I am pleased to announce that I have been invited to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on the Visual Culture of the American Civil War and its Aftermath, facilitated by the American Social History Project, Center for Media and Learning at the Graduate Center City University of New York. Words cannot adequately describe my anticipation for this event—and perhaps rightly so, considering the subject matter! The opportunity to study with acclaimed historians on a subject so meaningful to me is a rare gift. Rarer still, is the chance to be fully immersed in such study; to live and breathe the research away from the day-to-day distractions of my world at home.
I am acutely aware of the power visual media holds on public opinion. Images can frame an argument clearer and more precisely at times than can words, and often reach audiences that would otherwise ignore print messages. Take internet memes for example. A scroll through social media can, at a glance, give a fairly succinct indication of the major issues titillating, rankling, and angering the populace at-large. These memes can enlighten, influence, and form public opinion, and often create new awareness among viewers, who then forward the meme to others, thus expanding the reach of the message. The mother of a Millennial, I see first-hand the way that visual media affects and influences the generation who grew up with the internet. My son often uses memes as entertainment, but I also find him occasionally using meme content as a way to refine his opinions about a particular person, or subject.
Historians are challenged when confronting visual media from the past as we may not be culturally attuned to the messages conveyed. The ability to suss out the inside joke, or the obscure cultural reference is the difference between deep understanding of the material and an academic textual read only. Take editorial cartoons as an example. When viewed as a series or synthesized group, major concerns can be derived for a given period. When considered with concurrent events, the biases of the publisher, and the experiences of the readership, one can gain a significant understanding of the deeper concerns of the day. Historians can then use the information being transmitted visually (the people, companies, legislation, etc. depicted in the image) to determine the nuanced cultural messages important to the era, and more closely analyze the meaning of these messages.
The NEH Summer Institute offers the opportunity to explore the world of Civil War-era visual media; to put tools in my hands that will allow me to expand the way in which I approach, analyze, and relate the messages contained within historical images. We live in a world inundated with cultural messages transmitted via images. This statement holds true whether discussing the year 2016 or 1860 or 1750. Incorporating the fine arts, cartoons, photography, maps, and other visual media into a broader analysis of a historical time period is necessary in order to come to a deeper understanding of the undercurrents pertinent to a given age.
I am thrilled to be able to participate.