Simple objects can open a pathway to understanding of complex ideas. "Buildings, books, letters, military objects, clothing all these material things can tell us about family life, individual attitudes, communal actions, the history of language, the impact of environment. A whole range of ideas that seem vague and confusing can all come together in a single object," says Gwendolyn Wright, also known as the "History Detective" on PBS television.
That notion comes from two aspects of Wright's personal career: as a historical investigator but also as a professor of architecture at Columbia University. And it will be central to her remarks as the keynote speaker at the 56th annual State History Conference.
Wright will speak Thursday evening at the Salt Lake Public Library. The conference, which is open to the public, will continue Friday and Saturday, with sessions on such things as Wallace Stegner, historical archaeology, Salt Lake City then and now, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, as well as a tour of the newly refurbished Utah State Capitol and more.
In a telephone interview from her home in New York, Wright talked about her upcoming visit as well as her experiences with architecture and history.
Her latest book, "USA: Modern Architecture in History," deals with how buildings and their contents affect our lives and how that has differed at one time or another. It looks at how our homes affect family structure and how we live; how office work has been done over the years; and how public places, such as churches, schools, government buildings and museums, impact how people come together, interact and view life.
What Salt Lake City is going through right now with the restructuring of its downtown is a very exciting example of that, she said. "In the past, the way people looked at a downtown was to destroy the old and replace it with new. But now we ask 'What do we want to hold on to? How can we respond to our environment to make it better?' It's a much different approach than it would have been in the '50s," she said.
It will be fascinating to see how it turns out, but know this, she also advised: "However you try to figure out how it will all work, it will always be a little different. No matter how carefully you try, architects and designers can never quite control everything, because life can't be totally controlled."
That's a lesson Wright has learned on the "History Detective" series, as well. Tracking down the history and significance of objects often takes her places she didn't think she'd go. "It's not so much that we are looking for 'a truth' as we are thinking, what are the questions we should ask?"
The show, now in its sixth season, has become one of the most popular shows on PBS. Each one-hour segment features three episodes, mostly drawn from viewers' questions, that investigate an object such as a letter, a painting, an artifact, a building, a location, that in turn raise major issues about American history.
"We always look for what I call the 'so-what factor.' We choose objects that have a good story, but we also want stories that deal with larger issues," Wright said.
Past episodes have dealt with such varied objects as film cans that may contain German home movies of Nazi officials; a ticket stub with an autograph of Lou Gehrig that may have come from the game when he announced his retirement; a house that might have been designed and built by Thomas Edison; a building where John Wilkes Booth might have planned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; a $6 bill dated Feb. 17, 1776, that may or may not be an early example of Continental currency.
Episodes have dealt with presidential politics, ethnic and racial inequalities, local legends and icons of popular culture. One story this past season was on a vitriolic anti-Mormon book and explored both the inaccuracies and the reasons behind the book.
One of Wright's all-time favorite episodes dealt with John Adams and how important he was as the second president. "Most people in Europe and even here thought everything would fall apart after Washington. But we came to see Adams not just as a leader, but as a person, a husband, a father and how all those things came together."
What she hopes people learn from the show, she said, "is a notion of how we find things out. How we weigh evidence. How else we can look at things? How we ask questions."
These are critical things, she said, not just in looking at history, but in how we look at life. "People shouldn't just turn on the news, and take everything in the nice, neat package that's presented. People have a notion that it's easy to separate fact from fiction, but it's not always that easy. We show them that."But, she said, it also shows "how history is fun. How open it is. It's not just facts and names. My husband, who is a historian, likes to say, 'History is a conversation with the past about the present."' It's a conversation, she said, that we all should have.
If you go ...
What: Lecture by History Detective Gwendolyn Wright
Where: Salt Lake Public Library
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
How much: Free
Also: Utah State History Conference, Friday and Saturday, Salt Lake Public Library