Cauvin, Public History, Chapter 2: Historic Preservation, pp 55-88
The readings this week focuses on an important aspect of work that public historians do outside of museums, that is the historic preservation of buildings, sites and districts. Wallace’s essay entitled “Preserving the Past: Historic Preservation in the United States” is a overview of how the idea of preserving historically important buildings, sites and urban districts developed in the United States beginning in the middle to late 19th century and the constant struggle in trying to get recognition that historically important buildings, places and neighborhoods were things deserving of preservation. Wallace does a great job in capturing the essence of this conflict which has broader implications for historical practice, the fight in trying to get recognition that these historic sites have an intrinsic non-market value deserving of preservation against an economic and political system which maintains the right of property owners to do what they wish and that these places are only valued for their market value or their developmental opportunities. The section of the essay that I think is most relevant to our contemporary times is the section that details how the concept of “adaptive reuse”came into being; a concept developed as a result of a new coalition of interest groups traditional preservationists, middle class professionals and local businesses (p.189). The marrying of profit-motive and preservation set the pattern for later developments, by keeping the outside shell of historical buildings while gutting the inside to create new retail or office space it seemed like a necessary compromise in order to create a demand and an incentive for historical preservation. However and I think that this has become a greater issue since this essay was written is that the incentives have resulted in further entrenching a certain process, that is of gentrification. Which “saves” these historic districts but frequently displaces the working class and immigrant communities which scrubs the unique character that these neighborhood had in the first place, prominent contemporary examples include Harlem, Brooklyn and San Francisco. As Wallace points out, there are many different factors driving this trend but what cannot be denied is that historic preservation has played an important role in driving this process.
Cauvin’s chapter on Historic Preservation outlines the role that public historians play in historic preservation along with the best practices in order add buildings, sites and districts to preservation lists like the National Registrar of Historic Places (NRHP). I think an important concept that this chapter recognizes is that the campaigns to place sites onto the list are frequently organized at the grassroots level and in fact points out that campaigns organized at the last minute in order to save these sites are just the wrong way to approach these situations with an admonishment that these sites should come to the attention of being recognized as a part of an active survey process. The implication that public historians should be active in the community and pay attention to what is going on is important in recognizing their role as advocates on behalf of those communities.
We were also encouraged to listen to a podcast produced by a museum so I listened to the SpyCast produced by the International Spy Museum. The Spycast features in depth interviews of historians, intelligence personnel and officials by the museum’s historians frequently about a particular topic relating to intelligence. The episode I listened to was Pearl Harbor at 75: An Interview with Steve Twomey the author of a new book that takes an in depth look on the intelligence side of the attack on Pearl Harbor titled Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack. Some of the issues that he talks about in this interview and deeper in his book was the underlying assumptions that the American establishment had about the Japanese. Almost everyone expected that the U.S. would go to war with Japan however due to many factors they were totally unprepared to their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code which created a sense of complacency along with frankly very racist thinking about Japanese inferiority. Overall the interview was very interesting and I think I will have to add the book on to my to read list.
Much of Wallace’s essays in the book Mickey Mouse History have an overarching theme which becomes obvious as one reads through the book; for whom museums are built for, what message they tell and for what purpose? This critical approach that he uses is in my opinion very illuminating such as in the Boat People chapter to describe the development of the restorations of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty along with their attendant museum exhibits which had markedly different approaches to depicting immigration. The American Museum of Immigration had a very nationalistic optimistic point of view conceived in the 1950s that claimed that immigrants came from all over to America and “stressed the contributions of great men (with emphasis on “men”), propounded a discredited “melting pot” thesis, focused excessively on European immigrants and had a distinctly martial tone” pp. 60. Wallace points out in contrast that the restoration of Ellis Island took the direction of presenting immigration in a far more complex and comprehensive way utilizing the contributions of many historians in the process. The result is to “portray and give voice to immigrants themselves” pp.65 while also displaying the station and the process without sentimentally.
Wallace goes on to bring this critical approach to the subjects of the next two chapters: museums of science, technology and industry. A very valuable point that he makes about these types of museums in which they typically exhibit machines and industrial processes created by engineers is the implicit or even explicit view of history, that it is one of progress defined by the creation of ever more efficient and capable machines and processes. Of course this vision of history runs into a problem when dealing with subjects outside of this view like the topic of deindustrialization as Wallace points out. Of use is also his description of class relations such as when he describes how the emerging engineer class had to figure out were they stood in the class order which again has consequences on how to frame their contributions which leads to the adoption of a progressive view of history.
I thought that Museums and Controversy was a very interesting chapter. I think the section that provoked most thought was on how to handle taboo topics particularly on how at the time this essay was written in the early 1990s was that “there has not been a single substantial museum exhibition on the causes, course, or consequences of the war in Vietnam” pp. 120. Of course the first thing that springs to mind is how the topic of the Global War on Terror which includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be handled by museum exhibits or really any number of controversial topics in our recent past like the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Tea Party. I think a lot of care has to be given in constructing exhibits but they should not be afraid of challenging base assumptions like the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The Marine Corps Museum is going to construct an expansion that will focus on Iraq and Afghanistan on the War on Terror due to open after 2020 which will be interesting to see when it is finished.
The articles on museums and their use of new avenues to engage with their visitors like using podcasts and cell phones shows how institutions are responding to the rapid development of new social media platforms to stay relevant to their visitors which Cauvin identifies as a key must for museums since that is a common compliant. Chapter 6 of Cavin is also a great insight in how museums are changing in how they design exhibits and promoting visitor interaction to really engage with them. I think that multimedia displays and designed exhibits that promote visitor interaction is the most likely direction that new museum displays are going to go.
The material assigned this week serves as a introduction to both public history and to the difficulty in presenting history to the public.
In Mike Wallace’s essays “Visiting the Past: History Museums in the United States” and “Razor Ribbons, History Museums and Civic Salvation” an overriding theme between the two essays is that traditionally, museums were creations of the elite dominant classes in the United States and thus consequently presented interpretations and narratives that maintained that class’s position.Wallace’s first essay is in his own words “to discuss the kinds of perspectives the museums promote” p. 5. Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village and John D. Rockefeller’s Colonial Williamsburg are used as prime examples of how their founders used their vast wealth to create a particular image and narrative about the past. For Ford Greenfield venerated the traditional white colonialists who valued hard work and honesty, a simpler life before the ills of modern life and scrubbed from the narrative was the class conflicts of that era.
As an aside it was when I was half way through reading about Greenfield I realized that I have actually been to there when I was a child almost twenty years ago. Unfortunately I do not really remember the visit other than being excited to go to the Wright Brothers home (pictured below) and their workshop.
Wallace’s essays really hammer in that museums do not exist as neutral presenters of the past, either by the virtue of their origin and founders who created them in the first place or by the nature of the subject they are presenting. Deciding what objects or stories to display to the public is not merely a function of what an institutions inventory has on a given day. As Wallace points out in the second essay on the Museum of the City of New York, it requires a conscious effort by the curators to decide what to display and how to display it. Much of the controversy over museum exhibits or other historical displays center in on what narratives are those displays highlighting.
Cebula’s open letter to the Curators of the Baron Von Munchhausen House and that the Directors hostile response to him about the tour guide factual inaccuracies show this in action. It is interesting to see how some criticism would provoke such a venomous response from the director of that institution however I do not know if I should be surprised. After the rise of the New Left and more socially conscious historians in the 1960s onward who have been revising “traditional” historical narratives and highlighted marginalized and previously ignored groups like women, Native Americans, and African Americans it seems like there has been major push back by people who prefer their “traditional” history. I think the debates will continue on but it is nice to see the progress in the inclusion of those narratives and contribution that were previously ignored.
I found the Waanaen-Jones article “Facing History” on the first wife of James Glover whom he divorced and left penniless fascinating. Even though I have lived in the Spokane area for most of my life I am completely ignorant about Spokane’s history and of its “founder” James Glover. The story itself is great and how questions about James Glover divorce has left him in the shadows of Spokane with almost nothing to highlight his centrality in creating the city of Spokane, only a lonely overgrown monument with a missing plaque in a empty field that bares his name.
Welcome! My name is Will Holmes and I am a student at Eastern Washington University, majoring in International Relations and History. This blog will contain my reading responses to course material for the class in Public History that I am taking this quarter.