Pies Are Just Sweet Calzones

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.

By Lilia Lockwood

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.

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When you realize you can write about history AND Parks and Rec. Photo: Reaction 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:

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and his daughter reading that book
Photo: Gifglobe

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!

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There are always different perspectives to consider. Photo: Giphy

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.

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It is vital to acknowledge other points of view. Don’t follow Ron’s example. Photo: Gfycat

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.

Skeletons in the Closet

Although we might prefer to keep our private lives secret, they constitute an important part of the historical record.

By Lilia Lockwood

One fine day in 1881, in a quiet New Zealand town, a former Methodist minister left his home and family, boarded a ship, and disappeared. That man was my great-great-grandfather, and his fate remained a lingering mystery for several decades. His story is one I have been thinking about as I work on recording our family history – not so much what happened to him, but how his story should be told and who has the right to tell it.

Historians face many ethical questions when writing biographies, and in this blog post I’d like to consider the following one: do individuals have a right to dictate which parts of their life are private even after they are gone? Serena explored how we can create and curate our own image while we are living. But what happens when we have died? Do we get to take our secrets to the grave? Or, once we are buried, do the skeletons in the closet get unearthed?

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Big hair isn’t worth all the secrets that will come to light when you’re gone. Photo: Giphy

The quintessential example of this in Canadian history is Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and his personal diary. King died in 1950, leaving behind a diary that he had written in daily for decades. He directed the executors of his will to “destroy all of my diaries except those parts which I have indicated are and shall be available for publication or use.” King had intended for the parts of his diaries that concerned public affairs to be used by biographers, and for the rest to remain private. But the problem was that he did not specify these sections before his death.

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King accompanied by his beloved dog Pat, who is mentioned in King’s diaries. Photo: Nagel / Library and Archives Canada / C-009059.

On the one hand, we have King’s desire for privacy. On the other hand, we have an exceptionally rich historical resource that documents how, as Canada’s longest serving prime minister, he steered the country through the Roaring Twenties, part of the Great Depression, and the Second World War. The diaries provide an intimate glimpse into his personal and public life, and a valuable insight into Canadian social and political life.

Ultimately, the executors decided to preserve the complete diary. Not only that, the volumes were made publicly accessible in their entirety. They are available online through Library and Archives Canada (and are even word searchable!).

Countless historians have relied on these documents for their research on Canadian history, expanding the scholarship in this field. That is why it is essential to preserve the most complete historical record possible. There is no denying that the more colourful aspects of King’s character are revealed in his diaries; he is now perhaps as recognizable for his belief in the supernatural as for his political career. But rather than overshadowing his achievements, the diaries provide us with a more complete understanding of King and country.