2023: Reconstructing the Past
Curriculum Starter Kit
- What do you think the world was like a hundred years ago? How about the exact place where you're sitting or standing or lying down right now?
- Now, how would you actually find out?
- If you wanted to learn about a certain time in the past, would you rather read a book, visit a museum, watch a documentary, or explore an old architectural site?
- Should we ask our parents or grandparents, or other older people in our lives, to tell us what the world was like when they were growing up? If so, can we trust them to remember things accurately, or to share them honestly?
- What would you ask someone who was alive a thousand years ago, if they popped out of a very high-tech time capsule? Of everyone who was alive in the world back then, who would you want to talk to?
- Does it matter how the world came to be what it is, or should we focus on what it has become—and what we want it to be? In other words, is reconstructing the past a good use of time when we could instead be inventing the future?
- Is there a difference between remembering the past and reconstructing it?
- The phrase "there's no time like the present" is usually meant as an antidote to procrastination. Do something now, not later. Finish this outline today, not in 2024. Taking it more literally, however: is the present really a unique point in history? If so, does it make it harder for us to understand what the past was like?
- "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it" is a phrase many people repeat, but is it possible that those who do study history are doomed to absorb the worst things about it? Would it be better if we could scrub history clean and start over again with no memories of what came before us?
- Has the pandemic forced a healthy reimagining of past practices, like attending school and working at a real office, or should we go back to the way things were?
- The director Spike Jonze is credited with saying that "the past is just a story we tell ourselves." Is it? If so, could reconstructions of the past help us agree on what the story is—or will different people reconstruct different pasts?
Here We Go Again: History Redux
- Those who find traditional history museums a stuffy procession of rusty spoons and dusty dioramas may want to explore an open-air alternative: "living history museums" where one can time travel on the cheap. Consider the Spanish Village in Barcelona, where travelers and scavenging scholars can efficiently inspect 49,000 square meters of historical buildings and tilt at old slides with Don Quixote. At Heritage Park in Calgary, Banff-bound hikers can stop to pose for photos (and eat 19th century ice cream) with locals dressed up as Canadians from the days of fur trading and the occasional American invasion. For those who can get visas to China, and local families on their first post-Covid-zero outing, the Millennium City Park in Kaifeng offers a hundred acres of life in the Northern Song Dynasty (a Northern Song Dynasty in which food vendors take WeChatPay). Discuss with your team: do such living history museums offer valuable lessons in culture and history, or should we treat them mainly as entertainment—more Frontierland than the Smithsonian? Should schools take field trips to them?
- The most famous of these museums can also be the most controversial. Consider Plimoth Patuxet in Massachusetts, where visitors can explore a colonial village and take selfies with healthy Pilgrims. The museum has recently been criticized for not paying enough attention to the indigenous peoples displaced and given smallpox by those same Pilgrims. One concern: that the tribe members staffing a Native American settlement recently added to the museum are not descendants of the actual tribe the Pilgrims first encountered. Discuss with your team: would it be better if they were—or would this be a different form of exploitation? Would it ever be okay for someone not of tribal descent to staff the Native American area of the museum? What if they weren't tribe members but had adopted tribal practices and cherished tribal customs?
- To make the experience more realistic, some of these museums have diligently bred versions of animals that look more like their counterparts in the past: wilder pigs, gamier hens, dogs that are less Pomeranian and more wolf. Discuss with your team: is it okay to breed animals to serve as props in these kinds of exhibits—and does it make it better or worse if they used for food, or taken home as pets?
- You may know someone on a "Paleo" diet, meaning they avoid processed foods on the theory that it is healthier to eat like our ancestors did 10,000 years ago, when their life expectancy was about 35. (To be fair, on average people died young because the super young died often—a lot of children never grew up.) Some archaeologists and historians are interested less in what we should eat now, however, and more in understanding ancient menus. What did people call dinner at different times in different places? Consider this reconstruction of a Roman thermopolium—where a young Caesar might have grabbed an isicia omentata to go, then discuss with your team: would you patronize restaurants that served food more like that in the premodern world? In North America, at least one chain, Medieval Times, has made a business of it, though its menu is less than authentic; for instance, it offers tomatoes, which didn't exist in Europe before the Spanish invaded Mexico. Speaking of tragedies, check out this menu from the last first-class meal on the Titanic; would there be a business opportunity in recreating it, or would such a business go underwater?
- The Ulster American Folk Park isn't American at all—it's in Ireland. Visitors can experience the lives of Irish people who moved to the United States, from boarding crowded ships to sleeping in makeshift log cabins. Discuss with your team: is it all right for a country to reconstruct and market another country's history? If someone next door in Scotland were to build a similar museum about the lives of early British settlers in India or South Africa, would that be more problematic? Are there some periods of history that should never be simulated in the real world, even if the purpose is to demonstrate to visitors that they were terrible?
- There are fewer examples of "living future" museums—with good reason. But they do exist, often at World Expos or in amusement parks. Consider the following examples of such museums, then discuss with your team: do they tell us more about the future or about the past? If you were designing such a museum today, what would it look like?
- Tomorrowland | Museum of the Future | "World of Tomorrow" (1939)
- Crystal Palace | American National Exhibition (Moscow, 1959)
Re-creation as Recreation
- Someday, maybe they'll reenact the Great Emu War. While the United States is most famous for Civil War reenactments (Gettysburg gets a lot of love) other parts of the world reenact their own key historical moments—albeit still mainly battles, to the lament of historians who argue that this overemphasizes the role of war in history. Research the history of military reenactments. When and where did they begin—and were they ever meant as a form of training? Do veterans of the battles being simulated ever choose to take part? Discuss with your team: is it all right to simulate battles in which one group of people must represent a cause that we find problematic today? How long needs to pass before it is okay to reenact a battle?
- To be fair, not every reenactment is about horses and bayonets; some are less guns and more butter. Research the history of Renaissance fairs—and try to visit one if you can. How soon after the actual Renaissance were they first held, and are they the same all around the world? Then, discuss with your team: are Renaissance Fairs an unhealthy form of historical escapism? Should there be similar fairs dedicated to other periods in history?
- In Bruce Coville's 1986 novel Operation Sherlock, six teenagers have no history teacher—their parents are rogue scientists developing the first AI on an otherwise uninhabited island. They learn about the past by playing historical simulations on their computers. Today, they could choose from hundreds of games, and their parents would have funding from Microsoft. But, while simulations are a way to learn history, critics note that many sacrifice accuracy for better game play or other considerations—for instance, a game set in a place and time where women had few rights might still allow playing as a fully-empowered female character. Evaluate which of the following games is the most historically accurate and which would do the best job of teaching history. Are these two different considerations?
- The Oregon Trail | Seven Cities of Gold | Sid Meier's Pirates! | Call of Duty
- Ghost of Tsushima | Age of Empires | Assassin's Creed | Railroad Tycoon
- The first of these games, The Oregon Trail, remains a classic; in its heyday, millions of American schoolchildren discovered how easy it was to die of dysentery. But the game has also been criticized for celebrating imperialism, for discounting the cost of environmental destruction, and for ignoring the perspective of the indigenous peoples whose lands were being trampled—it was, in a sense, the Oregon Trail of Tears. The developers of a more recent version addressed these concerns with help from Native studies scholars. Many board games have also been called out for implicitly endorsing colonialism—as a result, among other things, Settlers of Catan was renamed Catan. Discuss with your team: what other games from the list above (or from your own experience) should be redesigned for similar reasons?
Once More, With New Feelings | Historical Distortion
- In a recent column, the president of the American Historical Association warns historians against the lure of presentism—that is, focusing too much on the 20th and 21st centuries—and against sifting selectively though the past to find support for their current social agendas. For that, there are sociologists (and the current Supreme Court). Some critics responded that he was discounting the voices of marginalized peoples, others that historians have always had agendas and points of view. Discuss with your team: should historians spend less time on periods in which injustice was widespread, and more on those in which people were striving to overcome it? Is it possible to look at the past without interpreting it through a modern lens? If we could, would we want to?
- The invention of the camera in the 1800s changed how we've pictured history ever since; now we know what things looked like. Where we once had myth, now we have newspaper clippings. This abundance of images presents a challenge for those producing stories set in photographed times: to build realistic sets, and to cast actors who look enough like their historical counterparts to be believable in those roles. Consider the actors who have played individuals such as Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln, then discuss with your team: how important is it that those who play historical figures resemble them physically? Would it have been all right for a short obese man to play Lincoln in a movie, as long he grew a beard and wore a hat? What if it were in a play instead, or a musical? And, once technology permits, will it be better to reconstruct historical figures with CGI than to try to find human lookalikes?
- The musical Hamilton defied the expectation of what actors in historical dramas should look like (and sound like!) by explicitly casting Black actors as famous American political leaders and then telling their story in hip-hop-inspired song and dance numbers. Some have celebrated the way it gives a traditionally marginalized group control of the narrative; history is being reinvented as their story, too, and shared with millions of people in a way that casts them as founding heroes. Others have argued that, while it may seem to empower them, it actually forces Black actors to play-act as their own oppressors, exalting the very history that undermined them, and that it may even make modern Americans feel better about people often assumed to be heroes who actually owned slaves—such as George Washington. Others worry that the musical distorts American history into a simple tale of heroes and villains; put another way, we shouldn't hate so much on Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and maybe we're overthinking what happened in the room. Explore these and other debates about the musical, then discuss with your team: does "color-conscious casting" open doors to new stories and help move society in a progressive direction, or does it lead to harmful disinformation and the perpetuation of existing barriers? Can we learn helpful truths from an invented past?
- In a sort of inverse of the situation around Hamilton, the director of a play (The Mountaintop) about the Black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. triggered a controversy in 2015 when he cast a white actor in the title role. His hope, he said, had been to explore issues of identity and authenticity, especially in light of King's own words about not judging people by their skin color. The original author of the play objected, calling it a disrespectful distortion of history and of her intentions. Discuss with your team: should there be limits to how much one should be allowed to reimagine the past, or an author's intent, in a historical production? Is there a difference between casting a person from a privileged group as a historically oppressed person and casting a person from a historically oppressed group as a privileged person? And should stories set in the past come with warning labels about inaccurate content and/or non-traditional casting—or would no one ever be able to agree on what to write on the labels?
- Because early cameras only took black-and-white photos, and serious photojournalists eschewed color until as late as the 1980s, it is easy to think of the early decades of camera usage as a bleak and colorless time. Even the Dark Ages had color—no one speaks of Robin Hood and the Monochromatic Men—but most of us remember the Great Depression as a gray Depression. It means those recreating scenes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries must navigate expectations of a black-and-white world. While there were some real color photographs taken back then, mainly using potato dye, AI and other tools now allow easy colorizing of old black-white photos. The results may not be perfect, but they could help people see the past as people saw it then. Discuss with your team: should colorized photos be shared with students instead of or beside the originals? Or would doing so be to present something reimagined as something real?
- You can't just look the part; you have to sound it, too. No one knows for sure whether Abraham Lincoln could have had a post-presidential podcasting career—accounts suggest his voice was uncommonly shrill and high-pitched—but the invention of the phonograph soon after his death means we can now fall asleep to recordings of nearly everyone who came after him. An actress playing Margaret Thatcher is expected to study her voice diligently, to match not just her pitch but her every pause. Impressive voice acting can even spawn viral YouTube videos, as the young actor Austin Butler did here after playing the role of the country music star Elvis—and supposedly continuing to sound like him afterward. Research the steps that actors undertake to mimic voices, then discuss with your team: should people playing historical figures try as much as possible to sound like they did, or does doing so risk caricaturing their voices and accents—and distracting from what really mattered about them?
- Along the same lines, one of the most famous actors to play Gandhi, Ben Kingsley, earned widespread acclaim for his performance, but some have criticized the choice to cast someone of only partial Indian descent as such an iconic Indian hero—in particular, someone British, when the British were the very people from whom Gandhi's movement sought independence. Research the debate about his performance, and then discuss with your team: was it more acceptable for this kind of casting to take place in the early 1980s than it would be today? Should the actor's use of darkening makeup for the role make viewers uncomfortable—and, if so, would it be better if CGI were used to restore his actual skin color in future airings of the movie?
- As for historical figures who were never photographed, artists have long tried to capture their essence in portraits and sculptures—but now, AI is increasingly allowing artists like Bas Uterwijk to update those old works with photorealistic results. Even individuals from a time before art, like the Iceman Otzi, can now look us in the eye. Discuss with your team: is it valuable to see the faces of people so far back in the past? Or is it wrong to reconstruct their likenesses without their permission? Would it be better for our understanding of history if we were never shown the appearances of people in the past?
- American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was almost never photographed using a wheelchair, despite being paralyzed from the waist down by polio. Journalists of the era honored his wishes; so did the original designers of the FDR Memorial in Washington. Only in 2001 did they add a statue of him in a wheelchair. Discuss with your team: what do you think he would say about the statue? Should modern portrayals of FDR honor his preferences and continue to hide his disability? Or, to better capture his experience, should only actors who are experiencing a similar kind of paralysis play him?
- The television series For All Mankind combines archival and original footage to construct an alternate history of the world, one in which the Soviet Union landed the first person on the moon. Afterwards nothing was quite the same—but also not totally different. Consider this newsreel from the show, recapping the late 1970s and early 1980s. Discuss with your team: does it have the quality known as verisimilitude—that is, does it feel real? If so, what makes it that way? Watch carefully to identify at least five events that took place differently than in our own timeline, then discuss with your team: does it seem better or worse than what actually happened, or just different? Would there be value in constructing "living alternate history" museums for people to visit, perhaps to help them better evaluate the actual world? And are there times when reconstructions of actual history feel less real than they could—or should?
- A number of types of sources can be used to decide how to portray a past person accurately. Work with your team to identify the differences between those listed below. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Do these kinds of sources reflect an innate bias in favor of certain kinds of individuals in certain sorts of cultures?
- Biography | Autobiography | Memoir | Journal | Diary
- Letters | Newspaper Accounts | Contemporary Footage
- Government records | Interviews | Transcripts
- The Woman King tells the tale of an West African kingdom, Dahomey, which battled a rival kingdom that collaborated with white colonizers on the slave trade. The movie was a welcome post-pandemic hit, but critics noted that Dahomey, too, had profited from enslaving people and selling them across the Atlantic. The plot dropped this complexity in favor of clearer lines between good versus evil. Research other movies that have sparked similar controversies—Braveheart, Pocahontas, and 300—then discuss with your team: is real history too complicated ever to reconstruct it for popular audiences without taking misleading shortcuts? Should we think of all historical fiction less as true stories and more as alternate histories?
ChatGenePT: Reconstruction as Resurrection
- The Jurassic Park movies have drifted from science fiction toward fantasy (they are arguably the best franchise about fantastic beasts) but they began with a basis in fact: scientists really are looking for ways to bring extinct species back to life.
- AI may be an important new tool in making it possible. Critics contend that it will probably never happen and that we should focus our resources on preserving the species we have left. Explore de-extinction efforts and methods related to the animals listed below, then discuss with your team: if it were possible, what species would you want to bring back first? Are there any that we should leave in the grave (or below the K-T boundary) forever?
- American chestnut | Wooly mammoth | Pyrenean ibex
- Passenger pigeon | Moa | Dragon | Dodo
- Not all efforts to restore extinct species involve locating old DNA fragments and stitching them back together—for instance, one de-extinction project in Europe is selectively "back breeding" very burly cows to recreate a wild "supercow", the auroch, that hunters drove into extinction in the 1600s. If they succeed in spawning new aurochs just like those in cave art and the fossil record, would we consider them no longer extinct? Should efforts be made to back-breed tiny horses, or giant flightless birds, or Neanderthals?
- Even if we can't resurrect them, we do have a better sense now of what Neanderthals looked like. Research how we are now able to envision the "Old Man" of Shanidar, then discuss with your team: why should we spend so much time on a species that went extinct so long ago? Is it because some Neanderthal genes can still be found in modern populations, especially in Europe and Asia? Would there be value in creating a living history museum with robot Neanderthals, or with people who dress up like them—or who choose plastic surgery to look the part?
- Sometimes resurrections are just metaphorical. The new leader of the Democratic Party in the United States Congress, Hakeem Jeffries, recently gave a stirring political speech; many listeners dubbed him "the next Obama". He was not the first such. Liz Truss was briefly the next Thatcher, except for some business with a head of lettuce. If you Google "the next Google", you'll find endless results, none of which ended up the next Google; it's your turn now, ChatGPT. The late basketball star Kobe Bryant was supposed to be the next Michael Jordan; so was Lebron James—or was Lebron James the next Kobe Bryant? As it turns out, there were multiple next Michael Jordans; most ended up like these next Peles. Discuss with your team: why is society constantly on the lookout for new versions of old people and old things?
- If you want a selfie with the Pope, you can wait in line at the Vatican and then not get a selfie with the Pope, or you can pay $25 to visit the Dreamland Wax Museum in Boston. Discuss with your team: what makes wax museums different than traditional sculpture collections? Would they still be considered museums if they featured statues of past celebrities and historical figures slightly modified from their real-life versions—say, Mother Theresa with wings, or Joseph Harr with hair—or of people who never really existed, like George Santos and Sherlock Holmes?
- If you want to talk with the Pope—any past pope—you can skip the wax museum in favor of the nearest Internet connection; the ChatGPT-like service Character.AI allows you to chat with historical figures. It's okay if they're dead. Explore the service to assess the value of conversing with these simulated personalities online. Should celebrities and other figures need to agree to have their "chat voices" outlive them—or do they surrender that right the moment they enter the public eye? Do the dead have any ownership over their voices, or can someone speak for them—and, if the latter, would it be better to ask permission from their descendants, or from the simulation of them? And should people have access to chatbot simulations, built from texts, emails, journals, TikToks, and other records, of their own deceased loved ones? Discuss with your team: what could possibly go wrong—and what could possibly go right?
Archaeology: The Telltale Art
- The British monarch Richard III died in battle in 1485, but, for centuries, no one knew where his body ended up. In 2012, a team of archaeologists finally found it—under a parking lot. Analysis of his remains revealed details (including his scoliosis) that otherwise would have been lost to history. We are constantly unearthing artifacts that teach us more about the past; in 2022, researchers unearthed an ancient Buddhist temple in Pakistan, and, a few years before that, possibly the fastest human in history. Discuss with your team: what do we gain from knowing these smaller details about the past? If we had discovered from Richard III's DNA that he was actually of Mongol descent, or that he was a woman in disguise, would that change our view of history in a meaningful way?
- The remains of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii have given us insights into ancient Roman life that may not have been recorded in any surviving texts—but that's only because Mount Vesuvius happened to erupt in 79 CE, effectively freezing it in time. Sadly, countless other cities from other civilizations have come and gone; they weren't lucky enough to get embalmed by volcanoes. Discuss with your team: if a freak accident (or a higher-budget Covid sequel) wiped out all life on Earth but left all our structures, what would an alien anthropologist conclude about how we lived our lives?
- How much does it matter that we try to reconstruct what the world looked like hundreds of millions of years ago? If it doesn't, at what point in the timeline should we start trying to reconstruct history?
- Investigate the following major archaeological and paleontological discoveries. What strategies helped uncover them, and how did they enhance our understanding of history? What circumstances allowed for these discoveries to be preserved well enough for us to find them so many years later?
- Rosetta Stone | Dead Sea Scrolls | Borobudur | Terracotta Army
- Lucy (fossil) | Sue (fossil) | Machu Picchu | Petra | Sutton Hoo
- Jurassic Park, Godzilla, and The Land Before Time depict dinosaurs as giant scaly lizards—and with good reason, as paleontologists used to picture them that way. But more recent research has suggested otherwise; it's possible that Spielberg's T. rex should have been a thing with animatronic feathers. That's what the field of paleoart aims to visualize, even if the evidence is incomplete. If a future paleoartist tried to reconstruct our world using incomplete information, what would they get right? What would they get wrong? Do you think they'd be stumped by fossil evidence of dogs wearing sweaters?
- Terms and techniques
- excavation | remote sensing | zooarchaeology & archaeobotany
- carbon dating | dendrochronology | pseudoarchaeology
Breaking World Records
- There weren't many people writing things down back in the days of Ancient Greece, which is why it was such a tragedy when the Library of Alexandria, one of the most expansive collections of texts in classical civilization, was burned to the ground (possibly). Another ancient library, the Abbasid Caliphate's House of Wisdom, was destroyed when the Mongols swept by on their way to Hungary and back again. Discuss with your team: how does destroying a society's history impact it? What would happen in our own world if information-tracking resources like Wikipedia and TikTok suddenly vanished?
- On the other extreme lies the Tripitaka Koreana, the most exhaustively-catalogued collection of Buddhist scriptures in the world. In the 11th century, Korean monks took 80 years to carve their entire canon into wooden tablets—and then the Mongols (hello again!) destroyed them all. Unfazed, the monks tried again, creating over 80,000 woodblocks. Their effort was worth it; the new tablets have survived for almost a millennium. Research how they disaster-proofed those tablets using the technologies they had at the time. Should we adopt similar strategies for records of our society? Is it possible for us to prepare for events we can't predict?
- If someone invites you to the opening of a time capsule from the year 1800, tell them it's a scam—the first time capsule, the "Century Safe", dates to 1876, and the term "time capsule" wasn't invented until the 1939 World's Fair. Research these early time capsules and what they contained, along with this much more recent Polish polar time capsule, then discuss with your team: what would you put in a time capsule if you were making one for scholars a hundred years from now? You may also want to look at the work of the International Time Capsule Society, which is trying to make sure no one forgets where all the time capsules are. (And there are apparently more than ever—why do you think that is?)
All the Czar's Horses: The Politics of Putting the Past Together Again
- Vladmir Putin is trying to rebuild the former Soviet Union, at least in terms of Russia's power and influence (and the absence of McDonald's). Constantine fought to put the Roman Empire back together again—so did Mussolini. In the United States today, many conservatives long for what they perceive as periods of lost American greatness: the 1950s, the 1980s, November 2016. Nationalist movements and regimes often gaze backward, toward a golden age when everything was right in the world, at least for those in power. Look into other examples of countries explicitly trying to rekindle the good old days—what some call the politicization of nostalgia—then discuss with your team: when, if ever, is should a people look toward their past as a model for what to become in the future? Put another way, when is it good for a country to become great again?
- Sometimes a particular population within a country tries to return to an older lifestyle. The British Luddites destroyed their mechanical looms; New York teenagers are setting aside their smartphones. Consider the Mennonites in Belize—like the Amish, for whom they're often mistaken, they prefer horses and buggies over Limes and Teslas—and then discuss with your team: to what extent should people have the freedom to opt out of the modern world? If a community wants to teach their children history only up to a certain year, or to maintain starkly delineated gender roles, should they have that right? Is there a difference between a group of people that imposes these restrictions only on its own members and one that seeks to implement its preferences more broadly?
The Past Has a Version Control Problem
- In the 1980s, two Soviet artists-in-exile, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, painted the head of Josef Stalin, freed from its body and perched on a woman's hand. Judith on the Red Square was just the latest take on another historical moment that may also never have happened. Consider Komar and Melamid's version together with those below, then discuss with your team: what story inspired them, and how do their styles and meanings vary? Is there a difference between showing the act of the beheading and just its aftermath? And, if, as critics argue, they celebrate the trope of "female rage", should we still be studying any of them?
- Judith Beheading Holofernes | Caravaggio
- Judith Slaying Holofernes | Artemisia Gentileschi
- Judith and the Head of Holofernes | Gustav Klimt
- Judith and Holofernes | Pedro Americo
- Judith and Holofernes | Kehinde Wiley
- He could be a Super Junior—in 2022, the 10-year-old Andres Valencia painted Invasion of Ukraine, a work modeled on Pablo Picasso's 1937 Cubist classic Guernica. Where Picasso portrayed, in fractured screams, the German bombing of a small Basque town, Valencia saw a chance to critique the similar horror of Russia's recent aggression. Examine both works and those below, then discuss with your team: how does each vary from the original, and to what end? Have any other artists created new works about Guernica based on the actual attack, rather than on Picasso's painting? Should Valencia have tried to find a more original approach, or was it a good choice to make his work a homage to an established masterpiece? And, would Valencia's painting be seen differently if he were an adult—or Ukrainian?
- Backyard Guernica and Saskatoon Guernica | Adad Hannah
- Untitled (Guernica Redacted) | Robert Longo
- Guernica remastered (works inspired by Guernica)
- Guernica in tile
- Keiskamma Guernica
- Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851) captures a moment that even in the tense runup to the Civil War had already become part of America's founding myth: the future first president leading his men to a pivotal attack on the British. As paintings go, it is iconic; it is also inaccurate. In 2011, the artist Mort Kunstler revisited the scene more realistically. Compare his Washington's Crossing to Leutze's, then discuss with your team: if painted in 1851, would it have become as iconic? Then, consider a version that critiques not the size of the ship or who is where on deck, but the founding myth behind all of it: Robert Colescott's George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975). It challenges viewers to consider whether promoting the original version to schoolchildren spreads a founding myth that marginalizes whole groups of people. Discuss with your team: if you could print only one of these three works in a textbook, which would you choose—or would you create an entirely new one?
- Sometimes history can't wait. In July 1793, at the peak of the French Revolution, Charlotte Corday, a minor aristocrat, stabbed the radical Jean-Paul Marat as he took a bath. Although both were revolutionaries, she wanted slower change and less murder than he did; she was Mon Mothma to his Luthen. The unrepentant Corday insisted to the guillotine that she had "killed one man to save a hundred thousand." Later that year, the Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David—whose usual focus was long-ago history scenes—memorialized the martyred Marat in a simple painting that inspired two hundred years of replicas and reinterpretations. Consider his work, as well as the other versions below, then discuss with your team: should artists wait a certain amount of time before depicting important political events? Leutze was painting Washington crossing the Delaware half a century later from across a much wider body of water; do artists closer to the facts on the ground have an obligation to portray events more accurately? What do you think Picasso would have said about this obligation? (Yes, you can ask him on Character.AI if you'd like.)
- Charlotte Corday | Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry
- The Death of John Paul Marat | Engraved by James Aliprandi
- The Assassination of Marat | J. J. Weerts
- Death of Marat | Gavin Turk
- Professional artists aren't the only ones who remake famous artworks. In the early months of the pandemic, long before the sourdough grew stale, the Getty Museum challenged everyday people to attempt it with household objects. Review their efforts, then discuss with your team: should we add this kind of challenge as an optional event at the Global Round?
Out of CSIght, Out of Mind
- In the opening episodes of Star Trek: Picard, two characters need to solve a murder in an apartment—but someone has scrubbed the floors, replaced the windows, and wiped all the alpaca spit from the walls. (The only eyewitness also exploded.) Undeterred, they resort to an alien device that can project a blurry hologram of the recent past. Discuss with your team: if investigators could use such a technology to observe what had happened in a crime or accident scene, would there be any need for judges or juries to determine guilt or innocence? Assuming it can only show you events from the last 24 hours or so, for what other purposes might such a technology be useful?
- According to leading figures in the field, criminal forensics demands more than just swabbing for DNA and testing flecks of blood; it requires imagination. Discuss with your team: should prosecutors invest in hiring screenwriters and other storytellers to reconstruct how crimes happened? Do you think artificial intelligence could play a similar role in solving cases—or identifying suspects?
- In countries with trials by jury, some prosecutors worry that people who watch crime dramas on television will have unrealistic expectations of what forensic science can achieve. This so-called "CSI effect" might lead them to find defendants "not guilty" if they aren't presented with razor-sharp fingerprints, perfect DNA matches, and other feats of forensic wizardry—but these are far harder to obtain in the real world than on Netflix or the BBC. Then, when forensic evidence is presented at trial, they might overestimate its importance—discounting other evidence, such as eyewitness testimony or a robust alibi, that could exonerate the accused. Discuss with your team: should juries in criminal trials exclude people who watch too much crime-related television? Is this a real problem, and, if so, might it also affect judges, journalists, and political leaders?
- Research the following terms related to forensics and crime scene reconstruction:
- Alternative Light Sources | Toxicology | Ballistics
- Bloodstain pattern analysis | Patent vs. Latent print analysis
- Forensic entomology | Forensic ecology | Forensic genetics
- DNA phenotyping | Geolocating with stable isotopes | Cloud forensics
- When the media can show actual footage of a tragedy or other newsworthy event, they do, often exhaustively. Before photography and cinema, artists had to draw forensic sketches; consider this contemporary recreation of Lincoln's assassination. Today, if they lack real footage, broadcasters can generate animated recreations—for instance, this controversial reconstruction of celebrity golfer Tiger Woods' car crash in 2019. Discuss with your team: can such animations serve an important function in informing the public? What is the difference between animating a news story and reenacting it with live actors? Should all the people featured in reenactments of recent events have to give their consent—and, if so, what if they are no longer alive to give it?
Making Them Sing Again: Opera's Second Act
- Perhaps you've been to the opera, but you probably haven't: a 1992 study found that only 3.3% of Americans had ever sat down in person to watch a robust person sing, and, while the data is thin, the percentages were probably lower in many other places—and even lower now, when attendance at all live events has struggled with Covid and the internet. Take a moment to explore the origins of opera, then discuss with your team: what makes it different than Broadway-style musical theater?
- Champions of opera have noticed its declining popularity. In Italy, they've offered young people cheap seats—you can listen to a mezzosoprano for the cost of a double espresso. Others have reimagined live opera from the ceiling down as a multimedia experience. Audience members at the recent premiere of Somnium in China bumped shoulders with roaming robot rovers; those at a mid-pandemic Rigoletto in Serbia had to worry less about their toes getting run over and more about frostbite. At both, an LED screen was such a key player that it could have worn a tuxedo. Also during the pandemic, one opera company—led by renowned opera innovator Yuval Sharon—put together a drive-through version of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle in a parking garage. Consider these examples, then discuss with your team: is it possible to reimagine opera in ways so immersive that they aren't really opera anymore? If so, what is opera becoming?
- Maybe that LED screen wouldn't need to rent a tuxedo after all. Defying a tradition which many believe can alienate modern audiences and perpetuate racist and sexist institutions, some orchestras are rethinking what their performers should wear. Discuss with your team: how much does the look of a performer matter? Should orchestras allow their performers to dress in athleisure, or like Lady Gaga—or is there a risk of distracting from the music? Would it be okay for a conductor to wear yoga pants? Does forcing all members of an orchestra to follow any dress code at all, let alone one better-suited for (the men at) a 1920s soiree, unfairly limit their freedom of expression?
- For those who think operas (like subject outlines) are too long for Gen Z attention spans, the British radio station Classic FM has retooled classics of the genre into 30-second animated shorts, such as this take on Bizet's Carmen. Others, worried that opera (like global rounds) can be too expensive for people to attend and too hard to find outside of large cities, have tried streaming operas into movie theaters. Discuss with your team: do you think these approaches can win new converts? Do they sacrifice anything of what makes opera opera?
- Classical works—many of which reflect a white, Western-dominated cultural milieu—can be reimagined for a more diverse world. Explore this production of the 17th century opera Orfeo, one that merges parallel Greek and Indian mythology, songs in English and Hindi, and musical instruments and styles, then discuss with your team: how well does it succeed? Can you think of other operas (or musicals, or even Disney movies) that should be reengineered in a similar way? Is it misleading to show two traditions coexisting so harmoniously in the same work in a world where cultures still more often collide than converse—or is it aspirational? And is the fact that the original opera was an Italian masterpiece proof that Western culture is still being given dominion over its Indian counterpart?
- China, too, has something of an opera problem: attendance is down, interest is waning. Enter Donald Trump. A 2019 Cantonese-style opera about Trump searching for his twin brother in China sold out every performance. In the United States, so-called "CNN operas"—focused on recent events—have also become more common in the last few years. Consider the song "Jones is Not Your Name" from the 2022 production of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. Discuss with your team: should opera stay away from potentially controversial stories set in the modern world? Or are there certain political events that are suited to opera—and is that what draws composers to them?
- Opera is not the only genre of music to be reinterpreted for the world today. Learn about and listen to this new approach to Oliver Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, which he first wrote as a German prisoner of war. Do you prefer the new version—and do you think Messiaen would have been okay with it?
On a Nostalgic Note
- Everyone (in the senior division and above) has songs that make them wistful for moments they can never have-ana again, but are some songs more universally nostalgic? Listen to and learn more about the selections below, which are widely celebrated as nostalgic masterpieces, then discuss with your team: what do they have in common? Do they reveal a formula for making people sad about their lost happiness that future songwriters could follow? And do they work on you, or are you immune to their charms—and harms?
- The Beatles | Yesterday
- Maroon 5 | Memories
- Ali Haider | Poorani Jeans
- Gao Xiaosong | You Who Sat Next to Me
- Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick | Sunrise, Sunset
- Magic mushrooms are in the curriculum this year—at least, musically. (We don't have a round in Portland yet.) Them Mushrooms' Embe Dodo is an example of a nostalgic musical genre—zilizopendwa—with enduring popularity in Kenya and Tanzania. It has even inspired academic research on its implications for East African development. Discuss with your team: can nostalgic music help a society move forward, or does it do more to keep people fixated on the past?
- When the main character of the time travel film Back to the Future finds himself in 1955, it's not just the town around him that has changed: it's the very sounds in the air. Check out the way that his arrival in the past is choreographed to the hit 1954 song Mr. Sandman, and discuss with your team: how much does it matter that movies set in the past use music from that same period?
One Track Forward, Two Tracks Back: Old Music, New Musicking
- The Ancient Greeks invented the shower; surely they also invented singing in it. But, until recently, it's been very unclear what Greek music really sounded like. Learn more about the process by which scientists have reconstructed the forgotten music of an unforgettable civilization, including their form of musical notation, then discuss with your team: does listening to their songs make the ancient Greeks feel more familiar—or more foreign?
- Yes, something is killing all the bees, but Rimsky-Korsakov's are holding up okay; his classic Flight of the Bumblebees keeps landing in new places. Consider the examples below, then discuss with your team: which feels the most faithful to the composer's intent? Is there a difference between a reconstruction and a reimagining, and is it possible to reuse a classical work in a disrespectful way?
- Bob Dylan | It's The Flight of the Bumblebee
- Al Hirt | Green Hornet Theme
- Our Shining Days | Chinese vs. Western Instruments
- Long before people debated whether the prequels were canon, Pachelbel created a canon that no one will ever dare to propose erasing. Listen to his original Canon in D, the look for songs (such as Vitamin C's Graduation: Friends Forever) that have reworked it in modern times. Discuss with your team: why do we keep going back to certain pieces in this way? Would the world of music be a more creative place if, in fact, we could remove the Canon from the canon?
- Backwards thinking isn't always a bad thing: the Beatles' song Because began with the idea of playing the familiar chords in Beethoven's famous Moonlight Sonata—but in reverse. Discuss with your team: do we need to know, in the title or elsewhere, when a work is built out of a previous one in such an unconventional way?
- Have a listen to the piano piece Experience; if it sounds familiar, it's because you probably heard it on TikTok. Many classical pieces have found new homes that would have surprised those who first created them. To what degree should such a repurposing alter what we think of a work's meaning and significance? If the same exact piece of music is used in two very different ways, should we think of it of as two distinct pieces of music? Do you think composers would be happy to see their works reused in ways that didn't even exist when they were alive?
- Rhapsody in Blue
- Pomp and Circumstance
- Ode to Joy
- Experience was just one beneficiary of Gen Z's recent surge of interest in classical music. Consider the young musicians described in this article as finding success—and fandom!—in a style once seen as in decline, then discuss with your team: have you noticed this trend among your own friends? Are these new classical musicians similar to those in the past, or are they adjusting in some way to appeal to younger people today? Might they be gaining popularity simply because embracing classical music is "the most left-wing move imaginable for a modern-day teenager"?
- Late in production, the director of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, discarded all the music that his chosen composer, Alex North, had written for it—a move almost unheard of in Hollywood. (It would be like changing the theme at the last minute.) He replaced the entire soundtrack with classical pieces. Most memorably, he laid Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra over a scene that literally reconstructs the beginnings of human civilization. Listen to the part of the original soundtrack meant for that same sequence, then discuss with your team: did Kubrick make a good choice? Should more movies and television shows rely on classical music instead of fresh compositions? Would it make them more generic—or more timeless?
- The 19th century saw the rise of a new kind of professional musician: the conductor, whose job it is to oversee, in rehearsal and then in real time, the performance of a piece. Orchestras vie for the services of the most famous conductors—the Lionel Messis of the music world. But different conductors have different approaches. Some are more beholden to the "notes on the page", trying to reproduce the sound of a piece exactly as its composer intended. "Mr. Toscanini is literally a slave to the composer," one critic wrote of the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini. He meant it as praise. Discuss with your team: if you were a conductor, would you see it as your duty to follow the original composer's wishes? Or would that make you too easy to replace with a computer program?
- In fact, robot conductors are a thing. Do you think people will be okay with paying to see orchestras led by them? What if the robot is an AI-powered reconstruction of Toscanini himself?
- Toscanini's famous rival Wilhelm Furtwangler took a dramatically different approach—he treated the notes on the page as just a starting point for his own interpretations. Listen to this comparison of their different takes on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, then discuss with your team: is one version better than the other? Is one more artistic? Is one more authentic? To what degree should a conductor have the freedom to reimagine how a work should sound?
- Before the 19th century, composers frequently conducted their own works; it was just part of the job description. Even today, many still do. Discuss with your team: is the most genuine version of a work the one conducted by the person who wrote it—for instance, John Williams conducting his own Star Wars main title theme, as opposed to this version led by Darth Kucybała?
- Modern composers can also rebuild classical music from the ground up by integrating it with the instruments and styles of diverse cultural traditions. Consider works such as Simon Thacker's "Panchajanya", then discuss with your team: are they crafting something new? Is there more value in musical traditions remaining separate so that they can be linked creatively, or should we be aspiring to a single global sound?
Revisiting the Prologue: Reconstruction in Poetry and Prose
- Isaac Asimov wrote a history of the children of the Neanderthals—of one in particular, brought forward to our own time. Read his 1958 short story "The Ugly Little Boy" and then discuss with your team: if you were rewriting this story in 2024, with what we now know about Neanderthals, would you describe the boy differently? And, if it were up to you, would you choose to keep him in the present or to send him back to his own era?
- By the mid-1850s, the British were able to use computers to help them dominate the globe. The 19th century world that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling reconstruct in their novel The Difference Engine (read an excerpt here) is one that that never happened, but maybe could have—had the scientist Charles Babbage successfully invented a mechanical computer in 1824. Computers then helped the British invent steam-powered everything, from cars to tanks to airships—thus the term steampunk for all works set in a more advanced 19th century. Read a bit more about steampunk, then discuss with your team: how do you think people even further back in the past in the past would have chosen to use modern technology? How would people today react if suddenly they only had access to 19th century technology? Before punching out, be sure to find out who the narrator of the novel turns out to be.
- Across a tapestry of over a dozen novels, the Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay has built a past almost like our own, but just a bit more fantastical. It also has an extra moon. His method: to respect the beliefs of the people who lived in any given era. "If I write about a time inspired by the Tang Dynasty and they believed in ghosts, I will have ghosts in the book," he says. "If I write about Celts and Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in the time when they believed there were fairies in the woods, I will have fairies in the woods." His hope is that it allows us to see the past through the eyes of those who lived in it. Read this excerpt from his most recent work, All the Seas of the World, then check out the interview here. Pay special attention to his answer eight minutes in—on his efforts "to tell the stories of people whose stories tended not to be told". Discuss with your team: how different are the roles of an historian and of a writer of historical fiction? Can the latter help fill in gaps left by the former—and, if so, should they?
- For the set of poems (and one poetic speech) below, consider how each goes about reconstructing something—or someone—from the past. Which feel the widest in their scope, which the most personal in purpose? Discuss with your team: when is poetry the best medium for looking backward—and can poets ever be trusted as historical sources?
- "A Dog Has Died" | Pablo Neruda
- "Dodo" | Henry Carlile vs. "The Dodo" | Hilaire Beloc
- "Brazilian Telephone" | Miriam Greenberg
- "The Municipal Gallery Revisited" | W.B. Yeats
- "On Shakespeare" | John Milton
- "At the Tomb of Napoleon" | Robert G. Ingersoll
- "Kyoto" | Basho
- "A Brief History of Toa Payoh" | Koh Buck Song
- "Kubla Khan" | Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- "The Czar's Last Christmas Letter" | Norman Dubie
Journalism: An Exposé
- No one ever had an "exclusive" with Napoleon; the very concept of the interview had to be invented first. Read about its surprisingly short history—the idea of reporters asking people a series of probing questions only became common in the late 1800s—then discuss with your team: would news coverage be better without them? Press conferences, too, are a recent development—research where and how they started, and how they have changed over time.
- Records suggest that India's first newspaper was Hicky's Bengal Gazette, published in the 1780s—but that was, at best, the first in the English mold. Bylines were a byproduct of colonialism; indeed, one of South Africa's earliest newspapers was unironically called The Colonist. But global cultures and civilizations have long found other ways to inform the public of important developments, from the bulletin board to the town crier. Research other ways that news spread in different areas of the world before the arrival of Western-style journalism, then discuss with your team: what can we learn from these methods, and are some of them alive and well today on the Internet?
- Historians draw on newspaper and other records of this kind to construct their story of the past. But the nature of journalism—what is being communicated, to whom, and in what formats—has changed over the years. Discuss with your team: will today's approaches to journalism make it easier for people in the future to understand who we were and why we made the choices we did?
- Some journalists are themselves in the business of reconstructing the past—often the recent past, at their own peril, even as others are doing their best to hide it. Work with your team to investigate the origins of investigative reporting and some of its most famous success stories, from Watergate to Weinstein, then discuss with your team: what would you set out to investigate in this way if you could? Are there times when investigate reporting might be too risky—or harmful to the public interest?
- Is it worth reconstructing the past inaccurately in order to help construct a better future—or a less anxious present?
- Do you think people should spend more time thinking about how they will be remembered?
- Are there times when we might want to deconstruct the past? For instance, when is it a good idea to take down historical monuments, or to change a nation's founding myths?
- Imagine that, many years from now, you're hired as a consultant to help recreate the 2020s for a historical drama, but with a very limited budget. What one setting would you recommend building?
- A researcher from a thousand years in the future visits with you and asks for a one-day tour, to help them put together a 21st century school as accurately as possible for a living history museum. What do you show them? What do you hide? Would you agree to go back to the future to help staff it?
- There are many romantic movies set in the past, but very few set in the future. Why do you think that is? Is it a failure of imagination?
- One of the challenges of reconstructing the long-ago is that few records exist, and that those which do privilege those who had the power to keep them. Will future historians looking at our own era struggle with the opposite problem—an overabundance of information, shared indiscriminately by people of all backgrounds? Are we living in an incoherent world?