Pictures tell stories. Each day at the Museum I’m reminded of this truism. Sometimes the stories are written on the backs of photographs. Sometimes they can be pieced together from bits of outside evidence. And sometimes we have only the images themselves.
Knowledge about the snapshot at left can be described as somewhere between ignorance and full knowledge. We know, for example, that the photograph was taken near Lodi’s National Guard Armory in May 1942—the date and location are written on the back. History tells us that the attack on Pearl Harbor had taken place six months earlier, so the United States had just entered World War II. The soldiers in this picture—who were trained in artillery—belonged to Lodi’s National Guard unit, according to the donor’s deed. They represented the first wave of guardsmen from the city to see active duty during World War II.
But a lot has been lost despite these near certainties. What were these men like—in soul and flesh? How many had sweethearts, wives, or children? Did their relationships survive the strains of time and distance? Where did they serve? How many of them came back? How did the war change the survivors’ attitudes toward life? What went through their minds as they set out for battle?
This snapshot reminds me that history is comprised of more than names and dates—things from the past that we can often nail down with certainty. It also reminds me that ignorance can often be more important than full knowledge. Ignorance can invite us to ask questions, encourage us to learn more about others, and help us to identify with people who have shared in the common struggle of getting by and making sense of the world.
This little snapshot tells me many things. But above all it reminds me not to underestimate the potential value of even the most modest fragment from the past.