The Landscape of the National Parks

When the National Park Service was created in 1916 to manage the increasing acres of federal park land under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, it was tasked with the mission “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historical objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”[1] The mandate was not just clumsily worded; it required mutually exclusive priorities. To conserve land is to manage its resources for human use. The use in the case of the National Parks and National Monuments, according to the Park Service’s congressional directive, was enjoyment of the natural and historical elements. Even the most careful and respectful visitors will affect the land they are enjoying, however, so it is virtually impossible to “provide for the enjoyment” of today’s tourists while simultaneously keeping the resources “unimpaired for…future generations.” The second part of the edict more closely resembles the concept of preservation and with it the implication that human encroachment should be prevented. As Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane reiterated in a letter to Mather, “Every activity of the Service is subordinate to the duties imposed upon it to faithfully preserve the parks for posterity in essentially their natural state.”[2] Somehow the NPS had to make the parks available for recreational enrichment while preventing visitors and NPS employees from altering the landscape in any way.

To add to the conundrum, the NPS was born in the midst of opposition to its existence from the National Forest Service as well as stingy budget appropriators. In order to convince the detractors, the first Park Service leaders, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright “blurred the distinction between utilitarian conservation and preservation by emphasizing the economic potential of parks as tourist meccas.” Mather employed a publicist and solicited money from railroads to lobby Congress for the creation of the NPS, forever wedding its mission to the idea that parks are valuable not just for their natural and historic significance, but also for their potential to attract visitors and generate revenue.[3] From its inception, the National Park Service under Mather’s direction was involved in selling itself to the American citizenry as a beneficial service through slogans and slickly produced publicity material.[4]

The promise of tourist attention and the money it infuses into local economies has motivated many communities to seek out national park status for their landmarks. Such was the case of Scotts Bluff, located on the northern panhandle of Nebraska. Although the residents of the nearby towns of Scottsbluff and Gering certainly felt a connection to the “buff-colored layers of rock…topped by Rocky Mountain juniper and ponderosa pine” that featured so prominently in the landscape of the North Platte River Valley, its national significance is somewhat murky.[5] It is hard to argue that the Bluff is an example of “scenery of supreme and distinctive quality or some natural feature so extraordinary or unique as to be of national interest and importance,” as Lane had defined the guiding principle of park recognition in his letter to Mather.[6] It is not the highest point in Nebraska and has nothing distinctive about its character or appearance to recommend it for national preservation. The local boosters who campaigned for creation of the National Monument at the site promoted its value as a symbolic representation of westward expansion. The amorphous purpose of the Scotts Bluff National Monument and its status as a somewhat ignored minor national site led to conflicts between local and federal officials regarding land use. The people who lived around the monument saw it as a “scenic resort,” in the words of a local newspaper editor, which with “proper development and advertising” would surely attract more tourists.[7] The Park Service had a different set of priorities. Although increased visitor usage is a goal at all NPS sites, it must be paired with a concept of national importance. In the case of Scotts Bluff, that meant both landscape preservation and the loose connection to patriotic ideals of pioneer fortitude. Although Alicia Barber sees in the Scotts Bluff story the creation of “a lasting identity” for the Nebraska residents surrounding the National Monument, the trajectory of its creation and development also reveal the internal conflicts inherent in the National Park Service’s confusing identity and purpose.[8]

The development of Shenandoah National Park further exposes the strange machinations that operate below the surface of National Park Service land management. Shenandoah is purely a human invention, from the decision to seek out an East Coast equivalent to the large western natural preservation parks to the forced eviction of people living on the land now designated as a wilderness. As Justin Reich demonstrates, “The NPS and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created a landscape never before seen on the Blue Ridge, through fire suppression, road construction, wildlife protection, human removal, landscaping, and engineering.”[9] As beautiful as the land now appears, it is not natural in the sense of being untouched by human interference. Shenandoah National Park is a sculpted landscape designed to look beautiful to the visitors in cars traversing Skyline Drive. It was born out of a time when the renovation of the landscape and of the bodies of the citizenry was connected to a political ideal of spiritual transformation through labor and interaction with nature.[10]

How does this convoluted and sometimes opaque history of the National Park Service relate to our mission as public historians? In addition to the parks developed primarily for the preservation of natural landscapes, the NPS is the custodian of a vast array of sites curated primarily for the connection to national history. In what ways might the legacy of the Park Service’s creation and political situation affect the interpretation of the story of the United States at its battlefields, historic houses, and memorials? As we explored in our discussion of the Henry Ford Museum, at what point must the problematic chronicle of the site’s origin and evolution become part of that interpretation? How must all public history endeavors balance the sometimes conflicting goals of honest, nuanced presentation of scholarship with the need to increase visitation? And finally, how do we view our roles as public historians in the interpretation of environmental concerns and natural landscapes?

How can the mission of public historians complement the intentions and purposes of the National Park Service while still holding it (and ourselves) to the calling of serving the public good?

[1] Quoted in Barry Macintosh, The National Parks: Shaping the System (Washington, D.C.: US Department of the Interior, 1991), 21.

[2] Franklin Lane to Stephen Mather, May 13, 1916, quoted in Macintosh, 22.

[3] Macintosh, 21.

[4] Alicia Barber, “Local Places, National Spaces: Public Memory, Community Identity, and Landscape at Scotts Bluff National Monument,” American Studies 45, no. 2 (Summer 2004), 40.

[5] Barber, 35, 37.

[6] Quoted in Macintosh, 22.

[7] Barber, 35.

[8] Barber, 60.

[9] Justin Reich, “Re-Creating the Wilderness: Shaping Narratives and Landscapes in Shenandoah National Park,” Environmental History 6, no. 1 (January 2001), 95.

[10] Neil M. Maher, “A New Deal Body Politic: Landscape, Labor, and the Civilian Conservation Corp,” Environmental History 7, No. 3 (July 2002), 436-437.

Source: The Landscape of the National Parks by Susan Philpott

A Practical Model for Academic Public Historians

In his self-congratulatory Beyond Preservation which reports on his collaboration with Timothy Baumann and involvement with the Community History Research and Design Services (CHRDS) at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, Andrew Hurley prescribes a model for future community-based public history work based on his own methods. This model, broadly interpreted, is actually useful in some regards for the upcoming public history project in HIST 705. For instance, Hurley explicitly states that graduate students conducting archival research on “topics of interest to the community” who have “higher workload expectations” are ideally suited for public history projects (152).  Hurley offers specific advice for aspiring public historians as well as educators confined to the semester-long model. In order to foster truly shared authority, for instance, Hurley cites the example of the successful “marriage of archaeology and oral history” (86). What is truly striking is that oral history allowed community members of Old St. Louis to contribute their knowledge of the hometown to the historians’ interpretation of the site and, most importantly, retain ownership over the collective historical memory of their space. Hurley, while reporting on the successes and failures of his multiple public history-public archaeology projects in St. Louis, used this report to suggest a model for future academic public history work.

Hurley’s work raises questions about the ways public history overlaps with other fields. How can public historians incorporate archaeology and environmental history into narratives about space and place? In particular, Hurley shows how historic preservation combined with public history can revitalize inner-city urban neighborhoods without expelling long-time residents. Beyond Preservation suggests that public history is unique in its capacity for collaboration.

Chapter 5 presents several case studies of the intersections between public and environmental histories. For instance, the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing in St. Louis capitalized not only on the rich local history of the abolition movement and slavery but also the development of the community over the following two centuries (137).  The initiative achieved success by “creating meaning directly from the site’s topography and viewshed [sic]… standing at the spot where Meachum launched the skiff, visitors can gaze eastward … and appreciate the river’s role as a boundary and the land beyond as a horizon of hope” (138).

Hurley also argues that public archaeology presents a crucial opportunity to involve local residents in the “retrieval and interpretation of archaeological evidence” (188). If public historians’ purpose is to make history more democratic, then including community members in the interpretation of their own historical artifacts presents a vital opportunity for collaboration. Rather than limiting archaeology to the experts, Hurley argues for the inclusion of community members in certain components of vital community projects such as the selection of the site, on-site digging, and providing companion oral histories (189).  In this way, community members retain ownership of their community history, while public historians and archaeologists can attest to the integrity and accuracy of the research.

Hurley’s focus on inner cities in particular raises another important question about the role of public historians themselves in inner city environments: What unique challenges do public historians face in the inner city?  By necessity, answering this question is only possible on a case-by-case basis. For the case of St. Louis, where Hurley conducted his research and executed his projects, productive public history necessitated specific areas of concentration down to the street or neighborhood-level. A self-proclaimed “participant-observer” (X), Hurley’s CHRDS found itself in the middle of a debate between the Scott Joplin State Historic Site’s former administrator and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Although the debate ostensibly referred to whether or not Scott Joplin owned an outhouse or installed indoor plumbing, the true debate exposed unsettled ideas, arguments, and feelings about the real and perceived socioeconomic status of African Americans. Due to the tight-knit nature of that community, debate between the former administrator and the new administrator could potentially spill over into public relations (172-173). In the worst-case scenario, if not handled properly, this situation would tarnish the image of the historic house as the state’s only designated African American heritage site. This challenge was unique to the specific geographic place of the historic site, and CHRDS’ handling of the scenario provides useful insights for future public historians.

By reaching out to the neighborhood history committee, the public historians left control of the local history in control of the local residents. They implemented professional methods such as oral history and documentary evidence in order to best inform the history committee (173-174). This approach is useful because it not only allowed the community itself to reach a consensus, but it used valid historical evidence – including maps, census reports, and corroborative oral testimony – in order to provide a historical basis for the community’s conclusion. Using a variety of evidence and remaining in constant communication with community members is a particularly apt model for future public historians to follow, not just in inner city environments but also in any community.

Source: A Practical Model for Academic Public Historians by Jennifer Wachtel

Shared Authority in Historic Preservation

In Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, Andrew Hurley discusses the ways in which public history and public archaeology can work together with historic preservation. Hurley argues that these three disciplines must work together in order to economically revitalize urban neighborhoods while remaining sensitive to the needs of the persons already living there.

Hurley discusses the “modern” historic preservation movement and how it has been used as an economic tool for revitalization and an alternative to the “clean slate” urban renewal programs and highway construction projects of the mid twentieth century.

Having been trained in historic preservation at the undergraduate level, I am familiar with this modern approach and the issues that come along with it. As Hurley notes, this approach to historic preservation often focuses on the architectural merits of a building as the reason for it to be preserved. National Register of Historic Places, state, and local registers of historic properties always ask for the significance of the buildings and why they should be preserved. If they are not connected to a larger historical event, the preservation of these buildings is argued on its architectural significance alone, as a “good example” of a certain style of architecture or related to a famous architect. The goal of this type of preservation is to attract middle and upper class persons to purchase these structures and rehabilitate them, increasing property values and leading to more investment into the area. The biggest challenge to this approach is that raising property values and thus increased taxes, will often displace the persons already living within the neighborhood. This is referred to as gentrification, and is an issue that has led many people to oppose historic preservation efforts in their neighborhoods out of fear of losing their homes and businesses. But is this always the best solution for distressed neighborhoods?

Hurley proposes the usage of the principles and theories of public history and public archaeology as ways to combat the displacement of residents in city neighborhoods while continuing to encourage economic investment. In particular, he writes on the concept of shared authority, a topic that we have covered extensively this semester. Hurley writes that by sharing authority between the professional preservationists and the people living in the neighborhoods that they wish to redevelop, the issues of gentrification can be addressed from the beginning of the process. Hurley argues for a proactive approach to these issues, working with the people of distressed neighborhoods and acknowledging their concerns from the start.

Hurley uses the work done in Old North St. Louis historic district in St. Louis as an example of successful revitalization work without displacing existing residents. In this example, students and faculty from the University of Missouri-St. Louis worked with a neighborhood revitalization group in order to involve neighborhood residents of different social, economic, and racial backgrounds in the preservation of their neighborhood. Hurley shows that the use of archaeological digs throughout the neighborhood was a means of creating connections between the current residents of the neighborhood and their predecessors. An example I found particularly striking was his discussion of the connection made between a woman of Italian descent a German-American household in another section of the neighborhood. This connection was made using a piece of a broken tea set uncovered in an archaeological dig that the resident herself still owned an intact version of! This grassroots approach to preservation was very successful in St. Louis, and combined historical research, historic preservation, and social services to revitalize the neighborhood from within rather than replacing the existing residents with those that could afford to buy the houses outright and revitalize them.

But the challenge to this approach is that it requires a lot of time and more investment than many people would be willing to put into such as project. I feel that part of the reason the project in Old North St. Louis was successful was the partnership with the University of Missouri, which was able to provide the manpower necessary for this approach to preservation. Often, historic preservation programs are led by private developers or overworked government agencies. These project leaders are not going to want to wait to see results in neighborhood improvement and, like the “clean slate” urban renewal program leaders before them just want to see results. How can these issues be addressed? How can a grassroots approach be taken when working with a private developer? Hurley says that neighborhood revitalization cannot “just be about profits,” but that is what a private developer is looking for when they invest in struggling neighborhoods. Private investment is important because not every neighborhood can count on a university to partner with them or a government agency to have the time and money to approach preservation “the right way.” My personal biggest question from this reading is whether or not these seemingly opposite goals can both be achieved from historic preservation.

Source: Shared Authority in Historic Preservation by Jacob Bensen

From Storefront to Monument: More Questions than Answers

I was genuinely excited to read Andrea Burns’s From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. In particular, I looked forward to learning more about the establishment and development of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (now the Anacostia Community Museum or ACM), especially in light of its relationship to the Smithsonian Institution. Despite some of my issues with the content and structure of the text, I found it to be very informative. There were numerous pieces of information about the development of the ACM as well as DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum (now the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History or MAAH) in Detroit, and the African American Museum of Philadelphia (AAMP); after reading, I had several questions about the book’s implications for public history practice, specifically in communities of color.

From Storefront to Monument asserts the creation of black museums in black communities is connected to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. While Carmichael and Hamilton’s Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America is quoted directly (p. 6), this connection does not appear to hold up throughout; the one exception is the nuanced explanation of the connection between black power and black museums toward the end of the book: “At the same time, black museum leaders had to modify the ideals of black power in order for their museums to function…black power must also be seen in the context of black institutional development among black professionals an white institutional policymakers…Successful black museum makers understood that whites could be important to the black museum movement, though not central to its vision” (p. 157).

Throughout the text, I noticed a peculiar tension between the need for black museums to curate and share their culture and the need to have appropriate expertise for the task at hand. At the ACM, director John Kinard asserted that it was important for the museum staff to design and execute exhibits–despite consistent outside criticism–even if they lacked professional skills (pp. 98-99). It is probably safe to assume there is no critical mass of qualified museum professionals of color at the time the black museum movement begins. I wonder how the museums expected to outlive their founders and earliest advocates. How do museums (all, but black museums in particular) cultivate the next generation of museum professionals? Who is expected to lead these institutions in the future? 

Connected to this tension is the lack of archival facilities (and resources needed to maintain such facilities) associated with the black museums. What is the process by which these institutions (and by extension, the black community at large) come to recognize that creating and preserving history is as important as presenting history in an attempt to correct “the false and distorted history of the Black Man” (p.31)? The DuSable Museum lost the opportunity to house Carol Moseley Braun’s papers in 1999 to the Chicago Historical Society (p. 137). Just last year, it was announced that Toni Morrison’s papers will be housed at Princeton instead of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. In order for black history to be told over time, it’s important that we (both the museums and the community at large) understand how to collect and responsibly preserve our past in as many forms as possible.

Which brings me to implications in and for public history practice. If we accept the concepts presented by Corbett and Miller (2006) as a methodology for doing public history work (which I do, in spite of their warning that there is no one-size-fits-all methodology), how do black museums fare?

Public History and Reflection

In terms of reflective practice, these institutions evolve directly out of this notion–that knowing oneself (and by extension, the community) is important; the museums were created so that the communities in effect know themselves and recognize their own worth (pp. 5, 6, 15, 20-21, 31, 32-33, 39). They tend to struggle with respect to reflection-in-action; most of the museums exist and act in a state of reaction–specifically, reaction to the lack of visibility in both academic history and in the museum world. However, one could also make the argument that this could be connected to the consistent (and unfortunate) turnover in black museum leadership.

Public History and Collaboration

I question the voracity of the museums’ consistent use of shared inquiry: while Burns highlights the development of the ACM’s exhibition “The Rat,” I wonder about the paternalistic approach these institutions take on in determining what stories get to be told (to the local black community, the black community at large, and to the rest of the world–i.e., white people) and how? Connected to what I perceive as a paternalistic approach is another question. Who constitutes the “black community” and who is in the “black establishment?” The not-so-easy answer to this question is that it depends on who you are talking to and when. Museum founders such as Margaret Burroughs and Dr. Charles Wright would have been viewed by many in the community at large as being members of the establishment because they had money and social capital. Interestingly, Wright’s own museum struggled with interacting with the community following the Detroit riots: “should we build in the heart of the ghetto? Will ‘these’ people be as interested in a museum as to a recreation…[sic]?” (p. 83). Wright himself also believed that the creation of a national black museum was “a matter that must be controlled by black people who think black” (p. 163). Founders of the black museums claimed authority over “blackness”, and desire autonomy in telling their (our?) story.

In thinking about shared authority, it appears that the power tends to rest with those who champion the individual museums, as opposed to the community designated as the beneficiary of the museum’s work. For example, there did not seem to be any shared authority with the community at large in planning for AAMP (p. 49, 61, 63, 71). In Detroit, Mayor Coleman Young’s administration exerted power as the MAAH as they moved from Frederick Douglass Avenue to the center of the city, even if the results appeared to be questionable (pp. 143).

Black museums perform a public service; they actively work to fill a void in the retelling of American history. That said, in order to remain relevant in both their local communities and in the museum world, they must embrace collaboration–with each other, with “mainstream” institutions, and with the communities they serve.

Adapted from From Storefront to Monument: More Questions than Answers by LaQuanda Walters-Cooper

From Storefronts to Monuments Post

In her book, From Storefronts to Monuments: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, Andrea Burns  redefines “black power” beyond political activism, arguing that “the story of the black museum movement demonstrates that black power must also be seen in the context of black institutional development among black professionals and white institutional policy makers” (157). Seen in this way, From Storefronts to Monuments: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement demonstrates that public history has a tradition of activism. Communities recognized museums as a place to establish equal and accurate representation.

Ms. Burns explains how the lack of African American history in museums and schools inspired individuals to establish museums to present a positive and inclusive sense of history to members of local black communities. Accuracy and accessibility of information was a common goal in each of the institutions described in From Storefronts to Monuments. These institutions were not designed to be racially exclusive. White citizens were invited and encouraged to participate, “…planners maintained that the black history museum should be accessible to ‘rich and poor, black and white alike’” (60). Underneath consistent arguments and debates over  funding, location, and collections, was a deep awareness from leaders in the African American Museum Movement that their museums must be accessible.

From Storefronts to Monuments also illustrates how public history impact, shape, and represent local and national events that have social and political importance. Dissatisfaction with the lack of representation of black history galvanized people to assemble community-based collections and stories that would reframe the past, putting black people into the center of the nation’s history by arguing “we too were there.” Misrepresentation of black history, is a valid concern for all members of society, “the deliberate “whitewashing” of American History affected black and whites alike…” (29). The founders of these museums enlisted the help of the community to participate and provide historical documents, journals and pictures to the museum (20-23).

Many of the issues these museums faced, in terms of financial difficulties, continue with local museums and historical societies. It is important for historical societies to stay relevant and provide various events and educational opportunities that engage the surrounding community as well as the touring public.

Discussion question: Do local museums still have an important place in overcoming misrepresentation of historical events, people and races? Are there other communities whose histories are inadequately represented in museums, and how might the African American museum movement serve as a model –or as a cautionary tale?

Adapted from From Storefronts to Monuments Post by Chelsea Mueller

Thoughts on Jessie Swigger’s “History is Bunk”

In “History is Bunk”: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, Jessie Swigger traces the foundation of Henry Ford’s  museum. She looks at the scope of Ford’s influence, and she examines how his death impacted governance and interpretation. She explores how the institution adapted to the changing world outside of his carefully constructed pleasant gardens and orderly streets. Swigger also looks at the way the public responded to and influenced the museum over time, highlighting the role that the   public plays in the evolution of museums over time. In my own work at Fort McHenry, I can see that the public is the life line of the park. Without visitors, the park cannot demonstrate its value as a public resource. “History is Bunk” demonstrates that, even in a private institution, the public holds some power to influence the direction of interpretation. Swigger shows us how influence over site interpretation changed over time, gradually becoming more responsive both to the profession of public history and to the needs and interests of the public.

The questions that Jessie Swigger asks about the relationship of Ford himself to the founding of his museum seem particularly important. They help us think about the ways in which collections’ origins control their meaning and make it difficult to offer new interpretations. It would be worth discussing how Ford’s beliefs and ideology shaped his “collection” –the authentic and reconstructed buildings that composed his village. How was their interpretation framed by his vision? Did Ford’s village ever escape from being only an extension of his xenophobia? Swigger wrote, “Ford, in creating his ideal town, turned his ideals into a landscape and reflected his belief that the small town far exceeded the urban landscape in allowing capitalism and culture to flourish, as well as his concern that the federal government was impeding progress through its interference in the free market (69)”

Ford’s collection contained mixed messages. His collection praised the quintessential “American farmer” and an idyllic “New England village” as pioneers of education and hard work. It also suggested that farming was the entry point for Americanization. Ford most certainly had benefited from immigrant labor in his automobile shops, yet he believed immigrants should be made to farm in order to truly understand American values.  According to Swigger: “He went on to blame immigrants for ‘sapping’ Americans ‘courage and demoralizing our ideas.’ Ford claimed that immigrants were responsible for the decline of America’s cultural traditions and proposed that the agrarian economy of the past offered a remedy. (25)” Is it simply ironic that Ford built his museum to reflect the era before automobiles and industrialization? As a captain of industry, did Ford believe he had a responsibility to preserve and restore American values and social relationships? “Ford’s small town was populated with inventors, small business owners, and writers and artist who depicted Americans as folksy, traditional, and conservative (46)”

In reading the book I found that Ford’s biases often left a somewhat unpredictable and confusing mark on the Greenfield Village landscape. Some of his choices were driven by prejudice. For example, he was extremely anti-Semitic. He said it was important to preserve colonial music in order to combat the influence of Jews in the music industry (31). He even received the Grand Cross of the Order of the German Eagle from Adolf Hitler. At the same time, some of his choices left open opportunities for a more inclusive interpretation. He preserved two slave cabins, and he highlighted the contributions of George Washington Carver, someone he considered a friend. Whether he intended this or not, these choices made Greenfield Village a destination for African American tourists. Yet, Ford was rather reckless as he was collecting. When he acquired one of the cabins, it was still serving as a home (58) –certainly insufficient for a modern American family. But Ford had the place restored, enabling him –and it– to gloss over the period of Jim Crow segregation.

The book also raises important questions about the role public historians play in mediating meaning. Should the public historian or curator alter or change the interpretation in an exhibit in order to conform to what the audience wants, even if it means possibly offending the audience or white washing history? Or should public historians leave historical artifacts and buildings exactly as they are and ignore the complaints or concerns of the public to preserve the integrity of the ‘true’ history? At Greenfield Village, the restoration of the slave cabins is one example of how history can be erased even in an act of preservation. The presentation of the slave cabins from Georgia removed evidence of the cruelty of slavery, thus reinforcing romantic views of slavery (58).

After Ford’s death, the public and the staff engaged in a kind of conversation about the site’s value, interpretation, and programs. Many of the visitors felt a sense of nostalgia and took away their own meanings from looking at the buildings (132).  The visitors compared the site to similar places, including Colonial Williamsburg. They complained about the cost. They demanded different kinds of programming. Some expressed an interest in integrating living history at the site to help them better understand the historical time periods of the houses (136). The public was not completely ignorant of the lack of diversity in the village. By the 1970s visitors were calling for more stories about African Americans and more African American tour guides that were lacking from the staff. Swigger suggests that this push for more African American inclusion in the museum reflects both the racial turmoil in the surrounding community  (139) and the influence of both social history and the civil rights movement. Visitors –whose race cannot be discerned from the available evidence– were not blind to the absence in the history of the United States for both African Americans and even Native Americans (139). It would be worth discussing the relationship between audiences and staff in the long process of change at the site.

It seems that questions about accuracy –white washing history– and fear of upsetting the audience tend to limit interpretations at historic sties. I saw this first hand in the length of time it took Fort McHenry to complete new wayside interpretive signs and in witnessing the complicated process it took to make sure that content reflected current scholarship. Greenfield Village also reminds me a little of the Lewes Delaware Historical Society just on a smaller scale.

Finally:  “History is Bunk” opens up a bigger question that I propose to the class: What is the value of physical context? Does relocating a house or other object make it lose its meaning or relevance?

Adapted from “History is Bunk” by Stephanie Smith