Tuesday, November 29, 2011

House Museums and the Revitalization of the Inner City (Part 2)

In my last post, I laid out some rather optimistic plans for a new Philadelphia house museum that would interpret the history of the city's African American community. The site, I argued, would be well situated to do critical public history on "the tough stuff of American memory" while also serving as a community center and as a starting line for neighborhood economic revitalization.

Seems pretty ideal. So why hasn't anybody tried it, yet?

I can't say for sure, but I can suggest a few reasons -- based on this week's readings, as well as my own conjecture -- why it would be tough to do.

First and foremost, the contemporary professional discourse on house museum perpetuation suggests not opening new house museums, but finding new uses for existing spaces. As Marian Godfrey notes, "both rural and urban [house museums] have [found new and economically vital lives] as art galleries, bed and breakfasts, and conference centers, used and appreciated by the public daily." A Philly-adjacent example of this trend, as cited by Godfrey, is the John Audubon House in Montgomery County, which recently switched from a fully-functional house museum to a space preserving only Audubon's bedroom and converting the rest of the house into an art center (while placing preservation focus on the house's exterior alone). [1]

Second, and perhaps most important, postindustrial cities -- though ideally situated to do critical public history that addresses important historical and contemporary themes -- often fail to accomplish such full interpretation. As Stanton points out in her case study of Lowell, "truly critical perspectives increasingly struggle to make headway against the layered social and economic forces . . . that serve on so many levels to dampen them" [2]. Given that Philadelphia has recently been the site of controversy between "truly critical perspectives" on history and a gauntlet of "layered social and economic forces . . . that serve on so many levels to dampen them," perhaps it would not be such a great site for a radical house museum like the one I have in mind.

This may sound like a conservative retreat from inciting the next public history controversy. It probably is. I guess I'm not one of the "progressive public historians" that Stanton so ably studies in her book. It just seems to me that an effort to create the city's first African American house museum, however exciting and however ideally poised to make a vital contribution to the city's historical community, is bound from the outset to fail -- or at least get stymied and become ideologically impotent along the way.


[1] Marian A. Godfrey, “Historic House Museums: An Embarrassment of Riches?” Forum Journal, Spring 2008, 14-15.

[2] Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), 228.

House Museums and the Revitalization of the Inner City (Part 1)

The purposeful organization of this week’s readings is pretty transparent: an optimistic take-away conclusion might be something like, “Re-orienting our public historical and heritage tourism efforts in major cities toward under-served populations and to the issues of interest to these populations (slavery, for instance), will result in revitalized urban spaces, as public historical projects--house museums, historic sites, and the like--become vital, well-supported vehicles for economic renewal.”

Like I said, that’s an optimistic conclusion.

In some ways, I can see the wisdom—nay, brilliance—of such an effort. For instance, I was struck by the blunt truth of Marian A. Godfrey’s assertion that in Philadelphia, “few house museums interpret the history of African Americans, who make up 45 percent of our population.” [1] And I was, ironically, inspired by it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could launch a successful house museum in a predominantly black part of Philadelphia, one that would interpret the history of Philadelphia's historic African American communities? Maybe we could find an appropriate place in historically black West Philly, for instance, or Germantown, or Society Hill, which was a black neighborhood until the mid-twentieth century, when historical preservationists and developers displaced families in their bid to create present-day Olde City.

The house museum could be, in addition to an interpretive site, a community center–type institution, much like David W. Young describes the “Next Cliveden” in his article. Like Cliveden, which “re-branded” itself in the mid-2000s, our African American house museum could offer non-site-specific educational programming (like Cliveden’s after-school creative writing program) and serve as a community center, meeting space, and event venue. [2]

We'd establish, of course, our African American house museum as a place for critical reflect on the past as well as critical discussion of the present and future. Postindustrial cities, as Cathy Stanton has argued in her book The Lowell Experiment, are the perfect sites for such critical discussion, by virtue of their ability to use the past to provoke discussions about contemporary issues: immigration, race and ethnicity, poverty, labor, globalization, justice, economic (in)equality, and the like. [3] Like the postindustrial Massachusetts city on which Stanton's book meditates, Philadelphia stands as an example of a city once mighty with manufacturing, now struggling to keep up in the new economy. Its ethnic and racial diversity, coupled with its wealth of historic spaces waiting with bated breath to be interpreted, makes it an ideal place to launch an African American house museum.

Philadelphia, moreover, is an ideal location to talk about the "tough stuff of American memory": slavery. That was my take-away from Gary B. Nash's article on controversies surrounding the interpretations of the Liberty Bell and the President's House. Protests by the city's African American populace, as well as decisive action by Philadelphia congressman Chaka Fattah, and the unremitting advocacy of the Ad Hoc Historians group, resulted in what Nash called "a clear victory for progressive public history" and a strong plan for "interpret[ing] fully the President's House site." [4]

Of course, Nash's article was written prior to the final unveiling of the President's House, so it can't take into account the now-unveiled museum's lack of "intellectual coherence and emotional power" -- a result of a tumultuous, agenda-driven final interpretation process. [5] Nevertheless, Nash's narrative of the event suggests the existence in Philadelphia especially of a powerful lobby keen on (re)interpreting certain spaces to incorporate the histories of under-served populations. That's a lobby that could help make our hypothetical African American house museum a reality -- and a well-interpreted reality, too.

So, what's keeping us from moving from the hypothetical to the fully realized? We'll need a second blog post to find out.


[1] Marian A. Godfrey, “Historic House Museums: An Embarrassment of Riches?” Forum Journal, Spring 2008, 12.

[2] For specifics on the "New Cliveden" and its attempts to bridge the gap between its predominantly white visitors and its majority black neighbors, see David W. Young, "The Next Cliveden: A New Approach to the Historic Site in Philadelphia," Forum Journal, Spring 2008, 53-54.

[3] Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006).

[4] Gary B. Nash, "For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll? From Controversy to Cooperation," in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, ed. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 91-98; quotations, 97 and 96, respectively.

[5] Edward Rothstein, "Reopening a House That's Still Divided," New York Times, December 14, 2010.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Preservation as Controversy (Part 2)

In my last post, I started to wonder how one of this week's in-class readings, Beyond Preservation, might relate to our course project on public history controversies. I threw out a few thoughts related to public history and preservation controversies that have beset one of my favorite Philadelphia neighborhoods, Germantown.

In finishing Beyond Preservation and giving some attention to both Tilden's Interpreting Our Heritage and Fritsch's Shared Authority, it seems clear that there are some basic principles that may help us, as public historians, to navigate controversy, conflict, and debate in an ultimately more constructive way. Here are some "first thoughts."

1. Construct project agendas at the grassroots. Hurley makes this point in the conclusion of Beyond Preservation (181), and Fritsch makes a similar implicit claim in his introductory discussion of the "poles" of contemporary public history discourse (xxi). This is key to doing public history well. Without allowing the project to descend into banal or flaccid history-making, we public historians should relinquish our absolutist claims -- learned in an academic context that rewards expertise -- to "doing history correctly." That is to say, when we empower grassroots participants -- institutional partners, community activists, neighborhood residents, etc. -- to shape the way we interpret and present history, we release a bit of our claim to authority. But we also gain (if done well) a wealth of information about how history becomes real and meaningful in the minds and lived experiences of those who consume and make it.

Unfortunately, we haven't done this yet with our current course project.

2. "Instead of one story, many stories." I love this idea! Hurley (who I'm quoting in the bold headline text) sets the idea as a product of postmodernism's rejection of "absolute truth" (182), but I see it more as a willingness to relinquish our discipline's demonstrated (and the general public's assumed) affinity for metanarrative. One explanation can't explain it all, and that's okay. The layering of narrative -- a process much more possible now with the advent of digital media -- opens up a wide vista for history-making.

This, I think, is at the core of what we're trying to do with our public history controversy project. How can we create an exhibit -- whether digital, print, or both -- that allows us to expose users/visitors/readers to the layers, the complexities, of public history-making? And how can we immerse them in that process, empower them to recognize their voice, and encourage them to exert their agency in the act of public history-making? I hope we figure that out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Preservation as Controversy (Part 1)

"How can a book on historic preservation help us with a project on controversy?"

That's the question I asked myself prior to diving into Andrew Hurley's Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. Immediately, I didn't have an answer. Yet as I devoured the book's meaty first chapter, I realize that the whole idea of historic preservation is fraught with the potential for controversy.

As Hurley explains, the marriage of commerce and preservation that emerged as a "best practice" for inner city revitalization in the 1960s and 1970s had a tendency to thwart the "historic" component of historic preservation. That is to say, commercial preservation projects came under attack for their "interpretive bias" -- their inability to deal with "the tough stuff of American memory": slavery, race relations, gay and lesbian rights, etc (20). In his writing, Hurley implies (but does not expressly articulate) the central problem of our semester-long project on public history controversies: the interpretation of American memory is made complicated because of its myriad interlocutors: historians, community activists, real estate developers, commercial investors, neighborhood residents, politicians, the media, etc. Historic preservation, as a facet of public history-making, is beset by the same multiplicity of often-competing voices. It, therefore, has the same potential for controversy.

Johnson House, one of many Germantown historic sites preserved during the twentieth century in the hope that historical tourism would revive the community's stagnant economy.
One example of this potential for controversy in historic preservation is given to us by David W. Young, the executive director of Cliveden, a historic site in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood. In his doctoral dissertation, "The Battles of Germantown: Public History and Preservation in America’s Most Historic Neighborhood During the Twentieth Century," Young argues that the Germantown community's attempts to revive their stagnating economy through the preservation of historic homes and landmarks and the appeal of historical tourism was beset with interpretive problems and community unrest. He writes,
. . . the practice of history, locally and more generally, did not always help Germantown’s expressed goal to make its history more effective in the economic development of the neighborhood. Beset with many competing groups and unable to overcome entrenched traditions, Germantown’s primary selling point [its many historic buildings and sites] often paradoxically served as a barrier to achieving those goals [of economic rejuvenation, etc.]. (3)
As Young's case study reminds us (I'd recommend reading the whole dissertation -- it's brilliant!), public history and historic preservation are beset by controversies exactly because of their inherently democratic priorities. By consciously engaging diverse, often competing communities in the interpretation of history, public historians and preservationists run the risk of igniting controversy.

How might we avoid some of these controversial pitfalls?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Antidote to "Seeing"? (Part 2)

In my last post, I set to work deconstructing the depression-inducing claims of Tony Bennett’s article “Civic Seeing.” I argued that Tammy Stone-Gordon’s typology of the community exhibit challenges the Fouccoultean notions of control and manipulation that Bennett claims are inherent in the contemporary museum.

By the time I finished writing the last post, I’d almost recovered from my Bennett-borne depression. But not so fast!

As I finished reading Private History in Public, I began to realize that there was a different reason to feel depressed: many of the places in which the public encounters the past are spaces of economic exchange. (My colleague Bayard Miller notes that, in such institutions, "history is business.”) Stone-Gordon makes claims about the “corporate exhibit” in the final three chapters of her book. Her focus on Cracker Barrel is particularly gloom-inducing. Channeling Jerry Herron, she concludes that “corporately produced history-as-marketing often to a sanitized version of the past, a version that is divorced from the problems of the present" (p. 77). No wonder so many people yearn for the Norman Rockwell-ian America of “yore.”

Add to this glut of mythologized, capitalist-driven museums the claims of Whitcomb in Beyond the Mausoleum: Museums and the Media. Tying her work to Bennett, she advances the idea that government-sponsored museum spaces make not only cultural claims, but also economic ones. In other words, government museums -- in placing priority focus on material objects -- invite visitors to embrace capitalism. Thus, even in spaces supposedly liberated from the consumerist impulse, “history as commodity” reigns.

For the average museum-goer, I would assume, these academia-born typologies have little meaning. People obviously know the difference between a Cracker Barrel and the Philadelphia History Museum, but do they parse the ways in which they absorb history (i.e., arguments about the past) in these varied institutions? Are they cognizant of the diverse epistemologies at work in these spaces, the intellectual strategies of curation deployed to “convince” and “educate”?

I ask such questions only because we don’t have a The Presence of the Past that answers questions of public agency in the museum. We do, however, know -- courtesy of Rosenzweig and Thelen -- that the public trusts museums more than they trust any other source of knowledge about the past.

Boy, is that depressing.

An Antidote to "Seeing"? (Part 1)

Tony Bennett’s “Civic Seeing: Museums and the Organization of Vision” is probably the bleakest, scariest, most depression-inducing article I’ve read as a graduate student. This probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since it rises out of that “great” Fouccoultean tradition that depicts the museum as a big, scary, manipulative mega-monster intent on rendering a Stepford citizenry under the guise of “civic virtue.”

Here’s a basic example of what I'm talking about, one of many that could be culled from Bennett's article: In a section discussing the exhibition of difference in the museum space, Bennett contends that museums have “been places for making differences – whether natural, social, or cultural – visible.” He deflates the implicit (liberal) optimism of that assertion with a sudden reversal: “They have done so, however, mainly to and for a controlling point of view which, while theoretically universal, has, in fact . . . been restricted to” (p. 278) a privileged few--usually heterosexual, middle-class, white men.


Why, then, should we public historians even engage in the act of museum exhibition? If contemporary museum culture is controlled by this Fouccoultean carceral manipulation, shouldn’t we just give up on museums? Or is there an antidote to “seeing”?

Tammy Stone-Gordon offers one possible solution in her book Private History in Public: the community exhibit. Described by Stone-Gordon as exhibits that "provide individualized perspectives not only on the history of the local community but also on community views of the larger world" (p. 23), community exhibits are "indigenous" projects that provide the curating community with a form of agency. Claims Stone-Gordon: the community "is active in its construction of its history."

Stone-Gordon buttresses her descriptive claims with an example from the Homewood Historical Society. She quotes Elain Egdorf, one of the historical society's founding members, who claims that she didn't like history in school, because it was all about memorization. But as she became involved in "local history," she "realized that history is you and me; history is all of us, is what's happening today. . . . Everyone is important in some way to the fabric of their town. [We need to] wake up people to the diversity we have here, in ethnicity, economics, housing, architecture" (p. 40). In crafting this simple methodology of inclusion and interpretation for her local museum, Egdorf counters the claims made by Bennett and, perhaps, provides an antidote for "Seeing."

Take that, Tony Bennett!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Removing The Artificial Wall": Historians and the Academic/Public "Divide"

In this week's Chronicle of Higher Ed, two history PhDs -- Alexandra M. Lord and Michelle L. McClellan -- encourage students of American history to "remov[e] the artificial wall between academic and public history." Here's a taste of their article:

In our shaky economic climate, academic departments will need to hire historians with multiple skills who can teach a range of courses. History departments will increasingly require faculty members who can explain to parents facing hefty tuition bills how and why majoring in history is a good choice. Departments will want historians who can sell a service-learning project to a dean who is determining budget allocations in a tight fiscal year.

In other words, even in an academic setting, historians need to be able to communicate the importance of history to nonspecialists, to collaborate, and to understand wider institutional goals. Participation in public history builds all of those skills.

Even as the academic job market in history has contracted, Americans remain passionate about the subject. They visit historic sites and museums, watch documentaries, read historic fiction, and investigate their own family or local histories. They visit Ellis Island, hunting for shipping records. They travel to federal historic landmarks such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, seeking insight into how and why a fire there changed history and made their working lives different from that of their great-grandmothers'. They visit a slave cabin at Evergreen Plantation and feel their breath catch as they imagine a life within its narrow confines.

Overcoming the gap between academic and public history would mean that the considerable accomplishments of enthusiastic amateurs—"popular historymakers," in the words of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen—could be contextualized in a more sophisticated and nuanced fashion. While the reward structure of academe currently mitigates against the involvement of academic historians in many public-history activities, much is at stake here. Surely we would all benefit if academics brought their considerable expertise to bear on public discussions about history.

Read the whole article here.

They suggest that "graduate students . . . should be provided opportunities to work on public-history projects, just as they must gain experience teaching and writing monographs." This is great advice, and something that Temple's history program has provided me (and would also provide to grad students not specifically seeking public history specialization).

So what do you think, folks? How can we begin to remove "the artificial wall"?