Sometimes public historians can find instructive lessons in unlikely places. Take Hollywood, for example—an industry not known for either intellectual sagacity or scrupulous adherence to historical fact, but one that’s got the art of transferring messages pretty well covered.
When you’re dealing with the past, you’re dealing with different worlds. All your assumptions have to go out the window—assumptions about the way people think, relate to each other, make a living, etc. You’re entering a world with its own parameters and its own logic. In that respect, it’s a little like playing Dungeons & Dragons. You’ve got to know how the board is set up, what the rules are, and what the forces are that govern the action.
This, I think, is one of the biggest challenges to doing effective public history. In exhibits and documentaries, you generally have little space and time to convey information. How do you establish the parameters of the world you’re taking your audience into, given these limitations? How do you familiarize your audience with the contours of a particular time and place in a way that seems effortless?
The makers of Watchmen, the movie based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, were faced with this same problem. They, too, had to find a way to orient the audience to a world that’s similar to, but also quite distinct from, our own, and I think there’s a thing or two we can learn here.
In case you’re into neither comics nor movies, Watchmen is set in an alternate 1980′s America in which comic book-style superheroes not only exist, but have influenced the course of U.S. history since before WWII. This America, like our own, has fought wars in Europe and Vietnam, landed on the moon, and become a protagonist in the Cold War. But the existence of heroes has altered this America’s history at critical points. Superhero intervention, for example, secured U.S. victory in Vietnam (and thereby ensured Nixon’s continual re-election). But it also exacerbated tension with the Soviets, so that by the mid-1980′s the world of Watchmen stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Since the movie’s world has its own logic and its own historical background, establishing its context becomes something of a problem. The conventional approach would be to use scrolling text or a voice-over, recounting all the necessary background with traditional narrative and exposition.
The filmmakers have taken a more deft and creative approach. In the opening title sequence, a series of brief little vignettes recount the history of this alternate America and the main characters’ backgrounds by depicting instantly-recognizable moments from American history as they would have played out in Watchmen‘s hero-inhabited universe.
The plane that drops an atom bomb on Hiroshima flies by, only it’s named after a scantily-clad female crimefighter whose image is painted on the fuselage. An atomic-powered superhuman shakes hands with President Kennedy. Another is the subject of an Andy Warhol painting, while a third poses for photographers outside Studio 54.
If you haven’t seen the movie, you can occasionally find this sequence online. I say “occasionally” because Warner Bros. keeps asking sites that post the video to remove it, which is why a link here is just as likely to take you to a dead end as it is to the sequence itself. Just go see the movie.*
This five-minute sequence tells you everything you need to know about Watchmen‘s America and its past, with no text or narrative of any kind. It’s just a series of these historical clips set to the tune of “The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Bob Dylan. It’s a creative and very effective solution to the problem of context.
Let me suggest that Watchmen offers this lesson for anyone engaged in public history: Figure out the contours of the world in which you’re trying to place your audience, and then find a creative way to establish them.
The people who tell myths and fables succeed or fail based on their mastery of communication. Historians engaged in telling the truth should try to be at least as savvy as they are.
*On a related note, you may be wondering why I haven’t added a little pizzazz to this post with a still or poster image from Watchmen. Well, Virginia, here at Past in the Present, I try to do whatever I can to keep from getting my keister sued off.