Slavery and Public History

I thought this was a powerful read that was jam-packed with inspiring reflections on the links between collective memory, place, and the intricacies of presenting difficult history. I must be a glutton for punishment, because I’d love to be involved in the tricky interpretation at the types of sites explored in these essays, especially the national parks.

Blight’s piece on memory and history stood out to me as the root difficulty of interpreting sites or historical moments of shame or conscience. Particularly useful was the equating of history and memory to a contrast between reason and emotion; history stands out in its (theoretically) secular tradition of carefully crafted, painstakingly researched argument, whereas memory functions as the sacred property of an individual or group, blurring together a site and its context where history seeks to tease out the complexities between the two. The polarity of secular and sacred speaks highly to type of ownership and intense reactions people have to the stories discussed in the rest of the book.

Horton’s piece raised an interesting question to me, especially in light of my fond reaction to the previous piece we read on dialogic history. I think dialogue-minded site interpretation is a venerable task, working to inspire action as a result of visiting a site of conscience. Horton’s piece raises the question of what a nationwide dialogue on these difficult subjects might look like, and if it is even possible. Time and time again the book mentioned the overarching uncomfortableness of visitors, both black and white, to antebellum sites that introduced the interpretation of slavery. Much of this was tied to context, such as the taboo discussion of slavery inside a plantation home of a powerful or historically important figure, but the ready attention of visitors to the culture of the enslaved in an area equated with servitude or separate quarters. I think a big barrier to productive national dialogue is the astonishing lack of knowledge of the American public of contentious history, or in some cases very basic history. I was in disbelief at the public history education statistics and ignorance of slavery in curriculums, though perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising considering similar treatment of Japanese incarceration, a much more recent historical blemish. Public historians are tasked then, not to dive right in to these juicy thought-provoking dialogic interpretations, but first with the responsibility of basic education of the bare facts. I have a hard time reconciling the idea that a costumed Williamsburg interpreter can still be barraged with anachronistic ideas and insults that they are trying to educate the public away from with one author’s cautioning against underestimating the public’s ability to discuss complex and sensitive issues in the appropriate context. I guess a main takeaway from this book then, is a survey of the current national landscape for public historians. We are tasked with a complicated goal of confronting difficult history and the equally difficult current issues that are legacies of these histories, in a way that both educates the public on the basic facts and teases out complex and layered interpretations.

I highly enjoyed the piece on Philadelphia’s Independence NHS, perhaps because it was a lesson in how not to act as an NPS interpretive planner: in support of the grand narrative of American exceptionalism, in ignorance of academic history, and without collaboration with experts on the subject or in the local arena. It made me ponder on Kaci’s objections that academic and public historians have the same goals – I think that broadly they do have the same goals, but their missions are made complex considering audience and context. This piece was inspiring in the public’s desire to receive the entire history, blemishes and all, at a place so susceptible to ignoring the painful past to glorify an honored national myth. The international dialogue that the Library of Congress incident sparked was surprising, as I wondered how Mining the Museum received such a contrasting reaction, as both could be viewed as an insulting version history to any of the institution’s workers. Perhaps it is entirely dependent on which set of workers is insulted and what is viewed as politically correct. I loved the combined interactivity and dialogic nature of the feedback comments in the MLK Library’s exhibition, and again the public outpouring of support to confront a difficult history. An interesting idea in these examples is the role of dissonance in aiding historical understanding, and the role of the site to serve as a forum for this confrontation. It seems like something public historians would generally try to avoid, when in fact it seems to signify a sort of point of no return for visitors, who have no choice but to confront their understanding of a difficult history and question the motives behind its past interpretations and its current relevance.

I thought the discussions of Rhode Island’s examples of confronting slavery in cultural institutions could also prove to be instructional to our class. It seems the letter-writing and collaborative campaigns to introduce more critical, informed interpretations of historic sites really are effective, and I was reminded of the possibility of our doing something similar to improve the state of historic interpretation of state history here in Idaho…

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