“Cultural memory” meets cognitive science

A fascinating study on “cultural memory”– http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/28/science/study-details-presidents-paths-from-power-to-dusty-corner-of-cultural-memory.html

A remarkably useful study conducted — as good science should be– longitudinally on cultural memory, using presidential names and their “memorability” as a test.

(and who “remembers” — literally– Chester A. Arthur? Show of hands:  ) images

Collective cultural memory — for presidents, for example — works according to the same laws as the individual kind, at least when it comes to recalling historical names and remembering them in a given order, researchers reported on Thursday. The findings suggest that leaders who are well known today, like the elder President George Bush and President Bill Clinton, will be all but lost to public memory in just a few decades….. 

Scientists have a straightforward theory to explain this uneven, predictable memory curve. The brain evolved so that the skills and knowledge that are most useful now or in the future are those most accessible to memory. If a skill is not used or rehearsed, it fades. Culture mimics the pattern: The less a president is “used” — seen, heard about, written about, referred to — the less accessible to memory the name becomes.

The study authors predict that presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon and Carter will by 2040 be remembered by less than a quarter of the public. After that, it is a steep fall to Millard Fillmore land.

“Revising” history? A new historical marker for Sherman’s March

A new historical marker has gone up in Atlanta, and it is raising questions about historical “revisionism” and how events in the past– especially destructive and emotionally-fraught events, such as Sherman’s March to the Sea– how remembered and memorialized, how they are — literally– set in stone for the future.  ALTJPATLANTA1-articleLarge

“There’s still a strong resentment for what happened and how it happened and for Sherman himself,” Dr. James C. Cobb said. “They want to whitewash everything and make it so much nicer than it was. It wasn’t nice. War isn’t.

“You all the time run into college kids who don’t know which side Sherman was on — and their parents and certainly their grandparents would be aghast to know that. It’s not just a matter of education. It’s a matter of being the blank slate that younger generations present for revision or education that older generations don’t because they’re steeped in the mythology of their ancestors.”

“Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office”

An article in the New York Times a few weeks ago detailed the re-creation of a 1920s “eugenics office” from New York’s Cold Spring Laboratory

“An old stucco house stands atop a grassy hill overlooking the Long Island Sound. Less than a mile down the road, the renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory bustles with more than 600 researchers and technicians, regularly producing breakthroughs in genetics, cancer and neuroscience.

But that old house, now a private residence on the outskirts of town, once held a facility whose very name evokes dark memories: the Eugenics Record Office.

In its heyday, the office was the premier scientific enterprise at Cold Spring Harbor. There, bigoted scientists applied rudimentary genetics to singling out supposedly superior races and degrading minorities. By the mid-1920s, the office had become the center of the eugenics movement in America.

Today, all that remains of it are files and photographs — reams of discredited research that once shaped anti-immigration laws, spurred forced-sterilization campaigns and barred refugees from entering Ellis Island. Now, historians and artists at New York University are bringing the eugenics office back into the public eye.”

‘Nation to Nation,’ at Museum of the American Indian – NYTimes.com

An important review of an even more important exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian.

 

Edward Rothstein has been highly critical of history museums in general and this one in specific– he even links to his own review from 10 years ago of the opening of the museum, referring to the first exhibitions there as an “intellectual catastrophe.”  He has calmed down a bit for this review, but still has some critical things to say.

“In many respects, the exhibition, like the museum itself, is so focused on a broad account of injustice that it slights nuance, detail and qualification. But it also leaves hope that in time, the museum will make peace with the past so that past can be more fully explored.”

 

 

‘Nation to Nation,’ at Museum of the American Indian – NYTimes.com.

 

 

 

The History of the World in 10000 Things: New York Times article

A fascinating piece from the Times on the recent vogue for doing books and exhibits that are just assortments of things, collectively telling a certain story, sort of.

0928ROBERTS-master495

An object allows people to touch the past, but Hannah Rosefield, a cultural critic, identifies a chicken-and-egg question: “There’s a difference between the history of a thing and using a thing to tell the history of something else.” And while our infatuation with lists doesn’t necessarily trivialize history, the objects we validate are limited to those that somehow survived. Consider this caveat from Russell Baker, the former New York Times columnist: “Objects,” he once mused, “can be classified scientifically into three major categories: those that don’t work, those that break down and those that get lost.”