This image shows the "Hall of Witness," in the interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC

Holocaust History

This image shows the "Hall of Witness," in the interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC
Hall of Witness at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, 2009. Photo credit: dbking, Wikimedia Commons.

Since the end of World War II, a worldwide network of sites dedicated to defining, preserving, and interpreting the history of the Holocaust has emerged and evolved. In the public history of the Holocaust, different institutions define the unfolding events in various ways, but for the purposes of this essay, the definition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) serves well:

The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.

During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others) Soviet prisoners of war, and blacks. Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.[i]

“Race” was central to the Nazi worldview, inextricably linked to the idea of the “nation.” In Nazi racial theory, Germany was an “Aryan” nation, whose people were descended from ancient Indo-Europeans who settled throughout the European continent as well as in Iran and India. Thus, conflating “Aryan” with “German” meant that “non-Aryan” peoples could not be German, no matter how they thought of themselves prior to 1933; and German-speaking “Aryans” living within the post-World War I borders of other nations were German, and thus the territory they occupied must be part of Germany. The internal consistency of this worldview drove the actions of the Third Reich that led to both the Holocaust and World War II.

Efforts to preserve and present the history of the Holocaust launched the ethos of “Never Again.”[ii] Confronted by the reality of the Holocaust, historians and activists hoped that visitors would be inspired not only to prevent genocide, but to combat antisemitism wherever it rebounded in the world.

An Overview of Holocaust Public History

In 1978, driven by a sense of moral and ethical responsibility born from an evolving understanding of the United States’ lack of official response to the warning signs of the Holocaust and its atrocities as they began to unfold, members of Jimmy Carter’s President’s Commission on the Holocaust began the process that would lead to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This American effort was one among many, and it occurred about thirty years after the first international efforts to preserve Holocaust history.

The landscape of Holocaust public history includes “sites of conscience,” national museums, educational initiatives, exhibits, and archives. The following is a sampling of the variety of these initiatives.

Place-based sites of remembrance were among the first to be preserved and often fall under state administration. These sites include places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum in Poland (founded in 1947) and Dachau in Germany (preserved as a memorial in the 1960s). They also include more recent initiatives like the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Memorial, created in China in 1993. Architecture and artifact-intensive sites include Yad Vashem in Israel (founded in 1953, with a modern museum exhibit added in 2005), the USHMM (opened in Washington, D.C. in 1993), and the Memorial de la Shoah in France (2005). Regional museums of significant size and scope exist in many states and provinces and include such places as the Holocaust Museum of Houston (1996) and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (1997). Many were founded by survivors. Some, including the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (1993) and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (2014), take a more broad-based approach to their mission.

Holocaust education initiatives (some of which include museums) exist at many colleges and universities around the world. These include places like the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (CHHANGE) at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey (1979), the Shoah Foundation (1994) at the University of Southern California, and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education (MHHE) at Kennesaw State University in Georgia (2003).

Traveling exhibits, such as Anne Frank in the World or Remembering Ravensbrück: Women and the Holocaust, allow for portable explorations of sub-topics or introductions to the larger history which can be installed at multiple libraries, museums, and schools. Others with more specific themes, along with artifacts and mixed media, include Vedem Underground about a zine published by boys imprisoned at Theresienstadt/Terezen and Art and Remembrance based on the textile work of Holocaust survivor Esther Krinitz. Finally, there are blockbuster multi-national partnerships such as the 2016 exhibit Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away, which premiered at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid, Spain.

Temporary exhibits and initiatives at Holocaust museums and education centers allow for deeper exploration of important sub-topics and themes within Holocaust history. With its mission to evoke a sense of responsibility in its visitors, the USHMM has had a number of successful, well-executed temporary exhibits including, most recently, Americans and the Holocaust and Some Were Neighbors. Built with contemporary technology, temporary exhibits can make use of the staying power of digital media to live beyond their physical tenure. Educational initiatives also benefit from Web-based technology. These include Yad Vashem’s Echoes and Reflections, the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program of the Azrieli Foundation in Toronto, Canada, and Facing History and Ourselves, originally launched in 1976.

Strategies for Interpreting the Holocaust

With over seventy years of evolving public history to consider, what should today’s “inclusive historian” count as best practices for interpreting the Holocaust?

Accuracy and Evidence

The magnitude and specificity of the Holocaust tests the limits of human comprehension and credence. It has invited denial and diminishment since people were first aware of atrocities happening in Germany after the National Socialist (Nazi) party came to power in 1933. Efforts to define the Holocaust occurred first in the context of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Notably, the adoption of this convention occurred two years after the conclusion of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials for which mountains of evidence and witness testimony against top Nazi officials were compiled. The need to gather evidence and create a criminal narrative during judicial proceedings has led both to the preservation of evidence and to the parsing of precise definitions of crimes committed. Bureaucratic precision can sometimes obscure emotional truths, lead people to doubt witness testimony, or attempt to compare suffering. Thus, definitions of the Holocaust that foreground the Jews as the Nazis’ primary target for genocide, but also mention and contextualize “other” targets, are of paramount importance.

Comprehensive Coverage

The “other groups” targeted by the Nazi regime must be included in any comprehensive coverage of the Holocaust period. Discussing the unique characteristics and specific humanity of these approximately five million individuals honors their memory. It does not detract from the story of the Jews as the Nazis’ primary targets for genocide. However, it does help contemporary people to grasp the totality and complexity of the Nazi party’s murderous ideology.

Importance of Individuality

An event of such magnitude and darkness as the Holocaust (or Shoah—the Hebrew word for annihilation) invites understanding through statistics. Six million Jews were killed, two-thirds of the Jews of Europe and forty percent of the Jews in the world. More than 200,000 people, about one-quarter of the European population of Roma and Sinti, were killed in what the survivors recall as the “Porajmos” (Roma for great devouring). An estimated 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were killed during the “Zaglada” (Polish for destruction).[iii] On their own, such numbers provoke an intake of breath, a shaking of the head, but they do not do justice to the people who suffered and died or to the cultures that were erased from the great story map of the world. When people encounter and retain historical understanding, they do so through relating to the unique journeys of individuals both like and unlike themselves.

Juxtaposition

The ways in which these individuals’ stories are both like and unlike those of the public historian’s contemporary audience depends on the make-up of that audience. The years 1933-1945 are significant to the entire world. They encompass the Great Depression and World War II. Thus, the reality of the Holocaust is sometimes best understood through juxtaposition of other historical moments and events that may be familiar to visitors. In 1935, African American track star Jesse Owens was training for the 1936 Berlin Olympics while the German government was passing the Nuremberg race laws, based in part on the Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws of the American South.[iv] In the winter of 1942, American paratroopers were learning to jump in Georgia, preparing for deployment overseas, Japanese American civilians were being herded into concentration camps across the arid American West, and the architects of the “Final Solution” were planning for the destruction of the world’s Jews from the comfort of a classical villa in the Wannsee suburb of Berlin.

Relatability

Similar to the importance of juxtaposition for people to find resonance in this history, relatability is especially important to people who have no direct connection to the story. For these audiences, it is important to emphasize that just because the Holocaust happened in a particular time and place does not mean it was only experienced by “foreigners.” It is also important to counter stereotypes that people might hold about European Jews. The Jews of Europe were by no means monolithic. They were rural, urban, rich, poor, multi-lingual, gay, straight, Zionist, assimilationist, political, and apolitical. Underscoring the diversity of the targets of Nazi ideology is also an important way to increase relatability. The Nazi regime cast a wide net. They imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses who would not bow to the power of the state. They targeted gay men for incarceration and “annihilation through work.” They pitted German political dissidents against Poles, Slavs, and Russians in their complex of prisons and concentration camps. They targeted Afro-Germans (the so-called “Rhineland Bastards” of World War I) for forced sterilization, murdered people with disabilities, and rendered “asocials” like Roma and Sinti invisible before “liquidating” their family camps.[v] Each group targeted by the Nazis remembers the horror of the Holocaust years in their own unique way. All of their stories are human stories.

So, too, are the stories of the witnesses, the bystanders, and the perpetrators. Those who encountered the Holocaust in its immediate aftermath are as diverse as those who encounter it today. They include the African American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald and the women on the home front reading newspapers and listening to radio broadcasts. They include the children who learned about the events through hearsay, and then through published diaries and memoirs, and, if they were lucky enough, through the testimony of survivors. They include the soldiers of the USSR whose testimony and experiences were buried in the snow of the Cold War for fifty years after they liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. And, they include people whose minds had been poisoned by years of antisemitic rhetoric and imagery; people whose nationalistic goals were better served by the fantasy of Jewish conspiracy theories than by the reality of the Holocaust.

Relevance

In the rhetorical universe of “Never Again,” it can be challenging to balance historical accuracy, reflection, and memorialization with inspiration of civic and moral responsibility, especially in a time when acting on behalf of human rights and against racism, antisemitism, sex and gender discrimination, ableism, and xenophobia seems increasingly urgent.[vi] Studying the Holocaust has helped us to codify the warning signs and conditions that can make genocide possible. It helps us recognize failures of the state and failures of individuals. It has helped us to understand the importance and the limitations of human choices. Under the “right” set of conditions, it is possible to shrink the universe of choices available to people over time until it seems there are no choices left at all. And, even when there are some choices left, they may be what theorist Lawrence Langer termed “choiceless choices.”[vii] Studying the Holocaust points out the limits of ethics under abnormal conditions. Placed in terrible situations, some people make decisions that seem to benefit them at the expense of others, but they may also feel that maintaining their power might allow them to intervene on behalf of a loved one, or simply to survive. The dilemma of “choiceless choices” leads some Holocaust educators to ask visitors, “What would you have done, had you been there?” Instead, however, we should consider the moral imperative of Holocaust education differently, asking people to consider their actions today. Everyone has a responsibility to use what power they have for good.

This photo shows the exterior of the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda
Just as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was opening its doors, Rwanda was on the verge of genocide. The Kigali Genocide Memorial was opened in 2004. Photo credit: United States Department of the Treasury, Wikimedia Commons.

Potential Pitfalls

The “Echoes and Reflections” paradigm of Holocaust pedagogy cautions educators to avoid traumatizing their students by guiding them “safely in and safely out” of study. Of course, triggers are going to be different for different students, depending on their unique personal histories and sense of their heritage. Some strategies will work better for some than for others. It is also important to note here that simulation exercises and other forms of Holocaust reenactment, although they can foster empathy, are highly problematic and should only be attempted with the utmost care, if at all, by highly trained Holocaust educators.

There are problems as well with Holocaust heuristics. It is easy to portray the Holocaust as the ultimate in large-scale human cruelty. Characterizing the Holocaust as “the ultimate,” however, can lead people to try to compare suffering, in some cases diminishing or dismissing the suffering of some in order to gain attention for the suffering of themselves or their group, or others for whom they feel sympathy. History is not a zero-sum game, but the events of the past do compete for attention from teachers and students, governments and activists. Such a powerful story as the Holocaust lends itself to being politicized. Of course, historians need to be able to reference the present in discussions of the past in order to advance understanding, but this must be done with an eye toward precision and accuracy.[viii] It is similarly problematic to see Holocaust history only as a means to transmit a moral message. The story can be told extrinsically to support a particular agenda (such as genocide prevention, anti-bullying, claiming that everyone bears some responsibility for evil or, equally and oppositely, absolving people of responsibility within an oppressive system). Although learning from the past is important, problems occur when people perceive the agenda as supplanting the intrinsic importance of the story.

Problematic Holocaust pedagogy can be particularly burdensome for survivors and their families, because they can feel personally implicated or used for a purpose that might not be their priority. Thus, it is important for public historians to respect the rights of survivors and their descendants to speak or not to speak, to educate or to disengage. Historians must also treat testimony with respect even when using it to illustrate specific themes that may resonate with particular individuals or audiences. This responsibility grows ever greater as the generation of survivors and witnesses reach the end of their natural lives.

This is a photo of Holocaust survivor Herbert Kohn
Herbert Kohn spoke regularly to children at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education about his German childhood during the rise of the Nazi regime. He recorded the testimony seen in still image here in 2013. Since 2018, his poor health has prevented him from leaving his home. As of the writing of this piece, he is 93 years old. Photo credit: Georgia Journeys, MHHE, Kennesaw State University.

Responsibility

What, then, is the ultimate responsibility of public historians of the Holocaust? Tell the story simply enough that your target audience can understand the narrative, but don’t oversimplify or eliminate complexity. It is always possible to go deeper. Talk about the limits of choice in an increasingly oppressive situation, but talk about resistance and resilience too. Tell stories of victims, perpetrators, survivors, liberators, bystanders, and the people who played more than one of these roles at different moments in their historical journeys. Know the value and the limits of empathy. Place the story in context. Describe antisemitism, eugenics, segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws. Chronicle xenophobia and restrictive immigration policy. Discuss leading and following, militarism and conformity. Contemplate censorship and the spectacle of cultural unity, media and propaganda, scapegoating and dehumanization. Set the scene of the aftermath of World War I and the onset of World War II. Include discussions of communism and nationalism, isolationism and appeasement, and soldiers and strategy. Finally, talk about witnessing, gathering evidence, and preserving testimony. Narrate human resilience and compassion. Consider power and responsibility, memory and (re)membrance. Acknowledge your own unique subjectivity, and endeavor to understand that of your audience.

Public history is rooted in traditions of storytelling—gathering and sharing, telling and retelling. There are always new listeners. Every day, we ourselves, are new listeners. Our work is never done.

Notes

[i] “Introduction to the Holocaust,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/introduction-to-the-holocaust.

[ii] Emily Burack, “‘Never Again’: From a Holocaust Phrase to a Universal Phrase,” The Jerusalem Post, March 10, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Never-Again-From-a-Holocaust-phrase-to-a-universal-phrase-544666. See also, NeverAgain.com and the #neveragain hashtag.

[iii] Luis Ferreiro and Miriam Greenbaum, Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away., ed. Robert Jan van Pelt (New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019).

[iv] James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[v] During World War I, soldiers from parts of Africa under French colonial rule fought on behalf of France. After the war, a number of them occupied German territory along the Rhine river, the “Rhineland.” Although many German women married soldiers from the occupying forces, some had children out of wedlock, opening the rhetorical door for the “Rhineland Bastards” moniker that would first be used as a derogatory term to refer to Afro-Germans in German newspapers in 1919. For more details, see Iris Wigger, The “Black Horror on the Rhine”: Intersections of Race, Nation, Gender, and Class in 1920s Germany (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017).

[vi] The rise of right-wing regimes in Europe with a predilection for Holocaust revisionism has also given Holocaust educators a sense of increased urgency. For example, see “Hungary’s New Holocaust Museum Isn’t Open Yet, But It’s Already Causing Concern,” NPR.org, accessed August 20, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/02/08/690647054/hungarys-new-holocaust-museum-isn-t-open-yet-but-it-s-already-causing-worry.

[vii] Lawrence L. Langer, “The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps,” Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (Fall 1980): 53-59.

[viii] For a discussion of recent scholarly debates over the use of Holocaust analogies in political speech, see Liam Knox, “Scholars Push Back on Holocaust Museum’s Rejection of Historical Analogy,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 3, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Push-Back-on/246615.

Suggested Readings

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Revised edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Bergen, Doris L. War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Third edition. Lanham ; Boulder ; New York ; London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016.

Ferreiro, Luis, and Miriam Greenbaum. Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. Edited by Robert Jan van Pelt. New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019.

Hersh, June Feiss. Recipes Remembered. Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2013.

Linenthal, Edward. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. 1st edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Lipstadt, Deborah E. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Reprint edition. New York, N.Y: Plume, 1994.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie. The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day. First PB Edition, First Printing edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.

Author

~ Adina Langer has served as the curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, since 2015. A 2009 graduate of the MA program in Archives and Public History at New York University, she has focused her career on interpreting traumatic historical events for diverse audiences while emphasizing the dignity and individuality of the people who experienced them. You can follower her on Twitter @Artiflection and find her on the web at www.artiflection.com.

Collaborative Practice

Representatives of various tribes, the National Park Service, state officials, the Colorado Historical Society, and local officials after meeting to mark the tenth anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and discuss the status of the site and future plans. Photo by Karen Wilde, National Park Service, Kiowa County Independent (Eads, Colorado), May 10, 2017.

Defining “public history” precisely and succinctly has proven elusive, yet many recognize collaboration as one of public history’s most salient characteristics. Doing history for, and increasingly with, the public is a complex endeavor that combines the insights and contributions of multiple disciplines and participants. The ranks of the public historian’s potential collaborators are many: other public and academic historians, scholars from various disciplines, students in public history classes, museum professionals, archivists, architects, planners, governmental agency staff, corporate representatives, personnel of non-profits, members of neighborhood organizations, and a multitude of other publics. Collaborative practice empowers the discipline to put history to “work in the world,” an idea that Carl Becker advanced in his 1931 address “Everyman His Own Historian.”[i] This idea lies at the center of public historians’ sense of professionalism.

The public engagement that is inherently part of collaborative practice also highlights the role of history in civic culture. For much of the twentieth century, the American public valued history as an essential component of education and a contributor to national identity. Studying the past helped foster an understanding of American institutions and served to promote good citizenship and democratic change. By the 1970s, however, the importance of history in civic culture began to diminish. An employment crisis among university historians was partly to blame. So too were the budget cuts at the federal and state levels that ravaged many history-related institutions including museums, libraries, and historic sites. Arguably, the most significant factor concerned the growing insularity of academic historians who increasingly perceived their scholarly peers, not the public, as their primary audience. Research-focused colleges and universities have long considered peer-reviewed monographs and articles as the gold standard of scholarship, and these works intended for other academics became a requisite for faculty promotion and tenure. This trajectory only intensified in the volatile political climate after 1980 that, ironically, helped accelerate the rise of public history.

Public historians welcome collaboration with the public. Many believe that a holistic, collaborative examination of the past that confronts both the good and the bad can promote positive social and political changes. This willingness to engage with the public, public historians contend, can help restore the discipline’s beneficial influence in the civic culture.

Basic Principles of Collaboration

In the direct collaborative practice of history, every project is different and presents unique challenges, but following a number of basic principles contributes significantly to successful partnerships. Engagement and communication are key. All the collaborators must be fully vested in the project and willing to listen and learn from one another. Ideally, this starts with the planning of a project and continues through its completion. Every stakeholder should be involved in formulating the research design. This assures that all perspectives receive their due. Similarly, the project timeline and the setting of benchmarks requires mutual agreement. Throughout the course of a project, all involved need to remain in touch with one another and discuss what, if any, changes might be necessary to the research design, timeline, or other project matters. This deliberative and ongoing methodology is part of what is termed reflective practice.

Memorandum of Understanding

A written Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) is an excellent tool with which to forge a collaboration. Although seldom legally binding, a carefully crafted memorandum addresses exactly what will be done, who is responsible for certain tasks, when these tasks will be completed, and by whom. It also stipulates any necessary information if compensation is involved. A well-executed MOU or MOA clearly delineates the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved and is essential for collaborative practice to be successful.[ii]

Professional-to-Professional Relationships

As public history gained ascendancy in the mid-twentieth century, much of its collaborative practice entailed professional-to-professional relationships, many of them forged through the federal government. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 required assessing the impact of federal undertakings on historic resources and under certain circumstances mitigating adverse outcomes. Similarly, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 sought to protect the environment from harmful actions that accompanied federal projects. In addition to natural considerations, the law included determining impacts on the human environment, including historic sites and properties. Through these two pieces of legislation, public historians—some of them by establishing their own consulting firms—partnered with archeologists, architects, planners, engineers, and a variety of natural scientists. During this period, many federal agencies also increasingly valued the knowledge of the past as a foundation for formulating policy and helping to meet their stated missions. As a result, public historians found employment throughout the federal government, and their collaborators expanded to include bureaucrats. The same dynamic applied to public historians and state and, to a lesser degree, local governments. These alliances between public historians and other highly educated experts, sometimes including even academic historians, occasionally proved contentious. The advanced academic training and professionalism the partners shared, however, tended to facilitate the settling of differences.

Collaborating with Stakeholders

Since the 1980s, the collaborative practice of public history has progressively entailed the more challenging reality of professional practitioners working with partners having no formal academic training. These collaborators commonly are also among the project’s stakeholders. Oral history offers an excellent example. Professionally trained interviewers record informants who were involved in, or have special knowledge of, a project’s topic. Oral history informants work in partnership with skilled interviewers, engaging in a process of both historical inquiry and interpretation. Reconstructing and interpreting the past through oral history requires active participation by the trained professional and the interviewee. Their partnership produces the history. Similarly, a museum exhibit examining the role of a particular community—be it geographic, ethnic, racial, gender-based, political, economic, or social in nature—needs to be informed by members of that community. These public engagement practices in both oral history and museum exhibition have a long tradition, but have become even more common as the public history field has matured. The inclusion of non-academic partners in public history projects runs contrary to the traditional experience of many academic historians accustomed to self-defining and self-directing their own research. This collaborative practice of history with multiple, often non-academic, partners is one of the defining characteristics that sets public history apart from most academic history. It fundamentally involves doing history for and with the public.

The Question of Authority

Working with an array of collaborators, and especially those from outside the profession, potentially raises the question of authority. Where does authority rest when differences—subtle or profound—emerge among the partners? Where does agency lie? Who tells the story? Whose history is it? Public historians wisely recognize that the answers to such questions are rarely absolute. In wrestling with these conundrums, they have adopted the concept of shared authority, set forth originally by historian Michael Frisch. Born out of the dialogic methods of oral history, sharing authority entails taking into consideration the interpretations and perspectives of all stakeholders and collaborators, not just the trained professionals. It involves going beyond the scholar’s expertise as the sole basis for analysis and conclusions to include incorporating and respecting the viewpoints of all with an interest in the project. The intent is to create a more inclusive understanding of the past.

Public historians thus often find themselves situated in a middle ground between their collaborators and academics. While sharing authority requires openness to multiple perspectives, it does not mean ignoring the historical method, historiography, or well-established facts that historians use to craft a coherent and defensible interpretation of past. Nor does it result in self-serving relativism, history being whatever a particular group or party says without substantiating evidence. Sound scholarship serves as the foundation for the collaborative practice of history, whether the collaborators are project partners or the entire public. It enables the fulfillment of the historian’s role in civic culture, a critical achievement in a society in which demagogues and other self-interested manipulators promote “alternative facts” and “fake news.”

Since there is no one way to practice history collaboratively or to pursue shared authority, the process can be messy and challenging. For example, one of the tasks faced by the National Park Service while establishing Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, opened in 2007, was locating the exact site of the 1864 attack on Black Kettle’s village near present-day Eads, Colorado. Volunteer cavalry under Colonel John Chivington killed more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho, many of them women and children, in the brutal assault. To address this question, the Park Service brought together a variety of collaborators: Cheyenne and Arapaho elders; local landowners; academic and public historians; and, archeologists. At first, traditional, empirical evidence derived from historical research and archeology, along with the work of a historically minded ex-detective, seemed to decide the question. Cheyenne elders strenuously disagreed. Taking into account both the academic conclusions, and the stories shared among generations of tribal members with deeply personal spiritual connections, led project leaders to a different, synthetic, and arguably better understanding of how to interpret where the massacre occurred. The Park Service’s attempt to locate the massacre site certainly exemplified collaborative practice by bringing the stakeholders together, but it failed to answer the question definitively. The solution required the expansion of the site’s originally envisioned boundaries to include both locations. In effect, this transcended traditional scholarly methods by accepting two culturally different ways of revealing the past.[iii]

Ethical Issues

Anyone navigating through the complexities of collaboration—and authority—will also need to consider related ethical issues. In 2007, the National Council on Public History issued its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. This document organizes the ethical practice of public history around the public historian’s responsibilities, as well as those pertaining to three different constituencies: the public; clients and employers; and members of the profession. Guiding principles for all these categories apply to collaborative practice, but those attached to responsibility to the public are most germane. They recognize that many diverse publics exist and can complement or compete with one another in interpreting the meaning of the past. Nevertheless, the public historian has an ethical obligation to conduct research with scholarly integrity, while also striving to be culturally inclusive and respecting the interpersonal dynamics that the collaborative practice of history inherently entails. Sometimes this can be challenging. Strong-minded collaborators may be unable to reach a consensus, but the public historian bears the final responsibility for the ultimate results of a project.[iv]

Examples of Collaborative Practice

Contemporary examples of collaborative practice in public history abound, simply because the interests of both professionals and non-professionals are intertwined. The Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service, for example, collaborate in a program designed to incorporate the best and most current scholarly research into historical interpretation at national parks. Museums, libraries, historical organizations, historic sites, and other history-related institutions routinely seek to give voice to the publics they serve in the history-making process by following the principles of collaborative practice. Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World (2011) provides intriguing case studies of this dynamic in museums seeking connections with the public in an increasingly digital world.[v] Public history educators commonly employ collaborative practice in their courses by having students undertake museum exhibits, conduct oral histories, and other projects with both on- and off-campus partners. One need not delve deep in the field’s literature to discover discussions of the influence of collaboration on the practice of public history. The winter 2006 volume of The Public Historian, organized around the theme “Public History as Reflective Practice,” is a valuable place to start exploring the many practical, ethical, and theoretical dimensions of doing public history collaboratively.[vi]

Doing public history almost always demands a degree of collaborative practice, and successful collaboration can often be challenging. It requires employing the deliberate planning and execution inherent in the concept of reflective practice. A willingness to be inclusive and share authority with different publics is absolutely essential. At the same time, the professional public historian must be mindful of the ethical considerations that arise between academics and their non-scholarly collaborators. Nor can the relevant academic scholarship and the historical method be ignored. Collaborative practice is often complex and messy, and sometimes succeeds and sometimes does not. At its best, the collaborative practice of public history provides valuable perspectives that help us better understand the present and envision the future by creating a history that is nuanced, inclusive, and useful to everyone.

Notes

[i] Carl L. Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review 37 (January 1932): 221-236. Also available online at https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/carl-l-becker. The National Council on Public History uses the phrase “putting history to work in the world” in its mission statement.

[ii] Searching “Memorandum of Understanding” or “Memorandum of Agreement” on the National Park Service’s web site, www.nps.gov, will yield numerous example of such documents. They involve a variety of partners, the most numerous being other governmental agencies at the federal and state level. Despite the diversity of partnerships they reflect, all the memorandums include language that assures the purpose of the collaboration, the responsibilities of each party, timelines, and other details meant to assure a successful outcome. For an example of a Memorandums of Understanding used for student internships in a collegiate public history program, click on the link to Washington State University’s MOU, accessible though the web page https://history.wsu.edu/graduate-studies/public-history-track/public-history-internships/.

[iii] The website for Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site can be found at https://www.nps.gov/sand/index.htm. The story of Sand Creek, the effort to determine the location of the massacre, and the influence of memory in establishing the site are the subject of Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[iv] NCPH’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct can be found at http://ncph.org/about/governance-committees/code-of-ethics-and-professional-conduct/.

[v] Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds., Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2011).

[vi] “Public History as Reflective Practice,” The Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006).

Suggested Readings

Babal, Marianne. “Sticky History: Connecting Historians with the Public.” The Public Historian 32 (Fall 2010): 76-84.

Corbett, Katharine T., and Howard S. (Dick) Miller. “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006): 39-66.

Frisch, Michael H. A Shared Authority:  Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Lindsay, Anne. “Student and Community Organizations: Creating Productive Partnerships.” Technical Leaflet 279. American Association for State and Local History.

Tyrell, Ian. Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Weible, Robert. “What’s Happened to Historians.” History News Network, May 28, 2017.  Available online at: https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/165805.

Author

~ Bill Bryans has been putting history to work in the world for over forty years in a variety of capacities. During that time, he has been a consultant, and until his retirement in July 2019 directed the public history program at Oklahoma State University for thirty-one years. He also has served as president of the National Council on Pubic History, president of the Oklahoma Museums Association, and chair of the Oklahoma Humanities Council. Locally, he also has long served as a board member of the Payne County Historical Society and the Stillwater Museum Association.

Sexuality

Poster created by the Health Education Authority for the National Aids Helpline promoting safer sex practices, c. 1990. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection.

The history of sexuality is a history of bodies—how they fit together and achieve pleasure—and of minds—how desire and pleasure are experienced and rationalized given social and cultural norms and political ideologies. Public-facing histories (like twentieth-century LGBTQIA+[i] activisms) lend themselves well to the excavation of primary source materials—newsletters, picket signs, photographs, etc.—and their respectable interpretation (de-sexualized narratives of identity and equal rights). However, the inclusive historian must remain cognizant of who produced and preserved what evidence, when, where, and why—and how it has been and will be understood by new generations and audiences. This information shapes and comprises extant narratives of sexuality.

Much of human sexuality has played out behind the bedroom door of history, private and concealed. The evidentiary basis for such history is scant. As an inclusive historian, it is your job to expand how these histories can be told using the resources available to you. How can we commit to being more inclusive, equitable, and service-oriented historians given the gaps and silences of the archive? We must always consider who or what is missing from our narratives, and why. Even given a wealth of materials and perspectives, how can we showcase the breadth and depth of sexual experience throughout human history given respectability politics, institutional censorship, and cultural expectations? Studying the history of sexuality brings with it questions of (in)decency and taboo, sex and gender norms, anachronism and bias—all of which create a maze of roadblocks the inclusive historian must continually navigate. This article will equip you with the tools necessary for understanding these challenges, the complexity of the history of sexuality, and examples of best practices for interpreting it.

Defining Sexuality

For the purpose of this article, sexuality can be taken to encompass the following:

  • Sexual orientation—an internal experience, our desires or lack thereof, and who we are or are not attracted to.
  • Sexual behavior—an external and usually private experience, the acts we do or do not engage in, and with whom we do or do not share them.
  • Sexual identity—an external and usually public experience, how we conceive of our sexual experience and what we call ourselves.

These concepts are crucial for an inclusive historian to understand when interpreting sexual experiences of the past. As will be discussed in a later section, the frameworks and language we employ to encapsulate sexuality often present social, cultural, and political biases.

Historicizing Sexuality

Historical actors’ desires, actions, and identities will not always coincide with our expectations. In fact, they rarely do. Take, for example, Michael Wigglesworth, a seventeenth century Puritan minister known for his best-selling poem The Day of Doom. An ardent Christian, father, and husband three times over, Wigglesworth struggled with his sexuality, as revealed through diary entries. An inclusive historian would not automatically declare him “gay” or “prudish” upon learning of his attraction to his male students and his shame about nocturnal emissions. Instead, the inclusive historian would differentiate his inner thoughts and desires (evinced in his diary) from his actions (marriage and children) and identity (or lack thereof).

An inclusive historian is wary of presentist assumptions about the sexuality of historical actors. Modern identifiers like “gay” or “homosexual” reinforce anachronistic ideas about how sexuality was experienced in the past. These words come with their own social, cultural, and political connotations. In the history of sexuality, language serves a very important purpose— contextualizing a specific time and place, and how a particular desire, act, or identity was named (if it was named at all). Wigglesworth serves as a nexus between Puritan sexual mores, their internalization, and individuated experiences of desire. In order to responsibly interpret his history, one must ask how he experienced his sexuality as well as how it might have been read by others. Did Wigglesworth identify himself as part of a nameless underclass of “sodomites” persecuted by society or as a sinner comparable to a drunkard or a murderer? Is the “incongruity” between Wigglesworth’s desires and behavior something to be read as a lack of self-acceptance (by today’s standards) or a spiritual struggle (by Wigglesworth’s own perspective)? The inclusive historian must balance the agency of historical actors (like Wigglesworth) to conceive of their experiences on their own terms, with a critique of the social, cultural, and political constrictions placed on them that shaped their self-conceptions.

American scholar David Halperin once argued that sexuality “is a cultural production: it represents the appropriation of the human body and of its physiological capacities by an ideological discourse.”[ii] In other words, sexuality is a social construct and it is our job, as historians, to trace its genealogy—how experiences and conceptions of sex[iii] have changed over time. As French philosopher Michel Foucault argued in The History of Sexuality, sexuality has been framed by power dynamics that constitute “normal” and “abnormal” sexual experience.[iv] When we say that present-day American society is cisheterocentric,[v] we mean that it continually reinforces those norms about how sexed bodies and sexuality are experienced and described. But was this always the case?

The Importance of Language and Cultural Context

Queer theory serves as a useful framework for the inclusive historian because it encourages us to examine the sexual norms of a given context. “Queerness” (or what a given society deems sexually deviant) is a fluid concept and subject to change. Essentialists argue that sexual experience is innate to historical actors—that people are born with immutable desires. This position often connects to “born this way” and “gay gene” rhetoric, seeking scientific evidence to validate the experiences of queer people. While an important agenda, especially in campaigns against gay conversion therapy, essentialism is also tied to a long tradition of sexological activism and the medicalization of queer experiences. It also tends to conflate orientation and identity—such that “gayness” itself is timeless and universal, rather than homoerotic desire. Conversely, social constructionists find that sexual experiences are shaped by social, cultural, and political contexts—especially behavior and identity. Even if certain sexual desires are inborn, they, too, can be shaped by a person’s environment.

“Gender and sexuality inclusion” is typically considered a catch-all for (or, alternative to) the lengthy acronym of LGBTQIA+. But it has the potential to be much more than that. As inclusive historians, we recognize LGBTQIA+ identity is a specific set of identities, subsumed within a political movement that emerged from a particular time and place. Such terminology, its predominately Euro-American, present-day connotations, threatens to limit the scope of our scholarship. In reading backwards western queer experiences, historians have haphazardly applied modern identities to the sexual past and sought to derive a progressive political narrative. The inclusive historian must contend with this combination of presentism and Euro-Americanism. The misapplication of terminology such as gay, homosexual, or queer to sexual desires and behaviors of the past allows historians to describe non-normative experiences in terms relatable to present-day Euro-American audiences.

However, in order to best interpret and delineate queer histories, we must emphasize relevant temporal and geographic contexts—so as to avoid imposition of modern meanings and allow narratives of non-normative eroticism to emerge on their own, with their own language and self-conception. For example, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, argues—“the many vocabularies possible under the umbrella ‘women who love women’ work to dismantle the closet by decentering it, by positioning this trope in a spectrum of constructions of sexuality in which mati, zanmi, bull dagger, or lesbian all carry their own cultural and historical weight.”[vi] Likewise, consider nineteenth-century German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who originated the identifier Urning (also known in English as Uranian) as a way of describing his inner desires. An attraction to men, Ulrichs believed, was an inherently feminine attribute. Consequently, he considered himself and others like him to be part of a third sex—with female sex drives (or psyches) and male bodies. In a conflation of what would now be considered intersexuality, transgender identity, and homosexuality, Ulrichs’ self-conception demonstrates the historical construction of sexed bodies and desires. Sex, gender, and sexuality have not always existed as separate concepts and, indeed, still do not in some cultures. The inclusive historian takes these facts into account when studying unfamiliar contexts.

Statues from the Saas Bahu mandir / Sahastrabahu Vaishnavite temple depicting scenes from the Kama Sutra, c. 11th century AD. Photo credit: Kandukuru Nagarjun, Flickr.

Similarly, the expansion of queer American histories into nonwestern contexts necessitates a broadened vocabulary to describe sexual experiences. The globalization of queer narratives presents the conundrum of a neocolonial occupation of nonwestern epistemologies. For example, localized identities may be reclaimed from precolonial times and/or originated in the present-day to dispute the claimed universality of Anglo sexuality. Their persistence is irreducible to the American constructs of gay, homosexual, or queer. Localized identities directly oppose Euro-Americentrism in queer history because, as in all transnational and cross-lingual surveys of sexuality, translation is an act of approximation and cultural connotation is never fully captured. Therefore, sexual histories in nonwestern contexts are entities unto themselves and should not be treated otherwise. For example, tongzhi is the contemporary Chinese word for a member of what westerners might call the LGBTQIA+ community, but was specifically adopted to counter Anglo identifiers. In other words, even if tongzhi is a modern identity, it may be anachronistically (mis)applied to Chinese history more readily than queer, which is not only anachronistic, but Euro-American in origin. The inclusive historian aids in the decolonization of history through selective language choice.

Modern distinctions of eroticism and romance between women is another example of how language informs the history of sexuality. Queer historians tend to resist ascribing “queerness” to female relationships, and are hyper-vigilant about presentist interpretations of affection. In lieu of same-sex sexual encounters, queer women are often said to have “romantic friendships” due to the absence of an explicitly articulated physical component to their bonds. Most queer women’s narratives rely upon private experiences articulated in the form of correspondence and journal entries, rather than more public records of the court and early activist treatises because female same-sex activity was rarely criminalized. Thus, historical work that glosses over the lives of queer women rests both in the seeming limitations of available primary source materials and in the phallocentric interpretations of extant evidence—in other words, claiming what constitutes intimacy (i.e., penetrative).

Political cartoon of Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick making love in a park while their husbands look on with disapproval, c. 1820. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection.

We must also bear in mind that queerness, while particularly relevant to a discussion of inclusive language, is only one facet of many in the study of the history of sexuality. Indeed, normative sexual desires, acts, and identities (and the language used to describe them) are much easier to excavate because they were openly reinforced rather than marginalized or erased from history. For example, Tom Reichert, Professor of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina, considers how capitalism has reproduced cultural ideas about bodies, pleasure, and self-conception in The Erotic History of Advertising. Or we may consider the liminality of normative taboos and subcultures—wherein “acceptable” heterosexual desires and behaviors manifest in “unacceptable” contexts such as pornography or sex work. In turn, such experiences are re-eclipsed in the archive.

Ultimately, inclusive historians reorient themselves in an attempt to understand a different sexual experience or perspective, rather than fit those narratives into modern frameworks that are palatable to general audiences. The inclusive historian is successful in educating their audience about unfamiliar or even uncomfortable sexual experiences that challenge their preconceived notions on how sexuality may be experienced, acted upon, or identified.

Collection & Preservation: Considering Your Audience, Crafting the Narrative

The inclusive historian prioritizes provenance. The history of sexuality is often erased from lack of preservation of materials or, when materials are available, from a lack of context. As a collector for an archive, museum, or other repository, one must bear in mind how important source information is for interpretation.

For instance, many of the pornographic films at the Kinsey Institute Library and Archives—one of the largest repositories of sexual history in the United States—were acquired from anonymous donors. Beyond the occasional date of production, no information is offered regarding where the films were produced, by or for whom, or even how they were acquired and viewed. Understandably, taboo and stigma may have prevented the donors from revealing this information or even their identities. However, we are, once again, left with many gaps and silences in our narratives. What are the contingencies? The inclusive historian must identify creative methods of (re)interpretation and future preservation. Ultimately, absence is as telling as presence. What histories of sexuality get censored, based on the norms of their narrators, audiences, or the materials themselves?

For example, Sara Hodson, the Curator of Literary Manuscripts at The Huntington Library, processed the personal documents and correspondence of a gay man, containing the intimate details and confessions of their authors. In accordance with the Society of American Archivists’ Code of Ethics (“respect the privacy of people in collections, especially those who had no say in the disposition of the papers”), Hodson considered the possibility of outing anyone were the letters made publicly accessible.[vii] Similarly, we must prioritize the consent of those whose names and images appear in pornographic materials, lest they be unwillingly identified as sex workers. And what if all involved parties are unidentifiable or deceased? Is attempting to locate and contact them (or their next of kin) for permissions already a violation of their privacy?[viii] Hodson’s “decision-by-avoidance”[ix]—allowing enough time to pass to ensure that public access has, in all likelihood, become a nonissue—while practical, does not allow us to tackle the larger philosophical conundrums of our work.

How are ideas about sexuality in a given historical context evinced in these materials? Conversely, how are these sexual materials evinced in particular historical contexts? In other words, sexuality both shapes and is shaped by history and society. Consider again pornographic materials—while certainly not unique to queer collections, they tend to be more prevalent, thus jarring a placid archivist or curator into recognizing the intractability of attempting to be both inclusive of sexual minorities and keeping their repository “respectable.” Indeed, once pornography intersects with identity and community, it is difficult to accurately position the “objectivity” of the processor. How do we reexamine the role of historians in crafting erotic histories, making them “suitable” for public consumption, especially when said histories are a part of a larger narrative of liberation and representation (e.g., the increasing visibility of queer material culture)?

How is the history of sexuality sanitized for public consumption at the cost of inclusivity? For example, the Western Australian Museum came under fire in 2018 for acquiring and exhibiting a glory hole. The glory hole is part of a wooden toilet door from a demolished train station—a popular hookup spot prior to the 1990 decriminalization of sex between men. This piece of material culture was part of a historic site, where a queer counterpublic was formed. As described in the introduction of this article, sexual behavior is an external and usually private experience, but not always. When sexual behavior is public, it could be identified as hookups, sex work, or masturbation. Such taboo history is not often discussed in museum, archives, or other public history contexts. “Public” sex takes many forms, is not easily defined, and has various social, cultural, political, and legal implications. Critics were primarily concerned with audiences—children who might see the glory hole on display. Despite the lack of anything explicit in the object itself, its implications are enough to shock.

The inclusive historian seeks to interrogate stigma. However, social, cultural, political, and economic considerations may constrain this process. Do you work at a small local archive or historic site, a national institution, private or nonprofit organization? Are you a Catholic schoolteacher with students under eighteen years of age or a tenured professor at a prestigious, liberal university? The inclusive historian’s dependence on private funders, corporate sponsors, and/or public opinion ultimately informs their work. Capitalism censors and drives the narrative, as does racism, sexism, classism, and ableism (past and present). The history of sexuality shapes and is continually shaped by the power dynamics of our society. As historians, we may, unfortunately, end up as cogs in the machine, churning out the narratives most palatable to those in power.

Crafting Grassroots Narratives

When attempting to craft grassroots narratives apart from institutionalized history-making, the inclusive historian prioritizes the direct involvement of the historical “subjects” themselves (if alive) or, if not them, then members of their community. Consider the differences and similarities between your audience and your “subjects.” Whose experiences are being studied and explained—and for whom? An inclusive historian does not speak for their “subjects” or give voice to their experiences.

The inclusive historian is wary of discordant curation, as well as collection—for example, white scholars “specializing” in Black HIV/AIDS history being chosen to consult on an exhibition over actual Black HIV/AIDS activists whose materials and oral histories were included in said exhibition. The inclusive historian understands that equitable practice permeates all facets of historical production—collection, interpretation, and consumption. Whose materials are preserved, who fits them into a narrative, and who gets to learn about the history? Consider the (in)consistencies in demographics between these three groups. In this example, tapping into public power-knowledge—elder community leaders’ memories and legacies, as well as younger constituents’ reflections and connections to this past—would have guaranteed the practitioners involved in the project did not fall into the trap of claiming working-class, queer, and trans histories of color and history-makers of color “don’t exist” but are, rather, excluded from and within elite structures.

The inclusive historian must move beyond the notion that only “professionals” or “practitioners” can bestow historical authenticity. Even with “community-based” work, bear in mind that problems can arise. Oral history projects often appropriate people’s testimonies without compensation or involvement (such that practitioners take without giving back and are, in turn, celebrated for their “scholarship”). Similarly, “advisory groups” may invite token minorities to “sign off” on a predetermined narrative late in the planning process. But the inclusive historian values, supports, and prioritizes the knowledge and cultural production of people outside of the so-called public history field. What does the community get out of a history-making project? What does the community want from a history-making project? What rich and valuable experiences and insights can the community exchange equitably through a history-making project?

Conclusion

Interpreting the history of sexuality encompasses myriad subjects—movements and activisms; kinship and family-making; interracial relationships and mixedness; sexed people; stigmas against particular sex acts and desires; pornography and erotica; BDSM; sexology and medical institutions; eugenics, enslavement, abuse, and assault; reproductive health, STDs, and HIV/AIDS; sex work and the advent of cybersex. Once again, as an inclusive historian, it is your job to expand how these histories can be told using the resources available to you. Documentary evidence for sexuality includes how-to books, skin mags, and medical literature. The material culture of sexuality includes sex toys, film, and contraceptives. At a historic site, where does sexuality hold relevance? Was sexuality truly confined to the bedroom? Bear in mind that sexuality can be experienced anywhere, anytime. And how do we move beyond treating the history of sexuality as something “dead,” to be mediated through materials separate from their original contexts? How do we involve the living in their interpretation—the first-person narratives of historical actors themselves? Finally, with the advent of the Digital Age, we may consider how our sexualities are mediated through technology and encourage our audiences to reflect on how their sexual experiences are similar to, or different from, sexual experiences of the past. As an inclusive historian, you must continually challenge yourself (and your institution) to expand what comes to mind when you think of the history of sexuality and, in turn, what sorts of materials and stories should be included in your narrative production.

Notes

[i] LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and additional identities.

[ii] David M. Halperin, “Is There a History of Sexuality?,” History and Theory 28 (1989): 257.

[iii] In another entry on “Gender,” a co-author will elucidate the differences between sex (as in a combination of biological and anatomical characteristics unique to an individual body) and gender (a fluid combination of roles, identities, and expressions). One thing to note on how interrelated these concepts are with sexuality is that they are all social constructs. We might often hear that gender is a social construct—born of societal expectations for sexed bodies. But what we do not often discuss is how sex is also a social construct—created by modern, western medical establishments to fit bodies into categories. The dichotomous categories of male and female are each a specific combination of myriad elements—such as hormones, chromosomes, and primary/secondary sex characteristics. Each of these elements has myriad manifestations—different balances of estrogen and testosterone, other chromosomes besides XX and XY, internal and external genitalia in different forms and sizes, etc.—and they occur in different combinations. In other words, sexed bodies are infinite and diverse. In turn, an inclusive, historical approach to sexuality would examine not just how different genders (roles, identities, and expressions) have interacted sexually over time but how different sexes (different bodies and the categories placed on them) have been desired and identified, fit together, and achieved pleasure over time.

[iv] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Random House, 1978).

[v] Cisheterocentric comes from ciscentric and heterocentric. Ciscentric comes from cisgender—cisgender people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth (as opposed to transgender people, who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth). Heterocentric comes from heterosexual—heterosexual people are attracted to people of another sex.

[vi] Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

[vii] Sara S. Hodson, “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities,” The American Archivist 67 (2004): 200–201.

[viii] For an example of privacy rights violation posed by the advent of new technologies, please refer to Luke O’Neil, “How Facial Recognition Software Is Changing the Porn Industry,” Esquire, September 27, 2016, http://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/news/a48942/porn-facial-recognition.

[ix] Hodson, “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed,” 200–201.

Suggested Readings

Ferentinos, Susan.” Lifting our skirts: Sharing the sexual past with visitors.” History@Work. 1 July 2014. https://ncph.org/history-at-work/lifting-our-skirts/.

Hansen, Karen V. “‘No Kisses Is Like Youres’: An Erotic Friendship Between Two African-American Women During the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Gender and History 7 (1995): 153-182.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1-14.

Liu, Petrus. “Why Does Queer Theory Need China?.” positions 18 (2010): 291-320.

NOTCHES: a peer-reviewed, collaborative, and international history of sexuality blog. At: http://NotchesBlog.com/

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. and George Chauncey. “Thinking Sexuality Transnationally: An Introduction.” GLQ 5 (1999): 439-449.

Tang, GVGK. “Sex in the Archives: The Politics of Processing and Preserving Pornography in the Digital Age.” The American Archivist 80, no. 2 (2017): 439-452.

Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.” GLQ 14 (2008): 191-215.

Author

~ GVGK Tang is a public historian and community organizer with a background in transnational queer politics. Tang serves on the Long-Range Planning Committee and Diversity & Inclusion Task Force for NCPH. To get in touch, visit @gvgktang on Twitter and gvgktang.com.

Food History

Food justice projects often invoke iconic and historical images that can create openings for public historians to connect with community organizing. Photo credit: David Garten on Flickr

Food: chances are you’ll be thinking about it at some point today, like almost everyone sharing the planet with you. Interacting with food may be as close as we’ll ever get to a universal human experience. But can we say that the public history of food is equally inclusive?

Food has certainly long been present in historical interpretation—often as an entry point. Thanks to our human wiring, food offers immediate appeal—to the mind and to the senses. Food traditions anchor communities, communicate continuity and belonging, and creatively infuse identities.

Yet people also draw sharp dividing lines using food. Ask a politically-committed vegan and a pasture-based husbandry advocate what kind of farming is best for the environment and you’ll get two very different answers. Food is also often subject to borderlines of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Ali Berlow, in her Food Activist Handbook, shares an anecdote titled “We See What We’re Willing to See.” Looking at the “bucolic” farms of her own town, Berlow sees

. . . a peaceable kingdom: fertile lands producing good food for all, equanimity, access, balance, and respect between people, animals, land and cultivation. But as my friend the author Alice Randall pointed out, we all see things through the lens of our personal histories. My great-grandparents were German immigrants who moved to the Midwest, bought land, then worked the land they owned. My relationship to the landscape that I’ve inherited is different from that of some of my African-American friends and colleagues like Alice. I think it’s safe to say that most of their ancestors did not own the land they worked. When Alice looks at those same cornfields, grand old trees, and pastures, she may not envision a peaceable kingdom but rather one of terror, violence, and oppression.[i]

Food history can quickly lead to big questions about identity, equity, and sustainability. Those questions dig to the root of social, economic, and environmental challenges facing us today. This double-edged nature makes food an outstanding starting point for public historians working toward an equitable and engaged practice.

Let’s take a quick tour of the problematic past and hopeful present of public interpretation of food history, and identify some skills and resources that public historians can bring to food-related projects.

The Roots of Food in Public History

In museums, historic sites, and public history projects, food has often been loaded with assumptions, habits, and traditions that get in the way of inclusion. The earliest generation of historic preservationists preferred to keep the messy work of food cultivation and preparation (and the people who did it) hidden behind kitchen doors, but during the Civil War and succeeding decades, nostalgic “colonial” kitchens became a popular draw at public fairs and appeared in some early historic house museums. These feel-good spaces served unchallenging ideas about the past with their cups of chowder and slices of pie, setting long-lived expectations that public food history would provide comforting, patriotic reinforcement of existing power structures.

These interpretive tropes persisted. They can still be found today in museum displays of groaning farmstead tables, frothing butter churns, and tokenized “multicultural” food presentations that erase or mask histories of struggle, disparity, and oppression. Food historian Ken Albala identifies this mode as “culinary history,” focused on ingredients, cooking equipment, methods, and the re-creation of cooking processes, as opposed to a wider “food history” that investigates the social, economic, ethical, and political dimensions of food production and consumption.

A Broader View of Food History

A wider “food history” point of view began informing public interpretations of food starting in the 1960s, when emerging social history and public history movements brought critical approaches to the past. It also gave rise to a new museum genre: the living historical farm. Its birthplace was Old Sturbridge Village, where in 1970 a group convened to envision a national network of agricultural museums, to be funded in part (they hoped) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though that scope was never realized, the living history farm began to dominate public history’s food and agriculture conversation by the 1970s. Key leaders organized ALHFAM (the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums) to share research and skills and to promote the vision of a new age of agricultural museums. ALHFAM’s influence has been enormous. Its annual national and regional meetings, publications, and workshops have amassed and disseminated practical knowledge on the reconstruction and interpretation of food processes.

But ALHFAM’s history reflects the tension between the narrower scope of “culinary history” and the more complicated questions raised by critical approaches to food. At its 2013 annual meeting, ALHFAM co-founder Darwin Kelsey challenged the group with a call to action, arguing that food interpreters (himself included) had been focused on the “what” of food history, at the expense of the “why.” It was past time, in his view, to engage with the present-day, global consequences of the histories they presented. AHLFAM’s creation, he noted,

. . . coincides almost precisely with the most radical change in the way humans feed themselves since homo sapiens began. We call this grand-scale experiment the industrial food system. For most Americans the industrial food system provides a food supply perceived to be abundant, cheap, and convenient. Yet in the last couple of decades it has become increasingly clear that this system has an inherent pattern of problems: Food of inferior taste and nutrition, fertilizer and herbicide pollution in streams and lakes, degradation and loss of farmland, depleted aquifers, farm worker abuse, inner city food deserts, intensive energy consumption, exacerbation of climate change, and narrow corporate control of the nation’s food supply . . . In 2013, it is clear that such problems make the current system unsustainable without radical change—fundamental culture change. Couldn’t—shouldn’t—playing an active, intentional role in that culture change become part of the why shaping the what of most living history farms?[ii]

Kelsey, who by 2013 was directing an innovative farm partnership within Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, was speaking as a participant in what is sometimes termed “the food movement.” Sometimes parodied and minimized as a collection of affluent white people obsessed with local, organic, humanely raised kale, in its full dimensions the food movement is notable for its depth and complexity, aptly described by food writer Michael Pollan as a “big lumpy tent.” People of varied backgrounds are drawn to food activism through multiple entry points: hunger and economic access; food sovereignty and food justice; nutrition and health; farm and food service labor and human rights; animal welfare; land conservation, rural redevelopment, and farmland preservation; gardening and urban farming; gastronomy and agritourism; environmentalism and climate change; and more. Like food history, these issues may begin with food, but expand outward to touch on the most pressing issues of our times.

Culinary historian and educator Michael Twitty links past and present in his work on race and Southern food. Photo credit: Ryan Lash/TED on Flickr

Reshaping Food History

Many current practitioners are reshaping the role of history in addressing those issues. Critical perspectives, shared authority, community engagement, and collaborative decision-making and leadership are now being integrated into many sites that present histories of food production, processing, and consumption.

  • The Museum of Ventura County (California) developed a three-part exhibition called At Table: The Business of Food and Community. Through art-inspired installations, programs, and historical interpretation, At Table built awareness and invited consideration of how ongoing immigration into the county has “influenced local recipes, menus and dining habits, as well as food-related businesses and restaurants.”
  • San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora created a Chef-in-Residence program. In 2015, its first resident chef, culinary celebrity Bryant Terry, worked with the museum to curate a program including panels on “Black Women, Food and Power” and “Feeding the Resistance”; a historically-themed dinner; and an interactive talk on food justice and public health.
  • The Queens County Farm Museum preserves New York City’s largest tract of undisturbed farmland. Its sustainable agriculture program interprets the history of organic farming in America and features a year-round growing program. Farm produce is featured in NYC’s Greenmarket, with any surplus donated to the recovery project City Harvest. The farm also provides eggs and hatchlings to the City Chicken program of the food justice group Just Food!, teaching city residents how to raise and keep egg-laying hens.
  • The National Museum of the American Indian features food sovereignty in its online exhibit Native Knowledge 360, with a focus on the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project to recover the foodways of Salish-speaking people of the Pacific Northwest. Discussion questions, informative resources, definitions, and quotations allow users to engage more deeply with perspectives on food sovereignty.
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Food History project brings together contemporary and historical investigations of American food culture from diverse perspectives through programs, an annual symposium, and online collections.

A Toolkit for Inclusive Food Interpretation

Despite this work, older interpretive tropes die hard. Institutional engagements with food still often stop at simplistic representation. It’s not difficult to understand why: the issues food connects to—health, environment, identity, economy, energy—are dauntingly vast and highly politicized. Inclusive food interpretation work digs into logistical, political, and regulatory challenges—aligning goals and agendas with commercial partners, including those who struggle to survive in a competitive marketplace; confronting the deep-rooted whiteness that has historically characterized both public history and many sectors of the food movement; and negotiating the constraints of health regulations and zoning. Between logistical challenges, internal resistance, insufficient knowledge, and skeptical leadership, many organizations freeze at the contemplation stage, or assume they can’t take on such charged and complex topics.

But public history can have a profound and powerful role in these conversations. For our book Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient, we interviewed eight people who draw on history in their progressive work in fields as disparate as fisheries activism, indigenous food sovereignty, and public policy. As we spoke, common themes emerged. They point toward ways to apply—and extend—historians’ skills toward a more inclusive practice of interpreting food.

  1.     Be reflexive.

As in all public history practice, the work of internal transformation comes first. We should interrogate our own professional past, asking what traditions we have inherited, who authored them, and whether they still serve our purposes. We also need to examine and acknowledge our own positionality—as individuals, as members of the public, and as representatives of our organizations. An excellent place to start this work is with the MASS Action Toolkit, a collection of articles and self-assessment tools created by a grassroots coalition of museum practitioners working to position museums as sites of positive action for social justice.

  1.     Tell stories without endings.

The legacies of living history have encouraged a focus on the minutiae of culinary history—tools, ingredients, methods. Inclusive public historians shouldn’t stop at simply showing how people did it in the old days. Push toward those critical “why” questions: Why did most people stop using these techniques? Why are certain kinds of skills and labor—and the people associated with them—valued or devalued in our food system? Why is hand-processed food so much more expensive than industrially-produced food? If we can pose critical, contextualizing questions, we will be well on the way to telling what we call in Public History and the Food Movement “stories without endings”—stories that connect past to present and historicize unresolved contemporary questions about food culture, dealing directly with the most urgent social, economic, and environmental issues of today. Our existing interpretive and communicative tools are unique contributions to the work of rebuilding more just and inclusive food futures.

  1.     Think like a community organizer.

The practitioners we interviewed were going beyond the “advisory group” consultation model, and instead using the toolbox of community organizing, defined by activist and educator Marshall Ganz as “practicing democracy by mobilizing people to combine their resources to act strategically on behalf of common interests.” This approach is grounded in ongoing relationships with community members and discussions about forms of activity that would be meaningful and useful to them. Is your organization involved in local and regional food organizations and coalitions? Do you know who works on food access locally? Have you had a presence at farmers’ markets, diabetes expos, or town hall meetings? Written op-eds? One entry point can be creating a Community Food Map to identify the players in your local or regional food system. Seeing the lay of the land can help you identify where public history work can be helpful.

An engaged, critical approach to the history of food asks for long-term commitment and a good deal of learning and reflection for public historians as well as their partners and audiences. Some resources to get you started are listed below.

Notes

[i] Ali Berlow, Food Activist Handbook (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015), 72.

[ii] Darwin Kelsey, “What is a Living History Farm? Introductory Comments,” Proceedings of the 2013 AHLFAM Conference, Vol. 36 (2013).

Suggested Readings

Berlow, Ali. The Food Activist’s Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015.

Laudan, Rachel. “Getting Started in Food History.” www.RachelLaudan.com. https://www.rachellaudan.com/getting-started-in-food-history.

Moon, Michelle. Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Moon, Michelle, and Cathy Stanton. Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient. New York: Routledge, 2018. The book’s companion website can be found here: http://themissingingredient.net/.

Oliver, Sandra. “Interpreting Food History.” Technical Leaflet 197. American Association for State and Local History.

Reid, Debra A. Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017.

Organizations and Associations Doing Food History

American Community Gardening Association

Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)

Agricultural History Society (AHS)

Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS)

Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS)

Farm-Based Education Network

Native Seeds/SEARCH

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance

National Black Farmers Association

Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Southern Foodways Alliance

United States Department of Agriculture

Databases, Archives, and Link Lists

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project

The Food Timeline

The FOOD Museum

Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture (timelines from USDA)

New York Public Library list of food history resources

Authors

~ Michelle Moon is Chief Programs Officer at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. She has also worked at the Peabody Essex Museum, Strawbery Banke Museum, and Mystic Seaport, and received her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from Harvard University Extension School. In addition to co-authoring Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient (Routledge, 2018) with Cathy Stanton, she is the author of Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016).

~ Cathy Stanton teaches anthropology at Tufts University. Her book The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City won the 2007 NCPH Book Award. Her current scholarly and public work focuses on the uses of knowledge about the past of U.S. food and farming. She has collaborated and consulted with a number of community farms, national parks, land trusts, museums, and others working to present farm history in public.

Historic Preservation

“Women Barbers at Tule Lake Segregation Center,” Photo credit: Library of Congress

Historic preservation is often linked, hand in hand, with ideas of placemaking, where preservationists embed their work in a neighborhood, community, or landscape to highlight what makes that place unique and preserve its character.[i] In doing this work, preservationists make evaluations about a place’s beauty, integrity, and significance. In the United States, the criteria on which they base these determinations come largely from the standards listed in the National Register of Historic Places’ nomination process. As the work of historic preservation has evolved in recent years, however, many practitioners have begun to push back against these limited criteria. More people are looking to tell the stories of underrepresented communities, document and protect vernacular architecture, preserve sites of the recent past, and promote the protection of intangible heritage.

More than fifty years after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in the United States, more individuals and institutions are recognizing the need to go beyond preserving big houses and places that match traditional standards of architectural beauty. This call to action is pushing the historic preservation movement to embrace inclusive practice—one that not only focuses on the protection of buildings, but also on documenting and sharing the richly varied stories that define places. The goal is to forge a people-centered preservation movement that is inclusive, community driven, and intersectional in nature.[ii]

Early History of the Preservation Movement 

There are two events that are often cited as critical to the founding of historic preservation as a movement in the United States. The first is the story of Ann Pamela Cunningham, founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, who rallied women from across the United States in the 1850s to advocate for the protection and preservation of George Washington’s home. The first call of its kind, it opened conversations about preserving and protecting key sites critical to the history of the United States. The second event, taking place just over a century later, was the loss of the magnificent Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City. The destruction of this structure spurred those working in the nascent field to come together, leading eventually to the passage of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The NHPA, which included the creation of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Register of Historic Places, enabled the development of a regulatory process for the protection of historic places.[iii]

“With Heritage So Rich” cover.

Much of the NHPA’s framework came from a report called With Heritage So RichDeveloped by the Special Committee on Historic Preservation within the U.S. Conference of Mayors, this report ended with a series of recommendations and this statement: “In sum, if we wish to have a future with greater meaning, we must concern ourselves not only with the historic highlights, but we must be concerned with the total heritage of the nation and all that is worth preserving from our past as a living part of the present.”[iv] Although the preservation movement has struggled to realize this ambitious vision, contemporary practitioners have embraced a renewed call for broader and more diverse understandings of preservation and its role in society. Significant challenges exist, however, for those who seek to reorient preservation practice.

Focusing on People

A key element of inclusive preservation practice is the need to shift from an exclusive focus on the places being protected to the people who have lived and continue to live in those places. We must also pay more attention to the impacts of preservation projects on neighborhoods and communities.

In an anthology marking the 50th anniversary of the NHPA, former National Trust for Historic Preservation Chief Preservation Officer David J. Brown stated: “To build a movement for all Americans, we must recognize that preservation takes many more forms . . . than the ones associated with our work today. Frankly we need tools that give every person a voice in determining what is worth preserving in their community.”[v] In the same article, Brown emphasizes the need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach toward a more nuanced understanding of how to work collaboratively with communities to determine what places to protect.[vi]

Leading up to the anniversary of the NHPA, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held a series of listening sessions across the country. These sessions included individuals who were active in the preservation profession as well as voices from outside the field. These conversations coalesced into a vision for the future of preservation. The reportPreservation for People, centers around three different principles:

  • A people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the ever-evolving American story.
  • A people-centered preservation movement creates and nurtures more equitable, healthy, resilient, vibrant, and sustainable communities.
  • A people-centered preservation movement collaborates with new and existing partners to address fundamental social issues and make the world better.
“Preservation for People” cover. Image credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Preservation for People seeks to lay out strategies and tactics to make preservation more democratic, inclusive, and equitable. Essential to achieving these goals is building a more inclusive profession. Historically, preservation has been seen as an elitist practice, and while the demographics of the field are slowly shifting, there are still significant barriers to entry.

It is critical to demonstrate to young people that preservation is something that is relevant to their lives. During the 2015 PastForward Diversity Summit Jose Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, stated that “the first step is reaching out. And also making it relevant. How is it relevant to a young black man? Woman? A young Latino? Young Asian? Young LGBT? To be able to feel connected to what your mission is . . .”[vii]

Some organizations have made telling underrepresented stories and protecting places that are sharing these narratives central to their work. For example, Asian Pacific Americans in Historic Preservation and Latinos in Heritage Conservation (LHC) have worked to support a network of individuals who are engaged in these types of projects. Sarah Zenaida Gould of LHC says that “We envision this network as one that equally welcomes professional preservationists and community preservationists. For we all have knowledge, ideas, experiences, and strategies to share.”[viii]

In summarizing the 2015 Diversity Summit which took place at PastForward, Stephanie K. Meeks, then CEO and President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, stated:

Over the course of the discussion, common themes emerged. All of the panelists agreed that recognizing and honoring diverse stories was key to understanding our present political debates and to building a more inclusive and allied future. All felt that, while we have made important strides as a movement, we still have a lot of work to do to get this right. All believed that forging stronger partnerships with and across diverse groups was essential for continued success. And all emphasized the wisdom of today’s broader vision of preservation, in which we seek to save the modest and even ordinary places where history happened.[ix]

Re-thinking the Preservation of Places

In recent years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has begun to look more closely at the impacts of preservation in cities through an initiative called ReUrbanism. Fundamental to ReUrbanism is the idea that building reuse encourages economic growth and stimulates vibrant communities. Through a variety of studies, the National Trust has found that mixed use neighborhoods are often more sustainable than those communities with a single building stock.[x] Many of the principles of ReUrbanism look toward creating equity in neighborhood development and planning, and derive from a broader conversation with the field about preservation planning in urban areas. In a piece for the Forum Journal’s issue on ReUrbanism, Justin Garrett Moore describes the need to change preservation and planning processes. The example he uses is a new community playbook in New York City. This Neighborhood Planning Playbook

includes tools designed to reveal the complexities of a neighborhood and provide a framework for comprehension, communication, education, and exchange with community residents and stakeholders. The playbook aims to help the city better study, develop, and implement plans for neighborhood change—and, most importantly, build public engagement and communication into all stages of the work.[xi]

Community engagement is a key piece of ReUrbanism. There is an evolving understanding that preservationists need to shift from an authority-based model to one that works in tandem with those who will be most impacted by preservation efforts.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that the protection of place also involves a full engagement in issues surrounding climate change. In her series on America’s Eroding EdgesVictoria Herrmann, a National Geographic Explorer and president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, examines the role flooding, coastal erosion, melting permafrost, and other climate impacts have not just on buildings and tangible heritage, but also on traditional cultural practices and entire communities. While it is paramount that we develop a robust set of strategies to adapt historic resources to climate impacts, these efforts must go hand in hand with conversations about economic and cultural equity and resilience.

In her 2018 TrustLive talk at PastForward, Herrmann discussed how in all of her conversations with communities impacted by climate change, the one consistent factor is that “climate change is the looming reality of losing the places and histories that make us who we are.” She continues to say that “climate change is not race, gender, or income neutral. Low-income communities, communities of color, and women are disproportionally affected by climate impacts. From centuries of discriminatory, social, and environmental policies, these communities have not been able to create the resources they need to prepare for and adapt to climate disasters.” With this in mind, inclusive preservation practice must include a recognition of climate impacts on communities; it is through dialogue and partnerships with organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, 100 Resilient Cities, US ICOMOS, and the Association for Preservation Technology that the practice can move forward.

It is clear that many of the places currently being preserved only protect a fraction of historical narratives. Clement Price, who was a former Trustee of the National Trust and a Vice Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, stated that broadening the spaces being preserved “connects very ordinary Americans with their personal histories, and in turn these histories connect with the larger narrative of making a more perfect and yet complicated union.”[xii] Examples of such places exist across the United States and, in recent years, some have become the focus of preservation efforts.

Two important examples are Tule Lake, a Japanese internment camp, and Rio Vista Farm in Texas, an agricultural site where migrant laborers from Mexico toiled. One site is evidence of the challenges to U.S. democracy that arose when segments of the U.S. population were unconstitutionally incarcerated due to racist fears and wartime hysteria; the other is a place that demonstrates how migrant workers from Mexico filled critical gaps in the U.S. agricultural labor system. In both cases, we find pieces of U.S. history that are often overlooked and, in doing so, begin to recognize the layers of experience and history that can be encountered in these places.

Speaking about sites such as Tule Lake, Cathlin Goulding writes, “Though the euphemisms for these places range, they all have in common a political climate of fear, suspicion, and hysteria and a system of governance wherein power is ultimately rooted in the ability to decide who can and does belong.”[xiii]

Inclusive Storytelling

The final pivot for preservation as an inclusive practice is something that runs parallel to work within both public history and museums: storytelling. In some ways this term feels like the latest buzzword across disciplines; nevertheless, it is an important piece of the broader mission of preservation as we strive to tell fuller and richer stories. In order to know what places to protect, we have to listen to the people to whom these stories belong; in doing so, it is important to recognize that these stories cannot be told using the same methods and practices as before. An inclusive preservation practice recognizes that preservation is not just about buildings and structures but also intangible heritage, which is often only available through conversations with community members.

Consider the work of the San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation, which uses a process called culture mapping to make connections to place and document change over time. Claudia Guerra, from San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, describes the process where recorded narratives are paired with hand-drawn maps from community storytellers. She emphasizes the need to protect the intangible: “Safeguarding and preserving our heritage is what preservationists do, but preservation is about more than just protection—it is inherently about sharing.”[xiv] In her essay, she emphasizes a variety of tools and lessons critical to working with communities: “Listen more than you speak.” “Be prepared for unusual places to be documented.” And, “be aware and sensitive to the fact that similar cultural communities that share some traits may nevertheless differ widely in [their] thinking.”

In a sense, the importance of expanding preservation’s scope is to further build connections among people, places, and the past. In an interview for the Preservation Leadership Forum, Angelo Baca, filmmaker and cultural resources director for the Utah Diné Bikéyah, stated that “stories are very important because they hold knowledge. And it is important for us to understand that even the oral traditions, the legends, the myths, and all these things that talk about the time before what we understand now are actually . . . a resource.” For many Native communities, the importance of place is centered in both the tangible and the intangible. The identity of many of these communities is rooted not only in physical places but also the traditional knowledge embedded within those places.

Lisa Yun Lee, director of the National Public Housing Museum, says it best when she states “Our commitment to preservation and interpretation must always include a commitment not only to telling a narrative or presenting a counter-narrative but also to meaningfully empowering people to change the narrative.”[xv]

An Inclusive Preservation Practice

In the edited collection Bending the Future, Gail Dubrow, professor at the University of Minnesota, writes:

My vision and hope…is that these relatively new advocacy groups and constituencies move from the margins to the center of the preservation movement, bring their independent identity-based preservation interests into more effective alliances that bridge the divides of race, class, gender, and sexuality. While identity based politics have resulted in a more inclusive agenda for what we preserve, the democratic future of how we preserve depends on bringing their experiences, insights, and perspectives to bear on redefining the scope, policies, practices, and priorities of the preservation movement as a whole.[xvi]

Building inclusive preservation practices requires acknowledging the stories, places, and needs of all communities. Tried-and-true preservation tools need to be used in tandem with other methods and practices. Collaboration and partnership are essential to protecting places in a fair and equitable way.

Historic preservation can be a force for good rather than a tool of elitist forces, but in order to make it so, many of the field’s practices need to shift. This reorientation is essential because, as Tom Mayes, author of Why Old Places Matter, writes, “The old places of people’s lives are deeply important—more important than is generally recognized—because these neighborhoods, churches, temples, old houses, stone-walled fields, landmark trees, and courthouses contribute to people’s well-being, from that sense of identity and belonging, to the awe inspired by beauty, to the drive to build and sustain a greener and more equitable world.”[xvii]

Notes

[i] A growing conversation in the art community is centered around the vocabulary of placemaking. During a 2018 PastForward session Lauren Hood from Deep Dive Detroit talked about the concept of place-keeping where instead of coming into a neighborhood and rebuilding from the ground up, preservationists and art organizers work to support and sustain the cultural practices that already exist. In order to have an inclusive preservation practice, language is an important element to focus on. See also Erica Ciccarone, “Nashville Artist’s Aim for Place-keeping More Than Placemaking,” Burnaway, September 17, 2017.

[ii] Coined in 1989 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is a term that examines the overlapping issues of discrimination within specific identities. That is, where stories of discrimination for black women are often connected to discrimination bias based on their gender and race. For the purposes of this essay, intersectionality uses that central definition as a means of storytelling, in which preservationists and historians tell the full history of the American past through the lens of overlapping identities.

[iii] Max Page and Marla Miller, “Introduction,” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 2.

[iv] Byrd Wood, ed. With Heritage So Rich (Washington D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1999), 194.

[v] David Brown, “A Preservation Movement for All Americans” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 59.

[vi] Brown, “A Preservation Movement for All Americans,” 60.

[vii] Stephanie Meeks, “Introduction: Our Future Is In Diversity,” Forum Journal: The Full Spectrum of History: Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion in Preservation 30, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 9. There are a two significant programs that work to engage youth in preservation projects. The National Trust’s HOPE Crew focuses on training young people and veterans in historic trades. Another program, HistoriCorps, was inspired by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps to bring volunteers together to work on preservation projects. Both programs provide avenues of engagement outside of professional university training.

[viii] Sarah Zenaida Gould, “Latinos in Heritage Conservation,” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 89.

[ix] Meeks, 6.

[x] More detail on these ideas can be found in the National Trust for Historic Preservation research reports Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality and Untapped Potential: Strategies for Revitalization and Reuse.

[xi] Justin Garrett Moore, “Making A Difference: Reshaping the Past, Present, and Future Toward Greater Equity,” Forum Journal: Reurbanism: Past Meets Future in American Cities 31, no. 4 (2018): 23-24.

[xii] Clement Alexander Price, “The Path to Big Mama’s House: Historic Preservation, Memory and African-American History,” Forum Journal: Imagining a More Inclusive Preservation Movement 28, no. 3 (2014): 27.

[xiii] Cathlin Goulding, “Tule Lake: Learning from Places of Exception in a Climate of Fear,” Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories 31, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 50.

[xiv] Claudia Guerra, “Culture Mapping: Engaging Community in Historic Preservation,” Forum Journal: The Full Spectrum of History: Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion in Preservation 30, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 30.

[xv] Lisa Yun Lee, “The Stories We Collect: Promoting Housing as a Human Right at the National Public Housing Museum,” Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories 31, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 17.

[xvi] Gail Dubrow, “From Minority to Majority,” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. Max Page and Marla Miller (Amherst, MA:  University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 74.

[xvii] Thompson M. Mayes, Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-Being (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers/AASLH, 2018).

Suggested Readings

Baca, Alex. “Places Journal Reading Lists: Reading Cities.” Places Journal. https://placesjournal.org/reading-list/reading-cities/.

Herrmann, Victoria. “Blog Series: America’s Eroding Edges.” October 1, 2018, https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/forum-online/2018/10/01/blog-series-americas-eroding-edges. More stories at www.erodingedges.com.

Mayes, Thompson M. Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-BeingNew York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers/AASLH, 2018). Blog Series here: https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/forum-online/2016/03/30/blog-series-why-do-old-places-matter.

Meeks, Stephanie K. “Presenting ‘Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future.’” Preservation Leadership Forum. May, 18, 2017, https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/stephanie-k-meeks/2017/05/18/presenting-preservation-for-people-a-vision-for-the-future.

National Council on Public History. “Special Issue: Conversations in Critical Cultural Heritage” The Public Historian 41, no. 1 (February 2019).

National Council on Public History. “National Historic Preservation Act Commemoration Series” History@Work blog, https://ncph.org/history-at-work/tag/national-historic-preservation-act-commemoration/.

National Park Service. “Theme Studies.” Accessed February 16, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalhistoriclandmarks/recent-theme-studies.htm.

  • Finding A Path Forward: Asian American Pacific Islander National Historic Landmark Theme Study. 2018.
  • LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Queer History. 2016.
  • American Latino Heritage. 2013.

Page, Max, and Marla Miller, eds. Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United StatesAmherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016.

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: The Full Spectrum of History: Prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion in Preservation 30, no. 4 (Summer 2016).

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: Preserving Difficult Histories 31, no. 3 (Spring 2017).

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: “Every Story Told”: Centering Women’s History 32, No. 2. Behind a Firewall Until 2020. Available on Project Muse.

Preservation Leadership Forum. Forum Journal: Imagining a More Inclusive Preservation Movement 28, no. 3 (2014).

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. “Culture Lab Playbook.” Accessed February 16, 2019, https://smithsonianapa.org/culturelab/.

UNESCO. “About Intangible Heritage.” Accessed February 16, 2019, https://ich.unesco.org/en/what-is-intangible-heritage-00003.

US/ICOMOS. “With a World of Heritage So Rich.” US/ICOMOS Organization Website. Accessed February 16, 2019 http://www.usicomos.org/about/wwhsr/.

Valadares, Desiree. “Places Journal Reading Lists: Race, Space, and the Law.” Places Journal. https://placesjournal.org/reading-list/race-space-and-the-law/.

Various Authors. “Blog Series: When Does Preservation Become Social Justice.” Preservation Leadership Forum. July 26, 2017. https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/forum-online/2017/07/26/blog-series-when-does-preservation-become-social-justice.

Various Authors. “Blog Series: Women’s History and Historic Preservation.” Preservation Leadership ForumSeptember 13, 2017. https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/forum-online/2017/09/13/blog-series-womens-history-and-historic-preservation.

Author

Priya Chhaya is a public historian and the associate director of publications and programs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can contact her through her website at www.priyachhaya.com.

Digital History

The United States Census Bureau used Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers (FOSDIC) to transfer data from paper questionnaires to microfilm from the 1960 through 1990 Censuses. U.S. Census Bureau, 1960s, Wikimedia Commons.

Digital history is an approach to researching and interpreting the past that relies on computer and communication technologies to help gather, quantify, interpret, and share historical materials and narratives. It empowers individuals and organizations to be active participants in preserving and telling stories from the past, and it unlocks patterns embedded across diverse bodies of sources. Making technology an integral component of the historian’s craft opens new ways of analyzing patterns in data and offers means to visualize those patterns, thereby enriching historical research. Moreover, digital history offers multiple pathways for historians to collaborate, publish, and share their work with a wide variety of audiences. Perhaps most important, digital methods help us to access and share marginalized or silenced voices and to incorporate them into our work in ways not possible in print or the space of an exhibition gallery. This essay provides an overview of the multiple ways historians are using digital tools to research and share inclusive histories with broad audiences.

The Growth of Digital History

Over the last twenty-five years, digital history has grown into a subfield of its own. Using computers to assist in both historical analysis and the sharing of historical narratives is not new. Economic and social historians began adopting computer-based statistical methods in the 1960s to analyze historical data as means for documenting and quantifying different communities. In the 1980s and 1990s, as personal computers became more available and accessible, some historians created simple databases of sources, transcriptions, and numerical data derived from their own research. The birth of the Web and the first modern browser, Mosaic, in 1993, opened new means for sharing, networking, and collaborating in ways not previously possible. Using computer languages designed for the Web, historians found opportunities for crafting and publishing narratives filled with links to other resources, creating non-linear pathways that encouraged new ways of reading.

An important milestone occurred in the 1990s when cultural heritage institutions began creating digital copies of their holdings and sharing them online for free. The Library of Congress’s American Memory and the New York Public Library’s first iteration of the Digital Schomburg collection were path-breaking resources that facilitated access to sources for historians and students. Genealogists, collectors, and enthusiasts benefited from these collections, and the Web provided a means for them to share their passion and connect with others. Genealogists, in particular, benefited from digitized databases of passenger records from the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation records documenting immigrants entering Ellis Island. In this period, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also began its long history of providing access to digitized U.S. Census records and other public records.[i] Collector Omar Khan launched a website filled with his collections, Harappa: The Indus Valley and the Raj in India and Pakistan, driven by his personal interest in the histories of South Asia. Soon after the site launched in 1995, Khan connected with scholars in and of the region and the Harappa grew beyond a hobbyist’s project into an impressive online resource containing collections and exhibitions on two distinct eras in South Asian history.[ii] Motivated by the potential to expose and document voices from underserved and under-heard communities, individuals and organizations gravitated to the Web to harness the power of computers to collect, analyze, and present digitized data.

Digital Collections

Today, digitized collections of primary sources from thousands of libraries, archives, and museums continue to facilitate access to existing collections. Many of these collections replicate existing archival structures and collections. As such, digital collections can reproduce the power structures, and absences, involved in the creation of the original physical archives. At the same time, digital scanning and photography, combined with web protocols, have allowed individuals and organizations to build, curate, and share more inclusive collections around themes and communities. Online collaborative research collections, such as the Digital Library of the Caribbean, combine resources from multiple organizations to serve an international and multi-lingual audience and promote the study of Caribbean history and culture. Since their founding in 2004, their governance model is designed with principles of equity and inclusion: decision-making is shared and the combined monetary and professional resources are distributed equitably across more than forty institutions.[iii] When designated physical spaces for certain types of archival material do not exist (or are limited), people are creating digital spaces to fill the gap.

An important example of digital collections work documenting under-heard voices is the Colored Conventions Project. Led by Gabrielle Foreman and a large collaborative team at the University of Delaware, it brings together newly-digitized sources related to Black political conventions from the 1830s to 1890s into a website that includes minutes from local, regional, state, and national meetings discoverable by year, place, and subject tags. To make the scanned documents fully text searchable, Foreman and her team collaborate with students and community groups, including African American churches, to transcribe documents and research the lives of individuals mentioned in meeting minutes, most of whom are not national figures. Through this community-sourced research, a new story of African American political activism is emerging.[iv]

Many digital collections projects begin outside of academic institutions. The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), led by Michelle Caswell and Samip Mallick, began as a way for the organizers to see themselves and their community in history. After ten years of collecting digitally, it holds thousands of items making it the largest collection of South Asian American history.[v] When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) first formed, they lacked a physical collection and turned to digital means to jumpstart their efforts. The museum launched an online Memory Book in 2007 that asked visitors to share their stories, family photos, or traditions. These early contributions influenced how curators shaped their interpretative priorities and helped them build their physical and digital collections. This practice also informed their digital strategy from the institution’s earliest stages.[vi] These digital collections provided building blocks for writing and teaching more inclusive histories.

Teaching and Learning

Some of the earliest digital history projects sought to bring students into direct contact with digitized primary sources and multi-media interactives to teach historical methods and analysis. History Matters offered one of the first free online U.S. history courses designed for high school and college classrooms, based on the textbook and CD-ROM, Who Built America?. By assembling different types of primary sources to represent many voices from the past and publishing guides to help students interpret different kinds of evidence, History Matters demonstrated the potential for building inclusive and synthetic teaching materials for the Web—such materials are now collectively known as Open Educational Resources (OERs).[vii] Since these early projects, educators have posted lesson plans, activities, and other materials online, which has created a need to aggregate these sources in central places for teachers, leading to sites such as EDSITEment and Teaching History.org.[viii]

Immersive websites and games have also played an important role in history education. In Who Killed William Robinson?, launched in the late 1990s, Canadian historians experimented with an immersive site that invited students to closely examine primary and secondary evidence pertaining to a specific historical event. Designed to help undergraduates understand historical methods and uncertainties in the record, the project asked students to spend time reading about the contexts surrounding the murder and associated events, then dig through a collection of primary sources and different interpretations of the eventsStudents using the website quickly learned how murky evidence presented at trial led to the conviction and execution of a Chemainus Indian and many questioned the verdict. Project co-creators, Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, wove together the social, cultural, and political contexts at work in colonial British Columbia to help students solve the mystery behind the death of William Robinson and other African Americans who migrated to British Columbia in the 1860s.[ix] Designing investigative activities like Who Killed William Robinson? and other serious educational games requires an intense amount of technical and research resources to build and sustain as web browsers evolve and the use of mobile devices continues to increase.

Historians are also sharing and creating undergraduate and graduate-level syllabi online to encourage more inclusive reading lists and assignments that acknowledge and respond to current events. Responding to racially-motivated violence in the 2010s, educators began generating reading lists to promote teaching the history of racial violence, mass incarceration, and white supremacy. One example is #CharlestonSyllabus, initiated by Brandies University professor Chad Williams, following the horrific 2015 shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The resulting community-sourced resource, now maintained by Keisha Blain and the African American Intellectual History Society, is filled with books and articles on relevant historical topics, many of which were written by scholars of color. These efforts encourage instructors to teach and discuss difficult historical, cultural, and political topics with their students.[x] Through these examples, we see historians building both simple and complex projects to engage students in historical thinking and research.

Digital Exhibits and Publications

Unlike a print article that has an accepted structure and form designed to be read sequentially, digital narratives offer historians the ability to create non-linear paths to explore themes and paths of argumentation and invite conversations with community audiences. Some projects invite users to see complexity in history by following different pathways through layers of content including: links to digitized primary sources; visualizations of historical data in maps, graphs, or charts; and narrative threads that work together to address historical questions in ways not possible in print monographs or exhibition catalogues.

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music is an example of an online exhibition that accompanied a traveling show developed by EMP Museum and the University of Washington. American Sabor’s bilingual website invites Spanish and English speakers to learn about the musical contributions of Latinx musicians and how their culture shaped the American popular music scene after World War II. Site visitors learn about Latinx migration in and out of particular regions, hear musicians’ oral histories, learn about musical styles such as the Rumba and Mambo, and listen to sample songs. This exhibition brings together multiple kinds of sources—including sound—that are important for telling more inclusive histories by using digital means to craft historical arguments about the past.

Digital publishing platforms such as Scalar, Omeka, WordPress, and Manifold offer historians the means to bring together annotated media and sources with long-form writing and embed visualizations not possible in a book. In one example, Matthew F. Delmont has created an online companion to augment his print monograph, Why Busing Failed. The digital edition is a free and accessible version of his research that incorporates in-depth examination of multimedia sources and provides him the opportunity to reframe his academically-focused monograph as more approachable online essays that offer twelve new ways to rethink the way that the history of school desegregation and civil rights is taught in American schools.[xi]

Professional organizations are also turning to free digital publishing platforms as ways to reach and support their members by discussing new scholarship, but also to provide a voice for their organizations’ advocacy roles in the profession and public policy, as well as in struggles for social justice. The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) publication Black Perspectives, an award-winning digital history site with dozens of contributing scholars, promotes and disseminates “scholarship on global black thought, history, and culture.” The National Council on Public History and the American Association for State and Local History decided to publish The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook online as a free resource not only for their members, but also to open the practice of history for diverse communities of practitioners and directly support inclusive and equity-focused historical work in public settings.[xii] Free online publishing software facilitates a type of dialogue that many inclusive historians already engage with in other ways; however, it expands the reach, depth, and breadth of these conversations.

Collaborative Digital Public History

Digital public history practitioners collaborate with groups outside of the academy and other formal cultural institutions to document their experiences and work together in telling their histories. For example, Outhistory.org launched in 2008 by a team led by Ned Katz to facilitate collaboratively-written histories of the LGBTQ community. The project collects personal reflections, but it focuses on using its Wiki publishing platform as the means to collaboratively write and discuss episodes important to the diverse LBGTQ community. As the number of contributors grew, so did the project’s stature as a resource for LGBTQ history.[xiii] Public historians are also actively trying to change understandings of American history and the shared racist, colonial, and exclusionary legacies that are made visible through current events. Denise Meringolo created Preserve the Baltimore Uprising to document the events of protest by those living and experiencing it in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. The project began as a crowdsourced, community collecting project, but it continues to transform as Meringolo works with Baltimore residents, including high school students, to reflect and interpret this series of events within the historical roots of racial injustice and political unrest in their city.[xiv]

In reaction to racially-motivated police violence in 2014, museum professionals Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, started the hashtag #museumsrespondtoferguson to begin a long conversation about how museums and cultural heritage organizations might improve and change racial and cultural understandings within their communities. By hosting regular conversations on Twitter and blogging, Brown and Russell encouraged museum professionals to examine their hiring practices, collections policies, and public programming offerings.[xv] By using social media platforms like Twitter with hashtags that can be followed in-real time and asynchronously, robust conversations occurred in ways that are not possible within the confines of conference presentations or other in-person meetings. There are risks, however, when public historians participate in community conversations of highly-contested historical episodes, such as the building of Confederate monuments in the early twentieth century. In the absence of skilled facilitation, it can sometimes be difficult to participate in thoughtful and rational discussions and it is easy for discussants to be dismissive, rude, and even threatening. People of color, LGBTQ individuals, and women are more often targets of racist, sexist, and exclusionary attacks on social media. Preserving these active conversations and saving the public witness of events recorded in real time is important but not easy. Most social media platforms are commercial entities, so saving these conversations requires understanding terms of service for each platform, user rights, and advanced technical knowledge to harvest conversation streams. Led by archivist Bergis Jules, the Documenting the Now team has developed tools and workflows to enable saving of social media hashtags and streams for future research.[xvi] No matter the project, digital public historians encourage and facilitate active participation of communities to increase understanding of the past and contextualization of the present through digital means.

Computational Analysis

Digital history that requires computer programming languages to explore historical data through visualization is often referred to as computational analysis. This approach can be most helpful for exploring collections of digital sources and other types of data that can be visualized to frame research questions or expose the relationships among people, places, and ideas. Using spatial data, some digital historians interpret landscapes by generating maps. Exploring the constructions and connections of place and space are important when studying the spread of commodities, ideas, and people, as well as the impact of public policies on physical places. Through careful research of local records, Prologue DC’s Mapping Segregation in Washington, DC visualizes segregation in twentieth-century Washington, D.C., neighborhoods by mapping the restrictive covenants, block-by-block, across the city. Weaving together legal challenges, historical photographs, and other sources on a map, this project offers a good example of how placed-based storytelling can make systemic racism visible in concrete ways.[xvii]

Textual analysis, more commonly used in literature and rhetoric fields, offers methods for examining language use by identifying language patterns and themes based on combinations of words and phrases across bodies of texts (corpora). Historian Michelle Moravec employs these techniques when examining documents related to the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. Through analyzing the rhetoric amassed across six volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage, Moravec can see how the white editors framed the voting rights movement’s rhetoric. By excluding radical voices and women of color who saw suffrage as one step toward achieving equal rights for all women, the compendium’s editors focused on issues pertinent to themselves—property rights of married white women.[xviii] These limitations are important to identify when researching a large body of sources. Since computational methods require digitized and machine-readable content, the absence of inclusive collections presents real challenges. Online collecting and recovery efforts mentioned earlier in the essay are an integral piece for creating an inclusive digital history.

Social network analysis helps digital historians to explore relationships between different entities and visualize them. The Linked Jazz project team, led by Cristina Pattuelli, spent years extracting and identifying names of jazz musicians, composers, and leaders through recorded transcriptions of oral histories, photographs, and documents using computational techniques. The team built a database of names and identified connections, such as band member, mentor, influencer, or collaborator. They then asked for assistance from historians, fans, and jazz musicians to identify and confirm the relationships and other biographical information from this community. Driven by metadata that links individuals across multiple collections, Linked Jazz generates visualizations that show the many connections of individuals lesser known in mainstream histories, such as Toshiko Akiyoshi, a prominent Japanese band leader and musician.[xix] Engaging in computational analysis requires a digital historian to create datasets, and data needs definition to be processed. Forcing uncertain information into a fixed value, such as a date or specific place, when source material may not offer that certainty creates tension for historians and may mean that a specific digital method cannot reasonably be employed as means for analysis. This also can make computational methods less accessible than other areas of digital history.

Challenges for the Field

Despite the field’s efforts to build an open and collaborative community, digital history methods can be exclusive and challenging to practice. Digital historians have worked to be inclusive of underrepresented and under-served communities in their project work, but they have not been as successful in expanding the corps of practitioners. Even still, efforts such as the multi-lingual Programming Historian, offer step-by-step lessons with sample data and content for learning different digital methods, free open source software, and workflows. Started in 2008 by William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern, Programming Historian is now a free peer-reviewed publication supported by an active cohort of authors, editors, and reviewers committed to teaching, fostering, and growing an inclusive community of practitioners.[xx] Other efforts to increase capacity can be found through free professional development opportunities offered through the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Getty Foundation, and professional organizations, as well as fee-based courses at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and many universities. National networks, such as RailsGirls, are working to give young women free training in computational thinking and programming and, in this way, seek to create a more inclusive workforce in the technology sector.[xxi] This essay shows that digital methods and projects offer dynamic ways for creating, publishing, and collaborating on inclusive history projects. While this essay does not address digital infrastructure, it is important to note that historians are contributing to these new methods and the scholarly communications ecosystem through the development of and contributions to free and open source software that undergirds much of the work cited here.[xxii] A major challenge for us, is to be active in conversations about preserving and sustaining the open digital infrastructure that makes this inclusive digital history work accessible for all in years to come.

Notes

[i] Library of Congress, American Memoryhttps://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html; New York Public Library, Digital Schomburghttp://digital.nypl.org/schomburg/images_aa19/; Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/family-history-center; Family Search has grown tremendously since its launch in May 1999, as an outgrowth of the LDS Church’s Genealogical Society of Utah, https://www.familysearch.org/.

[ii] Omar Khan, Harappa: The Indus Valley and the Raj in India and Pakistan, original website content lives here http://old.harappa.com/, and the updated newly-designed site is found at http://harappa.com/.

[iii] Digital Library of the Caribbean, http://dloc.com.

[iv] P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, Sarah Lynn Patterson, et al, The Colored Conventions Projecthttp://coloredconventions.org.

[v] Michelle Caswell, “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation,” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26-37, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.26.

[vi] Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Memory Book, 2007-2011: https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/initiatives/memory-book; Laura Coyle, “Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture,” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 292-318, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2018.40.3.292.

[vii] Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and American Social History Project, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Webhttp://historymatters.gmu.edu.

[viii] National Endowment for the Humanities, EDSITEment, https://edsitement.neh.gov/; Kelly Schrum, et al, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, TeachingHistory.org: National History Education Clearinghousehttps://teachinghistory.org.

[ix] Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice and Settling the Landhttp://canadianmysteries.ca/sites/robinson/home/indexen.html.

[x] Dan Cohen, “A Million Syllabi,” DanCohen.org, blog, March 31, 2011, https://dancohen.org/2011/03/30/a-million-syllabi/; Chad Williams, et al, #Charleston Syllabus: https://www.aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/.

[xi] Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, Scalar: https://scalar.me/anvc/; Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Corporation for Digital Scholarship, Omeka: http://omeka.org; WordPress Foundation, WordPress: http://wordpress.org; University of Minnesota Press, Manifold, https://manifold.umn.edu/; Matthew F. Delmont, Why Busing Failed, digital project, http://whybusingfailed.com/anvc/why-busing-failed/index.

[xii] African American Intellectual History Society, Black Perspectives, https://www.aaihs.org/black-perspectives. Black Perspectives won the American Historical Association’s Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History in 2017.

[xiii] Lauren Jae Gutterman, “OutHistory.Org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian 32, no. 4 (November 2010): 96-109. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2010.32.4.96.

[xiv] Denise Meringolo, Maryland Historical Society, et al, Preserve the Baltimore Uprising, http://baltimoreuprising2015.org/.

[xv] Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest,” The Incluseum (blog), December 17, 2015, https://incluseum.com/2015/12/17/we-who-believe-in-freedom-cannot-rest/.

[xvi] Bergis Jules and Ed Summers, et al, Documenting the Now, https://www.docnow.io/.

[xvii] Prologue DC, Mapping Segregation in Washington, DChttp://www.mappingsegregationdc.org/.

[xviii] Michelle Moravec, “‘Under this name she is fitly described’: A Digital History of Gender in the History of Woman Suffrage,” Women and Social Movements 19, no. 1 (March 2015), http://womhist.alexanderstreet.com/moravec-full.html.

[xix] Cristina Pattuelli, et al, Linked Jazzhttps://linkedjazz.org/.

[xx] The Programming Historianhttps://programminghistorian.org/.

[xxi] National Endowment for the Humanities, Office of Digital Humanities, Institutes for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities program, https://www.neh.gov/divisions/odh/institutes; Digital Humanities Summer Institute at University of Victoria, Canada, http://www.dhsi.org/; National RailsGirls, http://railsgirls.com/.

[xxii] Software is developed and maintained by historians and humanists at institutions, such as the Roy Rosenzweig Center for New Media at George Mason University and the Corporation for Digital Scholarship (Zotero http://zotero.org; Omeka http://omeka.org; and Tropy, http://tropy.org); Stanford University’s Humanities + Design Lab (Palladio, http://hdlab.stanford.edu/palladio/); and Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (Scalar, https://scalar.me/anvc/scalar/). Individuals contributing software include Stefan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell (Voyant Tools, https://voyant-tools.org/) and Lincoln Mullen (R packages: https://lincolnmullen.com/code/).

Suggested Readings

Brennan, Sheila A. “Public, First.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/83.

Caswell, Michelle. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26-37. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.26.

Cohen, Daniel J., and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/.

Coyle, Laura. “Right from the Start: The Digitization Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 292-318. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2018.40.3.292.

Gallon, Kim. “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/55.

Gibbs, Frederick W. “New Forms of History: Critiquing Data and Its Representations.” The American Historian, February 2016. http://tah.oah.org/february-2016/new-forms-of-history-critiquing-data-and-its-representations/.

Gutterman, Lauren Jae. “OutHistory.org: An Experiment in LGBTQ Community History-Making.” The Public Historian, 32, no. 4 (November 2010): 96-109. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2010.32.4.96.

Leon, Sharon. “Complicating a ‘Great Man’ Narrative of Digital History in the United States.” In Bodies of Information, Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, edited by Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont, 344-366. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Graham, Shawn, et al. Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope. London: Imperial College Press, 2016. http://www.themacroscope.org/2.0/.

Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/54

Rosenzweig, Roy, et al. Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/rose15086.

Tilton, Lauren, et al, editors. American Quarterly Special Issue: Toward a Critically Engaged Digital Practice: American Studies and the Digital Humanities 70, no. 3 (September 2018). https://muse.jhu.edu/journal/13.

White, Richard. “What Is Spatial History?” The Spatial History Project, February 1, 2010. http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29.

Author

Sheila A. Brennan is a digital public historian and strategic planner with over 20 years of experience working in public humanities. She has directed dozens of digital projects and published an open access digital monograph, Stamping American Memory: Collectors, Citizens, and the Post (University of Michigan Press, 2018).

Civic Engagement

Brooklyn Museum, First Saturday Party, July 2009. Photo credit: Eric, brooklynmuseum_073, Flickr.

The term “civic engagement” refers to both formal political practices and informal organizational activities that promote democracy by expanding citizen participation in problem solving and broadening access to social and political capital. Historians play at least three crucial roles in the promotion of civic engagement. First, they provide access to historical content and context which inform analyses of contemporary social, cultural, or political issues. Second, they promote collaborative practice, reflection-in-action, and facilitated dialogue as essential components of productive and inclusive political discourse. Finally, they participate in and often lead efforts to open up museums, historic sites, archives, libraries, and other institutional spaces for a variety of civic uses by individuals and communities. Because public historians, in particular, are employed in a variety of cultural institutions and in a growing number of colleges and universities, they have influenced the expansion of civic engagement as a defining value in both education and professional practice.

Historical Perspective

The rise of civic engagement as a central process of public history practice can be viewed through either a short or a long historical lens, but a truncated history tends to dominate the literature on civic engagement in academic and public history institutions. Throughout most of this literature, civic engagement appears to have emerged in response to the culture wars of the 1990s, a period during which political leaders repeatedly vilified universities and museums. A series of high profile controversies regarding federally funded museum exhibitions reflected a general sense that American cultural institutions had become too disconnected from their audiences and stakeholders. According to critics, this disconnection—not the conservative impulses embedded in institutional structures, collections, and interpretations—was to blame for a variety of ills including controversies, budget crises, and shrinking audiences. Politicians and citizens alike questioned the use of public funds to support institutions that appeared to serve so few. In response, museums and universities developed programs to demonstrate their civic value. The American Alliance of Museums, the leading professional association for museums in the United States (then called the American Association of Museums), initiated a challenge for museums to become more inclusive, making an effort to connect with their communities.[i]

Viewing civic engagement as a recent phenomenon can lead to a rather cynical reading of its value. The assessment of these programs has been focused on internal institutional impacts: student learning, curator and faculty research, success in winning grants, development of administrative infrastructure, and financial stability. The literature highlighting this recent history clearly indicates that strategies of civic engagement—including community partnerships and collaborative research—have indeed had a profoundly positive impact on both universities and cultural institutions. City administrators tout the value of civic engagement for improving fiscal management and promoting urban development. Experts on pedagogy have analyzed the value of civic engagement for improving students’ political awareness, empathy, and inter-personal skills. Experts on museums and other cultural institutions have accepted civic engagement as an essential component of best practices, a tool for diversifying audiences, enhancing the relevance of museums, and illuminating new perspectives on the past. Because there has been little emphasis on identifying and analyzing external impacts, however, civic engagement appears in the literature to best serve as a response to institutional crisis, not necessarily as a response to community needs and desires.[ii] In contrast, even a cursory effort to identify a longer history suggests that civic engagement is a potentially radical practice with deep roots.

Connections to Anti-Racist Projects

Looking for precedents and antecedents allows us to begin to recognize civic engagement’s potential value for addressing community interests. While recent trends helped institutionalize civic engagement as a value of public history, the practices that define it originated in older, experimental efforts to build inclusive forms of historical practice on a foundation of commitment to the common good. Many of these early experiments supported anti-racist intellectual projects, broadly conceived. In the early twentieth century, for example, Carter G. Woodson established a collaborative set of processes for the promotion and expansion of African American history. Recognizing the crucial importance of historical representation, he engaged university scholars as well as primary school teachers and members of commemorative organizations in a wide-ranging effort to preserve, interpret, and celebrate African American history.[iii] The organization he established in 1915, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, remains a broadly inclusive organization with members from a wide range of educational and cultural institutions. Similarly, the founding directors and curators in the black museums movement, which scholars trace to the middle of the twentieth century, recognized preservation and interpretation as relevant for addressing the immediate needs of black communities.[iv] Finally, the values and commitments that underpin civic engagement in institutions of higher learning have been most fully realized in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). HBCU founders, faculty, and administrators recognized their essential role in providing solutions to the problems faced by black communities in the United States and emphasized responsiveness as their guiding principle. While the forms of civic engagement codified during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries tended to reinforce, however unintentionally, a hierarchical relationship between universities and communities, this was not typically the case for HBCUs and the communities they served. Black students and faculty tended to have closer connections with surrounding communities, and they were more likely to view local people as peers and colleagues than clients.[v]

Viewed from the perspective of this deeper history, the potential of civic engagement becomes visible. Educational and cultural institutions can become more permeable and transparent spaces that foster inclusiveness and emphasize the co-creation of knowledge over top-down instruction. Approaching these aims can challenge deeply institutionalized beliefs about the nature and parameters of professionalism.

Effective Models of Civic Engagement

In the twenty-first century, crowdsourced digital collecting practices have emerged as an effective method for engaging average people in shaping the historical record. While the vast majority of crowdsourced digital collections remain subject to collections policies and curatorial discretion that impose some limits on collaborative practices, they nonetheless make collections processes more transparent and inclusive. Notably, a small but growing number of crowdsourced digital collections actively confront institutional practices that limit or control contributors’ efforts to define historical materials and their meaning. For example, the People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland actively involves Cleveland residents in decision making and empowers them to retain control of the collection. The collection is maintained through cooperation between Puncture the Silence, a local activist organization in Cleveland and an independent collective of archivists from around the country who are committed to its long-term preservation.

Examining the long history of civic engagement further suggests that leaders in museums, cultural institutions, colleges, and universities must be able to identify and respond to rapidly changing economic, social, and political conditions. Fostering this kind of responsiveness requires the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships between organizations and the communities they serve. Organizations are most successful in this work when it is integrated into their mission. For example, both the Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago, IL, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT, have successfully made the case that active political engagement with their stakeholders is not simply important; it is central to each site’s history and preservation. Hull House founder, Jane Addams, established the settlement as a site for local residents to meet, organize, and problem solve. The institution’s staff continues that tradition, providing space for community meetings, English language classes, and other uses. Located in a historic structure associated with the abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center puts the methods of historical inquiry to work to promote dialogue and action around issues of incarceration, enslavement, and injustice.

Other institutions actively work to develop meaningful relationships with local residents and other stakeholders by encouraging innovative collaboration. For example, the Brooklyn Museum in New York has developed a process for enabling the community to design and lead museum programs. Anyone can submit a program proposal, and the museum staff accepts and reviews them on a rolling basis. Once a proposal has been adopted, museum staff can provide support and advice to aid community members in organizing their event. These community-designed programs are not “special events.” Rather, they are fully integrated into the museum’s regular schedule of weekend events, monthly First Saturdays, and weekly Thursday evenings. More importantly, community-led programming is a mode of reciprocal communication. It empowers local people to actively define their relationship with the museum, and it enables the museum staff to remain engaged with community needs and interests.

Finally, exploring the development of civic engagement over time suggests its highest aims are best served when practitioners recognize themselves as serving not only their typical constituencies, but also a wider community. The development of networks of practice can expand community engagement, amplify and broaden interpretive processes, and foster dialogue among people with divergent perspectives, beliefs, and experiences. For example, the Humanities Action Lab is a collective of universities, action organizations, and public spaces dedicated to the design and implementation of community-based history projects that provide a response to urgent contemporary issues. Action Lab projects have included the Guantanamo Public Memory Project, States of Incarceration, and Migration and Environmental Justice, each of which seeks to shed light on injustice and foster dialogue about the future. Similarly, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience provides educational resources and support to organizations and individuals who wish to use memorial sites, museums, and historic places to promote dialogue and reconciliation.

Conclusion

As these examples suggest, civic engagement is a means by which historians can challenge exclusive pasts and promote a more just and inclusive future. By valuing responsiveness and connection, by working to treat different ways of knowing and analyzing events as equally relevant for problem solving, and by privileging inclusiveness over authority, public history can play a role in expanding democracy and craft a strong foundation from which average citizens can become stronger advocates and agitators for social justice causes.

Notes

[i] American Association of Museums, Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 2002).

[ii] Roger L. Kemp, ed., Town and Gown Relations: A Handbook of Best Practices (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013); Susan Benigni Cipolle, Service Learning and Social Justice: Engaging Students in Social Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); Christine M. Cress, Peter J. Collier, Vicki L. Reitenauer, and Associates, Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement across Academic Disciplines and Cultural Communities (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2013); Barbara Jacoby and Associates, Civic Engagement in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009); Gail Anderson, ed. Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation and the Paradigm Shift (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012); Viv Golding and Wayne Modest, eds., Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections, and Collaboration (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[iii] Pero Dagbovie, The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[iv] Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museums Movement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[v] Marybeth Gasman, Dorsey Spencer, and Cecilia Orphan, “‘Building Bridges not Fences’: A History of Civic Engagement at Private Black Colleges and Universities, 1944-1965,” History of Education Quarterly  55, No. 3 (August 2015): 346-379 (published online January 20, 2017), https://doi.org/10.1111/hoeq.12125.

Suggested Readings

Adair, Bill, and Benjamin Filene, Editors. Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Blouin, Francis X. Jr., and William G. Rosenberg. Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives. New York: Oxford University Press, Reprint Edition, 2012.

Coombes, Annie E. History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Gonzalez, Kenneth P. Doing the Public Good: Latina/o Scholars Engage Civic Participation. Stylus Publishing, 2007.

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Onciul, Bryony. Museums, Heritage, and Indigenous Voice: Decolonizing Engagement. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Rizzo, Mary. “Finding the Roots of Civic Engagement in the Public Humanities.” History@Work, July 21, 2014 http://ncph.org/history-at-work/finding-the-roots-of-civic-engagement/

Rocksborough-Smith, Ian. Black Public History in Chicago: Civil Rights Activism from World War II into the Cold War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018.

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. 2010. http://www.participatorymuseum.org/.

Author

Denise D. Meringolo is Associate Professor of History and Director of Public History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Plantations

An original slave cabin on the Whitney Plantation with statues by Woodrow Nash on the porch. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Visiting a plantation museum today can be a jarring experience. Since the mid-twentieth century, the once-ubiquitous economic engines of the pre-Civil War South have been recast as elegant mansions. Visitors are meant to feel comfortable and safe, strolling grounds surrounded by lush landscaping and feeling nostalgic for a romantic, simpler time. In some ways, visitors see what they want to see, and they are influenced by popular films and novels that prop up the “moonlight and magnolias” trope. But historians are not off the hook. Public historians, academic historians, and museum professionals alike have been complicit in rewriting plantation history to put white slaveowners front and center.

Though museum interpretation is rapidly changing, it is still possible to tour a plantation house in this country without hearing anything substantive about the enslaved people who built it. This is problematic for many reasons, but consider the numbers to start: the majority of people who lived on plantations in the nineteenth century were African and African-descended enslaved people. Enslaved people cleared the land, milled the wood, fired the bricks, built the houses, and tended land and livestock on plantations. Plantations were predominantly black spaces built and maintained by black people against their will. Yet in every former slave state, visitors can find plantation tours that elevate the stories of owners over enslaved people.

Historical Background

Museum practitioners began to minimize the history of slavery on plantations by the time the first plantation home opened for tours in the United States. Mount Vernon, the first house museum in the United States, is also the first plantation museum. Its history as a historic site bleeds into its history as a plantation, since the slave-owning women of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association bought the property in 1858 from a descendant of George Washington who was still enslaving people at the time.[i] In words that would presage the interpretation of hundreds of sites that followed in its footsteps, the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association instructed the early members of the organization to “see to it that you keep it the home of Washington” and “let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress.”[ii] Lauding the history of owners while minimizing or erasing the history of the enslaved became standard practice for most plantation museums until the late twentieth century.

From the time the women of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association opened Mount Vernon for tours in the 1850s until today, plantation museums have reflected the political culture of the country. The resurgence in what is known as “moonlight and magnolias” interpretation in the 1960s had more to do with white Americans’ discomfort with changing racial dynamics than it did historical interest. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a reaction to the civil rights movement and coinciding with a peak in interest about history around the bicentennial of the American Revolution, plantation tours became popular throughout the South. In 1976, Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation was advertised as a “bicentennial landmark,” whose “trees are a living link with the era of the American Revolution.”[iii] Many plantations became frozen in time in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, with guides dressed in hoop skirts inviting guests to learn about the lavish lives of antebellum plantation owners.

Throughout the twentieth century, this imagined history of plantations became big business, particularly in places such as South Carolina and Louisiana with a large number of extant plantations, many of which had been in operation with resident African-American sharecroppers and wage workers into the late twentieth century. Today, tourism is the fourth largest industry in Louisiana, with plantation tourism holding a major claim over heritage tourism dollars. Louisiana’s historic sites are top of mind for visitors, ranking higher than nightlife in visitor activities.[iv]

In the 1980s and 1990s, plantations gradually began weaving narratives of slavery into their interpretation. Even as plantation tours grappled with slavery, they often did so in the form of special events, segregated interpretive spaces, and optional tours. Discussing slavery at length only during an optional slavery tour and not on the tour of the plantation home allows visitors to think of the institution as ancillary to the true narrative—that of the plantation owners. Early slavery interpretation often failed to present enslaved people as multi-dimensional individuals. Instead, they became nameless figures who faded into the background or appeared only when they had direct interaction with the white interpretive subjects.

Whitney Plantation owner’s house, constructed in 1790. Photo credit: Elsa Hahne.

Changing Interpretation

Today, many sites are changing their interpretation in important ways to highlight the history of enslavement. James Madison’s Montpelier opened a groundbreaking exhibit, The Mere Distinction of Colour, in 2017; George Washington’s Mount Vernon created a comprehensive slavery exhibit in 2016; and in 2018 Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello opened an exhibit dedicated to the story of Sally Hemings, with curatorial help from a Hemings descendant. In addition to the interpretive expansion seen in Virginia sites, there are new museums opening dedicated to counter-narratives. In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened in Louisiana as a memorial site with an exclusive focus on slavery. Charleston County Parks’ McLeod Plantation opened in 2015, interpreting the whole history of African-American labor at the site, from the time of slavery until the last resident workers left in 1990.

Despite the numerous plantation sites that are doing valuable work to bring this important history to the fore, there is still much more that public historians can do to be inclusive in their interpretation. It is important for public historians to remember that plantations are sites of trauma. Too often, we ignore the immense pain of these places in favor of a generalized interpretation that may acknowledge that life was hard, but not that it was traumatic. Spaces of brutal terror, plantations continue to bring immense pain to people whose ancestors lived and worked on them. In the case of plantations like Whitney and McLeod, there are still numerous living people who remember life on these plantations. Across the plantation South, African-American workers—many of them descended from enslaved people who worked the same land—did not leave plantations in large numbers until the Second Great Migration in the 1950s and 1960s. In South Louisiana, resident cane workers remained on plantations as late as the 1980s. Inclusive interpretation at plantation sites takes the depth and breadth of this pain seriously, acknowledging that the history has a long footprint that extends to our present day.

Language

Before reworking interpretation, it is important to remember that the language we use in our interpretation is key. By referring to enslaved people as “slaves,” we are affirming their status as objects rather than multi-dimensional human beings. Using the term “enslaved” as an adjective emphasizes their humanity first, indicating that their enslavement is just a condition and not their entire identity. Under no circumstances should interpreters use euphemisms like “servants” when referring to enslaved people. This sanitizes the history of slavery and minimizes the fact that enslaved people were held against their will. Similarly, public historians should openly acknowledge and discuss methods of punishment and coercion that were in place at the site. This truth-telling is critical to communicating a complete narrative.

Sources

Plantations that are just beginning to interpret the whole history of their site may be intimidated or afraid that they don’t have enough information to give the history of slavery justice. The interpretation of slavery is often more difficult than the interpretation of free people because of a lack of sources. Yet there are creative ways that plantation sites can use sources to uncover the history of their enslaved workers.

Because enslaved people were property, most plantations have records of the people who were held in bondage there even if those records are incomplete. Inventories and sale documents can be invaluable in learning about the ages, skill sets, and even ethnic origins of enslaved people. Researchers can usually find these documents in local courthouses. Courthouses also have records of lawsuits involving enslaved people. Enslaved people often stood trial for resisting their captivity through violence and conspiracy. These lawsuits allow us to understand their methods of resistance. Historical newspapers are also important sources of information, as they published runaway notices in nearly every edition. Plantation owners advertised by name when someone they owned ran away, and these advertisements usually include personal details about the enslaved person. Historians have launched a crowd-sourced project to digitize and transcribe runaway notices called Freedom on the Move. This is just one of many digital resources researchers can put to use. Additionally, though they must be understood in their context, the Works Progress Administration slave narratives, which are available for free through the Library of Congress, can also be incredibly useful sources that can help us interpret the daily lives of enslaved people.

Connecting with Descendants

Perhaps the most valuable relationships that plantation sites can build in order to understand the lives of their enslaved populations is with descendants of enslaved people. Descendants should be involved in interpretation in every step from planning to execution. Their perspectives are essential to equitable and inclusive interpretation. In 2018, descendants, historians, and museum professionals from around the country gathered at James Madison’s Montpelier to craft best practices for working with descendant communities in the interpretation of slavery. Many sites have been engaged with this work for some time, from presidential sites to lesser-known plantations like Somerset in North Carolina. There are numerous road maps for sites that want to engage in meaningful co-creation with descendant communities.

Above all, museum professionals who work at plantation sites must be mindful of the immense weight of the history of slavery and treat it with respect and care. We must be humble in acknowledging that our field has done damage to descendant communities and to the wider public by not honestly interpreting the history of slavery. Despite our history, there is much room for reparative practice and we should find encouragement and inspiration in the numerous sites that are doing good work. With violent events igniting Americans over issues of race and history in places such as Charleston and Charlottesville, this is a critical time for historic sites to bravely tell the truth.

Notes

[i] “The Early History of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association,” Mount Vernonhttps://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/mount-vernon-ladies-association/early-history-of-the-mount-vernon-ladies-association/.

[ii] Jessica Foy Donnelly, Interpreting Historic House Museums (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2002), 22.

[iii] The Assumption Pioneer, July 1, 1976, 4.

[iv] D.K. Shifflet & Associates, Ltd., “Year-End 2017 Visitor Profile: An Inside Look at the Louisiana Travel Market,” State of Louisiana Cultural Resources & Tourism Department study, 2018.

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max, ed. Interpreting African-American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004.

Gallas, Kristin, and James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2014.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.” History News, 74, no. 1 (Winter 2019): 14-21.

National Summit on Teaching Slavery. “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery: A Rubric of Best Practices.” Technical Leaflet 285. American Association for State and Local History.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Press/AASLH, 2016.

Author

~ Ashley Rogers is the Executive Director at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. She is a frequent speaker on the topic of slavery interpretation and she has served as an advisor on museum projects with the Atlanta History Center, Rhode Island’s Center for Reconciliation, and Stenton. She is a co-author of the MASS Action toolkit and James Madison’s Montpelier’s rubric for descendant community engagement. She can be reached at arogers@whitneyplantation.com.

Historic House Museums

Paul Revere House, ca. 1900, showing local children and Filippo Goduti, the proprietor of the cigar company that rented space in the building from 1898-1901. Photo credit: Paul Revere House.

History museums of all types are facing the reality of a society where the meanings of inclusion, diversity, access, and equity are changing; the fact is, audiences are changing, too. The challenge of attracting and welcoming increasingly diverse audiences has proven particularly difficult for historic house museums, which have long been criticized—often with good reason—for having outdated, narrow, and static interpretation. According to an influential critic, the primary reasons people dislike house museums are that they present interpretation that lacks a connection to the present and feature stories of people who have nothing in common with most contemporary visitors.

Public historians and museum professionals have long known that historic sites need to be willing to change their structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of their communities. Yet, many have struggled to make these necessary institutional transformations. Encouragingly, solutions to these challenges lie within the very nature of house museums. Rather than focus on what is wrong with historic house museums, this essay explores the potential that house museums hold for telling new stories while making older, familiar stories more inclusive and relevant.

Opportunities for New Interpretations

Historic houses offer a broad canvas for the consideration of a variety of themes and for experimentation with new interpretive techniques. They provide the unique opportunity to share compelling stories in the most intimate of spaces, the home. They can, if allowed, reflect the lives of the many rather than just the privileged few.

While most historic house museums have become known for the tenure of a famous person or prominent family, or as examples of the work of a particular architect or representation of an important style or period, they possess much greater interpretive potential. These structures were built by people (native born, enslaved, or immigrant); they served as workspaces for owners and workers (enslaved or domestic); and, they provided a safe place where closeted lives were lived openly. They were the stage for many of life’s most poignant moments and relatable themes: birth, death, illness, education, foodways, and celebrations. Within the familiar context of living spaces, inhabitants from a wide range of economic situations and backgrounds moved in and out over many years. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of allowing interpretation to be held hostage to the legacy of one person or architectural feature, it is important to explore interpretive options that go beyond the expected. The prospect of doing so is intrinsically exciting and motivating for many public historians and museum professionals. However, if the promise of access to more compelling stories is not incentive enough, or the challenges seem too great, perhaps a more self-serving argument will make the case: interpretation and programming that resonate with a wider audience are simply good for business. Many museums have experienced improved attendance as well as buy-in from the community as a result of efforts to make interpretation and programming more inclusive.

Models of Inclusive Interpretation

There is no question that this sort of change, whether modest or dramatic, takes initiative and commitment. The good news is that more and more house museums are making the effort to reimagine and expand their interpretations; they are striving to find more inclusive stories to share the stage with “the elephant in the room” of the famous family or the institutional tradition of “the way things have always been done.” What follows are some examples of how organizations have changed the dynamic.

From its inception, President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., focused on making the past relevant to visitors. Its mission to “reveal the true Lincoln and continue the fight for freedom” is carried out in its interpretation, programs, and exhibitions, all of which seek “to inspire visitors to take their own path to greatness, and preserve this place as an authentic, tangible connection to the past and a beacon of hope for all who take up Lincoln’s unfinished work.” In this way Lincoln, the person, is transformed from a distant, romanticized hero into a call to action. Programs are offered that explore themes of injustice, division, and the importance of leadership. For example, an exhibition titled “American by Belief” introduces the public to the little-known fact that Lincoln championed policies that offered immigrants a chance to succeed based on the promise of the country’s founding principles.

For some time, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, has been using its historic house to present and consider themes related to social justice. Its mission — “to preserve and interpret Stowe’s Hartford home and the center’s historic collections, promote vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change”— makes the structure a container of ideas and thoughts rather than just a receptacle for interesting objects and famous figures. Through a significant reinterpretation effort and a reimagined tour that is described as “a conversational interactive tour where you can participate along with your guide,” all the house has to offer—stories, personalities, artifacts, and Victorian Gothic architecture—is used to promote discussion among visitors about social issues that resonate today. In this way, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, have been transformed into even more effective tools for exploring the connections between past and present.

Another example of a dramatic shift in interpretive focus is the former Royall House Museum in Medford, Massachusetts. This high-style Georgian mansion was known as one of the finest colonial-era buildings in New England and it was precisely for this reason that the few hundred people who visited the house each year came. The interpretation was centered on the architecture of the home and the lives of the Royall family, loyalists who amassed great wealth in the triangular trade. The most compelling part of the story was the discussion of the lives of loyalists in New England where patriot stories generally rule.

What wasn’t discussed was the fact that the property included the only remaining slave quarters in the northern United States or that the Royalls were the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. The museum is now the “Royall House and Slave Quarters.” This name change alone alerts visitors that the story now gives equal weight to both the wealthy loyalist family and the enslaved Africans who made the Royalls’ lifestyle possible. The shift in perspective has transformed interpretation at the site and, along with programming relating the past to current issues, has helped the museum become more relevant and inclusive and has widened its audience considerably. In some ways, confronting the realities of slavery and the slave economy is more surprising in the North than it is in the South. Yet it is a crucial topic to explore and share with visitors.

Strategies for Implementation

Sound simple? Not in the least! When an organization like the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters embraces the “what if we look into these other stories” epiphany, the true work has only begun. After much debate the museum’s board undertook a strategic planning process that resulted in a new mission and a new name. Careful consideration was given to how to make the case to board and staff, accomplish the necessary research, involve community stakeholders, and finally, how to prepare staff and volunteers to deliver these new stories to a surprised, or even resistant, audience.

What strategies should you employ to begin the process of making your historic sites more meaningful to all people?

Consider all the residents and consider the issues.

An initial step is to begin to give equal value to all the knowable moments in the long history of the home you run: How many families have lived or worked there? Who built the house or worked on the grounds? How might their stories be added to the current interpretation? What are the topics that meet your mission and are relevant to and can benefit your community? It was not a hard stretch for the Paul Revere House to begin shifting its interpretation by re-imagining one room as a reflection of the first owner of the house, a wealthy merchant in seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Boston who had at least one enslaved person supporting his lifestyle. Moreover, in the over 100 years after Revere’s departure from the residence, the house served as home to owners, workers, and tenants, many of whom reflected the change in the neighborhood as immigrant populations came into Boston’s North End and rented or acquired property. The stories that unfolded at the site during the mid nineteenth century included those of a single woman named Lydia Loring who supported herself through real estate deals and taking in boarders, and later, the Wilkies, an Irish couple, who ran the Revere House as a boarding house for sailors and had a saloon on the first floor.

In addition, for each resident it is important to consider what was going on in the neighborhood, the country, and the world at the time. How might themes, such as economic fluctuations, war, political or ethnic conflict, slavery, women’s rights and roles, LGBTQ rights, religion, and education, allow you to seamlessly expand your story and relate to how we view the same topics today? These avenues provide additional hooks to engage visitors in ways that go beyond the story of one house, person, collection, or architectural style. This type of analysis also offers different lenses through which to consider the life of even a well-known resident. 

Involve your stakeholders and community.

If you are thinking of making a bold change or just a small one, it is imperative to work with your community. Arrange for opportunities to invite community members and key stakeholders to engage in open discussions about your ideas and to solicit their input before any plans are set. You may find you are overlooking some local sources of information, you may have inadvertently and unnecessarily stepped on some toes, or you may discover that rumors about what you are considering may be spreading and causing unwarranted concerns. Early buy-in from informed constituents may help you make the changes you seek. Or, if there are serious concerns or challenges ahead, it is far better to be prepared to address these issues than to be blindsided later in the process.

The Haymarket Project features photographs of the market, vendors (pushcarts and shops), workers, and customers collected over the course of an entire year to document the market. Oral histories reflect the stories of longtime vendors and more recent immigrants who have created a wide-ranging cross-section of cultures at Haymarket. Alyssa “Sina” Chhim came from Battambang, Cambodia, in 1982. She began working at stands and later a shop in the market. Sina got her own stand in October 2014. Photo credit: Courtesy Historic New England

Cultivate meaningful partnerships.

Partnerships, if mutually beneficial, can show that your historic house is sincere about being more open to new ideas and welcoming to new audiences. Since one-time deals rarely produce deep and sustainable institutional change, working with other organizations in the community is essential. Historic New England regularly engages with diverse groups through its Everyone’s History program. One such effort, the Haymarket Project, involved a series of short films, an exhibition, and a publication, which documented the outdoor market’s rich immigrant history. Interviews with longtime Italian vendors, newer vendors from more recent immigrant groups, and customers, along with photographs—all collected over the course of a year—revealed the daily life at the market, changes over time, and the challenges of encroaching development. Through walking tours, which include many of the vendors telling their own stories, this partnership has endured beyond the initial programs.

Research, research, research.

Once you know what story or group you want to explore, you will need to do the necessary research. You may find that suddenly you are seeing things that you missed. A cone of sugar displayed innocently on a table in a kitchen is, of course, evidence of the owner’s sweet tooth but is also evidence of the impact of the slave economy in Paul Revere’s Boston.

Artifacts have multiple layers of meaning depending on what questions you ask. Collections, photographs, and archives have, in some cases, been subject to bias in how they were cataloged, so every effort should be made to look for information in unexpected places.

Jennifer Pustz, author of Voices from the Back Stairs, suggests including the stories of people who are underrepresented in written sources. She advises starting with what little is known and documented about the person in question and being honest about what is not known and why that might be (privacy, social class, etc.). Research about an individual or individuals can, with care, be supplemented with generic information that is appropriate to the period and area.

At Historic New England’s Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, researchers used other sources, such as oral histories, to interpret LBGTQ history when pertinent records did not survive. Where possible, reach out to the descendants of the people, including servants and workers, who called your property home. You will most likely see them surprised and then thrilled that you care about their family story. The Revere House reached out successfully to the family of F.A. Goduti, who ran a cigar store in the house, after one of his relatives recognized him in a photograph in a display.

Archeological collections and reports along with newly initiated investigations provide important information. Excavations at the Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters proved a treasure trove for reinterpretation, while similar investigations at the Paul Revere House provided insight into the lives of the immigrants who called the property home during the nineteenth century. Find ways to include interns in new research. Over the years the Paul Revere House has not only encouraged interns to do research on the various immigrant groups that lived in the neighborhood, but also published their work as articles in its newsletter.

Seek assistance.

If the topics that emerge take you into unfamiliar territory, seek the assistance of trusted scholars or museum colleagues. Be mindful to include Native American scholars or specialists if you are researching your site for connections to indigenous peoples. The same holds true for research pertaining to racial, ethnic, sexual, and class identities as well as religious groups.

If board members, staff, or volunteers don’t understand the value of fleshing out the stories connected to either your famous moment or lesser-known episodes, include them in the process. Use strategic planning to explore the opportunity to reach new audiences with a new vision. Reach out to other house museums that have had success in making changes and ask for advice.

Build staff and board buy-in.

It is important to ensure that your board and staff reflect the community you serve. This kind of change requires institutional will. To involve people with your historic site, you may need to first show good faith by taking some programmatic risks in order to convince your community that your organization is truly embracing change. We are not saying this is easy and it does take time. In addition to including different racial and ethnic groups, welcoming new voices to the board or staff also means being more cognizant of age, gender, sexual orientation, and/or people with differing abilities. There are resources out there to help; MASS Action, is a central point for resources, learning, and communication between institutions engaging in promoting diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility. Its toolkit offers resources for use in creating greater equity within the museum field.

Visitors respond to seeing diversity in staffing. This shows that the organization reflects multiple perspectives and is open to a range of ideas. Historic New England advertises staff positions and internships in both traditional outlets and non-traditional sources. The organization offers paid diversity internships to students of color to encourage them to pursue careers in the field by promoting the program to schools and universities with substantial populations of historically under-represented and underserved students.

Conclusion

If historic house museums want to be relevant, inclusive, and diverse, they need to diversify their boards and staffs and work closely with their communities. House museums need to step back and look at the stories they are telling and the ones that remain unexplored. Whether at the Paul Revere House, where many of the changes have been real but subtle; or the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, where a change in interpretive techniques now invites discussion; to the major change at the Royall House and Slave Quarters, which now gives equal weight to the interpretation of the enslaved population and the wealthy loyalist family: all have produced richer, more compelling stories. These varied tales of human experience offer visitors from all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, and lifestyles a way to see themselves in both the lives of the famous and of the less well known. 

Suggested Readings

van Balgooy, Max A., ed. Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Bench, Raney. Interpreting Native American History and Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

Ferentinos, Susan. Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2015.

Forum on Historic Site Stewardship in the 21st Century. National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2007. https://forum.savingplaces.org/viewdocument/introduction-the-call-for-a-nation.

Gallas, Kristin L., and James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2014.

LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tellingallamericansstories/lgbtqthemestudy.htm.

Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Rose, Julia. Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Turino, Kenneth C., and Max van Balgooy, eds. Reinventing the Historic House Museum, New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2019.

Authors

~ Kenneth C. Turino is Manager of Community Partnerships and Resource Development at Historic New England and Nina Zannieri is Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association.

U.S. Founders

Each year, Mount Vernon collaborates with the local group Black Women United for Action to hold a commemoration ceremony at the burial site for Mount Vernon’s enslaved people. Photo credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Who counts among the nation’s “Founders?” Some lists of “Founding Fathers” (a term coined by then-Senator Warren G. Harding in a speech to the 1916 Republican National Convention) restrict membership in that elite group to a defined set of affluent and influential white men: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.[i] Other, broader conceptualizations encompass the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the 55 “Framers” who crafted the U.S. Constitution.[ii] Still-larger definitions take in organizers like Massachusetts goldsmith and engraver Paul Revere, or soldiers like South Carolina’s John Laurens. For many, the term “Founder” has generally applied to the relatively small number of white men of authority and privilege who led the political, legal, and military effort to establish the United States of America as an independent nation.

Yet, particularly over the past forty years, key accounts of the Revolution increasingly emphasized new critical perspectives on the Revolutionary era while uncovering stories of everyday men and women—white, black, and Native American—whose roles in the rebellion were critical to the independence movement. (See Suggested Readings below.) As the historiography of the Revolution advanced, these new methods and priorities have enlarged our understanding of the founding moment and the wide range of people who contributed to it. History scholarship now takes a broader view of who constitutes a “Founder” and asks more encompassing questions about how Americans drove and experienced the founding. Public historians committed to more inclusive interpretations of the Founders and their world are now well supported by more than four decades of research that situates them in broader contexts and suggests new directions for interpretive planning.

Any nation’s founders become objects of patriotic veneration, and so it is unsurprising that this group of individuals became the subjects of numerous monuments, memorials, and historic sites. Among the first sites in the United States to become museums were Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh, Hasbrouck House, and his Virginia home at Mount Vernon. Such sites aimed to cultivate awe and reverence, emphasizing the U.S. Founders’ larger-than-life status as intellectual giants, political visionaries, and moral leaders. The motives and aspirations of the men and women who created these historic sites, as well as the continuing expectations and desires of visitors, have made efforts to complicate those interpretations in the wake of ongoing scholarship and cultural change challenging.

Expanding the Meaning of “Founders”

Historians continue to expand the meaning of “Founders.” Even the term has been amended from the original “Founding Fathers” so as not to actively exclude women. Interpretation at historic sites associated with this group has expanded to take into account new scholarship and respond to social and cultural criticisms, though the path to new interpretive strategies has not been smooth. An important and instructive example is that of the President’s House and Liberty Bell Pavilion in Philadelphia, which became the scene of heated public debate at the turn of the twenty-first century when historians and Philadelphia residents learned that the exhibit to accompany the new installation of the Liberty Bell would not confront the histories of slavery that shared that ground. Public historians alongside activist Philadelphians pressured the National Park Service to reconsider their plans, forcing both Pavilion exhibitry and interpretation at the site of the President’s House to confront the tension between liberty and enslavement that shaped the nation’s founding.

Efforts to acknowledge roles played by African Americans in the nation’s founding date back at least as early as William Cooper Nell’s 1855 study The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. In the 1880s, pressure from Boston’s black community led to a monument honoring Crispus Attucks, the Revolution’s “first martyr,” and, in the early twentieth century, Carter G. Woodson’s work through the Association for the Study of African American Life and History spurred expanded research on black people’s experiences in early America.[iii] In the 1960s, research leading to the creation of Boston’s Black Heritage Trail commenced, inviting visitors to consider sites beyond those linked by the Freedom Trail, including the home of African American revolutionary war veteran George Middleton. In 1970, among the early efforts of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C. was the exhibition “Black Patriots of the American Revolution,” and, later in the decade, attention to Black Founders surged in and around the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition and accompanying catalog The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800, by Sidney Kaplan, aimed to “restore to the national memory an historic fact that has been long suppressed or forgotten—the living presence of black men and women during the thirty years that stretched from the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks…to the conspiracy of Gabriel Prosser in Virginia at the turn of the century.” More recently, a 2008 exhibition at Philadelphia’s The Library Company explored the lives of “Black Founders,” including scientist and inventor Benjamin Banneker, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Richard Allen, Prince Hall, James Forten, Sarah Mapps Douglass, and Daniel Coker. Moreover, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, includes significant treatment of African Americans and the nation’s founding in the permanent exhibition.

Slavery and the Founders

In recent years, museum professionals have been particularly focused on the need to address the subject of slavery in historic site interpretation. Sites associated with U.S. Founders have responded to mounting pressure from critics to interpret connections to slavery. African Americans had long been aware of the many ways the Founders were complicit in the system of slavery, but many historians and historical institutions minimized the degree to which the independence movement was entwined with slavery. Longstanding cultural impulses to valorize the Founders persisted in both formal and informal interpretive practice. In recent years, sites like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and James Madison’s Montpelier, have worked to foreground histories of enslavement in their interpretation. These sites have committed decades of research to form exhibitions and interpretive programming that wrestle with the Founders’ ownership of, and interactions with, enslaved people. At the same time, the sites continue to struggle with the challenges of interpreting this history. In 2012, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation mounted Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty at the National Museum of American History. Monticello’s efforts to explore the history of slavery are particularly noteworthy and fraught given the site’s long-standing unease with interpreting Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. In 2016, George Washington’s Mount Vernon opened Lives Bound Together, the first major exhibition there to treat enslavement at the estate. James Madison’s Montpelier opened The Mere Distinction of Colour in 2017, which asks critical questions not only about James Madison’s slaveholding legacy but about the impact of slavery on ongoing racial struggles today.[iv]

The latter examples, in particular, engaged descendant and stakeholder communities in the development of interpretive materials—difficult but necessary work. For instance, at Montpelier, descendants and stakeholders (defined broadly) participated in the research process and helped make meaning from those findings; “The most important thing about being inclusive,” Vice President for Museum Programs Elizabeth Chew has said, “is that it allows us to engage African American voices in the process of interpreting their ancestral story and the story of our founding.” Sites like Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier also include in their online interpretative material not only content addressing the history of slavery, but timelines sharing the history of the site’s engagement with this subject matter—a useful practice that requires sites to examine and interpret their own institutional histories. In some cases, sites also share the raw research data underlying interpretation, making it possible for audiences to check facts, dig deeper, and put the work to new purposes; one good example is the database made public in conjunction with Lives Bound Together.

Making Connections to Current Issues

Boston’s Old South Meeting House—like Hartford’s Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, President Lincoln’s Cottage, and other forward-thinking sites—embraces a different strategy, drawing on the site’s history to frame a mission that engages present-day events. As Sarah Hudson has observed,

Rather than defining itself solely as the “Birthplace of the Boston Tea Party,” the Old South Meeting House connects its history to “protest, revolution, and freedom of speech and extends that history well beyond the Revolutionary era. Its interpretive timeline draws attention to the voices and stories of women, African Americans, immigrants, and others. In a sense, the [site] offers a historical interpretation more rooted in an idea than in a specific period of time.[v]

Even museums focused on the distant past can learn from new approaches that engage current and potential audiences in the development of content; if prospective visitors cannot contribute information about the eighteenth-century past, they can certainly convey their questions and concerns about the revolutionary underpinnings of current events, which can help shape programming and interpretation.

Inclusive Institutions

Museums and other historical institutions can take steps to achieve the institutional body language that signals a welcoming and inclusive environment. In the case of the Founders, such steps often more accurately reflect the historical content being conveyed. For instance, in talking about family life, sites should not employ exclusive language, or make assumptions based on normative expectations. Professionals committed to more inclusive museum practice recommend that sites not use language that projects assumptions about family relationships; “family inclusive language” recommends, for instance, swapping assumptions about “Mom” and “Dad” for “grownups” or “adults,” and it is likewise useful not to overemphasize the so-called “nuclear” family. When working in eighteenth-century contexts, such approaches may in fact be more historically appropriate, as blended, large, and complex families and households involving parents and stepparents, siblings, step-siblings, cousins, grandparents, unrelated caregivers, and others were not the exception, but rather the rule, in early America.

Interpretive staff working to craft an inclusive experience should remain mindful not to create “affective inequality,” which occurs when docents paint richly evocative pictures of, and invite visitors to imagine, life for the typically white, affluent, and best documented figures associated with a site. This approach does not often give equivalent attention to the less privileged figures who lived and worked there.[vi] Interpretive staff should recognize that visitors will not necessarily identify with the powerful families headed by the Founders or the guests who crossed their thresholds; and, visitors should be encouraged to consider the experiences of all of the people impacted by the site.

Inclusive Interpretation

Turning attention to the Founders themselves, any treatment of these leaders should also take into account their full range of lived experience. Thinking systematically about the neighborhoods in which they lived, and the laborers—paid, unpaid, and enslaved—who made their lives possible, are all ways to work toward a more inclusive understanding of their experiences. In many cases, it is helpful to look hard, in a step-by-step manner, at processes, and how any given task was accomplished. For instance, in looking at George Washington’s inauguration suit, we can tell stories about the many hands involved in its creation, from the Connecticut men and women who spun and wove the wool to the New York tailors who stitched the garments together, to the enslaved men and women who laundered and maintained those garments. After the inaugural ceremony, Washington changed from his politically-necessary American-made suit into stylish London-made apparel for further festivities. How do politics influence fashion today? Who makes the clothes we wear, and does that matter?

In addition to contemplating implications of race and class, as well as privilege and access to labor, inclusive approaches to the Founders also contemplate histories of sexuality, gender, and the body. Accounting for the full range of lived experience also means looking for narratives of ability and disability. Most people are neither “abled” nor “disabled,” but rather move in and out of those categories at different times of their lives and for different reasons—a fact as true in the era of the Founders as it is today. How did early American men and women, as well as members of their household, their circle of friends, and others, cope with the effects of injury, sickness, aging, and other physical conditions that compromise physical and cognitive ability?

Part of the challenge of inclusion when it comes to the Founders is that there is often an abstract quality to the content matter, as audiences interested in this subject are often drawn, if sometimes in unstated ways, to the history of beliefs, ideas, and ideologies. It can be easy, in interpreting complex arguments, to oversimplify complicated debates, and to confine individuals to polar positions. But it is rarely the case that people’s ideas are so rigid. Instead, ask, how did their ideas evolve over time? How, when, and why did these leaders change their minds? Where were there inconsistencies? Also, it is important to expose blind spots. Where did their analyses fall short? As Mount Vernon Associate Curator Jessie Macleod notes, “efforts to explain away Washington’s slaveholding by declaring him ‘a man of his time’ elide the existence of his contemporaries who were passionate abolitionists (not to mention Washington’s own complex feelings toward slavery).”[vii]

Inclusive interpretation also maintains a sense of contingency. No one knew, in the eighteenth century, that the so-called “patriots” wouldn’t hang for treason: they were not always heroes in their day. Sites should be careful not to suggest that independence was foreordained, as if the choices being made were part of some larger and certain design. Men and women at all levels of society were engaged in constant—and often frantic—calculation, trying to figure how to navigate these dangerous waters in ways that would minimize danger and maximize benefits. There was nothing “inevitable,” for instance, about how Native nations would fare as a result of the British empire’s conflict with its North American colonies; as visitors to sites like Fort Stanwix National Monument learn, indigenous people were an active presence, and essential partners among both rebel and British leadership.

Museums adopting more inclusive approaches should be prepared for backlash. The newest entry into the interpretation of the founding moment is the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which opened in April 2017. In its review of the site’s exhibits, the Wall Street Journal—noting that “historical scholarship has become vastly more inclusive”—took the museum’s leadership to task for working to “de-sacralize the Revolution,” and prioritizing inclusion over the Revolution’s “symbolic and aspirational power.”[viii] And so museum-goers are “reminded here not just of higher principles but of how they fell short for those who were enslaved—some 400,000 in 1776 growing to nearly four million by 1860—or for those who preceded the colonists, American Indians….This Revolution poses dilemmas, not doctrinal clarity.” Likewise, Thom Nickels, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, calls this “middle-school history told through a lens of identity politics.”[ix] But, as the museum’s curator, Philip C. Mead, explained, “The goal of the museum is to give the Revolution back to the people. Since people always change, there’s no telling where this Revolution might go.”[x]

Notes

[i] On Harding, see Robert Tracy McKenzie’s post “The Founding Fathers and Warren G. Harding,” citing R. B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (Oxford University Press, 2009), on the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home <https://thewayofimprovement.com>.

[ii] Several historians offer redefinitions of the term in “How Do You Define ‘Founding Fathers’?” in the online Journal of the American Revolution, December 1, 2015,  https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/12/how-do-you-define-founding-fathers/.

[iii] See Mitch Kachun, First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); and Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

[iv] Carson Bear, “‘The Mere Distinction of Colour’: Telling the Story of Slavery at Montpelier,” November 1, 2017, https://savingplaces.org/stories/the-mere-distinction-of-colour-tells-story-slavery-montpelier.

[v] Sarah Hudson, “More voices” in Boston’s public history,” History@Work, January 27, 2015,  http://ncph.org/history-at-work/more-voices-in-bostons-public-history/.

[vi] See E. Arnold Modlin, Derek H. Alderman and Glenn w. Gentry, “Tour Guides as Creators of Empathy: The Role of Affective Inequality in Marginalizing the Enslaved at Plantation House Museums,” Tourist Studies 11(1) 3–19. My thanks to Jessie MacLeod for alerting me to this scholarship.

[vii] Jessie MacLeod to author, 4 January 2018.

[viii] Edward Rothstein, “A Politically Correct Revolution,” WSG, April 12, 2017.

[ix] Nickels, “What the Museum of the American Revolution Gets Wrong,” April19, 2017, http://www.phillymag.com/news/2017/04/19/revolution-museum-philadelphia/.

[x] Quoted in Ibid.

Suggested Readings

The first flowering of modern scholarship to offer broader conceptions of the founding era included books like Robert Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World (1976); Gary Nash’s Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (1974) and The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (1979); Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (1980); Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic (1980); and Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (1982). These works were in time joined by others that likewise sought to widen the circle of founders and complicate popular understandings of the Revolutionary era: Woody Holton’s Forced Founders (1999), Alfred Young’s Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999), Saul Cornell’s The Other Founders (1999), and Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers (2005), to name just a few. Scholarship that placed founders within systems of enslavement and racial oppression includes Harry Weincek’s Imperfect God: George Washington, his Slaves, and the Creation of America (2003) and Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008). Other work on African Americans and the nation’s founding includes LaGarrett J. King’s 2014 essay “More Than Slaves: Black Founders, Benjamin Banneker, and Critical Intellectual Agency” and curator Philip Lapsansky’s “Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic.”

Other historians have emphasized histories of sexuality (e.g., Thomas Foster, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past, 2014), explored the founders on matters of faith (e.g. Denis Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, 2013), and the environment (e.g., Andrea Wulf, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, 2011). Scholarship that considers health and the body includes Jeanne Abrams, Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health (2013), which illuminates intersections between personal experience, political philosophy, and thinking about the nation’s health care. Still other historians have worked to add complexity to how we understand the evolution of political thought, and political documents. For instance, a rich scholarly literature (e.g. Janet L. Polasky, Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World, 2015) has emerged that situates the Founders within robust transatlantic conversations about liberty, equality, sovereignty, natural rights, and citizenship that stoked independence movements not only in Britain’s North American colonies, but also France, Haiti, and Ireland as well as Central and South America. Other scholars, like Michael Klarman, The Framers’ Coup (2016) have emphasized how our founding documents emerged from the authors acting not as a united body of elites, but as men with differing priorities and perspectives representing competing interests.

Several websites are particularly useful to inclusive interpretations of the founding moment. The Founders Online makes available the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, which public historians can mine for content related to their particular interpretive goals. Another web resource that makes available primary source material is the database published in conjunction with the exhibition Lives Bound Together. The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History publishes short writings about the political and cultural history of the founding era; the blog is “dedicated to providing content of general interest to other early Americanists and those interested in early American history, a well as a forum for discussion of relevant historical and academic topics.”

Historians at work in settings that are related to the nation’s founding may also wish to consult histories of public history practice that describe how other professionals, past and present, have grappled with similar challenges. Though this list is by no means exhaustive, some especially useful points of entry include:

Aden, Roger C. Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015.

Burns, Andrea.  From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Bruggeman, Seth C. Review: “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pa. Journal of American History 100, No. 1 (June 2013): 155–158.

Horton, Lois E. “Avoiding History: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Uncomfortable Public Conversation on Slavery,” in Horton and Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 135-150.

Kachun, Mitch. First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Lawler, Jr., Edward. “The President’s House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126, No. 1 (Jan., 2002): 5-95. http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/history/pmhb/index.php

Monteiro, Lyra D. “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.” The Public Historian Vol. 38 No. 1 (February 2016): 93.

Ogline, Jill Titus. “‘Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy.” The Public Historian 26.3 (Summer 2004): 49-57.

Rogers, Ashley. “Incorporating Descendent Community Voices: The Whitney Plantation.” In Robert P. Connolly and Elizabeth A. Bollwerk, eds., Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Schocket, Andrew M. Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

Tyson, Amy M. and Azie Mira Dungey. “‘Ask a Slave’ and Interpreting Race on Public History’s Front Line (Interview with Azie Mira Dungey).” The Public Historian 36, No. 1 (February 2014): 36-60.

Author

~ Marla R. Miller directs the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she teaches courses in Museum and Historic Site Interpretation, History Communication, and the Art and Craft of Biography. A historian of early American women, work, and material culture, she is the author of The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (UMass Press, 2006) and Betsy Ross and the Making of America (Holt, 2010). She also consults and collaborates with a wide range of museums and historic sites, and is a co-author of the 2012 report Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, a multi-year study funded by the NPS Chief Historian’s office and hosted by the Organization of American Historians. She is currently serving as the president of the National Council on Public History.