The Importance of Change in Historical Interpretation

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

For the past decade or so, I have been speaking about the importance of changing the traditional historical narrative and how, by doing so, we begin to see a more accurate and inclusive look at our past. This idea has informed my research and changed the way we interpret the history of Oshawa.

According to Dictionary.com, “history is the study of past events, particularly in human affairs”. 

This is a simple, to the point definition that doesn’t truly delve into the complexities of studying and sharing history.  At its heart, history is the study of people and their interactions with the world around them. It is told to us through the lens of the storyteller, and it is through changes to that lens that results in history changing and evolving over time.

The study of history is filled with fact and interpretation.  A great deal of history is about interpreting the facts to understand the human motivation and how that has impacted our lives today.

But historical interpretation is more than opinion. It must be informed by a knowledge of the facts, procured from sources such as government documents, personal letters, diaries, and oral histories, to name a few, and an understanding of how they fit together to create a coherent story of the past.

It is also about understanding that some points of view, some experiences, have been ignored in past historical interpretations. The reasons for this are varied but are based in the fact that the narrative has been typically written to represent the experience of those in power. History has traditionally been interpreted through a very narrow lens.

The first time I began to understand the importance of change and evolution in historical interpretation was when I was in my third year public history course, which, given that I have been at the museum for almost 22 years, was a while ago.  It was in this course that we delved into the need for widening the lens of historical interpretation to allow for a more accurate look at the impact of historical events on people.

The example that stood out for me was in regards to the exhibiting of the Enola Gay in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian. The Enola Gay is the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan and was to be a part of the display commemorating the 50th anniversary of that mission. The proposed exhibit was to have focused on the bombing as the start of the story and would have examined the impact of that decision on the U.S., on Japan, and on the world as a whole.  This would have been a shift in the historical narrative, a widening of the lens through which this event had been examined and it was met by outrage. It was argued that the bombing was the end of the story.  It was the push that ended World War II; it was a technological achievement and needed to be exhibited as such. Eventually the fuselage of the plane was exhibited with no interpretation, simply a sign informing the visitor the name of the plane and that it was part of the Hiroshima mission.

Both of those interpretations were accurate but only one fit the traditional narrative.  

The struggle with shifting historical interpretations and the need to allow for change intrigued me, so much so that it became the basis of my Masters thesis as I examined the similar issues faced by the Canadian War Museum as they were developing the exhibits for their new building.

It continues to intrigue me as I work to research and interpret Oshawa’s history. Oshawa has a really rich and diverse history beyond what has been traditionally written. Re-examining our history and allowing for a wider focus has meant we are telling different stories, we are looking at our historical figures in different ways and we are seeing more of our community in the history being shared.

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