Britsch Lecture: The Work of Ken Burns

Dr. Gary Edgerton delivered this year’s annual Britsch lecture, speaking on director Ken Burns and his documentaries.

img_9012PROVO, Utah (Oct. 20, 2016)—In 1981, Ken Burns made Brooklyn Bridge, his first documentary, which earned an Academy Award nomination for best documentary. He has since directed and produced over two dozen films, covering topics from sports to wars and feminists to demagogues, and playing on television sets and in classrooms throughout the United States.

As speaker for this year’s annual Britsch lecture, Dr. Gary Edgerton, dean of the College of Communication at Butler University, delivered “Ken Burns, Popular History, and the Rise of the New Humanities.” In his remarks, Edgerton used Burns as a case study of how television has established itself as a medium of art, culture and history and entered the humanities conversation. Television studies first came up in academic circles in the late 1950s. “Television studies in America has always had something of a splintered personality,” Edgerton said. Initially, studies were focused primarily on statistics, the effects of television on audiences and programing histories. But in the 70s, researchers began to take a more traditional humanities approach to television, treating programs as texts.

As part of television’s continued institutional legitimation, the National Endowment for the Humanities named Ken Burns as its 2016 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. Announcing the decision, N.E.H. chairman William D. Adams said, “His work combines deep humanities research with a rich feeling for American life and culture and unparalleled public reach and appeal. Ken is one of the great public intellectuals and historians of our time.” Later, when he introduced Burns at the night of the lecture, Adams said, “No one’s work speaks more eloquently or meaningfully to the relevance of the humanities and to our national wellbeing.”

Burns came onto the scene when historical documentaries still held little interest for the average American television viewer. To date, though, his documentary The Civil War has been seen by over eighty million Americans, and subsequent documentaries of his have gained similarly high numbers, allowing PBS (the channel that aired his films) to compete with the larger networks. “He has now been one of public television’s most prolific and popular producer-directors for more than three decades,” Edgerton said.

“Any understanding of his work in retrospect must begin with the fundamental assumption that television’s representation of the past is an entirely new, different history altogether,” Edgerton explained. “Unlike written discourse, the language of television is highly stylized, elliptical rather than linear in structure, and associational and metaphoric in the ways it portrays historical events, figures and themes.”

To demonstrate this point, Edgerton first explained Burns’ unique style (distinctive to Burns despite the many directors who have since tried to imitate him). His documentaries are easily recognizable for the way that they blend narration with personal accounts, or what Burns refers to as a “chorus of voices.” This chorus includes readings of newspapers, diaries, letters, etc., along with commentary by scholars and researchers. While these voices tell the story, the camera pans over historical paintings or photographs, with period appropriate music or sound effects providing ambience. “The effect of this collage of techniques is to create an illusion that the viewer is being transported back in time, literally finding an emotional connection with the people and events of America’s past,” Edgerton said.

Second, Edgerton described Burns as a bricoleur (French, “jack of all trades”). Edgerton referred to the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who taught that the bricoleur is one who “speaks not only with things but also through the medium of things.” Edgerton explained, “Burns the bricoleur reassembles anew each time he assembles a documentary, an actual quilt of Americana that is inevitably a mixture of history and myth.”

Third, Ken Burns is a storyteller. While still in college, Burns dreamed of directing Hollywood films. When he came to direct his documentaries, he adapted traditional storytelling methods to history, identifying plots and heroes. In an interview, Burns once told Edgerton, “I am the audience. If I have a gift, I think it is the ability in the editing room to be my audience’s representative.” For Edgerton, this gift is manifest in the way that Burns transforms history into narratives that audiences can understand and invest themselves in.

Fourth, Burns is a liberal pluralist. “He presents an image of the United States pulling together despite its chronic differences, rather than a society coming apart at the seams,” Edgerton said. Burns has maintained that his documentaries pursue a single question: Who are we Americans as a people?

All of this has helped Burns raise the prestige of popular history to complement professional history. “He has reversed the usual academic hierarchy by trusting first the lessons found in our photographs, film clips, period music and paintings before turning to the scholarly record, which he uses rigorously,” Edgerton said.

Edgerton concluded, saying, “Today, television is the principal means by which most Americans learn about history. . . . The medium’s historical portrayals have . . . transformed the way tens of millions of viewers both here and abroad think about the past. And in this regard, no one has ever been more prolific, set a higher standard and had a greater impact on making history meaningful and relevant to more Americans than Ken Burns.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.