by Terese Svoboda
Last month I saw the Whitney exhibit “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria.” As you might remember, Maria was a Category 4 storm that hit Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. According to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 4,645 Puerto Ricans died as a result of the storm, but according to the Puerto Rican government, only 64 died. The Whitney’s museum label stated that the smaller number “not only insulted the populace with its miscalculation but also undercounted at-risk sectors that experienced increased deaths from accidents, cardiac conditions, diabetes, suicide, and even leptospirosis—a usually rare, potentially deadly, yet preventable bacterial infection spread by rats that grew prevalent in the months following the storm due to contaminated water.” A year after the hurricane, an impromptu installation of over 3,000 pairs of shoes was placed in front of Puerto Rican government buildings to memorialize the actual number of dead..[i] Activist Puerto Ricans had the number 4,645 tattooed onto their bodies. During the 2019 summer, protests about the death toll discrepancy finally unseated governor Ricardo Rosselló.[ii]
Which of these numbers will be recorded in history, and why?
According to most historians, only eight people died during the the Great Fire in London in 1666. Bertrand Roehner, my friend and historiographer, brought up this fact when I visited him in Paris last week. He maintains that common sense is the key to recognizing history’s weaknesses, and science is the remedy. Despite having access to the tremendous advances in technology, statistics, and the tools of interpretation, he says the study of history has not progressed as a discipline. Why has archeology, anthropology and paleontology adopted scientific ways of ascertaining what happened in the past, but not history? He likes to point out how much the study of physics has moved forward in the three centuries since Newton’s theories in Principia. His choice of this 1687 publication as a milestone coincides with the nearly contemporaneous Great Fire of London. Read more »