Back Story: History's Documentarian

Ken Burns has been preserving America's history for more than 20 years

Ken Burns’s documentary series The Civil War riveted the country when it debuted in 1990, and his other American history-focused works have examined subjects from Lewis and Clark to Prohibition. “Every film I’ve done has brought me to a place that has had extraordinary historical resonance,” Burns says. Preservationspoke with Burns about his work and the importance of place.

Q: What do you think it is about places that makes them so important to understanding our history?

A: Whatever we do, we leave some sort of residue of who we are, our intentions and hopes, our fears and dreams, and I think historical places represent us. They radiate with what we find beautiful and, in the case of places we save, they remind us who we think we are and who we might become going forward.

Q: How would you rate how well we’re preserving our history in these places?

A: We’re still a relatively young country, and for way too long we just felt that everything that we had done before was disposable. I think we’ve woken up after the Second World War and begun to understand that we really did need to save. Human nature never changes, and particularly in tough times, these places help. You know when you’re standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, you’re walking into the Lincoln Memorial, you’re getting a tour of Monticello, they’re not asking you, “Are you red state or blue state? Are you rich, are you poor? Are you black, are you white? Are you gay, are you straight? Are you male, are you female?” Even whether you’re an American or not. They’re just saying, “Welcome to something that we”—and that means not just them, but all of us—“consider valuable.”

Q: Is there one topic or event that you feel has shaped our story more than others?

A: The most important event in American history is the Civil War. No doubt about it. So those battlefields, and the residue of that conflict, wherever it may be—in Richmond, Va., or Montgomery, Ala., or Washington, D.C., or Gettysburg, or Antietam—all of these places have huge significance for me.

Q: How would you define a preservationist? Do you consider yourself a preservationist?

A: Yes, very much so. It can take many, many forms. It can be the preservation of ideas. The preservation of images. The preservation of words. I sort of deal in that arena, but it may also mean the preservation of places. I take advantage of those who work heroically to save battlefields and houses and architecture and things like that. A preservationist is someone who knows you can’t possibly have a future unless you have a past.

Q: So many of your films have colorful stories and anecdotes. Is there a particular moment in history that you wish you could have been present for?

A: I’d obviously have to be there at Ford’s Theatre and stop the assassin. That would be the thing where you’d want to do intervention. But with any of these places, what you get excited about is exactly what you’re talking about [with colorful stories and anecdotes bringing the past to life]. Faulkner said, “History is not was, but is.” And that’s a really great thing to say, because there are moments, if I do my job well, you do feel like you’re there.

For more from Gwen's interview with Ken Burns, check out the Online Exclusives.

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