Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Glenn Beck's Museum

Glenn Beck displayed some serious historical artifacts at his recent "Man in the Moon" event in Salt Lake City.  Here is a video from a local Salt Lake City television station:

Believe it or not, David Barton has something to do with this museum.  Here is a taste of an article that appeared last week in the Deseret News in which Barton discusses the collection of Brent Ashworth, the antiquarian who put part of his collection on display at the Man in the Moon event:

The reason Brent is important is because he believes history can repeat itself,” Barton said. “If you believe history doesn’t repeat itself and we can’t learn from it, then guys like Brent aren’t important.

"What Brent’s got is not only one of the most unique collections in the world, but especially important for Americans, because it shows us what we’ve done wrong — things we should repeat and things we shouldn’t repeat," Barton said. "The problem is when you get in a sterile classroom, they can make it look like anything they want. But when you pull out the original artifacts, that adds a whole other level of credibility.

I commend Beck for displaying these artifacts to the public in this way.  I am glad that so many people got to see them. I also commend Barton for encouraging us to learn something from these artifacts, although I don't understand the point he is trying to make with the "history repeats itself" line as it relates to Ashworth's collection.

But there is more to history than the display of artifacts.  These artifacts are mere antiquarian curiosities until they are interpreted.  And despite Barton's skepticism about classroom history, the classroom is precisely the place where these kinds of  interpretive stories should be told. The act of placing such artifacts in context and understanding them in relationship to other objects and stories is what brings meaning to this kind of material culture.  This is the essence of doing history.

For example, the Arnold Friberg painting of George Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge (pictured above) tells us more about 1975 (the year it was painted), Mormonism (Friberg was a Mormon), or popular art than about what happened at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778.  As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (with the help of other scholars), the event as portrayed in this photo probably never happened.

I have no doubt that Beck and Barton told some interesting stories about these documents and artifacts during the Man in the Moon event, but if their track record is any guide I am skeptical about how successful they employed the so-called "5cs of Historical Thinking" in the process.

I say more about this approach to historical thinking, and even have a few things to say about Beck and Barton, in my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  It will be available in early September.

Hat tip to Kevin Lynch at Past is Present blog for calling my attention to some of the links in this post.