The Dangers of Minimalism (to a historian)

I adore The Diane Rehm Show. Not only does she always have interesting and timely topics to discuss, but she has the most fascinating guests and panels.

Today’s topic was Minimalism. I didn’t get to hear the entire story, but I heard one short bit that REALLY freaked me out. See if you can guess why:

The guest practices minimalism – the art of decluttering. Living with as few possessions as possible. I’m all for it. I’m a bit of a ‘collector’ myself, but if you can do it, more power to you! Of course, most of mine is vintage and antiques, stuff for my online shop, and things that have personal meaning. They admitted that it’s hard to get rid of those kinds of items but you should – take photos of important things like report cards, awards, and personal letters and then throw them away.

Yeah. Now you see why I got a bit upset.

Look, I get that everyone’s different. I understand that to some people, inheriting a house full of cool stuff is the worst thing that could ever happen to them. That they may feel zero connection to the boxes of newspaper clippings, letters, photos, journals and memorabilia in the garage or attic.

photo 1But PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. Don’t throw it away.

I’m a historian. Right now, I can tell you that the story I’m working on – the Kimmel case – may never get solved to my satisfaction because key players in the case threw stuff away. Admitted it on the stand. Of course, that’s a bit different – that was more about self-preservation than decluttering – but the fact remains that there will always be those holes in my research because those primary sources burned more than a hundred years ago. Think how much more heartbreaking it would be to find a treasure trove of sources – only to find that they had been thrown out just days before I discovered their existence!

I love antique shops. Haunt them, really. I’m always amazed by the family histories I find there. The photos, especially. Most of them have no identification, no names or locations; I can well imagine that after a generation or two, no one has any idea who those people were. But once, someone did.

Trust me. Those family Bibles and old letters and photographs and advertisements and whatnot may not seem very important to you, but they are important. To someone. Maybe your kids, or your grandkids. Or maybe to someone like me. There’s loads of people out there who collect vintage and antique photographs. Who collect vintage letters and other things you may want to throw away. AND VINTAGE CLOTHES. NEVER, EVER THROW AWAY THE FREAKING VINTAGE CLOTHES. PLEASE.

So what can you do with them besides take them to the dumpster? Here’s some ideas:

  • Call your local historical society and see if they’re interested (I bet they are!).
  • Call your local antique shop and see they’ll take things on consignment (they often do, or they might just make you an offer then and there for it).
  • Contact a local historian. Every town has at least one. They might not pay you anything, because they’ve got to store it, but if all you’re going to do is throw it away anyway, so what?
  • Call the history department at your local college or university. It’s a long shot, but there could be a historian there who can give those items a good home, or knows someone who can. Often, historians at universities are interested in research into that town or area.

Please. Stop throwing away your family’s history. Maybe you don’t want it – but someone else might.

And if it’s got anything to do with George Kimmel, Edna Kimmel Bonslett, John Boone Swinney, Andrew J. Hunt and his wife Margie, or Charles A. Johnson of Niles Michigan, PLEASE, I WANT IT! 🙂

A link to the story:  https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2016-07-28/the-lure-of-minimalism

 

Now fifty, now sixty, now . . . My Adventures at an Auction

Yesterday, I went to an auction.

Ever been to an auction? Most people in my neck of the woods have – heck, most people make a hobby of it – but I know there’s a lot of people out there who haven’t. So here’s what happens:  auctioneers, who spend a long time in school learning this craft, sell items to the highest bidder. It goes fast, you may get lost, you may think you’ve won something that you didn’t, and you may end up spending WAY more than you thought on something you only kind of wanted. Or they may sell items “times the money,” which means they’ve got 2 or more of an item, and you’re bidding on the price of JUST ONE . If you want more than one, you pay double the price. They may also do “choice,” which means they’ll line up several sort-of-similar items and you bid on first choice.

In truth, I hadn’t intended to go – but then I looked at the auction site on Friday night, and realized that I had no choice. Because some very rare newspapers – several months’ worth of the Winfield Free Press – were being sold, and I needed them for my research into my YA novel, and they’re not available anywhere else. It felt sort of – ordained. I’d been looking for these papers for a long time, and suddenly, here they were, at this random auction!

I HAD to go. And those papers HAD to come home with me.

Some people go to auctions like that – there’s one or two items they want, and they’re bound and determined to leave with them. Others go because it’s a social activity. Meet old friends, meet new friends. See what’s there. It’s like going to the park, or the coffee shop. They may buy a few things; they may buy a ton of things. My dad went to an auction once where he was practically the only person bidding on anything. He came home with an entire stock trailer full of boxes. I still don’t know what was in all of them.

Some tips for attending an auction:

  • Be prepared to freeze to death. Dress appropriately.
  • Bring cash for the lunch counter.
  • Bring a book or something. I arrived at 9:30am. Know what time the newspapers sold? 5pm. In between there was furniture, pottery (SO . . . MUCH . . . POTTERY . . .), and tons of STUFF.
  • Look through the boxes. You never know what you’re going to find. For example, I brought home a box of World War II letters. But in that box, I found some really great things, including a ration book from WW II and passes to the White House from the Nixon administration! 🙂
  • Set a max price in advance – and don’t go over it. That’s the biggest thing. What are you willing to pay for something? Will you die if you don’t take it home?
  • Prepare to fight to the death! In some cases, you’ll have to fight to be seen and heard, fight to have your bid taken, fight for a spot at the front of the crowd, and fight for what you want. One lady stood on a chair in the back while she was bidding. Like me, she’d come for one thing and one thing only. She bought it. She went home at 10:30am. Lucky.
  • YES, auctioneers really do talk that fast. It’s a learned skill. Pay attention. Sometimes, if they realize you didn’t mean to bid on that particular item, they’ll start over, but you won’t make any friends doing that. And sometimes, they’ll make you buy it anyway.
  • And never, ever bid against someone who just holds their number up in the air and doesn’t ever take it down. They came for that item. Get out of their way. 🙂

So. Yes. I came home with my newspapers. Seven books in total, each spanning two months in the early 1920s. The Winfield Free Press was the KKK-friendly newspaper in my area in the 1920s, and if you want to know what they were up to, you have to have that paper. And since my YA protagonist, Nicky, is up against them, I need to know what they were doing!

The thing was, a lot of other people wanted those papers, too.

They tried to start the bidding at $100 – and then they dropped it to $50 and I started. For a while there were about five of us bidding; then, when we got to about $150, we lost a couple, and when the bidding hit $200, it was just me and another guy. He ran me up to $270, and stopped (after I gave him The Glare – you know, ladies, the one that says yeah, why don’t you just keep on with what you’re doing and see what happens, buddy!) and then . . .

They kept asking for bids!

It was five minutes – FIVE FREAKING MINUTES – before they finally let me have them. Five looooong minutes of them asking the crowd, going back to each of the original bidders – and me giving them all The Glare – before they finally dropped the gavel.

Sheesh!

All I can say is, they’d better be worth it.

As for what I’m going to do with them – well, once I finish with my research, I’m donating them to the local historical society, where they can be digitized and accessed by other historians. I think it’s important that all of these primary sources be available, in some way, to everyone. And because these are so rare, and so fragile, it’s important that they be conserved and stored properly, too.

And now – I’m off to start reading. 🙂

The Destruction of Our History – ISIS and Nimrud

This week marks the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day when civil rights activists tried to march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for their right to vote – and were met with violence on the other side of the Edmond Pettus Bridge by armed police.

But I’m not writing about that. Because something much more important happened this week. ISIS decided, for the world, that we should no longer have the historic site of Nimrud. A Biblical Assyrian city, capital of the Assyrian Empire for a time, Nimrud is – was – a candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Fat lot of good THAT did.

The city of Nimrud was discovered bIraq;_Nimrud_-_Assyria,_Lamassu's_Guarding_Palace_Entrancey Austin Henry Layard in the 1840s. The story of its discovery was one of the things that propelled me towards history and archaeology. I loved the idea of finding a city covered by desert, of learning to read the ancient Assyrian texts, the statues and reliefs that told story after story of conquest and expansion. But more importantly, I loved the Assyrian libraries – the fact that even though they loved to conquer others, they loved saving history more. It’s in Assyrian libraries that we find ancient Sumerian texts. It’s in Assyrian libraries that we find documents we can find nowhere else.

Will ISIS someday do the same? Not libraries, obviously, but put their ‘victories’ up on stone walls for all the world to see? For enemies to see, and be terrified by, as they pass through the gates of whatever city ISIS allows to survive to become their capital?

What is the purpose of any of it? What is the purpose of UNESCO, of nations ‘condemning’ the bulldozing and wanton destruction, if they bloody aren’t going to do a damn thing to stop it???

Enough already. How much more do we have to lose? People come and go. We get 50, 70, 100 years if we’re lucky, and then we’re gone. But these sites? These artifacts? They belong to no one. They belong to all of us. They belong to the world. They don’t belong to Iraq or Iran, or Afghanistan. They don’t belong to the Taliban, or to ISIS, or to any other terrorist organizations. Are we going to sit idly by and let these worthless pieces of crap dictate to us what we can and cannot have?

I spend my life trying to make history relevant to students. It’s bloody hard work. I have to fight against prejudice (“History is boring!” “I’ll never need this!”), and previous bad teachers, and the stigma that history is nothing more than names and dates. And nothing could be further from the truth. I take pride in the fact that most of my students are engaged, they care, and I’ve even turned a few into history majors, with a passion for doing for other students what I was able to do for them – make history interesting and most of all, to make it relevant.

So the things ISIS is destroying, they’re just statues, you say? The cities of dead kings? Stone buildings that no one cares about? Bullshit. This is our history. Mesopotamia is where human civilization began. The ancient Sumerians gave way to the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Hittites, the Hebrews, the Babylonians, and the Persians, and a half-dozen other cultures in between. They traded with Egypt, with the Greeks, and even later with the Romans (before, of course, falling to the Romans). They gave us laws and legal codes. They gave us the first written language. They gave us metallurgy. Stone arches (take that, Romans!). The wheel. Irrigation. The first banks. Long-distance trade. Professional armies that didn’t also have to be farmers or something else. Art. The first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which details the Sumerian’s idea of the afterlife. The first poetry known to us. And on.

Without the ancient cultures of the Middle East, we would not have what we do today.

I’m so heartbroken and disgusted by the world’s response. Condemn the destruction? Why aren’t we protecting these sites? Why aren’t we working with the Iraqi government to get the artifacts out of the country, into safe hands? Why did the Baghdad Museum just reopen this week? Are we this stupid? Are we this naive?

I can hear some of you now:  how is this worse than what Hitler did in the 1930s? Trust me, it’s worse. Hitler looted museums, yes, but most of the stolen works were either put into private hands, or sold at auction. Some were destroyed, yes, but not this wholesale destruction we see from ISIS. Hitler wanted many pieces for his own personal museum, which he planned to build after he’d dominated Europe. We are still finding artwork that we thought was lost. It happens all the time.

But if ISIS has their way, there will be no lost artwork to find. It will all simply be in tiny bits and shards. A giant historical jigsaw puzzle that we may – or may not – be able to put together.

http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-03-06/baghdad-government-accuses-isis-destroying-ancient-city-nimrud

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/06/isis-destroys-ancient-assyrian-site-of-nimrud

http://www.newsweek.com/2015/03/13/rise-isis-threatens-libyas-classical-archaeology-sites-311038.html

http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/isis-erasing-iraqi-history-destroying-antiquities-officials-warn-n318761