Monday, February 8, 2016

Is it really history? Or just the past’s trivial garbage cluttering our present?

As a person who spent his college years studying history, I am familiar with the arguments made about what exactly is appropriate for academic study.

'Wisconsin Steel' kept many Chicagoans employed
Did we focus way too much of the past study on the antics of now-dead white guys? Did we miss out on the stories of regular people of the past – particularly those of a more-intense melanin content level in their skin complexions?

My grandfather cleaned up well after week in steel mill
OR ARE THOSE people who make such an argument going so far to try to legitimize their own stories that they’re bringing up trivial points – rather than letting us know what was truly significant in our past.

Now I don’t doubt that some people use historic study not so much to comprehend who we as a society were, but to try to legitimize what they want to believe – and downplay people whom they’d prefer not to have to acknowledge at all.

My own thoughts about history are to say that none of my elementary or high school history courses taught me a thing of significance. And the sad part is that many allegedly-educated people don’t take much in the way of history courses beyond that academic level.

History? Or not?
All of this came to my mind this weekend because of my touristy-type behavior. I spent part of Saturday wandering about Chicago with camera in hand, collecting stock photos I can use to illustrate my writings here about various aspects of the Second City.
I EVEN MADE a stop at a museum – the Chicago History Museum up in Lincoln Park.

I have been there many times before, and have my memories of grade school field trips burned into my brain. Those dioramas of old Chicago scenes and the various artifacts that survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 – I will never forget the sight of those charred cookies found in the rubble that somehow were preserved.

But I couldn’t help but notice many new exhibits and artifacts on display that I suspect would never have made the cut at the museum of the past.
I never wrote on a typewriter that nice!
My own favorite was the sight of letters from the old Wisconsin Steel Works sign on the factory that used to exist at 106th Street and Torrence Avenue in the South Deering neighborhood.

A PLANT I heard about many times growing up because it is where my maternal grandfather, Michael Vargas, got a job upon coming to this country from Mexico as a young man and wound up working there until he hit retirement age.

Somehow, I doubt the museum of old would have been too obsessed telling me about Fort Dearborn and the “massacre” to have spent much time telling me about the Southeast Side steel mills that were a significant part of my family’s lives (both of my grandfathers worked in them) and many other Chicagoans.

And as for that exhibit about the ’68 Democratic Convention and the protesters – hippie posters next to a light-blue police helmet? It would have been ignored in the past, unless someone felt compelled to try to write history to erase the phrase “police riot” from its description.

Would modern-day reporter-types 'get it'
Personally, I was intrigued by the exhibit the museum now has about ordinary objects and how even they tell stories about who we once were.

WHY ELSE WOULD I have had the chance to see a telephone booth (no sign of Clark Kent approaching needing to change his clothes) or a typewriter put prominently on display?

Although I can already hear the rants and rages of the alleged historic purists saying there’s nothing important about a phone booth – although I’ll admit to still finding myself engaging in an old reporter-type habit of looking for a public payphone anywhere I go.

Just in case news breaks out and I have to call my editor – while first calling the receptionist “sweetheart” – to report the details.
I also have to wonder what they thought of the sight of the exhibit about food and "Chicago-style" hot dogs -- allowing people to turn a giant wiener into their own personal favorite concoction.

Let's really upset the history 'purists'
BEING IN SUCH a touristy mood perhaps made it all the more appropriate that I also included a walk to, and through, Millennium Park – which I have to confess that until Saturday, I had never actually visited.

I got to see those pictures of people who periodically spit fountains of water, while also checking out the new ice rink that appears too clean and pristine for Chicago, lacking the grit and makeshift nature of the old ice rink that occupied the Block 37 space by the Daley Center all those years.

Then, I did the ultimate geek tourist move – I took a photograph of myself off the reflection of the Cloud Gate sculpture. More commonly referred to as “the Bean.” At this rate, it will be soon that I’ll be espousing the merits of the Chicago Cubbies like all the other touristy-types who don’t have the nerve to set foot on the Sout’ Side.
Historic artifact? Or moment of silliness
I was far from alone in having such a picture taken. People from all parts of the world who happened to be in Chicago on Saturday were doing the same.

WHICH MAKES ME wonder. Will that photographic image itself become a historical artifact that will show future generations what people would do upon visiting Chicago?

Or is it just trivial evidence that I had nothing better to do Saturday afternoon?


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