Why History Matters

Royal Ontario Museum: “Why History Matters”

Speaker: Chen Shen, Vice President, World Cultures at the Royal Ontario Museum

Title: “Why History Matters”

Organization: The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Speech writer: Emily Crouse

Audience and venue:

This speech will take place during the grand opening of the new Modern East Asia Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum, immediately preceding the ribbon cutting. The audience will be composed of executive members of the museum, major donors, staff members, members of the East Asian communities in the Greater Toronto Area, and other museum guests. The audience will be approximately 200 people.


Good evening. I would like to welcome everyone on behalf of the Royal Ontario Museum. Welcome to this very special event.

The Modern East-Asia Gallery has been a pet project of mine for several years. Ever since the idea first came to us, the ROM has been working hard to gather and obtain every little piece that you will see displayed beyond those doors behind me. We’ve had three teams on this project: Team China, Team Korea and Team Japan, and they have been working tirelessly to bring this gallery to you, travelling across the world countless times over the last three years. As you probably know, this new gallery focuses on China, Korea and Japan in the 20th century, a time of immense turmoil and change. We are very grateful to the Chinese, Korean and Japanese communities in the GTA who have partnered with us on this project. Your support and contributions have been indispensable to this work.

Before I go on, I would also like to give one final thank you to all staff, volunteers, and supporters who have helped put this night’s event together. Let’s give them a round of applause.

Since it opened its doors on March 19, 1914, the ROM’s vision has been summed up by two words: wonder and discovery. The full statement is “to inspire wonder and build understanding of human cultures and the natural world.” Charles Currelly, the first director of the ROM (then called the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology), sought to “[bring] the ages home” to us in Ontario.

But why? Why do we do what we do? What is so important about studying the “ages”? The past?

The answer is threefold.

First, history is beautiful and exciting. Everyone loves a good story. We know that cultures across the globe have used stories for untold generations. They did so to teach their young, entertain each other and to protect their history: the shared story that was passed down by their parents, their parents’ parents, and on.

Stories have taken many forms over the millennia. Some societies mainly shared their stories through the oral storytelling tradition. Others through song. Many told stories through art: paintings and sculptures and architecture. Today, we tell our stories with the written word, with the digital word, and with newer art forms like film.

Maybe I’m just a history nerd, but I love biographies and documentaries. As a child, I adored what I called “true stories”, even more than fantasy and science fiction. To me, the best adventure stories were the true ones, because the people in them were real. They were real and had lived. They had all once been children, like me. They had families, like me. They had gone to school, like me. But, and this was what really excited me, they had done truly remarkable things in their lives.

Stories teach. I learned all about loyalty, courage, family in those true stories. I also learned about the bad parts, like war and cruelty. History taught me about the human experience. But I’ll come back to that thought later.

History, when well-told, is beautiful and inspiring. It entertains, it teaches. I know that I have learned much while walking these halls, watching the ages of the earth unfold before my eyes.
And that brings me to my second point. History teaches us where we have been, where we are now, and where we are headed.

On the ROM website, it states that “We strive to bring you insights into how the earth and its cultures have evolved, and how the changes we face today will shape the world we’ll live in tomorrow.”

The past causes the present, and the present causes the future. We can only understand the present when we look at what happened to cause it.

Now, it’s not a secret that there have been dark times in the past. And dark times in the recent past. The 20th century is full of terrible events: devastating wars and sickness, financial crises, horrific regimes. There has been terrible strife between the countries of East Asia. And the gallery behind me will show that.

But history also teaches us how to forgive, and how to heal. Someone once told me that civilization is built on ruins, but also on the choices people make. I came across a Saint Augustine quote a few weeks ago that I think is appropriate. It says: “Bad times, hard times — this is what people keep saying; but let us live well and times shall be good. We are the times. Such as we are, such are the times.”

How we respond to today’s changes will shape the world of tomorrow.

And studying the past can teach us how to respond to changes. By studying history, we can see how change occurs, what exactly causes change to happen, and what things do not change.

One of the things that does not change, or does not change much, is us. And that is my third and final point:

History teaches us about us; who we are.

The past is a treasure trove of information about how people and societies have behaved and continue to behave. Professor Peter Stearns calls it the “laboratory of human experience.” But that’s a cold, clinical way of putting it. I prefer the imagery of a library, or, perhaps a museum?

History provides us with identity, whether individual, national, cultural, or human.

Famous Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is especially interested in national and cultural identity. His films, most of which take place in historic Japan, ask the questions, “what does it mean to be Japanese?” and “what does it mean to be human?” Princess Mononoke takes place in medieval Japan and deals with the relationship between humans and nature. His most recent film, The Wind Rises, is a fictionalized biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane used during World War II. Miyazaki’s films deal with themes of war, nature, and humanity, and all of them are distinctly Japanese.

Miyazaki said in an interview that “in this borderless age…a man without history or a people that forget its past will have no choice but to disappear like a shimmer of light.”

History is beautiful. It teaches us where we come from. And it teaches us who we are.

It is people like Miyazaki, those who believe in the importance of remembering the past, who make this museum and this new gallery possible.

History Professor Penelope Corfield writes that “Humans are rooted in time,” and we all participate in the “long-unfolding human story.” This museum and the gallery behind me are devoted to telling this story.

So please, explore and enjoy. Thank you.

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