Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Seeing is believing

The Enola Gay. Photo by Bernt Rostad.
After Bermuda, I ended up in Washington DC at the peak of a heat wave. One of the new museums, in that city of museums, to have opened up since I was last there is an extension of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, in a giant museum-hangar near Dulles Airport. This is where the aeronautical exhibits too big to fit in a regular city-centre museum are displayed – objects such as Concorde, for example, or the space shuttle Enterprise.

One of the most celebrated exhibits in the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Centre, however, is the Enola Gay. This huge silvery-shiny, gleaming machine is the aircraft which dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, causing the deaths of between 118,000 and 140,000 people. As I hovered uncomfortably by the modest information board in front of the Enola Gay, three elderly Americans were clustered in front of it. The lady said: ‘You read about it, and that’s one thing, but to actually see it…’.

I initially thought this was quite a glib comment, but now I’m not so sure. It’s striking how journalists can report on major world events, and historians can make films and write books about them, but it’s only when presented with the physical evidence that they somehow become truly credible to a wider public. It’s as if we’re all semi-consciously suspending disbelief about the past events we read and write about, until they prove themselves to have had some material existence outside the text.

I don’t think professional researchers are immune from this kind of instinct. When I finished writing my doctorate, my husband bought me as a present two tiny coins minted in 15C Poland during the lifetime (and indeed the regency) of Cardinal Fryderyk Jagiellon, the churchman on whom I’d written my thesis. Once I had seen these little artefacts, I believed a little bit more in the existence of the late medieval world I had spent 3 years trying to reconstruct and recreate; and I hadn’t really been aware of not fully believing in it. Perhaps this is why historians are so resistant to the idea of being denied access to original sources in libraries, and directed to digitalised versions instead – the text shimmering on the screen, just like the text in printed reproduction, doesn’t feel as real as the cool leather and crisp, dry pages of a 15C early printed book. We seem to need the authentic, old material thing itself to fend away an involuntary suspension of disbelief about the past – even the well documented recent past of WWII. ‘You read about it but…’

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