Searching for the Truth in History

Berkeley Connect History students explore the ways documents can be used and abused

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Berkeley Connect History students have been talking in their small-group meetings about how to use (and how not to use) primary sources. I got a chance to sit in on one of these discussions, being held in preparation for presentations by History professors on their own research.

To kick things off, graduate student mentor Amanda Buster showed the group a magazine cover proclaiming,”Titanic survivors ALIVE! Frozen in iceberg found floating in Atlantic.” This actual February 2004 cover of the Weekly World News drew immediate skepticism from the students. When asked, “Real or not real?,” the unanimous response was, “Not real!”

“But how do we know?,” Amanda challenged them. As other examples of suspicious primary sources, she brought up the recent Brian Williams scandal and even a pop culture reference – a scene from the new movie “Boy Next Door” in which the boy tries to impress Jennifer Lopez’s character by giving her a “1st edition copy of The Iliad.” “How do we judge authenticity?”

Students suggested looking for the source of the document, or historical inaccuracies. One student noted that it was very hard never to make mistakes, but that historians should always be investigative about their sources.

But as Amanda pointed out, it’s not just documents historians use in their research. “Do objects lie?,” she asked. From Schliemann’s “discovery” of Priam’s Treasure to other examples of fake artifacts that went unnoticed for years, it’s clear that they can. Determining the authenticity of a source – whether document or physical object – is clearly not such an easy task.

Even authentic sources might not be so clear-cut. Amanda showed the students several photographs taken by Alexander Gardner during the American Civil War. Many of the photographs depicted the bodies of dead soldiers on the battlefield, and Gardner’s photographs were widely credited for capturing the bloody reality of war. Stopping at one photograph, Amanda explained that Gardner had sometimes moved the bodies and re-positioned them in order to take more compelling photographs. “Is this authentic, then?,” she asked.

“The message that the photographs are conveying are true, even if the photographs aren’t entirely truthful,” one student said. Many students agreed. But this discussion led students to another question. “What if you manipulate sources to tell the truth?,” Amanda asked. To help them explore this, Amanda showed the students a very different image – that of Putin on the beach, “discovering” artifacts in 2011. “The artifacts were indeed found there,” Amanda pointed out. “But probably a few weeks before he ‘came across’ them.” Students discussed what was to be gained from this forged event and forgeries in general – money, reputation, and thrill, to name a few.

Although students agreed there were no easy answers, the questions they explored are at the heart of historical research – and questions they will continue to grapple with in their academic and professional lives.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant