Tuesday, November 29, 2011

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.

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