If, like mine, your television watching primarily consists of choosing between WGBY, WGBY World, WGBY Kids or WGBY Create, you have probably found yourself drawn into PBS' History Detectives, thanks to its ubiquity. In the show, the several "history detectives" set out to discover the true provenance of objects people want to know more about—an old walking stick, an altimeter, a whiskey bottle, most anything old and mysterious with a good piece of possibly true and historically important lore behind it. Sometimes the stories stand up to scrutiny, and sometimes they fall apart.
It's absorbing if spectacularly modest watching, and seems like the perfect complement to a late night brain fog. That might be because of the striking reverb/echo of Elvis Costello's fantastic song "Watching the Detectives," the show's theme. It might also be because the show consists of watching researchers in action—page-turning somehow becomes compelling, a mighty feat of television editing and writing if ever there was one.
I recently spoke to Tukufi Zuberi, arguably the best-dressed and inarguably the best-named professor on television (he's coming to Deerfield Sept. 26 for a WGBY antiques appraisal fair). Zuberi teaches sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and is one of the history detectives. Zuberi spoke of his own fascination with the sleuthing he's been doing for some eight years now, but he also touched on a hard-to-pin-down issue that's central to the History Detectives' appeal.
If you check out a somewhat related show, Antiques Roadshow, you'll see people gasping in astonishment as they find out the monetary worth of old furniture, artworks and other items.
But central to the idea of the History Detectives is the notion that objects are interesting not because of monetary value, but because of their significance and meaning as historical artifacts.
"Historical value is not determined by just the monetary value of something," says Zuberi. "Historical value is determined by the place of the object in history, not something that's determined by the market."
The detectives provide the context for objects with sometimes tremendous effort, giving people a sense of what their often-unique items represent, rather than what they might fetch at auction.
"What we do is we tell stories," says Zuberi. "Stories about the social significance of an object. We're not interested in just assessing the monetary value. We look at the object and place it in the sociological context. We try to help everyday people see how important their lives are in terms of the interpretation of history."
It's a refreshing change from the money-first approach to old items, one that mixes the prosaic nature of historical research with a heady bit of the poetry that objects come to possess.
Zuberi, who says he was skeptical about the show at first, has become passionate about what he does on television. He preaches the importance of historical and social value, and seems to relish his role as someone who illuminates history by teasing it out of the everyday, out of often-modest objects that sometimes give up astonishing secrets.
Zuberi and his colleagues are up to something deeply interesting. It can be difficult to feel a sense of an object's age when it's safely behind glass in a humidity-controlled case, but the kind of examining the history detectives do encourages a new look at the old things around us.
It's a modest example when compared to the national treasures Zuberi checks out, but I recently inherited a pocket watch. I inherited it from someone very important to me, but I had a hard time relating the watch in my hand to what I knew of his life. It was just a watch—a beautiful one, but just a watch all the same. It didn't evoke anything, at least not like the age-yellowed, musty history of a World War II battle (one he'd fought in) that he'd given me in person.
But as I found out more, as I learned to unscrew the crystal and took a magnifying glass to the guts of the watch, it started to accrue meaning. It came from the 1890s; it wasn't railroad grade, but commercial grade. The father of the man I inherited it from therefore may have been a railroad worker, but probably not an engineer or conductor. The more I discovered, the more I learned about a hitherto unknown past. The watch's heft, its pleasing tick started to mean something to me.
What I did in a modest way is what Zuberi and his colleagues do on a grand scale: I fleshed out the story in which my watch is a prop. Without that kind of story, old things are just old things, sometimes beautiful or valuable, sometimes dull.
Talking to Zuberi has brought me back to an idea that's all around in New England, the idea that old things, if given a chance, might give up intriguing tales. Once you know its tale, the feel of a hand-hewn tool or a scrap of quilt from a hundred years ago undergoes a near-magical transformation. Touch it, use it, and sometimes you can catch a whiff of a different time, maybe even feel the pull of your own connection to the people who preceded you.
It's no wonder Zuberi likes his job.