Considering that even pies can be understood in different ways, interpreting history can seem a lost cause. But it is having a multiplicity of voices that leads to a balanced historical narrative.
In 1977, NASA launched the Golden Record into outer space aboard Voyagers 1 and 2. The two copies of the record had images and sounds of life on earth, including nature sounds, greetings in 55 languages, and music from different eras and cultures. This is easily the most ambitious time capsule, as it seeks to convey the entirety of human experience on our planet over millennia. We may never know if it reaches extraterrestrials, but it does raise another question: is it possible to capture a place and moment in time?
I’ve been thinking about this since watching an episode of one of my favourite television shows, Parks and Recreation. The satirical sitcom follows the trials and triumphs of determined public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her team at the small-town parks and rec department of Pawnee, Indiana. Be warned: this blog post contains spoilers for season 3, episode 3. And gifs. Lots of gifs.
The premise for the episode is that Leslie has decided to make a time capsule that represents life in Pawnee. She soon finds, however, that there are different understandings of what exactly constitutes “life in Pawnee.” The episode starts with Jerry, one of the department’s employees, saying that he has brought his mother’s diaries to put in the time capsule. Leslie thinks this idea is perfect. Amen, Leslie! Discovering a historical diary of daily life is every historian’s dream.
Events take a turn when word gets out about the department’s time capsule project, bringing Pawnee citizen Mr. Kelly Larson to Leslie’s office. He demands that the book Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, be included in the capsule. At first, Leslie is dead set against this. What, she wonders (as most viewers likely do), does a teen vampire romance have to do with Pawnee?
But then, Leslie has an epiphany:
Leslie thought the time capsule should include what are traditionally considered historical items, such as her book A brief history of everything that has ever happened since Pawnee was founded. But she realizes that each person is experiencing life in Pawnee differently, and the time capsule has to reflect that. She organizes a public forum to hear ideas for what additional items to add, where everyone starts arguing over suggestions. Twilight is too Christian! Twilight is not Christian enough!
There aren’t necessarily right and wrong sides to these arguments (though of course extremes must be carefully weighed). Rather, considering many subjective accounts allows us to arrive at a closer approximation of objective reality.
Ultimately, Leslie finds an elegant solution. The capsule will include everyone’s perspectives by preserving a video of the forum. As she has discovered, the only way to capture a place and moment in time is to include multiple voices in dialogue with each other. And the task of the historian is to seek those voices and make them heard.