Why We Fight

April 22, 2011

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (City, that is) recently announced the successful restoration of an audio recording of a speech Dwight D. Eisenhower gave at the museum in April of 1946. General Eisenhower’s speech was part of the Met’s 75th Anniversary wherein he was being honored for his role in overseeing the protection and repatriation of monuments and artworks during and after World War II as performed by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the allied armies (MFAA).

The audio was recorded on glass-based lacquer discs — a highly fragile format that, like most lacquer discs, is at severe risk for chemical and physical degradation. Last year the Met received a grant from The Monument Mens Foundation, an organization dedicated to honoring the work done by the MFAA and continuing to support the protection and repatriation of art works in areas of armed conflict, to preserve the audio and make it accessible to the public. Our own Chris Lacinak was very honored to be one of a group of professional advisors who provided the Met with guidance on planning their restoration.

As always, it’s great to see a successful preservation project completed, and, going beyond Eisenhower, the story and (continuing) mission of the Monuments Men is fascinating, essential history. On a personal level, however, what this story brought back to me was a memory of what a scapegoat Eisenhower was when I was growing up — the middle-of-the-road, middle-of-America, caucasian patriarch who was the symbol of the hegemonic complacency our parents were oppressed with. Perhaps an exaggerated response considering the other forms of oppression occurring in the 1950s, but for years those too-brightly-lit, kinescope-distorted, early television images of Eisenhower in close up went hand-in-hand with scenes of mushroom clouds and children ducking under desks in various documentaries or other uses of stock footage.

But then something started to happen. Saving Private Ryan and The Greatest Generation made Boomers start to reconsider their parents’ lives. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made people think about how the military is run and the president’s role as commander-in-chief outside the emotions caused by Vietnam. Eisenhower’s farewell speech, which included the warning about the military/industrial complex, became an ur-text of liberal politics. The past from my past became a different past as the interpretive position shifted from the heat of one moment to the glow of hindsight and the heat of another moment.

The cycle of generational context would suggest that I scoff at such softening as I continue to cling to my childhood anger at the dismantling of social, educational, and arts support in the 1980s. Reagan, too, has been making a comeback of late as both sides of the aisle fight over who best represents his ideology and his legacy. Either I’m a stubborn-headed fool or this is a good sign that I’m not too old yet.

A commonality in these parallel trends is the use of audiovisual materials to support reassessments — televised speeches, recorded visits of state, audio interviews — all of it easily distributable, easily accessible content. A commonality in this commonality is that, for the most part, one can assume these recordings come from major events covered by major news outlets. This is far from an assurance that such recordings would always be preserved, but, if they were, they would be and become part of the common cultural memory. Be because of the significant audience at the time. Become because of the repeated airplay they may receive in documentaries and news stories, a situation which can create a familiarity that causes people to believe they experienced the event the first time around…which then promulgates further reiteration of the same footage, becoming a visual shorthand for wide swaths of history. To half-misinterpret the old saw about Woodstock — if you remember being there you probably weren’t.

To me, this pseudo-echo effect has two meanings. First, audiovisual content is so powerful that it can embed itself in our memory quite easily. Second, we need to dig deeper with our support of smaller local, regional, or institutional archives and historical societies in order to uncover new stories that create a fuller picture of the past. The Eisenhower recording at The Met is a great example of this. DDE’s work with the MFAA, while incredibly important, has not been a major part of the wider representation of his military and political career. Thanks to The Met and the Monuments Men, we now have a greater understanding the career and the man.

One can also look to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Archive project, which is poised to uncover loads of locally produced programming that will be highly meaningful to our understanding of broadcast history and American culture, and as equally impactful to the pleasure we derive from both. Or among some recent clients I’ve worked with, one might look to institutions like Hartwick College in upstate New York whose archives contain a treasure trove of regional oral histories and audio or video recordings from the numerous scholars, artists, and cultural figures who have spoken at the college. Or the Tenement Museum‘s extensive oral history collection of Lower East Side residents, material that can be used to support research as well as the creation of exhibits and educational material which support the Museum’s mission.

It seems so common to repeat that humans and history are complex and deserve the full picture archival material can provide. Common, but worth restating because it is so easy to take for granted that archiving just happens, that of course everyone is taking care of their stuff because it is so valuable and that all that material is easy to find and use. Archiving is more than putting items in a box on a shelf. It requires active planning, management, advocacy, and promotion. As the MFAA and the military were aware, archiving and preservation do not happen unless we make them happen, unless we enable them to happen, unless we demand they happen. I reckon they were a might good generation after all.

— Joshua Ranger