With last week’s readings still fresh in my mind, I see concepts from Daniel Miller’s work in Stuff within historian Kirk Savage’s Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves. Miller reminded us that objects make us, just as we shape them. Savage shows us the politics of this exchange during one of the most defining periods of American history – Reconstruction. Specifically, Savage examines the monuments designed and erected throughout the United States that served to commemorate and memorialize the Civil War. He comments on how the academic traditions of sculpture literally shaped and limited how sculptors created monumental designs to reimagine and recreate the new racial order supposedly created after the abolishment of slavery. Sculptors and commemorative groups contended with these new meanings, but often ended up harkening back to a time that perceived blacks in a childlike, liminal phase and celebrated a white, male paternalistic model of civilization. What this shows us is that monuments offer a window into understanding how blacks and whites, the North and South, visualized their post-Civil War reality that the American Revolution had failed to achieve. Through the structural study of these monuments, we see that while slavery was abolished, the underlying paradox of oppression and freedom was perpetuated. Civil War monuments allowed privileged Americans to shape the past on their terms to face their nebulous present.
Which raises the point that Savage not only succeeds in talking about the history of memorialization, but his work serves as a good public history conversation as well. Savage helps us understand how late nineteenth century Americans built their history through objects, but what about now? How are the objects we choose in the museum setting shaping the audiences we will work with every day? Ken Yellis offers some insight into this conversation. Focusing on the Mining the Museum exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society in the early 1990s, Yellis explores the sometimes contentious relationship between museums and their audiences. The artist behind Mining the Museum brokered an interesting juxtaposition of objects, such as the Ku Klux Klan hood and the baby carriage, to explore the museum’s history, but it was also at the cost of some backlash as well as positive responses. That was over twenty years ago – have we learned better ways to talk about the objects public historians use to tell stories about the past? Because if we are to listen to Savage and Yellis, this stuff matters and has tinges of a moral imperative as well. I admit that I don’t have an answer to the questions I’m asking, but it’s made me remember the pressures and responsibilities that come with public historical work. Even when objects are no longer used for the same intent for which they were first built, we’re still using them for different purposes. We need to be better about talking about the fluidity of objects and the built environment if we are to show our public that artifacts and history never existed in a fixed past.