Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities

In today’s Old North St. Louis, the old North Neighborhood Preservation Center tells the story of a complicated past. In the mini-museum, old menus from soda fountains, piano sheet music, a sewing machine, kitchenware and many other local products are on exhibit to the public for the purpose of telling the story of Old North St. Louis to visitors and perhaps more importantly, to the neighborhood’s own residents. The project began with a $400,000 grant to the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and a shared vision to preserve and restore the area that had suffered depopulation after WWII, demolition during periods of urban renewal, and reconstruction that replaced historical row houses and Victorian homes with  new construction (Hurley 2010).

Andrew Hurley and Timothy Bauman established the Community History Research and Design Services unit of the Public Policy Research Center, where they have worked on community based history projects since the year 2000 at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis. They identified projects and formed partnerships with inner city neighborhood organization members who came to the research center in search of their community’s identity and historical attributes. Hurley and Bauman developed a model for involving residents in historical research. They argue that community-based public history can be part of revitalizing and unifying communities. Gathering experiences and insights from actual residents as oppose to solely published materials can be part of a community building process. By carefully selecting themes related to contemporary challenges like transportation, park development, public safety, and economic realities, the Design Services Unit put history to work to tackle the very issues that had made these neighborhoods vulnerable to demolition.

Hurley’s vision was to revitalize these distressed communities and keep their population steady while also promoting diversity and community unification (Hurley 2010).  His project modeled best practices for public history by accepting the legitimacy of research conducted by local residents. His emphasis on community collaboration exemplifies his methodology for revitalization of inner city districts. Hurley values oral history and archaeology as they helped fill a void in the pre-1970’s history of the neighborhood, which, he said, can be like finding a needle in a haystack. One person’s life can tell a lot about development, as can an artifact. The residents involved in the projects included older residents as well as active civic members. Each contributed a different type of knowledge to the project. He also identified some of the challenges of community collaboration; sometimes small numbers of people in a community can disrupt an entire project. He worked to prevent these disruptions by consulting neighborhood residents in the project, working with them to shape research questions and narrative structures. He also included them in excavations and in marking  major milestones in the project.

Hurley’s effort to bring Public History methods into the work of preservation is a response to some of the problematic aspects of preservation’s history.

Modern neighborhood preservation and/or revitalization originated in the late 19th century (Hurley 2010). Rapid development in Eastern cities threatened the existence prominent colonial era buildings in the late 1870’s (Chapter 1). This motivated elites to fight for the right to preserve historical places connected to the heroes of the Revolutionary Era. Their efforts led to innovations such as  district wide preservation –like in Colonial Williamsburg, which began with Reverend William Goodwin’s campaign to restore and create replicas of colonial buildings.  Preservation was dominated by individuals with access to old money and a prestigious lineage, and they tended to fear the growing influence of the new capitalist class. They also believed immigrants and foreigners were uncivilized and unfamiliar with Democracy. Early preservationists wanted to prevent foreigners from occupying locations that represented Founding Fathers who had risked their lives for the common good.  In light of these motives, it seems safe to say that neighborhood and landscape preservation began as a way to assert the dominance of Anglo Saxon culture and control the development of  urban America.

When social history rose as a field of study and public history became professional in the late 20th century, neighborhood residents began to view districts as meaningful and important to the public. This followed an improvement in the preservation of materials and the crafting of historical markers. During the 1970s a government grant allowed Pennsylvania to install sixty six markers devoted to African American History in Philadelphia. African American History found its way into curriculum in the Deep South and street names like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, contributed to the establishment of a more diverse landscape. This helped fuel a belief in history as meaningful and useful rather than strictly informational.

Hurley understands history as crucial to more egalitarian forms of revitalization (Hurley 2010).  Preserved districts like Colonial Williamsburg may fit this ticket exactly. Should preservationists then ask themselves what their motives truly are? Can the past connect to the present if it is not revitalized? Can “baseless history” or educational history without an active goal, be productive in a teaching society? The artifacts, brochures, and contemporary items displayed in the old north preservation center shows visitors and even residence who could not track their residential history, that meaning exists in their past, as it shaped the present, just as it exists in the present, as it will shape their future.



Hurley, Andrew. Beyond Preservation: Using Pubic History to Revitalize Inner Cities.                    Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.


Edited from Source: Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities by Orah Afrah

Public Preservation

In Andrew Hurley’s Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, Hurley summarizes the problems facing many inner cities and the possible solutions that public historians can help nurture. Throughout the late 20th century, poor urban neighborhoods tended to be destroyed by redevelopment, losing their connection with their past. Preservationists and Public Historians argue that neighborhood history can provide economic stability and community vitality. Hurley stresses that every community is unique and must be handled as such. Within neighborhood projects historians should reach out to and work with residents, while grassroots groups should reach out to professionals for resources.

The roots of preservation mirror that of museums. At first there was only interest in the individual structures associated with famous men (and sometimes women), which later expanded to a movement to preserve towns like Williamsburg, associated with the Revolutionary Era. The past was sometimes preserved through local (typically elite) communities gathering around a cause, as was the case in Boston, or it was preserved by the actions of a single, rich individual who used his wealth and influence to determine what was preserved. John D. Rockefeller preserved Williamsburg because of “the lesson it teaches of the patriotism, high purpose, and unselfish devotion of our forefathers to the common good”. (Hurley, 4) In this, Rockefeller articulated a tone of worship that became solidified during the Bicentennial celebrations. According to the popular narrative, first established by Rockefeller, the founding fathers were rebelled against authority for justice, employing high ideals for the common good. While urban preservation has many roots, economic interests usually superseded all. With preservation came the possibility of creating nicer neighborhoods to attract more well-off residents and tourist areas. Though these gains usually came at a high cost to long-term urban residents who might be forced out of the changing landscape by escalating prices. By the end of the 20th century, the complaint that had been leveled against museums in the 1950s and 1960s began to cropped up in preservation circles:  preservation had not shaped a sense of the diversity of American history; indeed, it may not have shaped a sense of history at all.

In the mid-20th century, around the same time African American museums and other ethnically-specific museums were organized, public historians began to find ways to expand the commemorative and preserved landscape. Digging into previously neglected sources and using new methodologies, they sought to honor groups that were not well represented in traditional historical sources. Organizations like the Power of Place identified and interpreted landmarks to tell the stories of previously overlooked peoples. It was becoming increasingly important to tell the story of the preserved past as landmarks became increasingly less tied to famous individuals and “historic” came to be used to describe not just buildings but landscapes and geography. Power of Place “broke new ground in aligning preservation goals with emerging trends in historical scholarship and employing innovative formats to deliver history to large and diverse urban audiences.” (Hurley, 42)

The Old North St. Louis case-study provides an excellent example of a university, a city, and a local community working together to restore a neighborhood’s physical environment as well as its history. The community established groups to represent the various neighborhood inhabitants, which allowed residents to have a voice within the project. The use of archaeology enabled residents to get answers to questions regarding the ethnic and social past. When combined with oral histories, this technique gave residents a direct stake in collecting and interpreting their history, and in shaping the future of their neighborhood.

The public historian should work with local community groups in trying to discover, preserve, or confirm their own history. This can be done for reasons beyond economic development. Sometimes it unites the members of a  around a common goal. For some communities this means reinforcing their collective sense history, even if project findings debunk a popular local belief about the past. In other cases, public historians can help a community identify its unique qualities, shaping a local preservation mission. Hurley concludes that working with communities requires historians to disregard their academic tendencies towards objective research, sometimes communities do not need the absolute truth but rather a compromise that mixes heritage with good history, but one that ultimately the community agrees upon and brings them together. While this is an excellent balance to strike, I wonder if a historian can ever truly be objective, even inside academia? Can anyone in any profession truly be objective?

Toward the end of the 20th century there was a push in scholarship to recognize how humans have “designed” even the most iconic of wilderness landscapes and how nature designs human landscapes. This lead preservationists and conservationists to work more closely together, establishing the category of National Heritage Areas. As Hurley put it, “historicizing the relationship between humans and their natural surroundings raises intriguing possibilities for broadening more conventional approaches to historic preservation.” (Hurley, 128) But why did it take until the end of the 20th century for this idea of nature and human history working together to enter into public history practice? Public historians surely were being taught about the Annales School of history and the many works that emphasize how nature directly shapes history. One of the newest sites to combine nature and history is the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing that has been preserved in the 19th century landscape thanks to human intervention of building flood walls. There are currently plans to turn this into a memorial park to the events that transpired there, but with all the devastating flooding that has been on the rise in the Mississippi flood zone, will this park be preserved for long? And how many resources may be diverted to keep it preserved? This is different than historic/conservation projects designed to restore previously devastated environments, like rivers turned into sewers, this could be continuing the problem of altering nature’s landscapes to suit human needs, this time using history as the reason.

Hurley, Andrew. Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

Edited from Source: Public Preservation by Heather Crandall

African American Museums in America

Andrea Burns opens the first chapter of her book, From Storefront to Monument Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, by setting up the characteristics that African American museums have: “full-scale exhibits whose themes centered upon African and African American history and culture; the pursuit of a collections policy meant to challenge and remedy the absence of African American history and culture from mainstream institutions; and an emphasis on educational outreach to local black communities.” (Burns, 15). By definition African American museums are outside of the mainstream and focused much more on the community. This is similar to the struggles museums faced in Steven Conn’s work where museums struggled for legitimacy and for academic supremacy against universities. These early African American museums struggled for authority and legitimacy over their own history. In fact they were struggling against the very museums and universities that had set the mainstream for American history. The museums of the late 19th century and early 20th century sought to be the authority on the story of America. These newer museums sought to give agency to African Americans and their communities, an agency that had been ignored or discounted by the mainstream.

This agency change is similar to the museums of Henry Ford and Henry Mercer in that Ford and Mercer gave agency to workers and everyday people or objects. African American museums are trying to show the agency of African Americans throughout American history. The difference between the DuSable Museum and those that followed is there was strong public backlash and resistance to their very existence. The four museums Burns focuses on are founded in cities with large black communities that the museums could connect to and count on for support. This was necessary as giving agency to African Americans was not discussed in mainstream academia or museums, and these museums needed the support of their local communities to exist. The founder of the DuSable museum in Chicago shared a story where she would quickly change topics if she ever saw the white principle of her school near her classroom door (Burns, 20). The development and founding of the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit had to contend with the racial tensions all of these museums had to deal with as well and a rapidly changing city of Detroit in the 1960s. The fall of manufacturing in Detroit and changing demographics just increased mainstream resistance to the idea of African American agency in American history (Burns, 25-28.) These museums were founded during a time of racial tensions and whether they were riots, militant groups, or peaceful protesters all of these actions reflected on how the mainstream reacted to attempts to introduce African American history to the national narrative.

These struggles continued into the 1970s during the founding of the African American Museum of Philadelphia where according to a Time magazine article federal funding was taken from the city in response to “lower-middle-class whites [who] staged unpleasant demonstrations, protesting against the possible influx of black laborers and foreigners” (Burns, 46).  These tensions lead into the planning of the Philadelphia museum and somewhat mirrors the struggle Conn discussed between museums and universities. The struggle between museums and universities revolved around who was the authority on history and where should the history be furthered. In the planning for Philadelphia’s bicentennial celebration there was a concern that the planners of the bicentennial would ignore the black communities and historian in favor of the tradition academic historians. The issue was the academics had been trained in the mainstream that largely ignored African American history and was at best resistant to the introduction of African American history to the mainstream. This struggle between different communities, and the government ultimately lead to the African American Museum being approved by Mayor Rizzo which was a quick reversal during the bicentennial planning that had been largely excluding and ignoring the black community proposals in Philadelphia (Burns, 56).

The struggle for African American agency in American History continues to today, and can be examined in a modern context by looking at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum and the Banneker-Douglass Museum. How do the founding of the Reginald F. Lewis and Banneker-Douglass Museums compare to the founding of the four museums Burns focuses on? How do the Reginald F. Lewis Museum and the Banneker-Douglass Museum reflect the characteristics Burns attributes to African American Museums?

As Public Historians how can we help an open discourse that respects ideas outside of the mainstream, but maintain academic standards that are sometimes at odds with different ideas and views? What role should Public Historians play when different communities and the government face conflict over historical topics and narratives?

Burns, Andrea A. From Storefront to Monument Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

Source: African American Museums in America by Daniel Scotten

From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement.

Andrea A. Burns published this book in 2013, with the goal of exploring the relationship between the Black Power Movement and the development of African American museums. The African American museums she focused on all have local or community ties and have been impacted by the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Furthermore, they each experienced similar issues in their development, long-term goals, and professionalization. The museums’ founders shared a common goal:  countering the skewed impression of black history and culture to audiences, a story missing or ignored in other museums. The book is composed of case studies, using four museums’ detailed stories to explore the African American museum movement: The Dusable Museum of African American History in Chicago, The International Afro-American Museum of Detroit, The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington D.C and The African American Museum of Philadelphia.

Burns describes the events leading to the founding of each museum, including the origin of audience demand for them. The Black Power Movement, one aspect of the lCivil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s drew attention to the lack of Black History. Public History work by African Americans has a history of its own. Elites in most northern cities had been establishing associations, educational and religious organizations since the 1820s, but this history was maintained and protected by small communities and marginalized by whites.(page 7) By the early 20th Century, the majority of mainstream organizations were still “white washing” the past. As public historians, that brings us back to the conversation we have so often: What is being told, how accurate is the information, and are certain aspects being ignored or left out? In this book, Burns describes the resistance faced by African Americans when they demanded the integration of the black experience into existing public history institutions. Time and time again, museum professionals remained unwilling to change the narrative in museums. The topic of hierarchical, elitist and classical museum tactics directly relates last week’s class to this book. The reluctance to include accurate African American history, and sometimes any of their history at all, along with the lack of accessibility for the African American people to visit these museums, were some of the many reasons Burns says African Americans started to create new institutions themselves.

The first chapter gives a detailed origin story for the Chicago, Detroit and D.C. museums. Due to the later name changes, as well as leaders and location shifts within the exhibits, I found identifying them by the city they are in to be a better way to distinguish them. Each of these three museums had a stable leader or director, similar goals, and comparable characteristics. The following chapter focused only on the Philadelphia Museum (AAMP), which is set apart from the others mostly because of its relationship with the American Bicentennial. Philadelphia leading up to 1976 had a turbulent race situation. Riots, protests, and other events gave black leaders the push they needed to pressure the City of Philadelphia into funding an African American museum that would open as part of the upcoming celebration. Due to this national holiday, the planning of this museum differed from the others. For example, Detroit and Chicago had small committees in charge of developing the museum, which worked relatively smoothly and quickly, while Philadelphia’s larger committee was riddled with prolonged debate between various groups and advocates, as well as the city itself. The city’s involvement raised doubt within African American communities. They wondered if the museum would truly show an accurate account of their history. The question of being linked with a city or National Government is something museums still deal with today. Is it better to get funding like Philadelphia did, and have all the issues that came with it, or to use donations and outside sources independently? I was shocked by the amount of added pressure the construction of a museum dealt with when it was being linked to an event like the Bicentennial. Other institutions used anniversaries to bring extra attention to a new historical museum; was it advantageous or detrimental?

The book goes on to explore the way exhibits function within each of the museums. They tell ways in which the museums connect with not only the history of the African American people, but also current day struggles facing their race. For example, The Rat in the Anacostia Museum was internationally recognized for its success. The traveling van or mobile museum also pioneered an innovative way to get information out to the public. However, as we often talked about, balance was always an issue in developing these exhibits. Trying to balance connection with the community while working to advance the museum to a greater stage. Later chapters explain how the museums all evolved, again disturbing this balance: “In an effort to reach broader audiences and improve their finances, some African American museums altered their mission statements, expanded, relocated, or changed their names. Occasionally, they engaged in a combination of all four techniques.” (page 130) Another tricky balance they all faced was whether or not to present a truthful yet very harsh historical narrative. Should they show the African Americans as victims, or display a more positive and uplifting narrative that would aid the black community’s sense of self and identity. As other museums had issues with narrative and interpretation as well as the more practical matters like audience, membership, exhibit success, and funding, African American museums were even more affected by these factors.

It is important to mention the perfect timing of reading this book for our class. During the closing chapters and conclusion section, ample debate and information were explained about The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The way it was appropriated by Congress, its budget of 500 million dollars, its design, location, methods of connecting with audience and exhibits all are interesting to compare to the four earlier African American museums. Furthermore, the major worry of it overshadowing existing smaller community museums still remains. Will a National Museum improve the other museums’ attendance because interest will grow, or will it draw people away? Also, Burns brings up the possible problem caused by different ethnic groups developing independent museums: will the American history narrative become the “white” people’s story? With the NMAAHC opening next week (24th) it will be interesting to read and see the impact it has.

Edited from Source: From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement by Jordan Ritchie

A History of Museums

Museums’ relationship to the foundation of American culture and identity began to take shape a decade after the Revolution started. Charles Willson Peale’s “museum” was more of a “cabinet of curiosities,” containing his personal collection of objects notable for their connection to famous people or events of the Revolution. But he still thought of his collection the way many modern museums do: as a source of inspiration and education that was available to all classes. Within Peale’s curiosity cabinet you can see the origins of many of the restrictions placed on museums later, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

Peale relied upon donations from wealthier sponsors,

Peale’s museum was object based

Peale’s museum represented his tastes and ideas –as an elite white man– about what was important and valuable. (Philadelphia Museum)

The evolution of the modern museum away from its status as either an elite curiosity cabinet or a side attraction at a circus came as the result of scholarly debates about the nature of history. Is it an art or a science? Where should it be housed for the public? (Conn, p. 76) The museum at the University of Pennsylvania was founded in the late 1800s, to support some of the University’s goals, but it remained separate. It became a tool for public education, grounded in formal research. The concept of what a museum should grew and changed with the expansion of research, particularly the push to have history and its related fields be recognized and valued as “scientific.” For the modern public historian, it is important to recognize the historical relationship with universities, academics, and the public in order to maintain the balance that always seems to be in flux between scholarship and popular history. Does not history preach that if we don’t know where we’ve been, we cannot see where we are going?

The curators of the early museums that touched on issues of history tended to be anthropologists and other scholars of the “human sciences.” f(Conn, p. 77) They imported their own beliefs about race and power to the organization of collections and made them appear “natural” in public discussion. (Conn, p. 79) This was evident in the layout of the University of Pennsylvania museum where the upstairs rooms, bathed in natural light and, housed the glorious past of Greece, Egypt, and Rome. Downstairs, in darker and more hidden areas of hte building, visitors found the “lesser” civilizations. This schema followed popular beliefs about how Darwin’s theory of  evolution might be applied to the definition of “civilization.” (Conn, p. 91) As was the case in Peale’s era, money for museums came from the wealthy donors, more interested in the high culture of the Old World, manifest in its ties to religious and classical texts. (Conn, p. 93-95) While scholars fought to collect and preserve the history of the New World, they portrayed this world as “primitive,” and portrayed its unrecorded culture as still living in pure form among innocent, noble, doomed “savages.” The urgency to preserve their culture came from the widely held belief that they would not  survive in the modern world. (Conn, p. 96) It is important to note that the perspective advanced by the museum —though condescending and often inaccurate in its interpretation– was actually sympathetic to indigenous people. Conn argues, “in an era that saw…Jim Crow laws in this country and…atrocities against indigenous peoples in European colonies, the University Museum tried to present a more humane and sympathetic view of the world’s cultures.” (Conn, p. 99) From a modern perspective, we look back upon this idea of the “evolution of civilization” and scoff, but has society truly moved beyond having a hierarchy of civilization? Within classrooms today history is still taught this way starting with the Greeks, leading up to the glory of modern Western/American civilization.

The anthropologist Franz Boas made the argument that, “it is the essential function of the museum as a scientific institution to preserve for all future time, in the best way possible, the valuable material that has been collected, and not to allow it to be scattered and to deteriorate.” (Conn, p. 107) This argument encapsulates the contemporary discussion about large museums returning objects to their country of origin. Is the modern argument just another form of the “evolution of civilization” belief, now being supported by socioeconomic factors? If the museums resisting returning objects to their country of origin are indeed doing a form of public service, who is the public they are servicing and who is the public they should be servicing? The idea of a global civilization is frequently throw around in conversation, should the modern museum be adapting and no longer focusing on their local public, but the global public?

Conn, Steven. Museums And American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Hansen, Liane. “Philadelphia Museum Shaped Early American Culture.” NPR. June 13, 2008. Accessed September 14, 2016.

Source: Edited from Heather Crandall’s The History of Museums