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.

How Does History (Literally) Speak to You?

One thing we can’t glean from history prior to the invention of the phonograph is how people’s voices sounded. We may feel a profound connection with historical figures but can never hear how they spoke, a key aspect of their identity and personality. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Historical figures are more than just pictures on a page. They are people who lived and contributed to their communities, and trying to imagine them doing so can be a challenge to historians depending on what evidence remains. We’re always searching for more insight into the key quality that truly brings a historical figures to life: their personality.

Just as we once had no photographs to see what people really looked like, so too did we once lack film evidence that people really lived and spoke in distinctive ways. In trying to get a sense of mannerisms and voice, we first had to rely on audio.

Why do I think voice is such an important aspect of connecting to those who have predeceased us? I’m going to use politicians as my prime example. Many politicians are remembered as great orators whose speeches have moved and influenced societies during major events, from celebrations to declarations of war. I believe our voices carry much emotion, therefore conveying an important aspect of who we are.

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Martin Luther King Jr. addressing crowds in Washington, DC. Photo: National Park Service

Think about it: how many times have you seen/met someone, and at first glance expected them to have a specific kind of voice (low, high, quavery, strong, accented)? And then they open their mouths and a completely different voice comes out! It changes your impression of them, doesn’t it? For instance, Daniel Day Lewis speaks in a higher pitch in the film Lincoln (2012), illustrating the surprising truth about former American President Abraham Lincoln’s high, reedy voice. It just goes to show how much the quality of one’s voice defines their presence.

Voices can be commanding or meek; soft or loud; rough or smooth; and all these sensory elements shape and cement identity, especially in public memory.

Take King George VI of Great Britain, and his speech of 3 September 1939 in which he confirms Britain’s involvement in World War II. This is the very same speech featured in the 2010 film The King’s Speech, as played by Colin Firth – and we can gain such a significant connection when hearing the King’s voice that it’s as if he’s in the room with us (such was the initial reaction to radio). If you listen to the real speech, you can hear George VI’s inflection and get a better impression of his presence, breaking an interpretation barrier that keeps him (and likewise, other historical figures) at a distance from us today.

Would Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech (28 August 1963) be as rousing if we had read it on paper? Dr. King’s delivery of the speech is often remembered as an iconic capstone of the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating the significance of voice and audio in preserving historical records. Similarly, former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s characteristic drone is recognizable to many of us, and his famous WWII “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech (4 June 1940) has also been recreated in recent films such as Dunkirk (2017) and Darkest Hour (2017).

Charlie Chaplin, a British actor who was primarily known for his silent films, also understood the power of speech and voice in captivating and inspiring audiences. Taking advantage of the emergence of sound in film, his speech in The Great Dictator (1940) subverts Adolf Hitler’s acknowledged oratory skills and uses them for good in his own parody version of a wartime dictator’s speech.

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Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Still further, accents offer a whole different opportunity for biographical interpretation: for example, though former Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier was a Quebecois francophone, he learned English in New Glasgow and therefore spoke with a slight Scottish accent, something I could never learn from merely looking at photographs or silent film clips. Observations were written down, but without audio we can never hear them for ourselves. The first Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s accent is also in question, as he was raised in the Bay of Quinte/Kingston, Ontario, far from Glasgow itself (though the latter was his birthplace). American President John F. Kennedy’s Boston accent also defines his aura in our memories. If we can hear politicians speak, we can further understand their essence as people and their leadership qualities.

Is this post, then, a prolonged lamentation that I’ll never get to hear the voices of so many historical figures who captivate me? I’m not denying it – and I’m arguing that we could all do with taking some time away from our highly absorbing smartphones to be present. Listen to people’s voices, enjoy the timbre and cadence, connect with the emotions that shine through when people speak. We often take it for granted that we’ll get to hear their voices every day, but when they’re gone, all that will be left of them is our memory and the records we’ve kept.

Monument Men: Constructing Likenesses

Creating commemorative likenesses – statues, wax figures, paintings – is no easy feat. The way an individual is remembered could have repercussions for years to come, so how does creativity factor in?

By Serena Ypelaar

When we visit a wax museum, we’re usually prepared for a couple of duds that look nothing like they’re supposed to. Perhaps it’s due to the levity of such a space – after all, what purpose do wax museums serve apart from the fleeting amusement of seeing celebrities’ likenesses up close?

However, with commemorative likenesses such as statues, busts, or paintings meant to immortalize public figures, there’s a lot more to it. A grossly inaccurate portrayal could be damaging to a person’s public image, and depending on the nature of the commemoration, may be seen as unflattering or even disrespectful.

Take footballer Cristiano Ronaldo’s infamous bust, which was unveiled at Madeira Airport in Portugal last year. The bust was mercilessly ridiculed and made the subject of numerous memes, to the point that the artist had to redo it.

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Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo was commemorated with this bust by sculptor Emanuel Santos in 2017. Public opinion ensured that it was replaced by a new, “more accurate” version, which can be seen below. Photo: Know Your Meme

Admittedly, famous individuals like these are exposed to these depictions by the very nature of their existence – they’re well-known, so people are going to make fun of them, whether it’s creating unflattering portrayals or vocally enjoying such parodies. That doesn’t make it right or excusable, especially if the public figure is a good person (if they aren’t, well, have at it!). Nevertheless, the fact remains that famous people lose the ability to regulate their public perception. The same goes for unauthorized biographies and the like – there isn’t much that can be done to prevent these interpretations unless someone wants to sue for libel.

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Photo: Bleacher Report

The new, sleek Ronaldo statue reflects what we’re conditioned to expect when it comes to commemorative statues, though – a public monument is no hokey wax figure. We seem to expect accuracy and a display of strength or nobility in these types of depictions, which is why more gutsy interpretations often get shot down. Yet we can’t pull the plug on artists’ interpretations altogether. To do so would be to rob artists of their style and create a mild form of censorship that could inhibit creative thinking. (Whether we want to foster “creativity” when it comes to portraying likenesses for public commemoration is another question altogether).

Still, that won’t stop me from expressing my dislike for what I call the “Paper Airplane Portrayal” of Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Cristiano Ronaldo is one thing – as an athlete, he doesn’t carry the same kind of significance that a former national leader might. So King’s statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa seems even more bizarre to me, since I would expect him to look a bit less cartoony and more like the other statues on the Hill. Sculptor Raoul Hunter was aiming to convey King’s forcefulness as a leader, according to this page on the Government of Canada website explaining the interpretations of the statues. The other monuments on the Hill portray their subjects more proportionately, whereas King can only be described as abstract. His monument makes me laugh at him a little, which, applied in the context of public office, is surely a less desirable outcome.

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You don’t need a picture of King to know that nobody is shaped so angularly. Nor did King’s head appear so oblong in life. I will add, however, that this statue was created in 1967 when this style was in vogue, which could raise another fascinating discussion about how aesthetic standards affect portrayals during a given era. Photo: Flickr

Of course, I’m sure it’s all a matter of personal opinion – I know people who like the King statue (above). And that 81-year-old Spanish lady who famously “touched up” Jesus’ face in the “Ecce Homo” fresco clearly thought his makeover looked fine…

Irrespective of whether we can gauge the accuracy of monuments beyond personal preference, discussing the issue tells us what we value as a society on a surface level. Commemorative monuments rely on context and setting to construct a noble or attractive memory of a person (often a man, statistically speaking) and their contributions in life. Let’s just hope that if we do anything noteworthy, the sculptor chosen to portray us won’t get too weird with it.