“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.“
—Henry Ford, 1916
Rewiring American History
Each day, our staff combs the internet for interesting articles, maps, videos, conversations, visualizations, and podcasts about the American past. We tag each of these for the who/what/where/when of the stories they tell, enabling them to be mixed and matched with the thousands of other stories in our archive. By highlighting some of the many points of connection between these overlapping stories and interpretations, we hope to create a fuller and more honest portrayal of our shared past, and reveal the extent to which every representation is part of a longer conversation.
To many people, history is simply a subject in school devoted to the empty memorization of names and dates. Others pass by the history section at their local bookstore, dominated by presidential biographies and battle accounts, without pause.
Yet Americans are fascinated by their past. Popular movies and television shows return time and again to all parts of the nation’s history. People travel great distances to touch and feel the places where history occurred. Genealogy has become one of the most popular hobbies in the country. Museums, libraries, and archives confront the past with restless energy. Teachers across the country spark memorable and powerful classes, drawing on dynamic and inventive scholarship. Collectors traffic in evocative pieces of the past, ranging from expensive automobiles to ephemeral toys. People cherish every detail about the evolution of rock, jazz, country, and hip-hop. Op-eds turn to the past for perspective and provocation. Conflicts over monuments and flags erupt in the streets of cities and towns.
Bunk sets out to capture this passion for the past surging all around us, and to reveal the ways that people of different backgrounds and purposes are connecting with the nation’s history. The project launched in 2017, and is funded by generous gifts from supporters of the University of Richmond. It is non-profit and non-partisan, and is built around a series of convictions:
- History is not something that happened once and then is past, but rather asserts itself in the present and future in unpredictable ways.
- History is not one national story or set of facts to memorize, but rather all the evidence we have about everything that has happened up to this minute.
- The past is being remade constantly, partly because we discover new patterns within it, and partly because we ask new questions of it.
- History can be presented in any form, from a narrative to a database, from a film to a museum, from a song to an archive.
- Something that happened 200 years ago can send more energy through the system of memory, power, and contestation than something that happened ten years ago. Art and culture move history, just as politics and economics do. Anonymous people often move history.
- Much of what is important in history moves beneath the surface of events. Things that happened without obvious consequence in their own time can help shape lives for generations that follow.
- Knowing what actually happened, based on evidence and scholarship, is necessary for meaningful judgment. The ways we remember the past, on the other hand, are often as powerful as what actually happened.