A Difficult Topic to Be Sure

I am rather fortunate, in that aside from a few trips back east and to the south, I have never been forced to confront slavery head on. Academically I’ve considered it, particularly when studying the Civil War and the rise of its romanticism in the south. I’ve read through databases of shipping manifests from Trans-Atlantic slaving companies and looked at plantation agriculture from an environmental perspective. However, living in the west for my entire life, I’ve been rather sheltered from the ever-present knowledge that this country that so loves its freedoms (or claims to, anyway) was built on the backs of those who had every freedom stripped from them. This series of essays was eye-opening to me, as I had never had to consider what difficulties interpretive sites in formerly slave-holding areas would have to confront in telling the story not just of our soldiers or presidents but of the people they owned as well.

This made me rethink the last trip I took, which was not to a place where slavery was legal for a time, but to the battlefield at Little Bighorn. It was quite a few years ago, but I seem to remember that it had surprisingly little information on Native Americans for a site commemorating a cavalry unit that was ambushed by them. I have a more difficult time remembering the Civil War sites I visited (that trip was nearly 15 years ago), but I don’t recall seeing much on slavery at any of them, either in the North or the South. I certainly have a new appreciation for the difficulty the National Park Service has in attempting to present a factual and uncontroversial site. Unfortunately, it is clear from these essays that some controversy is going to be unavoidable, whether you choose to only present the positive or appealing history of a place, or attempt to include all of it, and I agree that we should be working toward a more inclusive and accurate depiction of our own history.

Living History

As someone who has participated in living history, the attitude toward reenactors as kitschy bothers me a lot. While it is true that many such installations are created by amateur historians, said amateurs did not simply pluck their ideas from the ether and call it fact. Most of us have spent the majority of our lives reading academic books and articles on our topics, and strive for accuracy to the point of absurdity (see Dr. Madsen-Brooks’s comment about how questions about Civil War battlefields devolve into discussions about historically accurate buttons). While its true that reenactors have the potential to provide inaccurate information, the majority of people involved are only there because they have so much passion for the time period that minutiae like buttons are fascinating to them, and they wish to share that passion with others.

Additionally, these installations provide valuable insight into the lives of people long gone. I had read about medieval cloth weaving techniques, and seen curated examples of medieval cloth, but I did not have a fraction of the understanding for the time and labor weaving cloth takes until I watched a woman work a medieval-style loom. Living history presentations are essential for someone who cares not only that a process occurred, but how.

History has a lot to gain from the inclusion of artists of various kinds. Certainly they lend a visceral component to history that is generally not present in curated collections alone. The concern that what artists lend to the conversation may not be entirely historically ‘correct’ is a valid one–however it is also true that many amateur historians and artists have valuable contributions to make to the overall understanding of how the past was experienced by those who lived it.

Let the Right One In

As I read through Letting Go I do not think the authors of any of these articles would consider that they are advocating for the removal of professional historical analysis from public venues. Instead they are encouraging participation from the community in a way that is controlled and carefully vetted for content quality. Rather than opening the door and giving over completely to whatever user content is created they want to start a dialogue with the community instead, in order to present information that is more likely to get people to come and view their products. This is less of a case of letting go, and more a case of selective invitation to others to come in to the world presented by the historical venue. It makes a lot of sense to do this, particularly from the perspective of the museum as a business, as it ensures their media will always be consumed as well as preventing their idea pool from stagnating.

I find the idea of an “unsuggester” intriguing for multiple reasons, the least of which is its ability to promote expanded experiences among those who might use it. By showing someone a book or exhibit that is the opposite to their favorite thing, such a function would give a person access to the ability to see that different does not necessarily mean bad and that many thought processes and ideologies can coexist comfortably. Small institutions would have difficulty implementing such a tool, as they likely do not have the space or scope to provide such a disparate amount of material, but large institutions like presidential libraries or museums that cover more than local history would certainly be able to use such a tool, and would encourage patrons to explore exhibits that they may have never considered to be relevant to their lives.

I honestly had never given much thought to how the directors of public history institutions might need to change how their projects are designed in order to maintain public interest. Certainly I can see that how the current lack of emphasis on education and the dismissal of the liberal arts as worthless would harm places who seek to preserve and interpret the past. I am interested to see if and how these new approaches breathe new life into public history installations. I hope they do, as I have always loved museums and interpretive centers, and would hate to see them become obsolete.