Saturday, August 2, 2014

Historians are not the Only Ones Who Struggle with Relevancy


"When you think Nashville, what comes to mind?"

I ask that at the beginning of my tours of downtown Nashville. Guess what the answer is 98.5 percent of the time. Here's a hint:

[Whine whine twang twang]

Nashville is known as Music City, USA! Of course people will answer that question "country music!" It is a part of our identity today. But I give tours to reveal Nashville's complex history; there is way more to Music City than the music. Way more. (You have to come on a tour to see for yourself.)

Modern lines meet unique architecture designs from the past.
Nashville has some remarkable landscapes, most unrelated to the music industry.
The music industry in Nashville is a fairly prominent industry, but Nashville has more. The music industry has certainly played a role in Nashville's identity, but for most Nashvillians, it is not the sole identity. So when it is time to rally public support for things like historic preservation within the music industry, what we see is this industry encounter the same issues that historians working with the public have dealt with for a long time. Is relevancy the correct word?  Or maybe meaning? Or maybe resonance?

The city is growing. It is an especially popular city right now, an "it" city of sorts. Heck, we even have our own television soap opera show that features all sorts of love triangles music airing on national television. But this growth also means "progress." And sometimes "progress" and "preservation" seem to clash rather than compliment each other.

One of the more recent preservation struggles to emerge within Nashville is that of the RCA Studio A building. Ben Folds wrote an open letter about developers' interest in the property and that got picked up and carried all over the place. Several musicians and artists came forward about the significance of the property and how it has contributed to music history. Hashtags for preservation efforts even got created (and you know that if you tweet something with a hashtag for a cause, you've made a difference, right?). Even this week, the issue received national attention by way of broadcast (because not everybody reads national publications).

So I have been following this as articles get published. It's like its own soap opera, really, just made up of mortar and bricks and plans and blueprints and hope and crossed fingers and pleas and contracts and more bricks. Yesterday, I read another open letter from country musician Keith Urban. Huh, I thought. This sounds crazy familiar. A group of people recognize the significance of a place because of their own passion and experience and interests and emotions, but are having a hard time instilling these things in people beyond the members of said group.

Kind of like historians, especially historians that work with the public. Most historians know what they are passionate about and why. Their struggle is creating a relevancy to new audiences, provoking something that resonates with new audiences. We know why history is cool, that's why we chose this line of work (because history isn't usually a massive money-making endeavor; just ask your local historic house museum director). But we sometimes forget that many people don't know why these places are cool, that these stories are fascinating, that the past helps reveal who we are today. These musicians and preservationists know why they want to save this building. However, Nashville's identity is complex and very few are actually involved with the music industry. For many people, why bother with saving a place?

I usually say that in my line of work, I tell stories. It sounds simple, but it is a developed craft. I have to spark an interest with the little time I have. I have to inspire new audiences. I have to get people to care. I already know why these places are significant, but I use this craft of interpretation to share that with the public. Maybe we can learn from the musicians that are trying to save a place. Just saying "this is important" is not enough. You have to resonate with your audience so they can walk away with the answer to the question "so what." I find this case especially interesting as it shows celebrity alone does not create relevance. It is bizarrely comforting to know that historians are not the only ones and that people who are masters at evoking emotions through music struggle with portraying the emotion in their own histories. I feel ya, Ben and Keith.

I appreciate being reminded of what happens when relevance is missing. The twang of a guitar resonates, but emotional connections resonate better.

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