In our group blog post last week summarizing our storyboard for our video featuring the Centennial Monstrance we took a humorous bent as we showed the monstrance literally crossing from Fulda, Germany, where it was crafted, to St. Louis where it dwelled by photoshopping a picture of the monstrance onto a map. Dr. Roberts commented that some might find our portrayal of the monstrance a bit trivializing in light of its religious importance, which opens the door for a larger discussion on the relationship between humor and public history. While I can understand his concern, I also think that humor should have a place in public history. The question is, how can humor be used effectively?
In the case of my group’s Centennial Monstrance video, we considered and discussed the fact that some people may find it trivializing in the process of creating our storyboard. But we ultimately decided that the purpose of our video was to reach a broader audience than those already interested in Catholic material culture. We also hope to engage the viewer and bring new understanding to the term “crossings and dwellings” for those not familiar with Thomas Tweed’s book (aka most people) through the use of humor. The point of the video is to draw people in – certainly to the online Omeka exhibit, and perhaps even the exhibit at LUMA this summer.
I received an unsolicited, extremely positive response from one of my blog readers. I believe she said something to the effect of, “I was laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my chair,” and it actually led to a conversation in which I learned something new about altar societies and religious material culture. Obviously one person is not representative of everyone, but she was engaged with the material and it was memorable enough that she mentioned it to me.
Because there are so many voices in public history there will always be some kind of controversy. The challenge is to have controversy be productive and ultimately stimulate discussion. Additionally, humor varies from culture to culture (try watching 30 Rock dubbed in German) and individual to individual and everything else in-between, so it is impossible to please everyone. Should public historians shy away from humor because it may isolate some?
Using humor in public history walks a thin, uncharted line. When I think of humor and public history, I think of web series like Drunk History (which is now a tv series produced by Comedy Central) and Ask a Slave rather than products of “credible” history institutions. Does it differ when a history institution or organization uses humor to portray history versus other people, groups, or organizations? Drunk History’s primary purpose is to entertain, not educate. Both History and Ask a Slave aim to entertain, but Ask a Slave also strives to highlight the racism that exists today as well as the general lack of knowledge about America’s history, especially when it comes to slavery, and begin a conversation about it. Can humor be used to educate or does it just function as a conversation starter?
Was our attempted use of humor in our Centennial Monstrance video successful? Maybe. We hope it will be. Regardless of who it will isolate, we hope it will engage multiple groups, both those already familiar with Catholic material culture as well as new audiences. Humor is a powerful tool and public historians should continue to experiment with it.