As Covid-19 spurs us to search our rearview for clues to help us navigate into the unknown, Kaz Brecher FRSA began to wonder how reliable or complete our source material might be for disruptions compared to the record generated in steadier times.
Lately, I have become keenly attuned to how few people, including our leaders, truly embody the awareness of how our history is ‘made’ and thus how its very making shapes our understanding and application. Much of our past is preserved, especially in times of crisis, through the happenstance of what gets saved. And, of that, whatever remains in sufficient condition and context to tell a story takes on even more weight as the result of its mere survival and existence. In addition, plenty of voices are intentionally silenced, removing their experience from the record.
This is all quite new to me; I only relatively recently developed an interest in history. Butit is a habit developing with mounting speed, especially at this moment. I often still find myself surprised that I have spent a significant part of the past few years shaping the strategy and design of an initiative that couldn’t be more timely: Made By Us.
Made By Us empowers those shaping our future by offering history as a more relevant, timely and actionable tool. We began this multi-year endeavor by harnessing the superpower of collaboration. For the first time, a huge and growing number of historical and civics institutions – fromthe Smithsonian in Washington DC and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, to History Miami and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles –
have come together to innovate. As the United States of America approaches the 250th anniversary of its founding, the idea arose from a group of leaders across the history field, who rooted Made by Us in human-centered and iterative design principles. Actively developing experiences and opportunities for younger generations to co-create in digital spaces and in real life, we had been poised to launch on 30 March with a still-soon-to-be-unveiled project.
Like many others, in the face of Covid-19, we pivoted in order to more responsibly serve both our imperiled cultural institutions as well as our primary audience; those who are struggling to find stabilising reference points to help them process and orient toward what had already been an uncertain future. At a time when every media outlet seems to be repeating that we are in unprecedented times, there is little comfort for a generation who have been lucky enough to lack times of comparable hardship societally. It strikes me that ‘historic’ moments both offer the rich fodder for future analysis and consideration but also create elevated collective stress responses that sees more citizens managing a flight/flight/freeze pattern just to maintain a way of life. What happens to what gets saved when survival must stay in the foreground?
History offers so much more than guideposts and ways to fill in our blind spots (admit it, how many of you have only recently learned about the 1918 Flu for the first time, on a late night Google search for “what to do in a pandemic…?”). And while many think about history in terms of artifacts or oral histories, there is an increasing need to document and capture the more ephemeral experiences which inform and define our local and increasingly global heritage; the things that happen in the spaces in-between, the impact on our invisible networks and interconnections, like the so-called Interstitium of human body.
We can help people make sense of this time by offering the context of how we might remember this moment in years to come. More than the sweeping ‘event that will define a nation’ language echoing nightly, we are focusing on the myriad tiny pieces that make up our larger puzzle (knowing not everyone is as passionate as the soul who buried the Lewis chess pieces in the 13th century only to have them discovered in the 1830s on a beach in Scotland).
We have asked: “What would you save so that people tomorrow will understand our experience today?” and called it the #TrashOrTreasure Challenge. We have also asked a series of questions to help children and adults alike consider what might not get saved and why; whether that is inherent or changing value systems, who happens to be in power or how intentional a community is in keeping collective memory alive. In parallel, many of our partners launched formal Covid-19 collecting initiatives, opening a crowdsourced map to connect local, national and now, thanks to partnership from the International Federation for Public History, global efforts to surface and capture the many facets of our experience.
As a complex systems designer and student of human behaviour, connecting unlikely nodes is perhaps closest to my heart; when under extreme threat responses, we tend to shrink into the comforts of our nearest and dearest, the familiar, which is often local (admittedly, the current isolation and quarantine scenario turns this upside down). But to discern more universal lessons, we need to zoom out, look for patterns, tease out critical variables, and discern what might be portable across contexts. Viruses and natural systems do not heed the boundaries we draw at state lines or national borders, and neither should our historical perspective.
I was raised in the household of scientists and was on the path to a chemistry degree until my passion for filmmaking sidetracked me. But the rhythm and discipline of scientific pursuit still comforts me: craft a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, gather data, document and analyse, adjust and dive back in. History, in my bones, seems to be much more haphazard, though the experts with whom I work might disagree. But, as historical understanding requires interpretation, we have a lot more power and thus responsibility to take history-making seriously.
The practice of Conscious Leadership is gaining a foothold in the business world. Unlike mindless or unconscious action, it requires bringing full awareness and intention to all interactions, getting off auto-pilot or recognising when it clicks back in and cultivating the tools to bring oneself back into the driver’s seat.
What would happen if we truly internalised the notion that we make history every single day? What if we blurred the artificial lines between the past and the future because our constructions amid the timescale of the natural world really unfold along a continuum? What could become possible if we understood that ‘history’ is more than the study of just what came ‘before’ since the present generates yesterday and tomorrow simultaneously? What would it take to be as deliberately included in our past as we aim to be in our future? It is well within our power to be proactive as we conjure and offer a more thoughtful and perhaps useful legacy on the altar of a future we will never see.
Shaping what becomes our heritage is part of being a responsible futurist, something perhaps too many today claim as an expertise. The RSA was founded even before the US, committed to enriching society through ideas and action since 1754, with a robust archive full of information from its 260 year history, including contributions from members such notables as Dickens, Faraday and Marx. “Preserving our past, recording our present and inspiring our future.” is as suitable and central a motto for the foundation of education and prosperity, at a personal or societal level. If we are to transcend the ‘pandemic personas’ with which we are all now becoming too familiar, saving stories and artifacts might just act as a steadying meditation on how humanity is connected across time and space. If the historical record reflects our modern values, biases and power dynamics, what choices might we make now when we have the ability to intentionally invite many more to the table? Start here, with your story, as we crowdsource our legacy.
Kaz Brecher is an innovation strategist and practitioner, a human-centered design thinker, and a complex systems problem-solver. As the daughter of rocket scientists, Kaz founded Curious Catalyst to transform inquiry into impact, for individuals, teams, organizations and ecosystems.