As we travel we see history everywhere. Whether you want to or not, you are gathering historical information.
Art, architecture, landscapes… all inform you about your destination's past. On day tours, guides will tell you about your destination's history – likely sharing a simplistic view of it. People you meet along the way will reveal their social history through their choice of vocabulary, perspectives, and interests.
History was my field of study at university as it also was when I returned for graduate school almost 10 years ago. Yes, I think it's important. However, as we travel we have limited time and resources with which to understand the history. It's important to maintain a degree of uncertainty about what we learn and recognize the ambiguity that is present in all history.
Missing History – Seeing What's Not There
When I was in Parma, Italy I went to the Teatro Farnese in the Palazzo della Pilotta. I looked at the building and became curious about its shape. Though it is something that one could easily walk by, it really didn't take much imagination to see that the building was not in its original form. Look at the photo above. The gap in the building was created by a bomb in World War II. It is the tell-tale sign that something happened here. What's not there is historical evidence.
The same applies to the statue below. The Danse Triomphale is located in the 16th arrondisement. I walked past it on my way to the Eiffel Tower. It's quite beautiful. But look at the plaque beneath it. Clearly something was considered amiss with it at some point in time. Knowing what it was would reveal some interesting history. I wish I could have found the original.
Reconstructed History – Seeing the Real
I remember a cousin showing me an axe. It had been in the family for generations, he said. It was his great grandfather's axe – never mind the fact that by those years it had had eight new handles and four new heads.
When we look at history, sometimes we are seeing a representation or recreation of history. When I first went to the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio in Bologna, I looked at it as if it had been there in that form since the beginning in 1636. But, on my way out the door I saw a small exhibit of photographs showing the theater after a World War II air raid on January 29, 1944. The theater was almost completely destroyed. What I had just viewed was a reconstruction. By the looks of things, it was a good reconstruction but one must be mindful when seeing recreated buildings and other artifacts in cities and towns with long histories. They can be made to represent the politics of the day rather than history.
Interpreted History – Seeing Perspectives
In Monument Valley, Utah, two truths of the same history played out in front of me on a very practical level.
US Route 163 goes right through Monument Valley. The main crossroad is Monument Valley Road. At this point, on one side of the highway is Goulding's Lodge and other services. On the other side is a Navajo market and, further up the road, Monument Valley Tribal Park run by the Diné (commonly called the Navajo, but they refer to themselves as Diné). The history told on each side of Route 163 was somewhat different. There is truth to be found on both sides of Route 163. History is affected by who is doing the telling.