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A $25 million potential for misused history

Let’s set the scene. You are a Stanford freshman in the class of 2024, taking your first load of courses for the fall quarter. You’re undeclared, so you decide to try lots of different things. You’ll take CS 106A, of course, but you also like writing, so perhaps you’re in English 10A, a historical class in the English core.

You have to read Beowulf this week, so, venturing out to do homework outside of your dorm for the first time, you head to Green Library. You swipe in and enter the first floor, shiny and new from recent renovations. You sit down at a sleek desk and open the medieval text — right beneath a portrait of Mark Zuckerberg.

Believe it or not, this scene is not far from becoming a reality. The East Wing of Green Library is slated to be redesigned starting next fall, and the first floor will be transformed into a hub honoring Silicon Valley “history.” Harold Hohbach, who recently passed away and left Stanford the $25 million gift that will transform the first floor of Green, hoped “to create a space to challenge and inspire the leaders and entrepreneurs of the future.”

To say I was shocked and dismayed at this news is an understatement. I can understand the need to maintain an archive focused on this area’s technology and its impact on our lives. A committed effort to documenting the history of this area is an important cause; analyzing the successes and pitfalls of the “tech bubble” we live in could be important for future generations.

But the nine oil paintings that will be on rotating display as part of the new exhibit, commissioned “to celebrate the ingenuity that powers Silicon Valley,” feel like an absurd excess. I’m unsure why we will display drawings used for the prototype of the first computer mouse when we have an entire collection of illuminated manuscripts and rare texts that many students never see. And putting audio and video recordings from a large electronics company front and center is a clear statement to a visitor of what Stanford values.

When we think of propaganda, we tend to think of 1940s cartoons, posters of Uncle Sam shouting “I Want You!” or perhaps of Rosie the Riveter. Museums and exhibits aren’t usually our first thought. But how we curate the past, whether it be the distant past or the recent past, is fundamental to the way we think in the present. There’s a difference between preserving history and overtly promoting a specifically chosen slice of it.

To further explore this distinction through a historical comparison, I looked to 20th century Portugal, in a period known as the Estado Novo. This regime was different from other authoritarian regimes in that it was actually quite conservative. It was characterized as corporatist, which essentially means that the government controlled large interest groups linked to particular economic sectors, which in turn controlled all the people in those groups.

The Estado Novo state used some typical measures of influencing thought, such as state censorship, but they also used more subtle tactics, including museums and temporary exhibits. Under the official veneer granted by the museum space, and sometimes under the guise of the need for renovations, the politicians and bureaucrats were able to curate exhibits that fit with their ideologies. Though museum directors were sometimes in opposition, they were also dependent on funds provided by the government to keep their collections open for visitors and their archive spaces open for students.

I am not saying that the Green Library renovations are authoritarian, nor am I even saying that Hohbach’s desire to foster a study of Silicon Valley is an inherently bad thing. But I do think that disrupting student life in service of a museum-like space honoring the tech world is a poor use of $25 million. We have many spaces on campus dedicated exclusively to innovation and future-oriented thinking. Green Library, a central location on campus used by students from many disciplines, does not need to be one of them.

As a humanities student, I recoil at the notion that “interdisciplinary thinking” might be used as an excuse to shamelessly promote the progress-oriented and often dehumanizing culture of Silicon Valley. I hope that at the very least, the curators of this project will consider taking into account the needs of the students who use the space. Furthermore, I would propose the creation of a committee of humanities students who could provide input on the designs of these exhibits. The University already has broader committees at the administrative level; a smaller group at this level could play a crucial role in making sure student voices are heard in this process.

Admittedly, the East Wing of Green is a little stuck in the past, design-wise at least, but it’s a comfortable space. It is a calm refuge from the constant hustle of Stanford, a place to slow down and step back from the fast pace of modern life. To me, the first floor of Green means the National Novel Writing Month table in November. It means peaceful reading in the early evening, watching people chatter in line at Coupa or hearing the pouring rain smatter against the windows. It means shelves of literature and magazines, the smells of newspapers and books and warm printer ink. It means being an arm’s reach from reference librarians who can point you in the right direction when you get stuck.

And Green Library also means the freedom to shape our own thoughts. It means having the resources to make connections between CS 106A, Beowulf, 20th century Portugal or anything else — without the pressure of Silicon Valley’s incessant drive for a particular kind of innovation looming before us.

 

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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