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.