They brought Drogheda and its past alive, even to me who had not studied much of Irish history to date and who was overwhelmed by all the dates and names.
They told fascinating stories of the life of factory workers, revolutionaries, Henry the VIII, Cromwell’s siege of 1649, Irish freedom fighters, a hand ball player and a boxer migrating to Canada (the boxer’s Olympian outfit, unwashed after the fight as per his request, is displayed). They explained 1800’s guild banners’ symbolism, and how a Boyne River boat was built from sticks and leather, and what happened in 1922 when Irish Republicans and Irish Treaty supporters fought it out in Drogheda and destroyed part of the Millmount tower in the process.
The Millmount guides were like that great teacher some of us were fortunate to have, very knowledgeable and passionate about their subject, able to make it personal, interesting and close to the heart. Now I’ll always remember Drogheda and its turbulent history.
The word history means “knowledge from inquiry”. I think telling stories is still the best way to transmit history. Our kids often prompt Charlie… “Tell the story when the Hippie House got shot at!”, or any of his numerous other stories they have heard many times. Driving through Berlin last week, a place were 20th century history is in your face all the time, Ruby asked me: What was Berlin like when you were a kid? I’ll have some stories to tell….