A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial

Memorials and Monuments

View of “A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial” Statue. Photo credit: Mark Jason Dominus, Wikimedia Commons.

Memorials and monuments punctuate our lives. Many of us are taught to revere them early on—in town squares, at museums, throughout our national parks, and everywhere in between. We may repeat the ritual with our own children, who may someday bury us beneath smaller though no less meaningful monuments. All the while, we live our lives before the silent gaze of granite soldiers, towering obelisks, historic buildings, roadside crucifixes, memorial bridges, and no end of scattered mementos. Some of them were left by ancestors for reasons that may be obscured by time. Some appear as if overnight, often born of grief for a loved one lost to violence or disregard. People have given their lives in the service of monuments; others have killed to protect them. Love, hate, fear, faith, determination, and deception all inhere in our nation’s commemorative landscape. But what do we really know about these silent sentinels?

We know quite well from our vantage point in the early twenty-first century that memorials, monuments, and other expressions of our nation’s complex public memory are not, in fact, as silent as we might suppose. They have, rather, since the beginning of our national saga, witnessed and prompted impassioned dissent, vocal nationalism, and sometimes lethal violence. We know too from decades of scholarship that memorials and monuments trade in all matter of perceptual trickery. One person’s hero was another’s worst enemy. One town’s achievement meant another’s demise. One empire’s victory signaled the death of families and kingdoms and ecosystems elsewhere. Choices made about which of these memories to enshrine, and which ones to erase, are the messages that memorials and monuments convey today. In this sense, then, memorials are never silent, and they certainly do not reflect consensus. They are rather arguments about the past presented as if there were no argument.

We need monuments, even despite their tendency to misrepresent. At their best, monuments can bind us together and fortify our communities in the face of tragedy or uncertainty. They can also remind us that to be great is worthy of aspiration. The meaning of greatness, however, is never fixed. Indeed, how we define it—how, that is, we choose to remember—has become a matter of pointed concern, especially as Americans seek to expand opportunity among those whose forebears were so long erased from public memory. Is it possible to change a monument’s meaning once it has been built? Is there such a thing as a public memorial that respects the infinite diversity of the American public? These and other questions underlie what headlines and pundits characterize as our nation’s “monument wars,” longstanding contests of memory wherein the very meaning of citizenship is up for grabs.

Defining Terms: Memory, Commemoration, Monuments, and Memorials

Making sense of our monument wars and their history is complicated by the variety of words that are used, often interchangeably, to describe them. Words such as “monument,” “memorial,” and “commemoration” all share in their deep history a root in another complicated word: “memory.” Memory, of course, is as old as humankind, and perhaps older. Historians study memory, as do neuroscientists, physiologists, physicists, sociologists, philosophers, and others besides. The remarkable scope of memory studies and the field’s growth in recent decades, signals how deeply memory runs through all facets of modern life. Historians cannot make sense of memory alone. We have, however, made important contributions to the conversation, especially concerning memory’s capacity to shape ideas about nation and citizenship.

In the United States, for instance, leading memory scholars—including Michael Kammen, David Blight, James Young, and Erika Doss—have advanced a set of propositions, drawn from an array of social and cultural theory, that explain how memory promotes a common sense of American identity over time and across lines of difference. They include the possibility that, in addition to each person’s individual memory, there exists a collective memory too—a stew of facts and images and stories—that shapes and is itself shaped by our personal recollections. There is also the notion that memory can reside in objects and places, and that attending to these is one way that nations sustain our loyalties. Historians are concerned, too, with traumatic memories, such as those associated with war and genocide, and have recently begun to explore the monument’s capacity to aggregate and deploy deep wells of emotion. Running through all of this is an awareness that, if we listen closely, monuments can speak volumes about the intent of their makers. They usually tell us more, in fact, about the people who made them than whatever it is that they commemorate.

The monuments and memorials we are concerned with, then, are expressions of public memory. They are born of individuals whose personal memories get bound up by some common interest within some common corner of some community’s collective memory. The process whereby this confluence of individual memories is vetted and repackaged for public consumption is what we refer to as commemoration. Commemoration itself can be an event, such as is the case with some parades, festivals, and even the preservation of old buildings. What we witness in those instances is a process whereby individuals are instructed—both by watching and by participating—in the performance of fealty to a shared set of ideas about the past: the war was noble, our ancestors were great, remembering is patriotic. These are powerful lessons, so much so that commemoration tends to obscure the possibility of believing otherwise.

The terms that we use to describe the products of commemoration, words such as “monument” and “memorial,” may vary in purpose. “Monument,” for instance, usually refers to a commemorative structure or edifice, whereas “memorial” applies to almost anything—including buildings, books, roads, stadiums—that recalls the dead or the experience of profound loss. The Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., is also a monument, because the structure itself functions as a well of national regard for Lincoln’s sacrifice and vision. Across town, however, only sports fans likely consider the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium a monument. Its tribute to Kennedy’s memory is in name alone. The rules are neither hard nor fast. The National Park Service, for instance, applies the designation “monument” to any unit—whether or not it foregrounds commemoration—that is established by executive order. More significant than these shades of meanings is the ubiquity of words such as “monument” and “memorial” in our daily lives.  Language reveals the extent to which memory surrounds us everywhere and always.

Cemetery Monument, Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo credit: Daniel Mayer, Wikimedia Commons.

A Brief History of Commemoration in the United States

There is nothing that obligates Americans to remember in the ways that they do. Indeed, the nation’s founders railed against the excesses of memory. In their eyes, the corrosive influence of ancient traditions—such as those that sustained Britain’s monarchy and its landed aristocracy—was precisely what prompted the American Revolution. So how then did commemoration end up being so prevalent in the United States?

Two common explanations deploy two different histories: one deep, the other more recent. In the first case, the American preoccupation with commemoration, and especially the mingling of objects and memory, reaches all the way back to medieval Europe. The early Christian church, as the story goes, sought by the ninth century to entice converts by deploying an array of sacred objects, the so-called cult of saints’ relics. The appeal of these relics—bits of hair, bone, and other vestiges of bygone saints—resided in their power to connect worshipers to the divine, literally, through touch or by mere proximity. Elaborate rituals of belief grew up around these objects and the reliquaries that contained them. Increasingly their power mingled, in early modern Europe, with secular objects of curiosity gathered by explorers and exhibited alongside relics in cathedrals, princely chambers, and curiosity cabinets. Mastery of worlds, human and divine, might be had by whomever could amass the largest collection. Even mystics and clerics got in on the game, imagining elaborate memory theaters from within which one might see, and thus learn to recall, knowledge of all times and places. The ways of knowing associated with these practices, as has been shown by Stephen Greenblatt and cleverly illustrated by Lawrence Weschler, penetrated western culture so deeply that they travelled along with Europeans into North America. Modern-day museums thus recall the ancient impulse to venerate remarkable objects, as do memorials and monuments where visitors might commune with the past by bringing themselves near to all manner of markers and cenotaphs.

In the other case, made by historians such as Alfred Young and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, American commemorative preoccupations are associated with a sense of historical discontinuity that seems to have originated by the 1770s, during the “Age of Revolution,” and which reached a fevered pitch by at least 1900. This story explains why, though the founding generation distrusted monuments, the deaths of its most prominent leaders—first George Washington and, later, Thomas Jefferson—prompted an early wave of commemorative activity by the 1820s. The Civil War, of course, exacerbated this sense of historical rupture and set into motion a commemorative spree that has not yet abated. By the end of the nineteenth century, Americans erected obelisks, collected old things—clothes, quilts, furniture, tools, and more—opened museums, founded historical societies, preserved old homes, and staged fetes and festivals all in hopes of staving off their nagging concern that something had been lost amid the ravages of modernity. Their efforts, especially during the years spanning the World Wars, were so expansive that much of the commemorative infrastructure they built remains today.

Since World War II, Americans have experimented with new commemorative forms. During the postwar years, named municipal buildings and commemorative highways replaced a previous generation’s fondness for granite soldiers and obelisks. Monuments to shared loss have also become increasingly common. Inspired by Maya Lin’s widely influential 1982 Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, modern monuments often feature abstract forms and reflective surfaces in place of the figurative literalism preferred a century ago. Impermanent or impromptu memorials have also become a staple of modern commemorative practice. Mounds of stuffed animals, ghost-white bicycles, roadside shrines with hard-hats and t-shirts, car windows airbrushed with sentimental tributes, tattoos, and scores of commemorative websites all reveal our own era’s concern to mourn publicly. It is a shift, as Erika Doss argues, that signals a new period in our commemorative history, one wherein national belonging is reckoned emotionally in acts of public feeling.

Oklahoma City National Memorial on the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo credit: Executive Office of the President of the United States, Wikimedia Commons.

The Contours of Memory

Commemorative trends notwithstanding, memorials and monuments are endlessly diverse insomuch as acts of public memory always reflect the particularities of time and place. An uneasy grid of concrete slabs recalls the Holocaust at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. The “Door of No Return”—part of the Maison des Esclaves on Senegal’s Gorée Island—commemorates the terrors of the Atlantic slave trade. And a commemorative complex in Vietnam’s Quảng Ngãi Province testifies to the rape and slaughter of civilians by U.S. Army soldiers in a place Americans remember as My Lai. These monuments demonstrate that commemoration need not always seek resolution. Indeed, commemorating sites of shame offers an important corrective to triumphant portrayals of the past that inevitably obscure historical complexity. Monuments like these, that are indelibly bound up with American history abroad, also remind us that memory is not confined to national borders. The circulation for centuries of people, capital, and ideas has ensured that all of our memories are entwined within deep networks of global remembrance.

Some monuments and memorials seek to redress lapses in what is presented as “official” public memory. The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado, for instance, now insists—after more than a century of white Coloradans deliberately mischaracterizing the massacre as a battle—that the Arapaho and Cheyenne be reinscribed onto our national memory of westward expansion, which for generations has either omitted Native Americans or dismissed them as mere obstacles to progress. Such is the function of so-called counter monuments. Counter monuments, as James Young suggests, demand a reappraisal of collective memory by demonstrating awareness of their own contrivance. They do so, in some cases, by insisting on the inclusion of people—and, sometimes, entire segments of American society—that have been persistently absented from public memory. In 2017, Philadelphians honored Octavius V. Catto with a statue, the first ever in Philadelphia to commemorate an individual of African descent. Elsewhere, counter monuments do their work by modifying extant monuments or presenting them in a different light. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko complicated our understanding of the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, for instance, with a temporary 1998 installation that projected onto its sides towering videos of mothers torn by the loss of children to neighborhood street violence.

Removing or relocating monuments and memorials can also reveal the deep intensity of contested memory. Beginning in 2015, in response to a mass shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, cities across the United States—including New Orleans, Baltimore, and Los Angeles—opted to remove monuments valorizing the Confederacy and white supremacy from courthouses and parks. Scores of these monuments had been erected throughout the twentieth century to legitimize white supremacy and otherwise shift Americans’ commemorative gaze away from the degradations of slavery. The removal campaign turned violent in August 2017 when white supremacists and their supporters rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly in defense of a monument portraying Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Clashes with counter-protesters resulted in one death and multiple injuries, and appeared to many Americans as a metaphor for the heated debates about race and citizenship that consumed the nation during the presidential election of 2016.

Tomorrow’s Monuments and Memorials

Removal debates remind us that commemoration is always political. Even the most benign monuments are products of choices made about how to remember, what to remember, and how to pay for it all. Faced with this certainty, then, how might we create monuments today that speak beyond our immediate concerns, and to audiences who may not remember in the same ways that we do? History shows us that a good first step is to engage as many constituencies as possible in the commemorative process. Commemoration grows from conversation, and as such should include as many voices as possible. Archiving the conversations that produce monuments is another important step. By preserving a record of our deliberations over public memory, we leave for future generations an indication of what is at stake in our commemorative aspirations. Above all, we must remember that monuments and memorials are neither silent nor innocent. The harder we think about their meanings today, the more likely they are to speak with clarity tomorrow.

Suggested Readings

Allison, David B., ed. Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2018.

Bruggeman, Seth C., ed. Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Doss, Erika. Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Duppstadt, Andrew, Rob Boyette, and Sgt. Damian J.M. Smith. “AASLH Technical Leaflet #241: Planning Commemorations.” Winter 2008.

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7-23.

Savage, Kirk. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Reconsideration of Memorials and Monuments. A special edition of History News 71, no. 4 (Autumn 2016).

~ Seth C. Bruggeman is an associate professor of history at Temple University, where he directs the Center for Public History. His books include Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), Born in the USA: Birth and Commemoration in American Public Memory (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), and Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument (University of Georgia Press, 2008). You can follow him on Twitter @scbrug and explore his website at https://sites.temple.edu/sethbruggeman.

Armenian American dancers

U.S. Bicentennial, 1976

Armenian American dancers (Nayiri Dance Group) in New York City, July 1976. Photo credit: Nick DeWolf, Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the “Bicentennial Era” (1971-1976), Americans commemorated the two-hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution in different ways. In Ogden, Utah, the city restored its historic Union Station and opened a railroad museum inside. In Washington, D.C., two brothers formed the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation and, with grant money from the National Park Service, researched and designated black history landmarks. Bowling Green State University moved a historic one-room schoolhouse onto campus. In Boston, members of the National Organization for Women marched in the parade commemorating the Boston Tea Party, connecting their own struggle for rights with that of the colonists. Boosters in Biloxi, Mississippi created a Seafood Heritage Trail. At the end of the period, the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Administration reported that over 90% of Americans participated in at least one Bicentennial-related activity.

The Bicentennial—as it was celebrated—was ultimately very inclusive: that is, many different groups and individuals found purpose in the commemoration and were able to observe it in ways that were impactful to them. But it certainly did not start this way. Originally, planners conceived of it as a top-down and centralized tribute to American achievement. Thinking critically about the Bicentennial is useful not only because of its place in the origin stories of many public history institutions and initiatives, but also because commemoration is often a key reason for, and part of, local history efforts of all kinds. Moreover, because of its unique juxtaposition of federal and local efforts, the Bicentennial continues to hold important lessons for contemporary planners of national commemorative events. For these reasons, it’s useful to track the way that the Bicentennial was envisioned, planned, and ultimately celebrated, both nationally and in local communities.

Contexts: “The New Nostalgia”

The Bicentennial occurred during an era in which Americans were much more interested in history than they had been in the forward-looking 1950s and ’60s. Many commentators remarked upon “the new nostalgia” that seemed to be permeating American culture—from fashion trends for platform shoes (originally seen as a 1930s throwback) to films such as American Graffiti and television shows like Little House on the Prairie, Happy Days, and The Waltons. While this cultural turn exceeded the Bicentennial, it helped stoke excitement about history. And, in many cases, as with CBS’s nightly Bicentennial Minutes and the landmark miniseries Roots (called by its author, Alex Haley, a “Bicentennial present to America”), which inspired so many, public and popular history efforts were inextricably connected, further evidence of how wide-reaching the Bicentennial was.

Planning for The Bicentennial

From the beginning, government leaders saw the upcoming Bicentennial celebration as a means to encourage patriotic feeling and behavior in Americans. By the mid-1960s, the consensus that had characterized the United States in the period following World War II was rapidly fracturing. Both federal and corporate interests saw the Bicentennial as an opportunity to unite Americans in their support for the larger political project celebrated by the commemoration.

Planning for the commemoration began in 1966, a full ten years before the actual event. President Lyndon B. Johnson created a bipartisan American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (ARBC) made up of a mix of elected officials, business leaders, and public figures. Under Johnson, the ARBC planned a World’s Fair, like the 1876 Centennial that had been held in Philadelphia. In the beginning, the ARBC conceived of the Bicentennial as forward-looking, an extension of Johnson’s Great Society programs; it was an opportunity to take stock and to bring new resources to as many Americans as possible. After the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, the ARBC changed tenor. Nixon made new appointments of political cronies and longtime supporters, and, rather than seize the opportunity to extend socio-economic benefits more broadly, the Nixonian Bicentennial was to be a celebration of American supremacy.

Critiques of Celebration

Throughout the 1970s, Americans questioned the meaning of the Bicentennial and Nixon’s plans for it. These critiques came from a variety of sources, including elected officials, commentators in the media, and activists. Despite the different origins, the concerns voiced by these individuals and groups were similar: Nixon was politicizing the Bicentennial planning by linking it too closely to his presidency and the 1972 campaign; the ARBC was corrupt and unwieldy; the Bicentennial effort was not representative; and—most significantly—an expensive, celebratory international exposition was out-of-step with the troubled contemporary moment.

Other challenges were even more pointed and reflected a critique of not only the shape of the celebration but also its cause. A group called the Bicentennial Without Colonies sought to use the commemoration to point to the disjunction between the ideals and realities of the Revolution, specifically the ongoing inequality, disenfranchisement, and imperialism evidenced by U.S. actions in Puerto Rico. Local and national organizers for the Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement were involved in this latter effort and in interviews, speeches, and publications, also drew attention to the federal Bicentennial’s erasure of both the histories of inequality and the contributions of people of color to the nation, while celebrating the histories and accomplishments of African Americans and Native Americans.

But suspicion of the ARBC and lack of enthusiasm for the World’s Fair model did not dampen excitement for the upcoming commemoration itself. All over the country Americans were finding their own ways to make the Bicentennial meaningful. A group called the People’s Bicentennial Commission emerged as the most sustained critics of the ARBC and Nixon, accusing the President of “stealing” the Bicentennial and seeking to use the commemoration for his own political purposes. Instead of following the “official” celebration, the PBC advised, Americans should find their own ways to celebrate, whether that meant researching local history, planning community events, or using the American Revolution as inspiration for contemporary social movements.

Grassroots History

Various groups, communities, and institutions found their own ways to commemorate the Bicentennial, many of which were historical in scope. AASLH’s Above Ground Archaeology taught people how to do local history. Historians Leticia Woods Brown and Ruth Edmonds Hill inaugurated the Black Women Oral History Project at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Above all, the Bicentennial stoked new excitement in all kinds of histories: family histories, house histories, and community histories. The majority of grassroots Bicentennial projects were hyper-local; they spoke to the experiences and needs of their own immediate communities.

Although the majority of Bicentennial efforts were local in nature, there were a few projects—usually partnerships between federal, state, and commercial interests—that were national in scope. These included OpSail, a parade of sixteen tall ships that sailed into New York Harbor, the Bicentennial Wagon Train, a “history in reverse” yearlong journey by Conestoga wagons from western states to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and the Bicentennial Freedom Train, which displayed artifacts from the National Archives and elsewhere. Notably, even these national projects reflected the local character of the Bicentennial as they planned journeys across communities in the United States.

Likewise, many national institutions used the Bicentennial as an opportunity to plan special exhibits, events, and programs. At the Smithsonian, this included the Festival of American Folklife and the new National Air and Space Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art worked with Charles and Ray Eames to plan “The World of Franklin and Jefferson,” an exhibit that traveled to Paris, Warsaw, and beyond.

The Bicentennial Era also saw the creation of many new institutions including the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the Mid-America All-Indian Center in Kansas. Projects like these, which emerged from activist efforts at inclusive histories, were an important part of challenging and changing narrow and non-representative local and regional histories. From the beginning, Bicentennial efforts in states and communities exceeded those on the federal level.

Changing Course

By 1972, the critiques aimed at the ARBC and the Bicentennial effort had grown too loud to be ignored, and the Commission fell under investigation from the House Judiciary Committee and the General Accounting Office. ARBC also accepted that a large, centralized World’s Fair-type commemoration was unrealistic and changed gears. By early 1973, ARBC had settled on a project called “Bicentennial Communities” that would allow the national organization to support, publicize, and record more local Bicentennial programming and initiatives. The decision was a recognition of the community-based and grassroots efforts that were, by this point, characterizing commemorative planning across the nation. Bicentennial Communities would allow the federal body to preside over a decentralized commemoration that was different in shape and scope from any before it. At the end of the commemoration, more than twelve thousand Bicentennial Communities would be recognized by the federal body.

At the end of the Bicentennial, ARBA had disbursed over $20 million in administrative funding and grants-in-aid to each state, territory, and commonwealth—funding raised partly from the sale of commemorative coins, and partly from government appropriations. State legislatures added about $25 million towards projects and initiatives. Finally, the Department of Commerce used Title X funding to create jobs for over a hundred Bicentennial projects, including a transportation project in Vermont and a water and sewer improvement project on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

Legacies of the Bicentennial

It is the availability of these resources that is ARBA’s—and perhaps the Bicentennial’s—greatest legacy. It is no coincidence, for example, that so many public history institutions and initiatives were founded in the mid-1970s; this is a result of both the excitement and the opportunities afforded by the commemoration. Projects inaugurated or expanded during the Bicentennial Era include the restoration of the historic utopian community site New Harmony, Indiana and the creation of Liberty State Park in New Jersey and Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit, among many others. For these projects, the commemoration was the impetus for more sustained efforts that extended in impact far beyond the scope of the Bicentennial Era.

By the end of 1976, official planners were congratulating themselves on a pluralistic, diverse celebration; however, the Bicentennial was inclusive because people made it so. Americans—informed and inspired by the black freedom struggle, women’s liberation, and other social movements—made the commemoration matter to their own communities and their own experiences. Ultimately, the way the Bicentennial was envisioned, planned, coordinated, and remembered by official agents was a response to this. In order to be successful, commemorative events and efforts must always be responsive to the needs of their audiences and constituents.

Lessons for Anniversary Commemorations

Several key points about the Bicentennial may be useful for those thinking about how to become involved in commemorations, such as the upcoming 250th anniversary (semiquincentennial) of the American Revolution:

The commemoration became an opportunity to question the relationship between the past and the present. Anniversaries are often an opportunity to take stock, and in the case of the Bicentennial, activists and historians started important conversations about not only the legacies of the American Revolution (most notably, who exactly benefitted from “independence”), but how the story was told—who was included and who was not. These conversations, in turn, informed many Bicentennial efforts.

Resources were used to develop and start initiatives, many of which are flourishing today. Federal and state funding helped kickstart projects, and public interest in history gave these projects their first audiences and supporters. Projects sought to involve as many people as possible in collecting, recording, researching, and interpreting history. Because so many projects were local in scope, they involved community members in oral history efforts and collection and archiving projects. Interactive, inclusive projects invited individuals to connect with the past and make their own meaning. Participating in grassroots local history efforts gave many people a chance to find and engage with histories that were relevant to them.

The culmination of ten years of planning at all levels of government, the final form of the Bicentennial—a pluralistic, grassroots celebration—was a symptom of larger shifts in how Americans used history to build and affirm individual and group identities. But more importantly, it was the result of concerted efforts by individuals and groups across the nation to make it meaningful: to question both the historical narrative and its official observation, to create projects and programs that reflected their own communities, and to take advantage of resources the commemoration made available. Although each commemoration is different—a result of its own social, cultural, and political contexts—it is worth looking to the Bicentennial for perspective on how subsequent commemorations might be successfully designed to maximize inclusivity and social impact.

Suggested Readings

American Revolutionary Bicentennial Administration. American Revolution Bicentennial: A Final Report to the People, (Vols. 1-6). United States Government Printing Office, 1977.

Burns, Andrea. From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Capozzola, Christopher. “It Makes You Want to Believe in the Country: Celebrating the Bicentennial in an Age of Limits.” In America in the Seventies, edited by Beth Bailey and David Farber. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2004.

Cook, Robert J. Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. See, especially, pages 29-49.

Gordon, Tammy S. The Spirit of 1976: Commerce, Community, and the Politics of Commemoration. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post Civil Rights America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006

Lepore, Jill. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010

Rymsza-Pawlowska, M.J. History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Walker, William S. “Finding National Unity Through Cultural Diversity: The Smithsonian and the Bicentennial,” 153-95. In A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Zaretsky, Natasha. “The Spirit of ’76: The Bicentennial and Cold War Revivalism,” 143-82. In No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

~ M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska is Assistant Professor of History and Co-Director of the Graduate Program in Public History at American University. She is the author of History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s (2017), and is currently working on a new book about time capsules in the twentieth century. M.J. is also involved in a number of local history initiatives, including the D.C. Humanities Truck and the Washington History Conference. She can be reached at Rymsza at American dot edu.

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on his first day in office

U.S. Presidents

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on his first day in office, January 21, 2019. Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, Wikimedia Commons.

As long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible. . . . But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one. ~Barack Obama

Barack Obama here expresses one of the most enduring ideas about the United States: America as a land of opportunity, where anybody (well, so far any man) can aspire to be president. The National Park Service, National Archives, state and local governments, and private nonprofit organizations operate at least eighty-seven places commemorating forty-four past presidents. The list includes Mount Vernon, the homes of John and John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, and most recently the Bill Clinton Birthplace and the George W. Bush Childhood Home (also the home of George H. W. Bush between 1951 and 1955). There are also presidential libraries, tombs (Monroe, Grant, and McKinley), and monuments in Washington, D.C. (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and both Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt).

Memorializing Presidents

Why do we memorialize presidents? One answer is that presidents themselves consciously worked to secure their legacies as patriotic and revered leaders. George Washington, for example, sat for twenty-four portraits during his lifetime, and modern presidents—beginning with Franklin Roosevelt—have had a hand in creating their presidential libraries.

Many of us memorialize presidents because we have been taught—and we believe—that the presidents literally personify the nation. From the start, when the nation was a fragile union of thirteen contentious former colonies, writers, artists, and educators tried to bind the country together by portraying George Washington as the human face of the abstract principles on which the nation was founded. Never was this more evident than when The Apotheosis of Washington was painted in the oculus of the Capitol Dome in 1863. As the divided nation tore itself apart during the Civil War, the deified first president looked down from the heavens beneath a banner declaring E Pluribus Unum.

Apotheosis of Washington, United States Capitol. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is for good reason that Washington became known to succeeding generations as “the father of his country.” He was unanimously elected president in an age of hereditary kings whose subjects believed him to be the embodiment of the nation-state. Washington instilled in the office of the presidency republican values that rejected European traditions of inherited rule, but the belief that the president personifies the nation nevertheless crossed the ocean and lives on to this day.

Indeed, the idea that the presidency is synonymous with the nation makes patriotic nationalism a central component of America’s traditional narrative. Even though there was no direct connection between FDR’s presidency and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, visitation spiked at his presidential library immediately afterward—likely because Americans were seeking a meaningful way to express and reinforce their patriotism.

To many Americans and many historians, however, the history of the presidency is full of examples that contradict the traditional celebratory and patriotic narrative. Three Founders who became president, for example, held other human beings in bondage even as they declared that “all men are created equal.” Beginning with Jefferson, presidents tried to remove Native Americans from their lands—Andrew Jackson, in the name of national security, even pursued policies that were arguably genocidal. Abraham Lincoln chose saving the Union over freeing the slaves until half-way through the Civil War. And he, like James Monroe, advocated resettling freed slaves in Africa rather than allowing them to share the “blessings of liberty” in the country of their birth. Seventeen men would occupy the office of the presidency after women gathered at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to promote their equality before gaining the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Woodrow Wilson, father of the League of Nations, was also responsible for the establishment of Jim Crow policies. Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal brought hope, dignity, and financial security to the nation’s most forgotten men and women, is also remembered for interning nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Ronald Reagan restored popular faith in the presidency but also seriously undermined the rights of the American worker.

Relevance

Many everyday Americans have—for a variety of reasons—grown alienated from American history and come to believe that the presidency is no longer relevant to their lives. Some, driven by anti-government rhetoric in the media, may have even come to regard the nation’s history as a betrayal of the patriotic values that they learned in school. Obama’s “out of many, we are truly one” sometimes rings hollow, and too many people have grown unwilling to memorialize the presidency or visit presidential historic sites.

Lots of Americans, though, remain committed to the democratic values of the Founders and many (if not all) of the presidents. For their part, social historians have for years been exploring the experiences of immigrants, workers, racial and ethnic minorities, enslaved people, Native Americans, women, children, families, and people with disabilities or different gender identities to create a more inclusive historical narrative. And while often critical, the underlying point of this history is that by protest and/or working together Americans have generally succeeded in extending their freedoms and overcoming the forces that have divided them—whether by race, ethnicity, gender, or class. This is inclusive history and it carries a very powerful message that historians should embrace and aggressively pursue.

Engaging Audiences

Many people who visit presidential sites come to demonstrate their patriotism and often hold emotionally charged opinions about their presidents. Still, while presidential sites may occupy sacred ground, they are also educational institutions where historians can introduce the public to historical context and the many nuances of historical interpretation. Because history resonates differently with different audiences, however, historians at these sites first need to acknowledge and show respect for the diverse points of view they are likely to encounter at their museums and libraries. History professionals can learn from visitors who hail from different cultures and understand history differently than they do. At the same time that historians respectfully engage visitors in the give and take of democratic discourse, they also need to remember that they too have valuable expertise. Historical interpretation should be based on the best available evidence.

Public audiences sometimes need help moving beyond myths and legends to understand why a given president made the decisions he did. Did he marginalize certain groups out of bigotry or prejudice? Or did he believe that he needed to make a hard decision because of other circumstances? Could he have chosen a different course? Did others in positions of power make different choices? What are different historians’ perspectives on the subject? A useful rubric for an inclusive history of the presidency might pose this question: How well did a given president employ the power of his office to advance equality, civil rights, liberty, and democracy?

Addressing Controversy

Every presidential site is different, just as every presidency offers different opportunities for exploring its own narrative. Consider, for example, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum. Twenty years ago certain subjects were taboo in the museum’s permanent exhibition. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust was one of them, because museum leaders felt that discussion of the subject might tarnish the memory of Roosevelt’s presidency. Still, historical studies in the 1980s criticized Roosevelt for inaction or even charged him with complicity in the deaths of millions of Jews, and the museum recognized that it needed to include some representation of the Holocaust. But instead of an interpretation that placed the subject in context and presented alternative historical interpretations, the museum offered a single object: a de-consecrated manuscript scroll of the Torah that had been rescued from a Czechoslovakian synagogue in 1938. There was no interpretive label, just catalog information that the National Council of Young Israel had presented the Torah to Roosevelt on March 14, 1939, to “inspire thousands upon thousands of young people with deeper respect and reverence for the eternal values contained therein.” Displaying the Torah implied (but did not explicitly state) the message that the museum hoped to convey—that the Jews of his day admired Roosevelt and that, even though the Holocaust took place during his presidency, there was little Roosevelt could do beyond his central goal of winning the war and defeating Hitler as quickly as possible.

This institutional response to responsible criticism was good as far as it went, but it failed to acknowledge any alternative interpretations. Worse, it did not mention the fact that the overwhelming majority of Czechoslovakian Jews died in Hitler’s extermination camps; neither did it engage its audience in a conversation about the causes and legacies of the Holocaust.

The museum has since recognized the problem, and today has made a deeper story of the Holocaust an important part of its permanent exhibition. Two of ten interactive touch screen kiosks now feature digital flipbooks (titled “Confront the Issues”) that encourage visitors to explore for themselves Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust: FDR and the Prewar Refugee Crisis and FDR and the Holocaust 1942–1945. Visitors get to examine facsimile documents and photographs and, under “Historical Perspectives,” read historians’ differing views on the subject. They consequently learn to appreciate and respect alternative—more inclusive—narratives, and they come away with their own, now more informed, interpretations.

While the interpretation of this and other controversial issues questions the traditional celebratory narrative of the Roosevelt presidency, it has not led to any outpouring of protest at the museum. Nor has it damaged Roosevelt’s reputation. Quite the opposite. Visitors instead feel more respected and appreciative of thought-provoking museum displays and texts that encourage them to better understand Roosevelt and the democracy that he and Americans of his era championed.

Civic Obligations and an Engaged Citizenry

Americans in all eras have faced challenges to their democracy. Historians have a civic obligation to help people understand the complexities of the past so that they can make better decisions in the present. After all, the idea that an educated citizenry is essential to democracy is written into our national DNA. As Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris in 1787, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Washington agreed. He wrote in his Farewell Address, “In proportion as the structure of government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

The question we sometimes ask ourselves today is whether or not Barack Obama was a great president. Only time will tell. But the measure of Obama’s success—like that of every other president—lies not in his group identity, but in his dedication to the great principles on which the nation was founded and his mastery of the forces that shaped his presidency. Obama himself understood this. Remember his contention that “the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one”? It suggests that Obama recognized that the success of his presidency was possible only because of the durability of the nation’s founding principles.

Historians have important work to do. Franklin Roosevelt, a keen student of history, knew this when he wrote that a “Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” If Americans—all Americans—hope to learn from the past, they need to find better ways to learn it together. For historians, certainly, working with the public to develop a more inclusive history of the presidency is an essential way to strengthen the nation’s democracy and make it work for the diverse, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic society we are today.

Suggested Readings

Atkinson, Rick. “Why We Still Care About America’s Founders.” New York Times, May 11, 2019.

Koch, Cynthia. “The American Story: From Washington to Roosevelt, Reagan and Beyond.” The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation@Adams House, Harvard. November 10, 2015.

Koch, Cynthia. “The End of History? FDR, Trump and the Fake Past.” The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation@Adams House, Harvard. May 15, 2019.

Lepore, Jill. “A New Americanism.” Foreign Affairs.com. February 5, 2019.

Loewen, James W. Teaching What Really Happened. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010.

Moss, Walter G. “Which Presidents—If Any—Did Right by Native Americans?” History News Network. October 7, 2018.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1980. Reprint. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999.

Cynthia M. Koch is Historian in Residence and Director of History Programming for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Adams House, Harvard University. She was Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York (1999-2011) and subsequently Senior Adviser to the Office of Presidential Libraries, National Archives, Washington, D.C. From 2013-16 she was Public Historian in Residence at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY where she taught courses in public history and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Council for Public History (2010-2013) and Executive Committee (2011-2014). Previously Dr. Koch was Associate Director of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community, a national public policy research group at the University of Pennsylvania. She served as Executive Director (1993-1997) of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was Director (1979-1993) of the National Historic Landmark Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, she holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in History from Pennsylvania State University.

 

Food History

Food justice projects often invoke iconic and historical images that can create openings for public historians to connect with community organizing. Photo credit: David Garten on Flickr

Food: chances are you’ll be thinking about it at some point today, like almost everyone sharing the planet with you. Interacting with food may be as close as we’ll ever get to a universal human experience. But can we say that the public history of food is equally inclusive?

Food has certainly long been present in historical interpretation—often as an entry point. Thanks to our human wiring, food offers immediate appeal—to the mind and to the senses. Food traditions anchor communities, communicate continuity and belonging, and creatively infuse identities.

Yet people also draw sharp dividing lines using food. Ask a politically-committed vegan and a pasture-based husbandry advocate what kind of farming is best for the environment and you’ll get two very different answers. Food is also often subject to borderlines of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Ali Berlow, in her Food Activist Handbook, shares an anecdote titled “We See What We’re Willing to See.” Looking at the “bucolic” farms of her own town, Berlow sees

. . . a peaceable kingdom: fertile lands producing good food for all, equanimity, access, balance, and respect between people, animals, land and cultivation. But as my friend the author Alice Randall pointed out, we all see things through the lens of our personal histories. My great-grandparents were German immigrants who moved to the Midwest, bought land, then worked the land they owned. My relationship to the landscape that I’ve inherited is different from that of some of my African-American friends and colleagues like Alice. I think it’s safe to say that most of their ancestors did not own the land they worked. When Alice looks at those same cornfields, grand old trees, and pastures, she may not envision a peaceable kingdom but rather one of terror, violence, and oppression.[i]

Food history can quickly lead to big questions about identity, equity, and sustainability. Those questions dig to the root of social, economic, and environmental challenges facing us today. This double-edged nature makes food an outstanding starting point for public historians working toward an equitable and engaged practice.

Let’s take a quick tour of the problematic past and hopeful present of public interpretation of food history, and identify some skills and resources that public historians can bring to food-related projects.

The Roots of Food in Public History

In museums, historic sites, and public history projects, food has often been loaded with assumptions, habits, and traditions that get in the way of inclusion. The earliest generation of historic preservationists preferred to keep the messy work of food cultivation and preparation (and the people who did it) hidden behind kitchen doors, but during the Civil War and succeeding decades, nostalgic “colonial” kitchens became a popular draw at public fairs and appeared in some early historic house museums. These feel-good spaces served unchallenging ideas about the past with their cups of chowder and slices of pie, setting long-lived expectations that public food history would provide comforting, patriotic reinforcement of existing power structures.

These interpretive tropes persisted. They can still be found today in museum displays of groaning farmstead tables, frothing butter churns, and tokenized “multicultural” food presentations that erase or mask histories of struggle, disparity, and oppression. Food historian Ken Albala identifies this mode as “culinary history,” focused on ingredients, cooking equipment, methods, and the re-creation of cooking processes, as opposed to a wider “food history” that investigates the social, economic, ethical, and political dimensions of food production and consumption.

A Broader View of Food History

A wider “food history” point of view began informing public interpretations of food starting in the 1960s, when emerging social history and public history movements brought critical approaches to the past. It also gave rise to a new museum genre: the living historical farm. Its birthplace was Old Sturbridge Village, where in 1970 a group convened to envision a national network of agricultural museums, to be funded in part (they hoped) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though that scope was never realized, the living history farm began to dominate public history’s food and agriculture conversation by the 1970s. Key leaders organized ALHFAM (the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums) to share research and skills and to promote the vision of a new age of agricultural museums. ALHFAM’s influence has been enormous. Its annual national and regional meetings, publications, and workshops have amassed and disseminated practical knowledge on the reconstruction and interpretation of food processes.

But ALHFAM’s history reflects the tension between the narrower scope of “culinary history” and the more complicated questions raised by critical approaches to food. At its 2013 annual meeting, ALHFAM co-founder Darwin Kelsey challenged the group with a call to action, arguing that food interpreters (himself included) had been focused on the “what” of food history, at the expense of the “why.” It was past time, in his view, to engage with the present-day, global consequences of the histories they presented. AHLFAM’s creation, he noted,

. . . coincides almost precisely with the most radical change in the way humans feed themselves since homo sapiens began. We call this grand-scale experiment the industrial food system. For most Americans the industrial food system provides a food supply perceived to be abundant, cheap, and convenient. Yet in the last couple of decades it has become increasingly clear that this system has an inherent pattern of problems: Food of inferior taste and nutrition, fertilizer and herbicide pollution in streams and lakes, degradation and loss of farmland, depleted aquifers, farm worker abuse, inner city food deserts, intensive energy consumption, exacerbation of climate change, and narrow corporate control of the nation’s food supply . . . In 2013, it is clear that such problems make the current system unsustainable without radical change—fundamental culture change. Couldn’t—shouldn’t—playing an active, intentional role in that culture change become part of the why shaping the what of most living history farms?[ii]

Kelsey, who by 2013 was directing an innovative farm partnership within Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, was speaking as a participant in what is sometimes termed “the food movement.” Sometimes parodied and minimized as a collection of affluent white people obsessed with local, organic, humanely raised kale, in its full dimensions the food movement is notable for its depth and complexity, aptly described by food writer Michael Pollan as a “big lumpy tent.” People of varied backgrounds are drawn to food activism through multiple entry points: hunger and economic access; food sovereignty and food justice; nutrition and health; farm and food service labor and human rights; animal welfare; land conservation, rural redevelopment, and farmland preservation; gardening and urban farming; gastronomy and agritourism; environmentalism and climate change; and more. Like food history, these issues may begin with food, but expand outward to touch on the most pressing issues of our times.

Culinary historian and educator Michael Twitty links past and present in his work on race and Southern food. Photo credit: Ryan Lash/TED on Flickr

Reshaping Food History

Many current practitioners are reshaping the role of history in addressing those issues. Critical perspectives, shared authority, community engagement, and collaborative decision-making and leadership are now being integrated into many sites that present histories of food production, processing, and consumption.

  • The Museum of Ventura County (California) developed a three-part exhibition called At Table: The Business of Food and Community. Through art-inspired installations, programs, and historical interpretation, At Table built awareness and invited consideration of how ongoing immigration into the county has “influenced local recipes, menus and dining habits, as well as food-related businesses and restaurants.”
  • San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora created a Chef-in-Residence program. In 2015, its first resident chef, culinary celebrity Bryant Terry, worked with the museum to curate a program including panels on “Black Women, Food and Power” and “Feeding the Resistance”; a historically-themed dinner; and an interactive talk on food justice and public health.
  • The Queens County Farm Museum preserves New York City’s largest tract of undisturbed farmland. Its sustainable agriculture program interprets the history of organic farming in America and features a year-round growing program. Farm produce is featured in NYC’s Greenmarket, with any surplus donated to the recovery project City Harvest. The farm also provides eggs and hatchlings to the City Chicken program of the food justice group Just Food!, teaching city residents how to raise and keep egg-laying hens.
  • The National Museum of the American Indian features food sovereignty in its online exhibit Native Knowledge 360, with a focus on the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project to recover the foodways of Salish-speaking people of the Pacific Northwest. Discussion questions, informative resources, definitions, and quotations allow users to engage more deeply with perspectives on food sovereignty.
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Food History project brings together contemporary and historical investigations of American food culture from diverse perspectives through programs, an annual symposium, and online collections.

A Toolkit for Inclusive Food Interpretation

Despite this work, older interpretive tropes die hard. Institutional engagements with food still often stop at simplistic representation. It’s not difficult to understand why: the issues food connects to—health, environment, identity, economy, energy—are dauntingly vast and highly politicized. Inclusive food interpretation work digs into logistical, political, and regulatory challenges—aligning goals and agendas with commercial partners, including those who struggle to survive in a competitive marketplace; confronting the deep-rooted whiteness that has historically characterized both public history and many sectors of the food movement; and negotiating the constraints of health regulations and zoning. Between logistical challenges, internal resistance, insufficient knowledge, and skeptical leadership, many organizations freeze at the contemplation stage, or assume they can’t take on such charged and complex topics.

But public history can have a profound and powerful role in these conversations. For our book Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient, we interviewed eight people who draw on history in their progressive work in fields as disparate as fisheries activism, indigenous food sovereignty, and public policy. As we spoke, common themes emerged. They point toward ways to apply—and extend—historians’ skills toward a more inclusive practice of interpreting food.

  1.     Be reflexive.

As in all public history practice, the work of internal transformation comes first. We should interrogate our own professional past, asking what traditions we have inherited, who authored them, and whether they still serve our purposes. We also need to examine and acknowledge our own positionality—as individuals, as members of the public, and as representatives of our organizations. An excellent place to start this work is with the MASS Action Toolkit, a collection of articles and self-assessment tools created by a grassroots coalition of museum practitioners working to position museums as sites of positive action for social justice.

  1.     Tell stories without endings.

The legacies of living history have encouraged a focus on the minutiae of culinary history—tools, ingredients, methods. Inclusive public historians shouldn’t stop at simply showing how people did it in the old days. Push toward those critical “why” questions: Why did most people stop using these techniques? Why are certain kinds of skills and labor—and the people associated with them—valued or devalued in our food system? Why is hand-processed food so much more expensive than industrially-produced food? If we can pose critical, contextualizing questions, we will be well on the way to telling what we call in Public History and the Food Movement “stories without endings”—stories that connect past to present and historicize unresolved contemporary questions about food culture, dealing directly with the most urgent social, economic, and environmental issues of today. Our existing interpretive and communicative tools are unique contributions to the work of rebuilding more just and inclusive food futures.

  1.     Think like a community organizer.

The practitioners we interviewed were going beyond the “advisory group” consultation model, and instead using the toolbox of community organizing, defined by activist and educator Marshall Ganz as “practicing democracy by mobilizing people to combine their resources to act strategically on behalf of common interests.” This approach is grounded in ongoing relationships with community members and discussions about forms of activity that would be meaningful and useful to them. Is your organization involved in local and regional food organizations and coalitions? Do you know who works on food access locally? Have you had a presence at farmers’ markets, diabetes expos, or town hall meetings? Written op-eds? One entry point can be creating a Community Food Map to identify the players in your local or regional food system. Seeing the lay of the land can help you identify where public history work can be helpful.

An engaged, critical approach to the history of food asks for long-term commitment and a good deal of learning and reflection for public historians as well as their partners and audiences. Some resources to get you started are listed below.

Notes

[i] Ali Berlow, Food Activist Handbook (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015), 72.

[ii] Darwin Kelsey, “What is a Living History Farm? Introductory Comments,” Proceedings of the 2013 AHLFAM Conference, Vol. 36 (2013).

Suggested Readings

Berlow, Ali. The Food Activist’s Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015.

Laudan, Rachel. “Getting Started in Food History.” www.RachelLaudan.com. https://www.rachellaudan.com/getting-started-in-food-history.

Moon, Michelle. Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Moon, Michelle, and Cathy Stanton. Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient. New York: Routledge, 2018. The book’s companion website can be found here: http://themissingingredient.net/.

Oliver, Sandra. “Interpreting Food History.” Technical Leaflet, American Association for State and Local History (1997).

Reid, Debra A. Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017.

Organizations and Associations Doing Food History

American Community Gardening Association

Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)

Agricultural History Society (AHS)

Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS)

Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS)

Farm-Based Education Network

Native Seeds/SEARCH

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance

National Black Farmers Association

Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Southern Foodways Alliance

United States Department of Agriculture

Databases, Archives, and Link Lists

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project

The Food Timeline

The FOOD Museum

Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture (timelines from USDA)

New York Public Library list of food history resources

~ Michelle Moon is Chief Programs Officer at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. She has also worked at the Peabody Essex Museum, Strawbery Banke Museum, and Mystic Seaport, and received her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from Harvard University Extension School. In addition to co-authoring Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient (Routledge, 2018) with Cathy Stanton, she is the author of Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016).

~ Cathy Stanton teaches anthropology at Tufts University. Her book The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City won the 2007 NCPH Book Award. Her current scholarly and public work focuses on the uses of knowledge about the past of U.S. food and farming. She has collaborated and consulted with a number of community farms, national parks, land trusts, museums, and others working to present farm history in public.

Outdoor History Museums

Living History Farms Spring 2009. Photo credit: billnwmsu, Creative Commons.

Outdoor history museums are immersive historical environments created by collections of buildings that might be preservations, restorations, or replicas. Thinking about the term broadly, outdoor history museums can refer to living history farms, agricultural museums, pioneer museums, or even “open-air museums.” It is what happens in these environments, however, that makes them a powerful lens through which to explore issues of inclusion, equity, diversity, and service.

As they developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, outdoor history museums were expressions of two sometimes competing impulses. On the one hand, they challenged established museum collections practices by displaying the material culture of ordinary people. On the other, many founders used them to promote a nostalgic version of the past that ignored painful and difficult histories. Starting in the 1970s, outdoor history museum administrators and frontline employees transformed these sites by adding more historically accurate interpretations. Often, historical accuracy meant interpreting painful and traumatic pasts. At the same time, the use of living history, or performing the past, became increasingly popular at outdoor history museums. In some cases, outdoor history museums developed programs that used living history to engage audiences in some of our nation’s most fraught histories. While some of these efforts were lauded, others were met with criticism and concern from both audiences and interpreters. Administrators, frontline employees, and audiences began conversations that continue today about how to interpret diverse and inclusive pasts in an ethical way that serves both the public and employees.

Origins and Early History

A brief discussion of the history of outdoor history museums highlights how the dual and sometimes conflicting goals of educating and entertaining audiences have shaped the outdoor history museum experience. The origins of the outdoor history museum idea can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century. Echoes of the form can be found in historic house museums and the New England kitchen exhibits at Sanitary Fairs. Another form of the outdoor history museum approach can be seen at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris where participating nations were invited to display their architecture and folk culture. Swedish folklorist Artur Hazelius was in attendance and went on to open what is widely recognized as the first outdoor history museum, Skansen, in 1891. Hazelius hoped to democratize museum collections by displaying the material culture of the wealthy alongside that of ordinary people. He was also driven by a desire to provide a cultural grounding for Swedes as they experienced the transformations of the industrial revolution, which was reflected in his motto: “Know Thyself.” The Skansen model proved quite popular in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, where numerous outdoor history museums were established during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[i]

The Growth of Outdoor History Museums in the United States

In the United States, the earliest outdoor living history museums were founded by wealthy industrialists. These men sought to solidify their interpretation of the past using the built environment. In 1929, Henry Ford opened Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, just a short drive from downtown Detroit and adjacent to the Rouge, at the time the largest factory in the world. The Village included over 90 buildings (some preserved, some replicas) all of which predated the automobile. The centerpiece was a re-creation of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory. Ford wanted to celebrate middle-class farmers and inventors whom he believed were left out of written histories. He moved buildings, such as the home and bicycle shop of the Wright Brothers, as well as his own birthplace to the Village. Ford also moved several buildings representing African American history, including two brick slave cabins. Greenfield Village was ahead of its time because it venerated vernacular architecture, but histories of conflict, especially the conflicts between labor and capital, were absent. This kind of forgetting was endemic in the earliest iterations of outdoor history museums.

In the same period, Episcopal priest W.A.R. Goodwin had approached Ford about the possibility of restoring Williamsburg, Virginia to its colonial glory to boost the town’s economy through heritage tourism, but he passed on this invitation and instead focused on Greenfield Village. Goodwin found an interested patron in John D. Rockefeller, Jr. After purchasing Williamsburg from its residents, Rockefeller hired professional architecture firm Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn to preserve, restore, and recreate the town as it was in the eighteenth century. Rockefeller believed that Americans were losing sight of their cultural and political origins and saw the site as a way to shore up democratic patriotism. Unlike Greenfield Village, Colonial Williamsburg recreated a real place and a specific moment in time. When it opened to the public in 1934, the site’s approach to preservation became a model for best practices in preservation work. The Colonial Williamsburg project came at a cost, however, especially to many of Williamsburg’s working-class and black residents who were forced to relocate or leave the town altogether. Despite the fact that in the eighteenth century much of Williamsburg’s population was enslaved, that history was ignored in the interpretation. In fact, the Colonial Williamsburg workforce was segregated and the site essentially denied service to African American tourists by refusing to provide separate accommodations at hotels and restaurants.[ii]

By the end of the 1950s, several outdoor history museums had opened in the United States including The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York (1944), Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts (1947), Old Salem, in North Carolina (1950), Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts (1952), and Plimoth Plantation (1957). Although they continued to be limited in the histories they communicated, many began to experiment with living history interpretation. The model was first used at Pioneer Village in Salem, Massachusetts (1930) when interpreters wore Puritan clothing and demonstrated seventeenth-century crafts. This third-person living history approach was also adopted at Old Sturbridge Village. At Plimoth Plantation, interpreters took it a step further, performing in first-person as famous figures like William Bradford, John and Priscilla Alden, and Miles Standish.

Changing Interpretive Models

The establishment of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) in 1970 indicated the popularization and professionalization of interpretation at outdoor history museums. Through annual conferences, bulletins, skills workshops, and other publications, ALFHAM has provided countless resources for professionals who seek to “bring history to life.” According to the organization’s website, “at the heart of ALHFAM’s mission is the responsibility to share practical knowledge and skills among those who make history relevant to contemporary lives.” Consequently, the organization provides invaluable and extensive resources for both their members and the general public who aim to better understand living history and living history farms.[iii]

The 1970s brought the tensions between entertainment and education at outdoor history museums to the fore. The employment of more academically trained historians at outdoor history museums led to challenges and changes to some of the interpretive practices at established sites like Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village. For example, during the 1970s, Dr. Cary Carson led a team of scholars to develop a new interpretive program for Colonial Williamsburg that addressed criticisms that the site offered a sanitized version of the nation’s history. And in 1979, six African Americans were hired to interpret the history of enslavement. Under the leadership of Dr. Harold K. Skramstad, Greenfield Village also overhauled its interpretive plan. Historical research changed the interpretation of several buildings, a new African American Family History and Culture program was established, and a new living history farm opened. The expanded and more historically accurate interpretations of the past created more opportunities for education, but also raised new questions about how to ensure audiences departed with the intended message.[iv]

The decision to recreate a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg brought these questions into sharp relief. In 1994, Christy Coleman, director of Colonial Williamsburg’s African American interpretation program, organized a performance titled Publick Times. Local African American political and religious groups opposed the event before it even began, arguing that performance trivialized a traumatic and painful history. Members from the Virginia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived on the day of the performance to protest. After witnessing the auction, NAACP political action director Jack Gravely changed his mind, explaining that the event had made the pain of enslavement real. But SCLC member Reverend Curtis Harris said that it was “a show, not an authentic history.”[v]

Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana has also been lauded and criticized for its experimental living history program, “Follow the North Star.” Conner Prairie interprets pioneer life through an 1886 farm and since the 1990s has also focused on the history of indigenous peoples. In 1999, African American staff member Michelle Evans worked with black leaders in Indianapolis to develop a ninety-minute program called “Follow the North Star” for visitors twelve years of age and older. Visitors played the role of fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad and interpreters were either “sympathetic allies” or “racist antagonists.” Four years later, the program won an Excellence in Programming Award from the American Alliance of Museums and in 2012 it received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). But the program also drew criticism. Some white audiences reportedly giggled during the program and there were accusations that the program could be a traumatic experience for children of color. In response to criticisms, Conner Prairie CEO Norman Burns announced that it would “update” the program to “reflect the learning and needs of today and tomorrow’s audiences” in 2019. Burns explained that the new program would be reorganized in partnership with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. [vi]

Many have noted that these experiments with living history can have complicated effects not only on audiences but also on interpreters. African Americans who interpret enslavement at Colonial Williamsburg often describe their feelings about their work as complex. As James Oliver Horton explained, the “prestige attached” to being an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg is accompanied by the “somber realization that their workday centers on ‘playing slaves’ for a public audience that is often unsympathetic.” Thus, black and white interpreters frequently discuss the range of feelings that arise. Amy M. Tyson examined the cost of this kind of “emotional labor” in her study of Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2008, the Fort began to expand its focus on military history to include histories of enslavement and American colonialism. Tyson explains that some interpreters were reluctant to share these histories because they sought to create a positive, meaningful connection with visitors. When interpreters did share the traumatic and painful histories of the Fort, the emotional cost was high. Further, she asserts, “between demonstrating tasks like blacksmithing or laundry, drawing meaningful connections across time, and monitoring their own and the visitors’ emotional states, interpreters engaged in presenting painful histories might find themselves working . . . on an ever-accelerating assembly line of emotional production.” These increasing demands on frontline employees are rarely, if ever, met with adequate compensation.[vii]

Best Practices and the Visitor Experience

Professionals working at outdoor history museums continue to work toward emphasizing the educational experience by honing living history techniques and developing best practices. In 2009, AASLH, the Institute for Learning Innovation, Conner Prairie Living History Museum, and Old Sturbridge Village engaged in an expansive study of visitors through a leadership grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services titled “The Outdoor Living History Museum Interpretation Research Project.” The goals of the study were to test the best practices used at each site and to understand how the visitor experience at outdoor living history museums changed over time. The study of visitors included not only on-site questionnaires and interviews with audiences and interpreters, but also follow-up telephone interviews with the same visitors at two weeks and three months after their visits. The findings included extensive discussions of the value of various living history methods, an assessment of the best practices used, and an analysis of visitors’ experiences.[viii]

The power of outdoor history museums to connect audiences with the past is undeniable. Due to their form, they offer abundant opportunities to experiment with learning through hands-on, immersive activities. Visitors are transported into the past through interactions with preserved or replicated buildings and by living history interpreters. But what are the consequences for audiences and interpreters immersed in painful pasts? Are these opportunities for consciousness raising or do they trivialize experiences of social injustice? What are the emotional costs for interpreters? How do outdoor history museums balance their natural affinity for entertainment with educational goals? Like many museums, numerous outdoor history museums have struggled financially since the 2000s. As pressures mount for them to stay afloat, these questions will become more pressing.[ix]

Notes

[i] Rodris Roth, “The New England, or ‘Old Tyme,’ Kitchen Exhibit at Nineteenth-Century Fairs,” in The Colonial Revival in America, ed. Alan Axelrod (New York: Norton, 1985), 159-183; Sten Rentzhog, Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea (Kristianstad, Sweden: Carlssons, 2007), 4-32.

[ii] Anders Greenspan, Creating Colonial Williamsburg (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 16-76.

[iii] Greenspan, 142-43; “Our History,” The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (2014), https://www.alhfam.org/Our-History#history; “ALHFAM Resources,” The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (2014), https://www.alhfam.org/Resources-main.

[iv] Greenspan, 148-177; Cary Carson, “Teaching History at Colonial Williamsburg” (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1985); “Greenfield Village Didn’t Always Get It Right,” UPI Archives, June 2, 1991, https://www.upi.com/Archives/1991/06/02/Greenfield-Village-didnt-always-get-it-right/1950675835200/; “Firestone Farm—Dedication—Item 30,” The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/406616/; “America’s Stories Come to Life,” The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/history-and-mission/americas-stories-come-to-life/.

[v] James Oliver Horton, “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, eds. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 50; Greenspan, 163-164; “‘Slave Auction’ Divides Crowd in Williamsburg,” The Baltimore Sun, October 11, 1994, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1994-10-11-1994284095-story.html.

[vi] Cherstin M. Lyon, Elizabeth M. Nix, and Rebecca K. Shrum, Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017), 141-46; “Good Morning: Conner Prairie to Change Its Follow the North Star Program,” The Herald Bulletin, April 22, 2019 https://www.heraldbulletin.com/news/local_news/briefs/good-morning-conner-prairie-to-change-its-follow-the-north/article_48ecefc8-47f2-50ea-b840-74f2e416fb1a.html; Scott Magelssen, “This is Drama. You Are Characters’: The Tourist as Fugitive Slave in Conner Prairie’s ‘Follow the North Star,” Theatre Topics 16, no. 1 (March 2006): 19-34; Olivia Lewis, “Conner Prairie Slavery Re-Enactment Draws Criticism,” Indianapolis Star, August 7, 2016, https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2016/08/06/conner-prairie-slavery-re-enactment-draws-criticism/82987036/.

[vii] Horton, 52; Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 145-171.

[viii] “The Outdoor Living History Museum Interpretation Research Project,” American Association for State and Local History, March 2009, http://download.aaslh.org/AASLH-Website-Resources/The+Outdoor+Living+History+Museum.pdf.

[ix] Mitchell B. Reiss, “An Open Letter to the Colonial Williamsburg Community,” Making History: Inspiration for the Modern Revolutionary, June 29, 2017, https://www.scribd.com/document/352531032/Open-Letter-to-Colonial-Williamsburg-Community.

Suggested Readings

Allison, David B. Living History: Effective Costumed Interpretation and Enactment at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Greenspan, Anders. Creating Colonial Williamsburg. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Magelssen, Scott. Living History Museums: Undoing History Through Performance. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2007.

Rentzhog, Sten. Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea. Kristianstad, Sweden: Carlssons, 2007.

Swigger, Jessie. History is Bunk: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

Tyson, Amy M. The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

~ Jessie Swigger is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Western Carolina University where she also serves as Director of the Public History Program. Her book, “History is Bunk”: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2014. She is currently writing a history of the first four children’s museums in the United States.

Historic Preservation

“Women Barbers at Tule Lake Segregation Center,” Photo credit: Library of Congress

Historic preservation is often linked, hand in hand, with ideas of placemaking, where preservationists embed their work in a neighborhood, community, or landscape to highlight what makes that place unique and preserve its character.[i] In doing this work, preservationists make evaluations about a place’s beauty, integrity, and significance. In the United States, the criteria on which they base these determinations come largely from the standards listed in the National Register of Historic Places’ nomination process. As the work of historic preservation has evolved in recent years, however, many practitioners have begun to push back against these limited criteria. More people are looking to tell the stories of underrepresented communities, document and protect vernacular architecture, preserve sites of the recent past, and promote the protection of intangible heritage.

More than fifty years after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in the United States, more individuals and institutions are recognizing the need to go beyond preserving big houses and places that match traditional standards of architectural beauty. This call to action is pushing the historic preservation movement to embrace inclusive practice—one that not only focuses on the protection of buildings, but also on documenting and sharing the richly varied stories that define places. The goal is to forge a people-centered preservation movement that is inclusive, community driven, and intersectional in nature.[ii]

Early History of the Preservation Movement 

There are two events that are often cited as critical to the founding of historic preservation as a movement in the United States. The first is the story of Ann Pamela Cunningham, founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, who rallied women from across the United States in the 1850s to advocate for the protection and preservation of George Washington’s home. The first call of its kind, it opened conversations about preserving and protecting key sites critical to the history of the United States. The second event, taking place just over a century later, was the loss of the magnificent Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City. The destruction of this structure spurred those working in the nascent field to come together, leading eventually to the passage of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The NHPA, which included the creation of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Register of Historic Places, enabled the development of a regulatory process for the protection of historic places.[iii]

“With Heritage So Rich” cover.

Much of the NHPA’s framework came from a report called With Heritage So RichDeveloped by the Special Committee on Historic Preservation within the U.S. Conference of Mayors, this report ended with a series of recommendations and this statement: “In sum, if we wish to have a future with greater meaning, we must concern ourselves not only with the historic highlights, but we must be concerned with the total heritage of the nation and all that is worth preserving from our past as a living part of the present.”[iv] Although the preservation movement has struggled to realize this ambitious vision, contemporary practitioners have embraced a renewed call for broader and more diverse understandings of preservation and its role in society. Significant challenges exist, however, for those who seek to reorient preservation practice.

Focusing on People

A key element of inclusive preservation practice is the need to shift from an exclusive focus on the places being protected to the people who have lived and continue to live in those places. We must also pay more attention to the impacts of preservation projects on neighborhoods and communities.

In an anthology marking the 50th anniversary of the NHPA, National Trust for Historic Preservation Chief Preservation Officer David J. Brown stated: “To build a movement for all Americans, we must recognize that preservation takes many more forms . . . than the ones associated with our work today. Frankly we need tools that give every person a voice in determining what is worth preserving in their community.”[v] In the same article, Brown emphasizes the need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach toward a more nuanced understanding of how to work collaboratively with communities to determine what places to protect.[vi]

Leading up to the anniversary of the NHPA, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held a series of listening sessions across the country. These sessions included individuals who were active in the preservation profession as well as voices from outside the field. These conversations coalesced into a vision for the future of preservation. The reportPreservation for People, centers around three different principles:

  • A people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the ever-evolving American story.
  • A people-centered preservation movement creates and nurtures more equitable, healthy, resilient, vibrant, and sustainable communities.
  • A people-centered preservation movement collaborates with new and existing partners to address fundamental social issues and make the world better.
“Preservation for People” cover. Image credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Preservation for People seeks to lay out strategies and tactics to make preservation more democratic, inclusive, and equitable. Essential to achieving these goals is building a more inclusive profession. Historically, preservation has been seen as an elitist practice, and while the demographics of the field are slowly shifting, there are still significant barriers to entry.

It is critical to demonstrate to young people that preservation is something that is relevant to their lives. During the 2015 PastForward Diversity Summit Jose Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, stated that “the first step is reaching out. And also making it relevant. How is it relevant to a young black man? Woman? A young Latino? Young Asian? Young LGBT? To be able to feel connected to what your mission is . . .”[vii]

Some organizations have made telling underrepresented stories and protecting places that are sharing these narratives central to their work. For example, Asian Pacific Americans in Historic Preservation and Latinos in Heritage Conservation (LHC) have worked to support a network of individuals who are engaged in these types of projects. Sarah Zenaida Gould of LHC says that “We envision this network as one that equally welcomes professional preservationists and community preservationists. For we all have knowledge, ideas, experiences, and strategies to share.”[viii]

In summarizing the 2015 Diversity Summit which took place at PastForward, Stephanie K. Meeks, then CEO and President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, stated:

Over the course of the discussion, common themes emerged. All of the panelists agreed that recognizing and honoring diverse stories was key to understanding our present political debates and to building a more inclusive and allied future. All felt that, while we have made important strides as a movement, we still have a lot of work to do to get this right. All believed that forging stronger partnerships with and across diverse groups was essential for continued success. And all emphasized the wisdom of today’s broader vision of preservation, in which we seek to save the modest and even ordinary places where history happened.[ix]

Re-thinking the Preservation of Places

In recent years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has begun to look more closely at the impacts of preservation in cities through an initiative called ReUrbanism. Fundamental to ReUrbanism is the idea that building reuse encourages economic growth and stimulates vibrant communities. Through a variety of studies, the National Trust has found that mixed use neighborhoods are often more sustainable than those communities with a single building stock.[x] Many of the principles of ReUrbanism look toward creating equity in neighborhood development and planning, and derive from a broader conversation with the field about preservation planning in urban areas. In a piece for the Forum Journal’s issue on ReUrbanism, Justin Garrett Moore describes the need to change preservation and planning processes. The example he uses is a new community playbook in New York City. This Neighborhood Planning Playbook

includes tools designed to reveal the complexities of a neighborhood and provide a framework for comprehension, communication, education, and exchange with community residents and stakeholders. The playbook aims to help the city better study, develop, and implement plans for neighborhood change—and, most importantly, build public engagement and communication into all stages of the work.[xi]

Community engagement is a key piece of ReUrbanism. There is an evolving understanding that preservationists need to shift from an authority-based model to one that works in tandem with those who will be most impacted by preservation efforts.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that the protection of place also involves a full engagement in issues surrounding climate change. In her series on America’s Eroding EdgesVictoria Herrmann, a National Geographic Explorer and president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, examines the role flooding, coastal erosion, melting permafrost, and other climate impacts have not just on buildings and tangible heritage, but also on traditional cultural practices and entire communities. While it is paramount that we develop a robust set of strategies to adapt historic resources to climate impacts, these efforts must go hand in hand with conversations about economic and cultural equity and resilience.

In her 2018 TrustLive talk at PastForward, Herrmann discussed how in all of her conversations with communities impacted by climate change, the one consistent factor is that “climate change is the looming reality of losing the places and histories that make us who we are.” She continues to say that “climate change is not race, gender, or income neutral. Low-income communities, communities of color, and women are disproportionally affected by climate impacts. From centuries of discriminatory, social, and environmental policies, these communities have not been able to create the resources they need to prepare for and adapt to climate disasters.” With this in mind, inclusive preservation practice must include a recognition of climate impacts on communities; it is through dialogue and partnerships with organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, 100 Resilient Cities, US ICOMOS, and the Association for Preservation Technology that the practice can move forward.

It is clear that many of the places currently being preserved only protect a fraction of historical narratives. Clement Price, who was a former Trustee of the National Trust and a Vice Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, stated that broadening the spaces being preserved “connects very ordinary Americans with their personal histories, and in turn these histories connect with the larger narrative of making a more perfect and yet complicated union.”[xii] Examples of such places exist across the United States and, in recent years, some have become the focus of preservation efforts.

Two important examples are Tule Lake, a Japanese internment camp, and Rio Vista Farm in Texas, an agricultural site where migrant laborers from Mexico toiled. One site is evidence of the challenges to U.S. democracy that arose when segments of the U.S. population were unconstitutionally incarcerated due to racist fears and wartime hysteria; the other is a place that demonstrates how migrant workers from Mexico filled critical gaps in the U.S. agricultural labor system. In both cases, we find pieces of U.S. history that are often overlooked and, in doing so, begin to recognize the layers of experience and history that can be encountered in these places.

Speaking about sites such as Tule Lake, Cathlin Goulding writes, “Though the euphemisms for these places range, they all have in common a political climate of fear, suspicion, and hysteria and a system of governance wherein power is ultimately rooted in the ability to decide who can and does belong.”[xiii]

Inclusive Storytelling

The final pivot for preservation as an inclusive practice is something that runs parallel to work within both public history and museums: storytelling. In some ways this term feels like the latest buzzword across disciplines; nevertheless, it is an important piece of the broader mission of preservation as we strive to tell fuller and richer stories. In order to know what places to protect, we have to listen to the people to whom these stories belong; in doing so, it is important to recognize that these stories cannot be told using the same methods and practices as before. An inclusive preservation practice recognizes that preservation is not just about buildings and structures but also intangible heritage, which is often only available through conversations with community members.

Consider the work of the San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation, which uses a process called culture mapping to make connections to place and document change over time. Claudia Guerra, from San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, describes the process where recorded narratives are paired with hand-drawn maps from community storytellers. She emphasizes the need to protect the intangible: “Safeguarding and preserving our heritage is what preservationists do, but preservation is about more than just protection—it is inherently about sharing.”[xiv] In her essay, she emphasizes a variety of tools and lessons critical to working with communities: “Listen more than you speak.” “Be prepared for unusual places to be documented.” And, “be aware and sensitive to the fact that similar cultural communities that share some traits may nevertheless differ widely in [their] thinking.”

In a sense, the importance of expanding preservation’s scope is to further build connections among people, places, and the past. In an interview for the Preservation Leadership Forum, Angelo Baca, filmmaker and cultural resources director for the Utah Diné Bikéyah, stated that “stories are very important because they hold knowledge. And it is important for us to understand that even the oral traditions, the legends, the myths, and all these things that talk about the time before what we understand now are actually . . . a resource.” For many Native communities, the importance of place is centered in both the tangible and the intangible. The identity of many of these communities is rooted not only in physical places but also the traditional knowledge embedded within those places.

Lisa Yun Lee, director of the National Public Housing Museum, says it best when she states “Our commitment to preservation and interpretation must always include a commitment not only to telling a narrative or presenting a counter-narrative but also to meaningfully empowering people to change the narrative.”[xv]

An Inclusive Preservation Practice

In the edited collection Bending the Future, Gail Dubrow, professor at the University of Minnesota, writes:

My vision and hope…is that these relatively new advocacy groups and constituencies move from the margins to the center of the preservation movement, bring their independent identity-based preservation interests into more effective alliances that bridge the divides of race, class, gender, and sexuality. While identity based politics have resulted in a more inclusive agenda for what we preserve, the democratic future of how we preserve depends on bringing their experiences, insights, and perspectives to bear on redefining the scope, policies, practices, and priorities of the preservation movement as a whole.[xvi]

Building inclusive preservation practices requires acknowledging the stories, places, and needs of all communities. Tried-and-true preservation tools need to be used in tandem with other methods and practices. Collaboration and partnership are essential to protecting places in a fair and equitable way.

Historic preservation can be a force for good rather than a tool of elitist forces, but in order to make it so, many of the field’s practices need to shift. This reorientation is essential because, as Tom Mayes, author of Why Old Places Matter, writes, “The old places of people’s lives are deeply important—more important than is generally recognized—because these neighborhoods, churches, temples, old houses, stone-walled fields, landmark trees, and courthouses contribute to people’s well-being, from that sense of identity and belonging, to the awe inspired by beauty, to the drive to build and sustain a greener and more equitable world.”[xvii]

Notes

[i] A growing conversation in the art community is centered around the vocabulary of placemaking. During a 2018 PastForward session Lauren Hood from Deep Dive Detroit talked about the concept of place-keeping where instead of coming into a neighborhood and rebuilding from the ground up, preservationists and art organizers work to support and sustain the cultural practices that already exist. In order to have an inclusive preservation practice, language is an important element to focus on. See also Erica Ciccarone, “Nashville Artist’s Aim for Place-keeping More Than Placemaking,” Burnaway, September 17, 2017.

[ii] Coined in 1989 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is a term that examines the overlapping issues of discrimination within specific identities. That is, where stories of discrimination for black women are often connected to discrimination bias based on their gender and race. For the purposes of this essay, intersectionality uses that central definition as a means of storytelling, in which preservationists and historians tell the full history of the American past through the lens of overlapping identities.

[iii] Max Page and Marla Miller, “Introduction,” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 2.

[iv] Byrd Wood, ed. With Heritage So Rich (Washington D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1999), 194.

[v] David Brown, “A Preservation Movement for All Americans” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 59.

[vi] Brown, “A Preservation Movement for All Americans,” 60.

[vii] Stephanie Meeks, “Introduction: Our Future Is In Diversity,” Forum Journal: The Full Spectrum of History: Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion in Preservation 30, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 9. There are a two significant programs that work to engage youth in preservation projects. The National Trust’s HOPE Crew focuses on training young people and veterans in historic trades. Another program, HistoriCorps, was inspired by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps to bring volunteers together to work on preservation projects. Both programs provide avenues of engagement outside of professional university training.

[viii] Sarah Zenaida Gould, “Latinos in Heritage Conservation,” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 89.

[ix] Meeks, 6.

[x] More detail on these ideas can be found in the National Trust for Historic Preservation research reports Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality and Untapped Potential: Strategies for Revitalization and Reuse.

[xi] Justin Garrett Moore, “Making A Difference: Reshaping the Past, Present, and Future Toward Greater Equity,” Forum Journal: Reurbanism: Past Meets Future in American Cities 31, no. 4 (2018): 23-24.

[xii] Clement Alexander Price, “The Path to Big Mama’s House: Historic Preservation, Memory and African-American History,” Forum Journal: Imagining a More Inclusive Preservation Movement 28, no. 3 (2014): 27.

[xiii] Cathlin Goulding, “Tule Lake: Learning from Places of Exception in a Climate of Fear,” Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories 31, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 50.

[xiv] Claudia Guerra, “Culture Mapping: Engaging Community in Historic Preservation,” Forum Journal: The Full Spectrum of History: Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion in Preservation 30, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 30.

[xv] Lisa Yun Lee, “The Stories We Collect: Promoting Housing as a Human Right at the National Public Housing Museum,” Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories 31, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 17.

[xvi] Gail Dubrow, “From Minority to Majority,” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA:  University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 74.

[xvii] Thompson M. Mayes, Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-Being (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers/AASLH, 2018).

Suggested Readings

Baca, Alex. “Places Journal Reading Lists: Reading Cities.” Places Journal. https://placesjournal.org/reading-list/reading-cities/.

Herrmann, Victoria. “Blog Series: America’s Eroding Edges.” October 1, 2018, https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/forum-online/2018/10/01/blog-series-americas-eroding-edges. More stories at www.erodingedges.com.

Mayes, Thompson M. Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-BeingNew York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers/AASLH, 2018). Blog Series here: https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/forum-online/2016/03/30/blog-series-why-do-old-places-matter.

Meeks, Stephanie K. “Presenting ‘Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future.’” Preservation Leadership Forum. May, 18, 2017, https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/stephanie-k-meeks/2017/05/18/presenting-preservation-for-people-a-vision-for-the-future.

National Council on Public History. “Special Issue: Conversations in Critical Cultural Heritage” The Public Historian 41, no. 1 (February 2019).

National Council on Public History. “National Historic Preservation Act Commemoration Series” History@Work blog, https://ncph.org/history-at-work/tag/national-historic-preservation-act-commemoration/.

National Park Service. “Theme Studies.” Accessed February 16, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalhistoriclandmarks/recent-theme-studies.htm.

  • Finding A Path Forward: Asian American Pacific Islander National Historic Landmark Theme Study. 2018.
  • LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Queer History. 2016.
  • American Latino Heritage. 2013.

Page, Max, and Marla Miller, eds. Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United StatesAmherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016.

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: The Full Spectrum of History: Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion in Preservation 30, no. 4 (Summer 2016).

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories 31, no. 3 (Spring 2017).

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: “Every Story Told”: Centering Women’s History 32, No. 2. Behind a Firewall Until 2020. Available on Project Muse.

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: Imagining a More Inclusive Preservation Movement 28, no. 3 (2014).

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. “Culture Lab Playbook.” Accessed February 16, 2019, https://smithsonianapa.org/culturelab/.

UNESCO. “About Intangible Heritage.” Accessed February 16, 2019, https://ich.unesco.org/en/what-is-intangible-heritage-00003.

US/ICOMOS. “With a World of Heritage So Rich.” US/ICOMOS Organization Website. Accessed February 16, 2019 http://www.usicomos.org/about/wwhsr/.

Valadares, Desiree. “Places Journal Reading Lists: Race, Space, and the Law.” Places Journal. https://placesjournal.org/reading-list/race-space-and-the-law/.

Various Authors. “Blog Series: When Does Preservation Become Social Justice.” Preservation Leadership Forum. July 26, 2017. https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/forum-online/2017/07/26/blog-series-when-does-preservation-become-social-justice.

Various Authors. “Blog Series: Women’s History and Historic Preservation.” Preservation Leadership ForumSeptember 13, 2017. https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/forum-online/2017/09/13/blog-series-womens-history-and-historic-preservation.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian and the associate director of publications and programs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can contact her through her website at www.priyachhaya.com.

Material Culture

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, January 8, 1974. Image credit: El Gráfico, Argentina, Wikimedia Commons.

Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., come face to face with a vast array of iconic objects from America’s past, including a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, the light bulb Thomas Edison used when he first publicly displayed his invention in 1879, and the inaugural gown worn by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2013.[i] These things—boxing gloves, a light bulb, and a gown—belong to the category known as material culture, what the folklorist Henry Glassie described as the “tangible yield of human conduct” and the historian Leora Auslander called “the class of all human-made objects.”[ii]

People throughout history have had a complex relationship with the objects they create, use, live with, sell, discard, and treasure. Although human beings by definition create material culture, they cannot control how objects are used or the meanings that come to be associated with them. For historians, objects have many stories to tell: there is the story of an object’s invention and creation; stories about an object’s useful life (who acquired it and for what purposes it was put to use); and stories of what we might think of as its “afterlife,” when an object is taken out of circulation to become a part of an institutional collection where it becomes available for historians to study. Collecting a wide range of objects and uncovering as many of these stories as possible can help create a more inclusive understanding of the past.

Historians’ Use of Material Culture

Historians have not always invested significantly in studying material culture. Earlier generations of historians concentrated largely on politics, war, and economics, predominantly relying on written primary sources, mostly created by elites (and often elite men) who had the time and resources to create a documentary record. Collectors and curators at museums and historic sites were often similarly focused on collecting and displaying what had been owned by the elite.[iii] These curators devoted themselves to questions of provenance and connoisseurship, which focused on the artists and craftspeople who had made the objects and on the museum’s acquisition of the finest examples of specific types of decorative arts, often furniture and ceramics, to build these elite-focused collections. The social historians who rose to prominence in the field beginning in the second half of the twentieth century built on the work of a relatively small group of pioneering scholars and curators who had long been interested in telling the stories of non-elites. Beginning in the 1960s, widespread attention became focused on the past lives of ordinary men, women, and children.[iv] Because they did not usually leave as rich a written record as the wealthy did, their lives had to be explored by other means. The material world contained many objects that could help to reconstruct and tell their life stories. Material culture began to play a much more significant role in the work of this later generation of scholars who sought to better understand the lives of non-elite men and women.

Historians who study the material world undertake creative and interdisciplinary work as they engage with historical archaeologists, anthropologists, curators, museum collections, and written sources (including probate records, store accounts, and catalogs) that help us better understand material culture. Collections of everyday items can serve as valuable repositories of information about the lives of the ordinary men, women, and children who inhabited the past and help modern-day museumgoers connect to their stories.

Witnessing Objects

Many historians and public history institutions today rely heavily on material culture to tell compelling stories and engage visitors. One common kind of object collected by museums is the witnessing object. These objects were present at a pivotal moment in the past and serve as tangible links to that history. Being in the presence of one of these witnessing objects enables modern-day people to feel connected to a specific moment or event in the timeline of history. In April 2012, for example, when President Barack Obama visited the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan, he took the opportunity to sit on the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, the event that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. Seated on the bus, peering out one of its windows, President Obama physically occupied the space and could imagine seeing through the eyes of leaders and participants in the U.S. civil rights movement.

Material culture as “witness.” President Barack Obama on the bus Rosa Parks rode that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, on exhibit in With Liberty and Justice for All, at the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan. Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, April 18, 2012.

The ability of material culture to connect visitors to the lives of those who left little evidence in the written record has led museums to seek out new kinds of witnessing objects. In advance of the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, sought out material evidence, for example, from the Middle Passage—the horrific journey across the Atlantic that brought more than 12.5 million captive Africans to North and South America. What the Slave Wrecks Project ultimately found was the wreck of São José Paquete de Africa, a ship headed to Brazil, which sank in December 1794 off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The more than 200 men, women, and children who perished in this single tragedy were forgotten until the ship’s discovery in 2010. Despite the thousands of slave ship voyages, this wreckage was the first ever recovered from a ship that sank while carrying captive Africans to the Americas. The ship is a material remnant frozen in time at a moment when it was a tool of the slave trade. Iron ballast, which weighed down the ship for its voyage because human cargo was lighter than the material goods ships like these often carried, was part of what was found at the wreck of the São José. At the Smithsonian, these ballasts stand as witnesses to the horrors of enslavement. As Lonnie Bunch explains, the exhibition of the material remains of the São José are displayed in a reverential “memorial space.”[v]

Multiple Contexts

But to stop there—to let objects only speak for themselves as witnesses to important moments in the past—greatly limits the interpretive potential of material culture. Even objects associated with famous events and people often began life as unremarkable material things. Material culture objects are embedded in multiple contexts—their production, their use, and their “afterlife” as objects of display—from which we can learn a great deal more than their association with past events and people. Furthermore, many scholars who study material culture argue that material culture does more than reflect historical processes; it can also shape them. Of the objects we have already considered, we can also ask: Who made them? What kind of employment practices did these laborers work under? What can we learn about wider social dynamics from these objects? What did these objects mean to the people who owned and used them? In what ways did these objects shape individual and collective identity? What could we learn, for example, about who made Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves? How did Thomas Edison’s invention change how people lived and worked? What does it say about our gendered understandings of the U.S. presidency that we collect and display the inaugural gowns of the First Ladies? Current-day museumgoers can be challenged to think about how material culture reflected and shaped human identity in the past and at the same time be given opportunities to make connections to their own relationships with the material world.

How to Analyze Material Culture

To understand material culture, people must study the object itself, as well as interrogate a wide variety of other sources. These additional sources—documents, oral histories, other material goods—allow us to develop a more complete picture of the many meanings of material culture.[vi] Without these other avenues of information and understanding, the complex past meanings of the material world would remain largely obscured. Scholars have developed guidelines to assist researchers interested in doing this kind of multi-level analysis of objects. Material culture scholar Karen Harvey has developed a beginner’s approach to fully interrogate an object, which includes three steps. The first step is to develop a physical description of the object. If at all possible, get into the same room as one of the objects and, if it is small enough (and accessible), hold it in your hands. Then describe the object by considering “what the object is made of, how it was made and (of course) when; production methods and manufacture, materials, size, weight, design, style, decoration and date.” The second step is to “place the object in historical context, primarily by referring to other evidence. Here we can explore who owned this (or similar) object, when, and what they were used for.” In this step, the focus is on how the object was used and by whom during a particular time period. In the final step, an even broader view is taken to begin exploring what the object meant in that time period. Placing the object into this “socio-cultural context” enables a deeper understanding of the significance of the object in people’s lives.[vii] To add a fourth step, you could also consider the history of the object once it moved into a museum collection, considering when it was displayed and why.

Early Twentieth-Century Polk’s Dairy Milk Caps from Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paul Mullins.

One such object whose meanings were uncovered only through the interrogation of a wide variety of sources are the foil milk caps from Polk’s Dairy in Indianapolis, Indiana. Historical archaeologist Paul Mullins has studied the city’s historically African American neighborhoods, where a frequently recovered item is a foil milk cap, an item used to close glass milk bottles in the early decades of the twentieth century. At first, researchers set them aside because they appeared to reveal little more than the fact that the occupants drank milk. But as Mullins recounts, an elder of Indianapolis’ African American community later told them how the city’s Riverside Amusement Park, open only to whites, allowed African American admissions one day each year. Foil milk caps were the required admission token, and African Americans in the city called it “Milk Cap Day.” The example of the Indianapolis foil milk caps shows how objects of the material world reflect the larger historical processes in which they are embedded—in this case racism and segregation in the mid-twentieth-century United States—and how even these ephemeral pieces of material culture took on new layers of meaning and could provide more inclusive interpretive possibilities.[viii]

Notes

[i] This entry is adapted, with permission from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, from Cherstin M. Lyon, Elizabeth M. Nix, and Rebecca K. Shrum, Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers/AASLH, 2017), 98-101, 109.

[ii] Henry Glassie, Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 41; Leora Auslander, “Beyond Words,” American Historical Review 110, no. 4 (2005): 1015.

[iii] Gary Kulik traces the development of history museum exhibitions in “Designing the Past: History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present,” Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, eds., History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 2-37.

[iv] See Ellen Fitzpatrick, History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past, 1880-1980 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) and Briann G. Greenfield, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 167-204.

[v] Roger Catlin, “Smithsonian to Receive Artifacts from Sunken 18th-Century Slave Ship,” Smithsonian, May 31, 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/sunken-18th-century-slave-ship-found-south-africa-180955458/.

[vi] As an example of this kind of material culture scholarship, see Rebecca K. Shrum, “Selling Mr. Coffee: Design, Gender, and the Branding of a Kitchen Appliance,” Winterthur Portfolio 46, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 271-298. https://doi.org/10.1086/669669

[vii] Karen Harvey, History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1-23. One of the earliest sets of guidelines, and one that has been very influential, is Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 1-19.

[viii] Paul R. Mullins, “Racializing the Commonplace Landscape: An Archaeology of Urban Renewal Along the Color line,” World Archaeology 28, no. 1 (2006): 60-71.

Suggested Readings

Harvey, Karen. History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources. New York: Routledge Press, 2009.

Katz-Hyman, Martha B., and Kym S. Rice, eds. World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO/Greenwood, 2011.

Lubar, Steven. Inside the Lost Museum: Curating Past and Present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Twenty Questions to Ask an Object.” From the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association, Material Culture Caucus.

Winterthur Portfolio. The leading American journal of material culture studies.

Rebecca Shrum is Associate Professor of History, Associate Director of the Public History program, and Adjunct Affiliated Faculty, Museum Studies at IUPUI.

 

Plantations

An original slave cabin on the Whitney Plantation with statues by Woodrow Nash on the porch. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Visiting a plantation museum today can be a jarring experience. Since the mid-twentieth century, the once-ubiquitous economic engines of the pre-Civil War South have been recast as elegant mansions. Visitors are meant to feel comfortable and safe, strolling grounds surrounded by lush landscaping and feeling nostalgic for a romantic, simpler time. In some ways, visitors see what they want to see, and they are influenced by popular films and novels that prop up the “moonlight and magnolias” trope. But historians are not off the hook. Public historians, academic historians, and museum professionals alike have been complicit in rewriting plantation history to put white slaveowners front and center.

Though museum interpretation is rapidly changing, it is still possible to tour a plantation house in this country without hearing anything substantive about the enslaved people who built it. This is problematic for many reasons, but consider the numbers to start: the majority of people who lived on plantations in the nineteenth century were African and African-descended enslaved people. Enslaved people cleared the land, milled the wood, fired the bricks, built the houses, and tended land and livestock on plantations. Plantations were predominantly black spaces built and maintained by black people against their will. Yet in every former slave state, visitors can find plantation tours that elevate the stories of owners over enslaved people.

Historical Background

Museum practitioners began to minimize the history of slavery on plantations by the time the first plantation home opened for tours in the United States. Mount Vernon, the first house museum in the United States, is also the first plantation museum. Its history as a historic site bleeds into its history as a plantation, since the slave-owning women of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association bought the property in 1858 from a descendant of George Washington who was still enslaving people at the time.[i] In words that would presage the interpretation of hundreds of sites that followed in its footsteps, the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association instructed the early members of the organization to “see to it that you keep it the home of Washington” and “let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress.”[ii] Lauding the history of owners while minimizing or erasing the history of the enslaved became standard practice for most plantation museums until the late twentieth century.

From the time the women of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association opened Mount Vernon for tours in the 1850s until today, plantation museums have reflected the political culture of the country. The resurgence in what is known as “moonlight and magnolias” interpretation in the 1960s had more to do with white Americans’ discomfort with changing racial dynamics than it did historical interest. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a reaction to the civil rights movement and coinciding with a peak in interest about history around the bicentennial of the American Revolution, plantation tours became popular throughout the South. In 1976, Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation was advertised as a “bicentennial landmark,” whose “trees are a living link with the era of the American Revolution.”[iii] Many plantations became frozen in time in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, with guides dressed in hoop skirts inviting guests to learn about the lavish lives of antebellum plantation owners.

Throughout the twentieth century, this imagined history of plantations became big business, particularly in places such as South Carolina and Louisiana with a large number of extant plantations, many of which had been in operation with resident African-American sharecroppers and wage workers into the late twentieth century. Today, tourism is the fourth largest industry in Louisiana, with plantation tourism holding a major claim over heritage tourism dollars. Louisiana’s historic sites are top of mind for visitors, ranking higher than nightlife in visitor activities.[iv]

In the 1980s and 1990s, plantations gradually began weaving narratives of slavery into their interpretation. Even as plantation tours grappled with slavery, they often did so in the form of special events, segregated interpretive spaces, and optional tours. Discussing slavery at length only during an optional slavery tour and not on the tour of the plantation home allows visitors to think of the institution as ancillary to the true narrative—that of the plantation owners. Early slavery interpretation often failed to present enslaved people as multi-dimensional individuals. Instead, they became nameless figures who faded into the background or appeared only when they had direct interaction with the white interpretive subjects.

Whitney Plantation owner’s house, constructed in 1790. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Changing Interpretation

Today, many sites are changing their interpretation in important ways to highlight the history of enslavement. James Madison’s Montpelier opened a groundbreaking exhibit, The Mere Distinction of Colour, in 2017; George Washington’s Mount Vernon created a comprehensive slavery exhibit in 2016; and in 2018 Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello opened an exhibit dedicated to the story of Sally Hemings, with curatorial help from a Hemings descendant. In addition to the interpretive expansion seen in Virginia sites, there are new museums opening dedicated to counter-narratives. In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened in Louisiana as a memorial site with an exclusive focus on slavery. Charleston County Parks’ McLeod Plantation opened in 2015, interpreting the whole history of African-American labor at the site, from the time of slavery until the last resident workers left in 1990.

Despite the numerous plantation sites that are doing valuable work to bring this important history to the fore, there is still much more that public historians can do to be inclusive in their interpretation. It is important for public historians to remember that plantations are sites of trauma. Too often, we ignore the immense pain of these places in favor of a generalized interpretation that may acknowledge that life was hard, but not that it was traumatic. Spaces of brutal terror, plantations continue to bring immense pain to people whose ancestors lived and worked on them. In the case of plantations like Whitney and McLeod, there are still numerous living people who remember life on these plantations. Across the plantation South, African-American workers—many of them descended from enslaved people who worked the same land—did not leave plantations in large numbers until the Second Great Migration in the 1950s and 1960s. In South Louisiana, resident cane workers remained on plantations as late as the 1980s. Inclusive interpretation at plantation sites takes the depth and breadth of this pain seriously, acknowledging that the history has a long footprint that extends to our present day.

Language

Before reworking interpretation, it is important to remember that the language we use in our interpretation is key. By referring to enslaved people as “slaves,” we are affirming their status as objects rather than multi-dimensional human beings. Using the term “enslaved” as an adjective emphasizes their humanity first, indicating that their enslavement is just a condition and not their entire identity. Under no circumstances should interpreters use euphemisms like “servants” when referring to enslaved people. This sanitizes the history of slavery and minimizes the fact that enslaved people were held against their will. Similarly, public historians should openly acknowledge and discuss methods of punishment and coercion that were in place at the site. This truth-telling is critical to communicating a complete narrative.

Sources

Plantations that are just beginning to interpret the whole history of their site may be intimidated or afraid that they don’t have enough information to give the history of slavery justice. The interpretation of slavery is often more difficult than the interpretation of free people because of a lack of sources. Yet there are creative ways that plantation sites can use sources to uncover the history of their enslaved workers.

Because enslaved people were property, most plantations have records of the people who were held in bondage there even if those records are incomplete. Inventories and sale documents can be invaluable in learning about the ages, skill sets, and even ethnic origins of enslaved people. Researchers can usually find these documents in local courthouses. Courthouses also have records of lawsuits involving enslaved people. Enslaved people often stood trial for resisting their captivity through violence and conspiracy. These lawsuits allow us to understand their methods of resistance. Historical newspapers are also important sources of information, as they published runaway notices in nearly every edition. Plantation owners advertised by name when someone they owned ran away, and these advertisements usually include personal details about the enslaved person. Historians have launched a crowd-sourced project to digitize and transcribe runaway notices called Freedom on the Move. This is just one of many digital resources researchers can put to use. Additionally, though they must be understood in their context, the Works Progress Administration slave narratives, which are available for free through the Library of Congress, can also be incredibly useful sources that can help us interpret the daily lives of enslaved people.

Connecting with Descendants

Perhaps the most valuable relationships that plantation sites can build in order to understand the lives of their enslaved populations is with descendants of enslaved people. Descendants should be involved in interpretation in every step from planning to execution. Their perspectives are essential to equitable and inclusive interpretation. In 2018, descendants, historians, and museum professionals from around the country gathered at James Madison’s Montpelier to craft best practices for working with descendant communities in the interpretation of slavery. Many sites have been engaged with this work for some time, from presidential sites to lesser-known plantations like Somerset in North Carolina. There are numerous road maps for sites that want to engage in meaningful co-creation with descendant communities.

Above all, museum professionals who work at plantation sites must be mindful of the immense weight of the history of slavery and treat it with respect and care. We must be humble in acknowledging that our field has done damage to descendant communities and to the wider public by not honestly interpreting the history of slavery. Despite our history, there is much room for reparative practice and we should find encouragement and inspiration in the numerous sites that are doing good work. With violent events igniting Americans over issues of race and history in places such as Charleston and Charlottesville, this is a critical time for historic sites to bravely tell the truth.

Notes

[i] “The Early History of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association,” Mount Vernonhttps://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/mount-vernon-ladies-association/early-history-of-the-mount-vernon-ladies-association/.

[ii] Jessica Foy Donnelly, Interpreting Historic House Museums (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2002), 22.

[iii] The Assumption Pioneer, July 1, 1976, 4.

[iv] D.K. Shifflet & Associates, Ltd., “Year-End 2017 Visitor Profile: An Inside Look at the Louisiana Travel Market,” State of Louisiana Cultural Resources & Tourism Department study, 2018.

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max, ed. Interpreting African-American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004.

Gallas, Kristin, and James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.” History News, 74, no. 1 (Winter 2019): 14-21.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery: A Rubric of Best Practices.” Technical Leaflet 285. American Association for State and Local History.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2016.

~ Ashley Rogers is the Executive Director at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. She is a frequent speaker on the topic of slavery interpretation and she has served as an advisor on museum projects with the Atlanta History Center, Rhode Island’s Center for Reconciliation, and Stenton. She is a co-author of the MASS Action toolkit and James Madison’s Montpelier’s rubric for descendant community engagement. She can be reached at arogers@whitneyplantation.com.

Heritage Tourism

Freedom Crossing Monument, Lewiston, New York. Photo credit: Cordell Reaves

Heritage tourism is focused on people, attractions, history, and activities that are particular to a region. The relationship between heritage travelers and museums and historic sites is a natural coupling of shared interests and intellectual curiosity. Heritage travelers are seekers of the authentic and unique and are, not surprisingly, frequent visitors to cultural attractions.

Attracting heritage travelers can be an elusive prize for museums and historic sites, and it often pays dividends to cooperate with cultural organizations. Some museums can experience spill-over visitation, or visitors drawn by other attractions or events in the area. A major attraction may open nearby, a new show or film may highlight a local story, and numerous other scenarios may bring new travelers and opportunities to your community. Ideally, tourism planning should be proactive and focused, so an institution is prepared to seize opportunities.

There are many things to consider as you assess the market readiness of your institution. Do you have a relevant, meaningful product? What is your reputation locally and beyond? Are you known beyond your local community? Is your staff fully ready to welcome an influx of visitors? An honest appraisal of institutional strengths and weaknesses is not just advisable but necessary.

Constant Ambassador

A “constant ambassador” is someone who recognizes that they are the public face of an institution during every visitor interaction and that it is part of their job to be kind, informative, and helpful. Regardless of role, everyone on staff must be enlisted as a constant ambassador for the site. Involve all staff, volunteers, and board members in customer service training. Whether a person is standing in a gallery or shoveling the front walk, they should know why the museum matters. All staff should also understand that visitors should feel welcome the moment they enter the grounds.

While museums are non-profit entities, some lessons can be borrowed from the corporate world. Consider the following points made by Kenneth B. Elliot, Vice President in Charge of Sales for The Studebaker Corporation in 1941.

The customer is not dependent upon us—we are dependent upon [them]. The customer is not an interruption of our work—[they are] the purpose of it. The customer is not a rank outsider to our business—[they are] a part of it. The customer is not a statistic—[they are] a flesh-and-blood human being completely equipped with biases, prejudices, emotions, pulse, blood chemistry and possibly a deficiency of certain vitamins.[i]

The ultimate fate of the Studebaker brand aside, the customer service message is clear: visitors should feel welcome. Some museum professionals regard the public as an invading army we need to defend against in order to protect resources in our care; when, in fact, everything we do is in the service of the public. Museums must always practice good stewardship, but that charge must be balanced with sufficient public access and engagement.

Philipsburg Manor, Sleepy Hollow, New York. Photo credit: Cordell Reaves

Balancing Stewardship and Visitor Experience

Preservation of the collection for future generations cannot exclude the needs of the present generation to develop an appreciation for and an emotional connection with objects or structures. We cannot assume that visitors will care about museum collections and programming if we cannot create points of relevance that resonate with them.

In historic house environments many people are still often forced to peer into rooms from a doorway behind a velvet rope. Is there a compromise that will allow visitors to have a richer experience? Has the option of putting down a runner on the floor and then roping off specific objects instead of full rooms been explored? A fantastic resource for this line of thinking is the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan; it is an in-depth exploration of the aforementioned ideas and much more.

One of the most detrimental ideas regarding tourism and museums is that it is purely a matter of advertising. There is a myth that if an institution can simply get its name/logo/website in front of tour operators and travel writers, its visitation will greatly increase. Building awareness is indeed important, but what are you building awareness of? Is the current visitor experience engaging and meaningful? Do the offerings reflect the communities around you? Direct engagement involves sharing ideas and fostering dialogue with visitors to help them shape their own meaningful experiences.

Scrolling down the lists of museum reviews on Trip Advisor or Yelp can be an eye-opening experience. In the realm of 1-star reviews you might find the occasional irate, perhaps unreasonable critic, but you might also encounter visitors who were deeply disappointed or so completely frustrated with their experience that they felt the need to publicly vent. If your institution is being blasted on social media, you need to respond briefly to let potential visitors know that you are taking their concerns seriously. Post your response for all to see and make every effort to talk personally to the visitor who made the complaint. Be sure not to get defensive or escalate an online argument; no institution is perfect, things happen, and people make mistakes. A complaint may run deeper than the experience of one visitor. The issue may reflect a larger problem, which when addressed might even turn a potential crisis into an opportunity for growth.

African Burial Ground, New York, NY. Photo credit: Cordell Reaves

Telling Complete Stories is Good Business

The tourism market has become a diverse marketplace, and despite staffing and research limitations, there are opportunities and incentives to delve deeply into all of the stories that have influenced your site. It is easy to be completely drawn into the standard “hero narrative” and remain there. This is a limited perspective that often excludes indigenous people, people of African descent, the LGBTQ community, women across cultures, and people from diverse ethnic or class backgrounds. Take everyone into consideration, especially if a particular group has had a minor role in your story thus far; everyone has a point of view that should be taken into consideration. This is not a matter of political correctness. It is good history, and it will expand your audience.

Complete stories require the exploration of all available research resources, including the memories of former inhabitants of the site. Narratives based on the records of wealthy land-owning families are often a starting point, but we must go beyond the written record. The Lott House in Brooklyn, New York, for example, recognizes that enslaved Africans did not typically keep a written record of their experiences and employs archeological evidence to show that enslaved Africans maintained their own distinct spiritual lives.[ii] There are similar archeological finds in other portions of the state, including a coin found further north in Albany, New York, that was turned into an amulet resembling a dkinga, which shows the shape of the universe in West African cosmology.

To attract and keep a more diverse audience, your story must have depth and reflect the experiences and culture of the visitors you hope to welcome into your institution. Enslaved people’s lives were never simply about the work they did. Their multi-faceted stories reflect their unique spiritual lives, foodways, music, and folklore, among many other things. By telling a multi-dimensional story, the ability to create points of connection may result in more meaningful experiences for visitors. It may be impossible for any visitor to truly understand the life of a person living in a state of slavery, but most people will understand an enslaved person’s desire for freedom, the need to pass on traditions to one’s children, or the longing to keep families intact, safe, and well.

What are the stories that have been ignored, undervalued, and deemed irrelevant? We are not just keepers of things, we are keepers of stories, history, and culture, and a portion of our histories are intangible. In a historic house environment, the intangible history may connect to the lives of enslaved people. The idea of delving into a complex story based on research and archeological findings from a similar site and time period with little-to-no direct material culture, strikes some as ill-advised and deeply problematic. But it is in many ways an opportunity to share history that is more balanced. We must untether ourselves from the notion that we can only tell stories if we have all of the belongings of the former inhabitants. Such projects may require outside partners, research, community outreach, and expertise in order to work. Finding alternative ways to share unexplored history is complicated, but can lead to a much richer visitor experience.

While many of the examples here focus on the African-American experience, the need to tell complete stories exists at nearly all institutions that interpret history. The important thing is to dig deep into the history of the site and surrounding community to shine a light on the groups that have been misunderstood, marginalized, or omitted from our shared history and to involve outside voices and perspectives in that process. Enlisting outside partners in this process is an important step. A community partner or advisory group must have a voice; a partner with no true input is not a partner. An advisor simply there to represent a group that has no substantive role is an empty gesture.

Diverse Audiences Matter

Imagine walking into a museum to visit a museum shop to pick up a gift for a friend. The place is nearly empty, the salesperson greets you as you enter the shop and begin to browse. As you scan a shelf, you notice that the security guard who was at the main entrance is now carefully searching the book volumes on a nearby shelf. As you make your way to the other side of the shop, you notice that he follows. Is this the kind of institution that you would continue to patronize or ever recommend? The aforementioned scenario is real and likely occurs more often than many museum professionals think or are comfortable acknowledging. Museums are public spaces for all people, and every person should feel valued. When we question whether or not a visitor belongs in a museum, we do a disservice to the public and we betray our core public service duties. We should not take for granted that everyone on staff understands that these are essential values of the organization.

African Americans spend $50 billion annually on travel and leisure experiences, and they support institutions that embrace diverse messaging and interpretation.[iii] Such institutions also serve as models for other organizations. Consider the case of Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. It is the state’s only plantation-based historic site focused entirely on the lives of enslaved Africans, and its honest interpretive approach has led to consistently high visitation and international media coverage. Whitney’s success has helped turn the standard plantation narrative on its head, and other plantation sites in the region have begun to tell more inclusive stories as a result.

Connecting with Tourism Professionals

Local or Regional Tourism Promotion Agencies or Agents (TPA) or Destination Marketing Organizations (DMO) are among the most direct lines to entering the tourism marketplace. It is the TPA’s main job to promote and sell the region as a travel destination. Make an appointment to see them and share your full event calendar, offer them a tour and an opportunity to evaluate your site, and inquire about a familiarization tour (“fam tour”). “Fam tours” are specifically for tour operators and travel bloggers/writers. They are designed to serve as extended, in-person advertisements for a region and often have a specific theme. Make a case why your museum should be included on these tours; tout your uniqueness, flexibility, and ways you can connect with various themes.

Think beyond the borders of what has traditionally been done and begin to consider what else can be done. Arts, culture, and history connect many different subjects. If the tourism marketplace includes food tours, then offer a history-related program exploring the foodways of your site. Consider a talk on what we can learn from dining and cooking scenes in art. Whether the topic is architecture, wine, or something else, dig deep within the knowledge of your staff and collection to tell a new story. Be forthright and make it clear to the TPA or DMO that you want them to visit and assess your institution. Accept the feedback, listen to their plans for further thematic tours and events, and suggest ways your institution can join in. Whether it is as a star attraction or a smaller supporting attraction, take the opportunity.

Choosing the right partner is not purely a matter of shared heritage; reputation, resources, and reciprocity are equally important. The same logic applied to choosing a board member or advisory group member can be applied to potential partners. Diversifying your organization at all levels is a critical concern. Does the prospective partner recognize that the organization needs to represent everyone in your community? Do this partner’s practices align with your core values? Does your partner have resources you lack regarding staff, facilities, or current offerings that will make programs attractive to diverse audiences? Establishing a relationship that works in tandem for both parties is critical to creating a sustainable partnership.

Investment and Return

There are few paths forward that do not involve shifting scant resources. Most institutions are not going to make a few changes and see their attendance double in two years. The benefit of taking your museum into the tourism marketplace is not solely a matter of increased visitation. Museums help raise the quality of life in communities and promote economic development—more businesses, more jobs, and rising property values. Restaurants, boutiques, and coffee shops all benefit from rising visitation. Local elected officials want to be associated with economic development and increased tourism. These relationships have the potential to yield benefits such as in-kind donations and increased media visibility. Most important may be the good will generated in your own community. The same new content that may draw an audience from abroad may give locals a reason to return or visit for the first time.

The important thing here is to keep moving forward. Remember the words of Star Trek Captain Jean Luc Picard, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” Failure is part of the process; do not get discouraged. Evaluate, retool, and try again. There are all sorts of external factors and pressures that impact the tourism industry, many of which are beyond your control. Trying new things means accepting that there will likely be a mixture of both failures and successes. Failure is only final if you stop trying to move forward.

Notes

[i] “Interview with Kenneth Elliot,” Printer’s Ink, Vol. 197 (1941).

[ii] H. Arthur Bankoff, Christopher Ricciardi, and Alyssa Loorya, “Remembering Africa Under the Eaves,” Archeology 54, Number 3 (May/June 2001).

[iii] Fabiola Fleuranvil, “Black Travel Dollars Matter,” Huffington Post, May 23, 2017.

Suggested Readings

Hargrove, Cheryl. Cultural Heritage Tourism: Five Steps for Success and Sustainability. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AALSH, 2017.

~ Cordell Reaves is Historic Interpretation and Preservation Analyst, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Historic House Museums

Paul Revere House, ca. 1900, showing local children and Filippo Goduti, the proprietor of the cigar company that rented space in the building from 1898-1901. Photo credit: Paul Revere House.

History museums of all types are facing the reality of a society where the meanings of inclusion, diversity, access, and equity are changing; the fact is, audiences are changing, too. The challenge of attracting and welcoming increasingly diverse audiences has proven particularly difficult for historic house museums, which have long been criticized—often with good reason—for having outdated, narrow, and static interpretation. According to an influential critic, the primary reasons people dislike house museums are that they present interpretation that lacks a connection to the present and feature stories of people who have nothing in common with most contemporary visitors.

Public historians and museum professionals have long known that historic sites need to be willing to change their structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of their communities. Yet, many have struggled to make these necessary institutional transformations. Encouragingly, solutions to these challenges lie within the very nature of house museums. Rather than focus on what is wrong with historic house museums, this essay explores the potential that house museums hold for telling new stories while making older, familiar stories more inclusive and relevant.

Opportunities for New Interpretations

Historic houses offer a broad canvas for the consideration of a variety of themes and for experimentation with new interpretive techniques. They provide the unique opportunity to share compelling stories in the most intimate of spaces, the home. They can, if allowed, reflect the lives of the many rather than just the privileged few.

While most historic house museums have become known for the tenure of a famous person or prominent family, or as examples of the work of a particular architect or representation of an important style or period, they possess much greater interpretive potential. These structures were built by people (native born, enslaved, or immigrant); they served as workspaces for owners and workers (enslaved or domestic); and, they provided a safe place where closeted lives were lived openly. They were the stage for many of life’s most poignant moments and relatable themes: birth, death, illness, education, foodways, and celebrations. Within the familiar context of living spaces, inhabitants from a wide range of economic situations and backgrounds moved in and out over many years. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of allowing interpretation to be held hostage to the legacy of one person or architectural feature, it is important to explore interpretive options that go beyond the expected. The prospect of doing so is intrinsically exciting and motivating for many public historians and museum professionals. However, if the promise of access to more compelling stories is not incentive enough, or the challenges seem too great, perhaps a more self-serving argument will make the case: interpretation and programming that resonate with a wider audience are simply good for business. Many museums have experienced improved attendance as well as buy-in from the community as a result of efforts to make interpretation and programming more inclusive.

Models of Inclusive Interpretation

There is no question that this sort of change, whether modest or dramatic, takes initiative and commitment. The good news is that more and more house museums are making the effort to reimagine and expand their interpretations; they are striving to find more inclusive stories to share the stage with “the elephant in the room” of the famous family or the institutional tradition of “the way things have always been done.” What follows are some examples of how organizations have changed the dynamic.

From its inception, President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., focused on making the past relevant to visitors. Its mission to “reveal the true Lincoln and continue the fight for freedom” is carried out in its interpretation, programs, and exhibitions, all of which seek “to inspire visitors to take their own path to greatness, and preserve this place as an authentic, tangible connection to the past and a beacon of hope for all who take up Lincoln’s unfinished work.” In this way Lincoln, the person, is transformed from a distant, romanticized hero into a call to action. Programs are offered that explore themes of injustice, division, and the importance of leadership. For example, an exhibition titled “American by Belief” introduces the public to the little-known fact that Lincoln championed policies that offered immigrants a chance to succeed based on the promise of the country’s founding principles.

For some time, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, has been using its historic house to present and consider themes related to social justice. Its mission — “to preserve and interpret Stowe’s Hartford home and the center’s historic collections, promote vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change”— makes the structure a container of ideas and thoughts rather than just a receptacle for interesting objects and famous figures. Through a significant reinterpretation effort and a reimagined tour that is described as “a conversational interactive tour where you can participate along with your guide,” all the house has to offer—stories, personalities, artifacts, and Victorian Gothic architecture—is used to promote discussion among visitors about social issues that resonate today. In this way, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, have been transformed into even more effective tools for exploring the connections between past and present.

Another example of a dramatic shift in interpretive focus is the former Royall House Museum in Medford, Massachusetts. This high-style Georgian mansion was known as one of the finest colonial-era buildings in New England and it was precisely for this reason that the few hundred people who visited the house each year came. The interpretation was centered on the architecture of the home and the lives of the Royall family, loyalists who amassed great wealth in the triangular trade. The most compelling part of the story was the discussion of the lives of loyalists in New England where patriot stories generally rule.

What wasn’t discussed was the fact that the property included the only remaining slave quarters in the northern United States or that the Royalls were the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. The museum is now the “Royall House and Slave Quarters.” This name change alone alerts visitors that the story now gives equal weight to both the wealthy loyalist family and the enslaved Africans who made the Royalls’ lifestyle possible. The shift in perspective has transformed interpretation at the site and, along with programming relating the past to current issues, has helped the museum become more relevant and inclusive and has widened its audience considerably. In some ways, confronting the realities of slavery and the slave economy is more surprising in the North than it is in the South. Yet it is a crucial topic to explore and share with visitors.

Strategies for Implementation

Sound simple? Not in the least! When an organization like the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters embraces the “what if we look into these other stories” epiphany, the true work has only begun. After much debate the museum’s board undertook a strategic planning process that resulted in a new mission and a new name. Careful consideration was given to how to make the case to board and staff, accomplish the necessary research, involve community stakeholders, and finally, how to prepare staff and volunteers to deliver these new stories to a surprised, or even resistant, audience.

What strategies should you employ to begin the process of making your historic sites more meaningful to all people?

Consider all the residents and consider the issues.

An initial step is to begin to give equal value to all the knowable moments in the long history of the home you run: How many families have lived or worked there? Who built the house or worked on the grounds? How might their stories be added to the current interpretation? What are the topics that meet your mission and are relevant to and can benefit your community? It was not a hard stretch for the Paul Revere House to begin shifting its interpretation by re-imagining one room as a reflection of the first owner of the house, a wealthy merchant in seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Boston who had at least one enslaved person supporting his lifestyle. Moreover, in the over 100 years after Revere’s departure from the residence, the house served as home to owners, workers, and tenants, many of whom reflected the change in the neighborhood as immigrant populations came into Boston’s North End and rented or acquired property. The stories that unfolded at the site during the mid nineteenth century included those of a single woman named Lydia Loring who supported herself through real estate deals and taking in boarders, and later, the Wilkies, an Irish couple, who ran the Revere House as a boarding house for sailors and had a saloon on the first floor.

In addition, for each resident it is important to consider what was going on in the neighborhood, the country, and the world at the time. How might themes, such as economic fluctuations, war, political or ethnic conflict, slavery, women’s rights and roles, LGBTQ rights, religion, and education, allow you to seamlessly expand your story and relate to how we view the same topics today? These avenues provide additional hooks to engage visitors in ways that go beyond the story of one house, person, collection, or architectural style. This type of analysis also offers different lenses through which to consider the life of even a well-known resident. 

Involve your stakeholders and community.

If you are thinking of making a bold change or just a small one, it is imperative to work with your community. Arrange for opportunities to invite community members and key stakeholders to engage in open discussions about your ideas and to solicit their input before any plans are set. You may find you are overlooking some local sources of information, you may have inadvertently and unnecessarily stepped on some toes, or you may discover that rumors about what you are considering may be spreading and causing unwarranted concerns. Early buy-in from informed constituents may help you make the changes you seek. Or, if there are serious concerns or challenges ahead, it is far better to be prepared to address these issues than to be blindsided later in the process.

The Haymarket Project features photographs of the market, vendors (pushcarts and shops), workers, and customers collected over the course of an entire year to document the market. Oral histories reflect the stories of longtime vendors and more recent immigrants who have created a wide-ranging cross-section of cultures at Haymarket. Alyssa “Sina” Chhim came from Battambang, Cambodia, in 1982. She began working at stands and later a shop in the market. Sina got her own stand in October 2014. Photo credit: Courtesy Historic New England

Cultivate meaningful partnerships.

Partnerships, if mutually beneficial, can show that your historic house is sincere about being more open to new ideas and welcoming to new audiences. Since one-time deals rarely produce deep and sustainable institutional change, working with other organizations in the community is essential. Historic New England regularly engages with diverse groups through its Everyone’s History program. One such effort, the Haymarket Project, involved a series of short films, an exhibition, and a publication, which documented the outdoor market’s rich immigrant history. Interviews with longtime Italian vendors, newer vendors from more recent immigrant groups, and customers, along with photographs—all collected over the course of a year—revealed the daily life at the market, changes over time, and the challenges of encroaching development. Through walking tours, which include many of the vendors telling their own stories, this partnership has endured beyond the initial programs.

Research, research, research.

Once you know what story or group you want to explore, you will need to do the necessary research. You may find that suddenly you are seeing things that you missed. A cone of sugar displayed innocently on a table in a kitchen is, of course, evidence of the owner’s sweet tooth but is also evidence of the impact of the slave economy in Paul Revere’s Boston.

Artifacts have multiple layers of meaning depending on what questions you ask. Collections, photographs, and archives have, in some cases, been subject to bias in how they were cataloged, so every effort should be made to look for information in unexpected places.

Jennifer Pustz, author of Voices from the Back Stairs, suggests including the stories of people who are underrepresented in written sources. She advises starting with what little is known and documented about the person in question and being honest about what is not known and why that might be (privacy, social class, etc.). Research about an individual or individuals can, with care, be supplemented with generic information that is appropriate to the period and area.

At Historic New England’s Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, researchers used other sources, such as oral histories, to interpret LBGTQ history when pertinent records did not survive. Where possible, reach out to the descendants of the people, including servants and workers, who called your property home. You will most likely see them surprised and then thrilled that you care about their family story. The Revere House reached out successfully to the family of F.A. Goduti, who ran a cigar store in the house, after one of his relatives recognized him in a photograph in a display.

Archeological collections and reports along with newly initiated investigations provide important information. Excavations at the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters proved a treasure trove for reinterpretation, while similar investigations at the Paul Revere House provided insight into the lives of the immigrants who called the property home during the nineteenth century. Find ways to include interns in new research. Over the years the Paul Revere House has not only encouraged interns to do research on the various immigrant groups that lived in the neighborhood, but also published their work as articles in its newsletter.

Seek assistance.

If the topics that emerge take you into unfamiliar territory, seek the assistance of trusted scholars or museum colleagues. Be mindful to include Native American scholars or specialists if you are researching your site for connections to indigenous peoples. The same holds true for research pertaining to racial, ethnic, sexual, and class identities as well as religious groups.

If board members, staff, or volunteers don’t understand the value of fleshing out the stories connected to either your famous moment or lesser-known episodes, include them in the process. Use strategic planning to explore the opportunity to reach new audiences with a new vision. Reach out to other house museums that have had success in making changes and ask for advice.

Build staff and board buy-in.

It is important to ensure that your board and staff reflect the community you serve. This kind of change requires institutional will. To involve people with your historic site, you may need to first show good faith by taking some programmatic risks in order to convince your community that your organization is truly embracing change. We are not saying this is easy and it does take time. In addition to including different racial and ethnic groups, welcoming new voices to the board or staff also means being more cognizant of age, gender, sexual orientation, and/or people with differing abilities. There are resources out there to help; MASS Action, is a central point for resources, learning, and communication between institutions engaging in promoting diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility. Its toolkit offers resources for use in creating greater equity within the museum field.

Visitors respond to seeing diversity in staffing. This shows that the organization reflects multiple perspectives and is open to a range of ideas. Historic New England advertises staff positions and internships in both traditional outlets and non-traditional sources. The organization offers paid diversity internships to students of color to encourage them to pursue careers in the field by promoting the program to schools and universities with substantial populations of historically under-represented and underserved students.

Conclusion

If historic house museums want to be relevant, inclusive, and diverse, they need to diversify their boards and staffs and work closely with their communities. House museums need to step back and look at the stories they are telling and the ones that remain unexplored. Whether at the Paul Revere House, where many of the changes have been real but subtle; or the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, where a change in interpretive techniques now invites discussion; to the major change at the Royall House and Slave Quarters, which now gives equal weight to the interpretation of the enslaved population and the wealthy loyalist family: all have produced richer, more compelling stories. These varied tales of human experience offer visitors from all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, and lifestyles a way to see themselves in both the lives of the famous and of the less well known. 

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max A., ed. Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Bench, Raney. Interpreting Native American History and Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

Ferentinos, Susan. Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Forum on Historic Site Stewardship in the 21st Century. National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2007. https://forum.savingplaces.org/viewdocument/introduction-the-call-for-a-nation.

Gallas, Kristin L., and James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tellingallamericansstories/lgbtqthemestudy.htm.

Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Turino, Kenneth C., and Max van Balgooy, eds. Reinventing the Historic House Museum, New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2019.

~ Kenneth C. Turino is Manager of Community Engagement and Exhibitions at Historic New England and Nina Zannieri is Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association.