An archaeologist was kind enough to share his thoughts on the brace of new artifact-hunting TV shows. His whole comment is worth reading (click on yesterday’s post to see the whole thing), but take note of this excerpt:
I don’t know what the answer is to balancing the need for professionalism with the desire for people to be involved and the reality that if only archaeologists dug sites, most would never get dug…but these shows are certainly not it. I’d much rather see a show where professional and avocational archaeologists and community members all worked together to both dig and interpret sites, but I guess that wouldn’t fit with the current fascination with pawn shops, storage lockers, and antiquing, where one in a thousand items will net that lucky person with hundreds of thousands of dollars. The story that can be woven from one out-of-context item is engrossing, but it’s also inherently tied to it’s rarity and economic value in these shows.…Of course, doing the actual archaeology would take a lot longer than bulldozing a backyard for a cannon. le sigh.
That sums it up pretty well, I think, it and echoes what I’ve been saying quite a bit lately—the media saturates us with “the past,” but generally does little to foster a real historical consciousness or understanding.
One of my all-time favorite authors is the late Michael Crichton. Longtime dinosaur nut that I am, I’d probably find it hard not to be a fan of the man who brought Jurassic Park into the world, but it wasn’t until I’d been reading him for several years that I came to appreciate him as an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Here was a guy who had modern civilization’s number.
One of his most overtly issue-driven books is Airframe, a story about an investigation into a commercial air disaster pitting an employee of a plane manufacturing company against an ambitious TV news producer. On one level, it’s a thriller; on another, it’s an indictment of the media in this so-called Information Age.
At one point in the story, as the main character is about to be interviewed for a major investigative news program, her company dispatches a media expert to prep her for the experience. “A lot of people complain that television lacks focus,” the expert tells her. “But that’s the nature of the medium. Television’s not about information at all. Information is active, engaging. Television is passive. Information is disinterested, objective. Television is emotional. It’s entertainment.” The reporter who will be interviewing her “has absolutely no interest in you, or your company, or your airplanes.…He wants a media moment.” Crichton, of course, didn’t originate the practice of critiquing TV along these lines, but he made the case more powerfully and in a more articulate manner than most.
Hence the way in which TV handles the past. The complex, detailed, and messy business of reality is not very congenial to the medium of television, but making sense of that reality is what historians, archaeologists, and scholars in related fields do. Their work requires the assimilation of lots of complicated information and a carefully constructed presentation of their findings. The issues with which working historians and archaeologists grapple—the need to determine what happened, why it happened, and what it all means—are not subject to the quick, neat solutions that characterize so many TV shows.
The problems with which the characters on reality shows deal, by contrast, are generally pretty simple and straightforward. Some guy has brought an old musket into my pawn shop, and I need to know what it is and how much it’s worth. This is the stuff of “the past,” but it’s not really the stuff of history.
Of course, there are exceptions to what I’m saying. I’m sure we could all come up with examples of solid and scholarly TV shows that make a real contribution to our understanding of the past. But those examples serve only to demonstrate the culpability of the media in general, because they show that the trifling nature of so much of our “historical” TV programming is not an inevitable result of the medium’s inherent limitations. As for those of us in the audience, it demonstrates our culpability, too, because the people in control of the lineup are ultimately just giving us more of what we already watch the most. We shouldn’t be too eager to blame the producers of culture for our predicaments, because culture is simply an expression of our collective appetites.