Written by Priya Chhaya
First there was the voice that everyone recognized, an activist actress, and the pop star who defied gravity with a moonwalk . Then we lost a newscaster whom everyone believed in, a jazz genius and a choreographer of the sublime and avant garde.
Ed McMahon, Farah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Walter Cronkite, George Russell, Merce Cunningham. Individually these deaths seem fleeting—the loss of someone who defined their fields and made a place in their particular corners of the world. Together they represent an America defined by television, movies and pop culture—of innovation and radical creativity; an America whose history cannot be documented solely by the written word or the preservation of a single building (although conversations are already ongoing about making Neverland the next Graceland) but through various sources of multi media. While the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the preservation field as a whole have been thinking about America at mid-century and the associated challenges, I find myself asking myself the age old question—how will we be remembered? How can we preserve a culture that is quickly moving towards the intangible? While the homes, and structures of our past will always be important, and rightly so, how do we preserve the other “stuff” of our history to ensure a clearer vision of our own age? Is that even possible?
I know that there are some great projects out there that explore how we can do this. Some examples include the collection websites surrounding 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina (for example: the Center for History and New Media’s 9/11 Digital Archive, the Library of Congress, and Hurricane Digital Memory Bank) but I would love to see more.
Priya Chhaya is the program assistant in the office of Training and Online Information Services at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.