Having worked at the New-York Historical Society since my sophomore year, I have been asked multiple times in various contexts, why do I love history? There is the standard answer of not repeating mistakes and placing current events in a greater context, but for this blog post I thought I might try and answer this question in greater depth.
In various sciences, there is a phenomenon known as emergence theory which states that simple interactions give rise to complex patterns and systems that may exceed the sum of their parts. A commonly given example is that of water: hydrogen and oxygen are flammable agents that, when combined, suddenly gain the ability to put out fire. Crucially, water exhibits properties that are absent in its constituent elements.
Within the study of history, we can often observe this trend unfold. Religion, art, civilization, and all other great and powerful developments find their origins in the multiplied actions of ordinary men and women. Once set in motion, however, they exhibit a life and momentum of their own that influence us as well. The greater trends of history can be distilled to reveal what is essential to us as individuals. Consider why we place importance on the Declaration of the Rights of Man, or the Wonders of the World. They are representatives of certain principles that hold enduring value, such as liberty, self-expression, artistry, etc. By studying what we honor and remember, we discover the values and accomplishments that hold weight to us as people. This remains true in the present day, and as we decide what should be recalled in textbooks, museums, and other recordings of human history, we influence what will be taught and considered important to future generations as well. History is thought of as a study of the past, but through it we understand the present and determine the future.
So within the context of my work at the New-York Historical Society, there is a definite sense of connection to an ongoing process. The N-YHS was founded in 1804, and though it has undoubtedly gone through multiple iterations, the objective of the institution remains to bring people together through NYC’s history. Over the academic year of 2012- 2013, I and my fellow Teen Leaders were given the task of designing the Governor’s Island exhibition on World War II Photography and Propaganda. World War II holds special significance in the collective memory of the United States. It was the beginning of America as a global superpower, pushing us up onto the global stage and setting us up for the role we occupy in the world today. On a more personal level, we remember it as a fight for freedom and self-determination: a crucial battle in an ongoing struggle to help make the world a better place. As I assist in creating exhibitions, doing research, giving tours, etc, I feel that I am one part of a greater whole dedicated to preserving these ideals and connecting us to these principles that continue to matter.