Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Can the scholar's history be the public's history?"

This week’s readings provide fodder for understanding the ways in different which histories are told at various sites. The anthropologist Cathy Stanton delved into Lowell National Historical Park (NHP) in her study. Stanton’s The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City is an ethnographic study of the rituals that surrounded the Park’s creation and its later functioning roles. Like many other American towns and cities in the 1960s, Lowell was experiencing the effects of deindustrialization. As a measure of economic and cultural revitalization, the city of Lowell, “found new ways to yoke public and private investment together in aid of turning the city’s fortunes around” (5). Stanton takes an interesting approach in her study. She analyzed the performative nature of “history-making processes” and the role of public historians in creating interpretations for exhibits in Lowell where present-day actors were struggling to recapture a nostalgic view of the past.

Stanton, in particular, focuses on the ethnic demographics of Lowell throughout the twentieth century and the ways in which Lowell NHP’s leaders struggled to reconcile this history with the exhibit. Patrick Mogan, superintendent of schools in Lowell at the time, was heavily involved in revitalizing Lowell by turning to its past, but he resisted focusing on the conflicts that arose between different ethnic groups. While audiences were quite open to the nuances and challenges that this history demonstrated, Mogan was resistant to the idea. Stanton writes that, “Despite Mogan’s personal disapproval of interpretations that included emphasis on conflict or tension, the new social historians associated with the project as consultants and researchers were able to connect the plan with their own more critical focus on ethnic, immigrant, family, and labor histories” (89). Stanton fleshed out the controversies that arose as different groups sought to tell conflicting stories about their past.

            Similarly, the historian Gary Nash described the tensions of the National Park Service’s (NPS) exhibit on the Liberty Bell and the President’s House here in Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell was originally housed in Independence Hall, but was moved across the street in 1976. In the late 1990s, the NPS, in service of the 1997 General Management Plan that wished to create “a new VISION for the park in the twenty-first century,” worked to create a new exhibit for the Liberty Bell (Nash 76). The Liberty Bell was within steps of where several important American figures had not only lived, but owned slaves. Nash, along with other prominent historians and concerned Americans, contested the story that the NPS was telling about liberty and freedom within the confines of the Liberty Bell when ignoring the very real presence of slavery in the Philadelphia in the early republic.

            A consensus at both Lowell NHP and various sites at the NPS in Philadelphia was met. An important lesson taken from these two instances is that the public is much more open to historical nuance than perhaps they are given credit for. The general public wants to be involved in the history-making process, as evidenced by the outcry that came from Philadelphians and the national public in response to the NPS’s exhibit on the Liberty Bell. It seems from these readings that contention arises just as much, if not more, within the academic community rather than between the public and academia. Public historians struggle to find consensus with one another. This may be one of the reasons that Stanton’s book is so important to the field of public history. Her self-conscious analysis of public historians delved into the processes and influences that seep into the history-making process. Public historians should not consider themselves exempt from many of the influences that work into the lives of the general public. We need to be just as much, if not more, aware of how these processes seep into our own professional outlook.

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