Conceptualizing The Past

When I was 12 years old, my dad took my brother and me to the Exploratorium. It was Amazing! The last exhibit was a music station. There were large cards, something that looked like a hole punch, and the barrel shaped metal plucking bit from inside a music box. OMG! With the hole punch in one hand and the card in the other I thought, “this must be how Beethoven felt when he composed Moonlight Sonata,” because, yes, I was just that kind of a musical nerd. I could hear the music in my heart. It was brilliant; I was a genius. When I was done “writing” my magical piece I moved over to the machine to share it with my dad and brother. The little metal arms plinked and plunked my Sonata. It was random, chaotic nonsense. A cat walking across a piano’s keys would have sounded better. Some might call it cognitive dissonance, others might say it was childish pride, but once the card came off the machine, I separated the awful sound the machine had made from the beautiful music my card was. My card was my music.   

To this day I think it’s important to realize that what something represents, isn’t the item it’s describing (see the pipe above). We are always seeking ways to take information and turn it into something we can see, such as pie charts, graphs, and strange webs with little dots. For thousands of years, humans have tried to record what they see in paintings. The history captured in the chart or painting is separate from the graph or painting that could have a history all its own. This week I examined ways we conceptualize the past.   

The first thing I learned was from The History of Humanities Computing by Susan Hockey. I learned that there was a man Father Roberto Busa who was interested in building an index of 11 million words. This was back in the 1950s. All those words had to be hand punched onto cards. The cards were taken “by the truckload” to be processed by computers. Imagine how daunting of a task that must have been! There is an award named after him.

What came next was Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere by Kieran Healy. This showed how a small amount of information could be used to build connections between people. 

I think the web above is interesting to look at and I can see how it could give a historian a place to begin when researching connections. However, the web is just that, a starting point. Just because Paul Revere is in the center of the mobs doesn’t necessarily mean he was the social axis of the groups. I can think of people whom I know to be members of many groups; however, they hardly do more than show up to pay their dues in any of the organizations. What the data represents might not be the reality. 

A healthy dose of daily skepticism is important for all researchers including those in the Humanities. We rely on the past to tell us about itself and much of the time there are gaps in the information. Sometimes what wasn’t said can be almost as exciting as what was recorded. One of my favorite ways of looking at the past is through art. I love art so much that I minored in Humanities in my undergraduate so I could take a bunch of art history classes. 

“Idealized” might be the artistic word historians call biases. In Thomas Cole’s four-painting series The Course of Empire, the trajectory of the series is small groups of nomadic people, become farmers, build a civilization; war crushes civilization, and the stone ruins of buildings are reclaimed by nature.  Cole’s rendering of early nomadic humans life in The Savage State looks a lot like an American Indian camp. Farming and domesticating of animals in The Arcadian State is portrayed by  Europen looking figures dressed in grecian like clothing. The Consummation of Empire looks like every building constructed in ancient Greece was crammed into the frame to make the perfect city. Mankind had dominated nature. The city was very white, bright and crowded. In Destruction strong, hairy men dressed almost like Roman soldiers set fire to the city and murder the civilized inhabitants. In the final scene, Desolation, the city has long been abandoned, plants and vines are growing up columns and between broken bits of stone. Cole took a theme about human history and visually constructed a narrative that wasn’t real. The paintings don’t depict an actual place in geography or time. I think the painting tell us more about Cole’s generation, how they understood the past and made sense of the world they lived in. 

What is your favorite painting from Cole’s The Course of Empire? Comment below.





3 thoughts on “Conceptualizing The Past”

  1. Interesting point that the visualization and the data can have lives of their own. I was a data analyst for years, and it often struck me how much a slick graph could be the difference between people ‘getting’ an idea and their eyes glazing over. I like the idea that visualizing data helps us think about it in a different way, but I’m not sure I take very good advantage of that. I should get better at making graphs!

    And hey, why haven’t hipsters brought back punchcards, yet?

  2. That was a great story you told in the beginning. I’m sure that many of us have similar stories of something we saw or did like that at a young age that made a great impression on us. I remember seeing a pie chart of the total amount of American lives lost in all of the wars in US history. It was the first time I really understood just how violent and destructive the American Civil War was. They even included a semi transparent pie slice inside of the Civil War slice that was just the battle of Gettysburg. These techniques made an impression, with me at least, that they no doubt intended to do.

  3. Are you referring to me in Phi alpha theta? Lol. Well hell, I really enjoyed all the paintings. I thought of Cole as an environmentalist with an Armageddon twist. Kinda eery. After thinking about what you said, I think people use pie charts and graphs in order to see history in other ways besides reading. Because someone’s words are usually biased. But numbers don’t lie. Graphs and pie charts are really the opposite of Cole’s paintings. Numbers versus art. Now I’m feeling quite philosophical.


Tell me what you think.

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