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Somewhere between hoarding and sending stuff to the local landfill resides the historian.

Throw in a dash of detective and you start to get at least a partial idea of what it's like to be an archivist, archaeologist, anthropologist, curator, historian, preservationist, conservator or other professionals dedicated to informing us of our present by delivering lessons from our past.

What’s the point?

Preservation of history takes a concerted effort and support from people who recognize its value.

What to keep? What to throw out? How challenging it is to discern what will bring value to our cultural remembrances 100 years or more from today.

It's been known to happen that history has bored one or two people. People fixated on the immediate -- the formal teaching of history might be said to be wasted on the young -- hardly have time to appreciate what happened 100 or 1,500 years ago. It's hard for a lot of us to fully grasp the Shakespearean truth that past is, indeed, prologue.

Get around some historians, the formal ones or those who do it only because they love connecting the dots of time, and it's a different feel altogether. The more we learn about history, local history and beyond, the more we can all will feel connected to a common story.

Why in the world does a museum in New York City keep 11,000 artifacts from Sept. 11, 2001? It was truly one of the most horrific days in American history, a momentary victory for terrorists who hated this nation. Artifacts range from pieces of the bedrock at the World Trade Center site to crushed firefighter helmets to dusty shoes recovered from the site. The events of that day are somehow imbued in each of these poignant mementos. Looking at them can, if we let them, transport us back to relive the emotions and experience of the day so that we truly do not forget.

Preservation of places and things empowers us, only within the confines of imagination, to transport ourselves to different times, to ponder what our own frames of mind might have been had we been born into different circumstances. Or they remind us what our ancestors went through, the difficulties they surmounted to make it possible for us to even exist today.

How can one celebrate Thanksgiving without a healthy appreciation for history and its preservation?

Such thoughts came to mind as we learned the other day of the efforts at the Shiloh Museum in Springdale to ferret out as much information as possible about a 1953 film called Wonder Valley. No, don't rush over to look it up on Netflix or Amazon Prime. It won't be there. Indeed, it appears (so far) that no version of the film has survived into the 21st century.

It was, according to the museum, the first motion picture shot entirely within the state of Arkansas.

So what do preservers of history do when a film is no longer available? They find and acquire still images taken during the film's production. The 30 still photographs help to document a signature moment in Arkansas history and make it possible for the museum to, eventually, tell the story of this little taste of Hollywood in the Ozark Mountains. Even Sid McMath, the progressive, two-term governor of Arkansas at the time of the filming, had a cameo in the movie.

Now, Shiloh officials seek help from people who might have been involved with the filming or familiar with its production to identify locals who took part in making the movie. Several of them are featured in the photographs.

Declaring something the "first" is a surefire way to make it historically significant. So what, some will say. What's the point of learning about an old movie?

Valuable history is often returned to us only in small glimpses, largely because so many pieces of historic value are tossed aside. And every glimpse gives us clues about what life was like in a particular era. It is important that people today try their best to understand what life was like in past years, and how life in that time informed attitudes and behaviors that influence those that remain in our culture.

This is not some pining for the good old days. Progress is not the enemy. Indeed, without progress, the preservation of history would be rather meaningless. It is because our culture advances and changes that we owe it to ourselves and our children to remember the past, learn from it, appreciate its challenges.

We humans can be a self-centered lot. Visiting places of history helps us to see the longer arc of human endeavors and to recognize our place within that arc. Observing items from the past, whether it's the top hat worn by Lincoln or the wheelchair used by FDR or a musket ball fired at Pea Ridge, builds a sense of our greater story.

History is, really, a collection of stories that make up the DNA of human existence. Historical artifacts help us to tell those stories and strengthen our own strand within the thread that runs through the course of human events.

We applaud every effort in Northwest Arkansas to preserve the past and to ensure its present purpose is to inform a new generation seeking to create new history for future generations. Whether it's the work of academics at the University of Arkansas or museum curators or historical associations, the telling of our Northwest Arkansas and American stories of the past contributes to a better future.

We can all be part of telling that story by supporting organizations whose missions include the preservation of our history and creative ways to tell that history to new generations.

Commentary on 11/21/2018

Print Headline: Telling our stories

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