We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us. ~W.B. Yeats

In the 2008 mini-series Lost in Austen, an English woman named Amanda Price, obsessed with the book Pride and Prejudice finds herself transported into the book and back in time to Georgian England by stepping through the back wall of her bathtub. Stay with me, so through a series of events she finds herself back in present day London with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett trying to get them through the door back to their own time. As she stands in her bath room with the two fictional characters and her best friend watching from the side lines, Amanda beckons her friend forward to the doorway into the past, saying “You should see this Pirhana, I’m talking ten minutes max”, to which Pirhana responds “Amanda, I’m black”. [1] (3.45-3.52) Popular history most commonly favors white conceptualizations of the past; where does this leave the audiences who fall outside that very narrow boundary. The desire to see one’s own story in the past whether it be in film, books or exhibits, is a way to identify and understand the information presented to us, but when the story told leaves us out, where do we then turn?

David Hollinger’s “National Culture and Communities of Descent” brings forward the idea of “the will to descend”, to refer to the deep-seated drive to claim politically potent historic artifacts for a contemporary descent community.” [2] It is the reason people search for genealogies, and why people keep family crests. It’s the need to feel a proud connection to your past, in the contribution your predecessors made to the culture in which you live. Where does that leave people outside that ‘white label’, who are searching for their stories in modern culture? For Pirhana the prospect of going back to 19th century England fills the girl with dread, not the excitement Amanda felt. The result is two girls, in the same social circles, unable to view history in the same way. Pirhana cannot fathom the idea of traveling back to a time when she would have been a slave, her history and culture do not allow for the same type of joy Amanda feels when she is rushed back in time. There is such an emphasis on the white upper and middle class story that it leaves those outside the realm of that history looking for their own story, their own part in history.

We view the past through our own experiences looking for the’ cultural capital’ to connect. While Hollinger at one point refers to it as “cultural theft”, that ability to understand the past through our decedents’ experience is utilized in museums all the time. Though the story Pride and Prejudice does not speak of slaves, Pirhana’s race and culture make her more aware of the consequences of going through the door than Amanda. We identify with what we know, even when there is no direct link. In museums we ask audiences to identify with a painting, or a dress, or a sculpture, even if no direct link is present: in essence using Hollinger’s “will to descend” to engage our visitors.

[1] Youtube, “Lost in Austen they go back in the book” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JASI4fJWnwE&NR=1&feature=fvwp
[2] David A. Hollinger, “National Culture and communities of Descent,” Reviews in American Hisstory, Vol. 26, No. 1, (Mar., 1998): 253.

One thought on “We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us. ~W.B. Yeats

  1. I hadn’t realized that we placed so much on experiences that aren’t our own (except tangentially). Why is it so important to claim contributions that are not our own, but our ancestors’ or our culture’s? What about failures? Are those contemplated as well?

    So for those races and ethnicities that were left out of the main “American history,” what connections can they find? Two-hundred years from now, will it have changed? What will be the “American past”? Who will it involve?

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