Week Eight: Theory vs Practice

This week our class read about the use of public history in real life, with the main work being The Lowell Experiment by Cathy Stanton. This book focused on the use of public history in the cultural based revitalization project in Lowell, Massachusetts and the problem of making the history attractive without diminishing the complex histories of the city. This concern was seen clearly in the “run of the mill” tour, which except for one tour guide did not attempt to connect the themes of past industrial history with current global conditions. Indeed, Stanton stressed that the one tour that seemed that it should be able to encourage deep discussions, the tour of the Arce section of the city, still “failed to bridge or account for various levels of social disunity and discount between the park visitors and the people they were observing” (76). These problems connected to one of the interesting aspects of Stanton’s argument, which was the idea of the double  erasure in that the first erasure is the loss of a place’s original purpose of being and the second is the act of preservation since it further removes places from the realm of the everyday (1120). This was a challenging idea to grapple with as it seems to imply that the work of preservation and thus public history can do more harm than good. However, Stanton believed that this ensure could be countered if looked critically at itself to see what kind of realities it was creating (113). Similar to other readings this semester, The Lowell Experiment stressed the need to overcome the conflict between presenting the multiple histories of groups with attempting to show a single unified thematic history. While the Lowell Park often struggled with this, Stanton pointed out the success of the Boott Mill exhibit which actively tried to highlight connections between the industrial past and the present, showing how a public history project can successfully create deep thought provoking sites (231).

The other main reading was Nash’s “For Whom the Liberty Bell Tolls,” which looked at the new liberty bell pavilion at Independence National Park and its initial refusal to address issues of slavery and freedom given that the site was built over the Presidents house, which has a significant slave history. Nash discussed his work in bring the issue to the attention of the media which helped mobilize the public call for changes to the planed exhibits. Thanks to his and other historians’ involvement, the park service agreed to discuss slavery in the liberty bell pavilion as well as have a site for the slave quarters of the president’s house outside the pavilion. This article thus showed the positive effect that public involvement can have in bringing deeper and more meaningful interactions to the sites as well as how to approach tougher topics such as slavery. Indeed, it further revealed that people wanted to have exhibits that made them think about the past rather than just give a simplified uncontroversial account of history. This reading along with the press releases from the Park Service detailing the work on the project, reveal the commitment to address the parts of history often overlooked. Furthermore, the changes made by the Park service were done with consulting many different groups, including historians and the city, in order to try to “share the perspectives of the people who up to now have been nameless and voiceless.” (http://www.phila.gov/presidentshouse/pdfs/Presidents_House_Site_December152010.pdf)

The final reading Young’s “The Next Chiveden,” examined the new community involvement approach to the Chiveden house museum in order to try to expand beyond its dwindling number of tours. Through this new approach, it was able to both maintain its role as a house museum as well as expand its use through after school programs and other activities, making it more effective than a traditional house museum. This thus showed how house museums can successfully navigate in the current difficult climate and have a greater impact in the community it is located in. (webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:9gPVvYefzkcJ:download.aaslh.org/annual%2Bmeeting%2Bmaterial/2011/Forum%2BJournal%2B2008%2BSpring.pdf+&cd=18&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us),

These readings together demonstrate the need to go beyond the simple and easy stories and rather to tell the complex histories that challenge the visitors to think deeply about the topic. This will be important to keep in mind during my self-guided tour project for the Powel House as giving the history of its preservation will not be enough and thus I will need to try to connect what happen at there to the wider themes and problems within the field of preservation.

Finished layout of the Presidents House after eight years of discussion and planing. This site highlighted the importance of digging deeper to tell often overlooked history in order to produce meaningful public history sites.

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