Public History: Temple or Forum?

I am always leery of any efforts to wax nostalgically about the past or “the good times.” We all have great memories of past friendships, relationships, and moments of happiness, but those nostalgic moments often distort our understanding of the struggles and hardships people went through in the past while at the same time giving us an unhealthy sense of fear about contemporary society’s problems. That said, it’s clear to me that our world is experiencing hard times right now. Warfare, state violence, racism, sexism, economic struggles, political deadlock, social outrage, and a loss of faith in the promise of a better future greet us at every corner of our computers and in face-to-face interactions with those around us. These sentiments seem to be especially pronounced on social media, where the proliferation of information–“likes,” “retweets,” “click-bait,” “listicles,” and an endless quantity of thinkpieces–seems to breed confusion, misunderstanding, and anger rather than enlightened discussion.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways public history can redirect these concerns into a meaningful dialogue that addresses contemporary problems in society through a better understanding of the past. Some would call these efforts “civic engagement,” although I am not a fan of this term (more on that in a future post).

Before we can even begin to discuss public history as a civic good, however, we must ask whether historians should engage in any efforts to facilitate a dialogue about contemporary problems in the first place. Similar debates have raged in social studies classrooms for years and are relevant to public history as well. For example, Chester E. Finn, Jr. of the Hoover Institute remarked in 2003 about efforts to promote cultural understanding in social studies classrooms that “one camp believes that social studies classes should help children feel good about themselves, be nice to others, and learn to respect all cultures, with minimal attention to traditional history, geography, and civics. The other camp holds that the schools’ job is to transmit information to children about their shared American culture, how it works, and where it came from.” Anyone who embraced the former, according to Finn, was simply practicing “pop psychotherapy” that mistakenly diagnosed “that children needed to be comforted, reassured, and admonished not to cast blame or show bias toward any group, religion, or country.” Anyone that embraced the latter was a patriotic champion of teaching American heritage and exceptionalism to the nation’s youth.

Should public historians stick to interpreting [Euro or Ameri-centric] history without political commentary or civic instruction, or should they make efforts efforts to connect their historical interpretations to the present? The answer lies partly in whether public history is reflective of a “historical temple” or a “historical forum.”

Canadian museologist Duncan F. Cameron famously argued in 1971 that many cultural institutions faced an identity crisis of “role definition.” Were they temples or forums? Most museums, historic homes, and other public history destinations at that time framed themselves as “temples.” Cameron argued that many institutions, echoing Finn’s concerns about the need for children to learn about so-called traditional history, “created [spaces] that were the temples within which they enshrined those things they held to be significant and valuable. The public generally accepted the idea that if it was in the museum, it was not only real but represented a standard of excellence. If the museum said that this and that was so, then that was a statement of truth.” These “temple” spaces, according to Cameron, were more reflective of churches than schools. We can still see this mentality in many public history “temples” today, where audiences are exposed to and expected to unquestioningly bow to the enshrined “truths” of history as defined by either the state, an academic institution, or a private bourgeois interest group.

Opportunities for questions and dialogue are rare in these sorts of places. Sociologist and historian James Loewen took a negative view of public history “temples” in his 1999 bestseller Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong when he argued that “public history . . . usually fosters the civic status quo by praising the government and defending its acts. Rarely do historic markers and monuments criticize the state. Instead, they make things that were problematic seem appropriate, ordained, even commendable” (26). The fact that many public history institutions enjoy financial backing from the state, the academy, or wealthy benefactors makes any questioning of the civic status quo difficult and inherently political. Then again, any concerted effort to ignore or silence dissent against the civic status quo is, of course, also political. Public history is as much a politics of historical omission as much as it is a politics of historical inclusion.

On the other hand, according to Cameron, some institutions by 1971 began expanding their mission statements to go beyond “simply a place where proved excellence should be exhibited and interpreted to the public.” These institutions sought to transform their spaces into local community centers and “forums” that interpreted “the immediate environment and the cultural heritage of that community” through historical exhibits and programs that sought to question the state and its actions. Cameron cited the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. as an example of a historical “forum” where local community members were invited to participate in the process of creating an exhibit deemed relevant to their concerns with museum professionals about urban rat problems in the DC area.

Here in St. Louis I have recently taken a great interest in the efforts of the Missouri History Museum to be a community “forum” for discussing the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. The museum hosted a “Ferguson Town Hall” meeting on Monday, August 25, and plans to host several lectures/discussions in the near future. As museum spokesperson Leigh Albright Walters recently explained, “The Missouri History Museum has always made it a point to address difficult topics. We felt it was important to have events and programming that relate to the current situation in Ferguson.”

Should the Missouri History Museum and other similar public history institutions continue to their efforts to be more like community “forums” instead of elite “temples,” or should they only focus on the transmission of historical knowledge without any civics instruction? What are some other examples of “historical forums” currently in action (such as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum)?


A Brief Note on the Virtues of Listening

I believe listening is an undervalued yet highly important virtue.

Talking is easy. Relying on our prior beliefs, values, and what we think we know is easy. But listening is hard because it requires a great deal of mental effort and humiliation to acknowledge that one doesn’t have all the answers – that we might need to put ourselves on silent and listen to others for a better understanding of ourselves and our world. Listening is also hard because the things we hear from others often make us uncomfortable by exposing our own weaknesses and ignorances. We’ve been told to “like,” “comment,” “favorite,” and “retweet,” as if these things will lead us to true enlightenment and civil dialogue. But we’ve never been told to listen.

The best listeners have the greatest capacity for personal growth because they’ve freed themselves from the tyrannical prison of their own condescension and ignorance. When we listen, we get a little closer to understanding each other. When we listen, we convey respect. When we listen, we acknowledge the humanity of others.

California as a Frontier of Unfree Labor in the Nineteenth Century

Freedom's FrontierOur understanding of nineteenth century United States history is primarily shaped by a focus on historical events that took place in two ill-defined regions: “the North” and “the South.” Embedded in this narrative are depictions of various political ideologies that supposedly illuminate the divisive conflicts between Northerners and Southerners during the Antebellum period. The general thrust of this narrative is that disagreements with seemingly clear distinctions–slavery versus freedom, black versus white, and North versus South–precipitated the outbreak of the American Civil War from 1861-1865.

While popular and intriguing, this narrative is woefully inadequate for understanding the complexities of the Civil War Era. For one, the Confederacy is not equivalent to “the South.” Many residents who lived within the Confederate states and considered themselves “Southerners” rejected calls for secession in 1860 and 1861. Nearly 100,000 white males from the Confederate states signed up to fight for the United States military (often incorrectly labeled as “the North”), while an additional 180,000 or so African Americans (most of which came from Southern slave states) also joined the U.S. military. These numbers don’t include the men who joined the Union from border slave states that never formally seceded, including Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. These people–whether black or white–were just as “Southern” as those who supported the Confederacy. Moreover, it was never the goal of the U.S. military to destroy the entire South in the first place. Rather, the U.S. military’s end-goal was to destroy the Confederacy and all secessionist sentiment within the United States. This goal is not the same as wanting to destroy the entire South.

These semantic differences, however, do not provide the chance for a more inclusive understanding of the Civil War that incorporates the role of “the West” in shaping the country’s prewar disagreements, nor do they hint at the difficult tensions underlying concepts like “slavery” and “free labor.” Stacy L. Smith’s 2013 publication Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction complicates our understanding of the Civil War Era, demonstrating the complex ways freedom and enslavement entangled themselves within a larger debate about the future of the United States.

Smith argues in the introduction of her book that scholars can benefit from “recast[ing] the narrative of the sectional crisis, emancipation, and Reconstruction in the United States by geographically recentering it in the Far West.” California presents itself as a particularly appropriate case study because “California’s struggle over slavery did not end with its entrance into the Union as a free state . . . instead . . . California’s free soil was far less solid, its contests over human bondage far more complicated, contentious, and protracted, than historians have usually imagined” (2).

What were these “contests over human bondage” that emerged in California after achieving statehood in 1850? Smith analyzes the experiences of several different racial and ethnic groups throughout Freedom’s Frontier.

Indian Enslavement: As more men emigrated to California following the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, the need for domestic laborers increased. Many single males and families sought servants that they could bind into long-term contracts. The California legislature responded to demands for more domestic labor by passing the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which allowed white householders to claim Indian children as long-term wards. As long as white householders could justify that these Indian children were orphans or living with impoverished, “unsuitable” parents, state courts could convey legal guardianship of these Indian children to white “parents” until the age of eighteen, even if the children had been stolen from their parents and tribes. This act perpetuated a thriving trade in Indian children in the years before the Civil War, even though California was a “free state” according to the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 and its 1850 state constitution.

African Enslavement: Despite California’s status as a free state, many California residents originally from slave states hoped to carry their slaves with them to the gold mines. According to Smith, 36 percent of California’s U.S.-born residents in 1850 were from a slaveholding state (8), and they were vastly overrepresented in the California state legislature. Arguing that they had had the right to bring their slaves into California when it was still a federal territory, proslavery forces in the state legislature helped facilitate the passage of a fugitive slave law in 1852 that allowed masters to claim slaves that they brought to California before statehood. Another provision of this fugitive law stipulated that the state would capture runaway slaves (who arrived before and after statehood) and return them to the South, despite the arguments of anti-slavery Californians who argued that black slaves were free immediately upon arrival in the state. Nevertheless, the 1850 census shows that there were at least 203 slaves in California, although Smith suggests that the incompleteness of these records could mean that there may be “a substantial undercount of masters and slaves in my study” (238-239).

Slaves, Coolies, and Peons: Before and after California’s statehood in 1850, Mexican, Chilean, Hawaiian, and Chinese laborers voluntarily and involuntarily emigrated to the state to work as miners in the gold fields. These laborers often entered into voluntary contracts and received wages, but as Smith argues, “contracts were not symbols of freedom but markers of bondage. Foreign employers used these legal instruments to bind otherwise free workers to toil for years on end and to accept nonmonetary compensation–passage, food, clothing, and goods–in lieu of meaningful cash wages,” essentially making them slaves in all but name (10). White free-soil Democrats and Whigs argued that these laborers would degrade the value of free labor, reduce wages, and help drive white male laborers out of the mines. With regards to Chinese labor, the Republican party echoed these concerns about “Coolie” labor well after the Civil War, and it was the Republican party who led the charges in Congress to pass the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Both of these acts restricted Chinese immigration to the United States on the grounds that Chinese laborers were actually “forced laborers” who devalued free white labor and who violated the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery in the United States. Rather than punishing the employers who arranged these contracts with Chinese laborers, Californians chose to punish Chinese laborers through exclusion.

Chinese Prostitution: Chinese women in California often found themselves in an underground sex trade before, during, and after the Civil War. According to Smith, “demand for domestic labor also fueled a market in bound women and children who worked in private households as wards, apprentices, debt-bound servants, and slaves . . . Diverse Californians bought and sold women as domestic servants and as forced sexual partners, prostitutes, concubines, and wives. The struggle over free-state status, then, often moved out of the mines and into the intimate labor and sexual relations of California households” (11).

Stacy L. Smith’s analysis of nineteenth century California was eye-opening and insightful for me. Books like Smith’s challenge us to view the Civil War in new ways that dismantle commonly-held distinctions between slave and free labor and “North versus South.” Freedom’s Frontier is one of the finest publications I’ve read in a long time and I highly recommend it for scholars of the Civil War and the West.


News and Notes: August 15, 2014

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

Personal/Professional Notes

  • NPS Fundamentals Training: The National Park Service annually hosts an intensive “Fundamentals” training unit for new employees that involves both online and on-site courses. This training includes an introduction to the Park Service’s history, interpretive training, and opportunities to network with Park Service employees around the country. I applied to participate in the Fundamentals program a couple weeks ago and just received confirmation that I’ve been accepted into this training program for the 2014-2015 year. Over the next few months I’ll focus on completing the online courses, but from February 24 – March 5, 2015, I’ll be at the Horace Albright Training Center, which just so happens to be located at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. How about that! I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon before and can’t wait to meet other Park Service employees while doing a little sight-seeing.
  • Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site on Twitter: The powers that be have given me the keys to the ULSG Twitter account. If you’re into Twitter and would like to stay posted on what we’re doing, give us a follow at @USGrantNPS.

Recommended Reading

  • Amy Webb at Slate argues that social media makes the mourning process more difficult for those experiencing loss. “Using social media to broadcast the news of a tragedy is a good way to help inform a community,” argues Webb, “but one-click condolences don’t help people deal with loss. In fact, it accelerates a social norm that would otherwise take several weeks: sending heartfelt letters, sharing memories in person, even showing support by spending a few hours together to help sort paperwork or mail.” How might these changes affect the ways we remember and mourn our departed friends and loved ones?
  • Sheila Brennan at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s blog Preservation Nation argues that museum curators should take their historical objects out of storage and place them on public display for visitors to view and even touch: “By making more objects available, visitors can truly interact with the things that drew them inside the museum in the first place. We all talk about the power of objects, but rarely can a visitor directly engage with them at a museum.”
  • Following Brennan’s arguments about making collections more accessible, the Glensheen estate in Minnesota recently enacted a new series of public programming initiatives that open the estate’s collections to their audiences for viewing and touching. In 2009 only 27% of the estate’s budget was filled by museum revenues. That number is now around 66% thanks to these changes.
  • Theodore R. Johnson writes a thoughtful essay on ways the United States federal government could apologize for slavery. Should the government apologize for slavery? It seems hypocritical for the government to apologize for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II while doing nothing to acknowledge the wrongs of slavery in this country.
  • Al Mackey from Student of the Civil War has been on a roll lately with some great essays about West Virginia’s entrance into the Union in 1863, what it really means to do “revisionist” history, and neoconfederate nonsense. Be sure to check out his blog if you’re into studying the American Civil War.

A Brief Note on Ferguson

As an American citizen, native St. Louisian, historian, and blogger, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the events that have taken place in Ferguson, Missouri, over the past week. For eight years during my childhood I lived in a home that was about ten minutes away from Ferguson; I’m not currently living in St. Louis county, but I work in the county and I’m still pretty close by. The current ongoing debates–the actions of Mike Brown and the Ferguson Police Department prior to Brown’s death, the tenuous relationship between a mostly white PD and a mostly black population, and the militarization of police forces around the United States since 9/11–play into a larger historical narrative of contested notions of freedom, equality, and democracy in the United States that demands our attention. The fact that these debates are being played out in my community affects me deeply, and it’s my hope that peace and justice come to all of St. Louis.

Rather than writing a full essay or engaging in political activism about Ferguson, I believe it’s best to wait for more information to come out about what exactly happened. I also think it’s important to listen to what the residents of Ferguson have to say about these events rather than attempting to speak for them. Anyone seriously committed to understanding the situation must also read up on the history of St. Louis. Aisha Sultan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a couple nice essays here and here about the crisis that hint at the historical context of these events, while Colin Gordon’s book and interactive website about urban decline in St. Louis are highly recommended. Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates also recommended on Twitter Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, which spends a considerable amount of time looking at suburbanization efforts in St. Louis after World War II. I haven’t read this book yet, but I plan on reading it soon.


Interpretation Throughout the Lifespan

As a public historian, I am constantly challenged by the need to conduct interpretive tours that provide accessible historical knowledge to people of all ages. I’ve been thinking about this challenge a lot lately because I feel like I have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to working with children who participate in my interpretive tours at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Most of my training as an educator and historian has revolved around teaching history to people from about age twelve and up, and my Missouri teacher certification covers grades 5-12.

Interpretation guru Freeman Tilden argued in his 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage that “interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should be a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.” Tilden’s argument may sound fairly basic and obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy for interpreters to overlook the needs of children when giving their presentations. I’ve been on plenty of tours where interpreters only address the adults in their audiences without even acknowledging the presence of the children there.

When I worked for the Capitol Tour Office at the Indiana State House, the educational focus of my tours was clear cut. Sometimes I gave tours to groups with upwards of more than 100 fourth graders, while at other times I did tours with senior groups, government officials, and other adult groups. Most of time I had a clear idea of who my audience was and what I needed to do as an educator to make my tours inclusive and accessible. Generally speaking, I made sure to make the student tours “interactive” through the use of visuals and active questioning that challenged students to recall their prior knowledge of Indiana history and civics. During adult tours I usually did a more straight-forward presentation with time for audience questions throughout the tour.

Life’s a little more difficult at ULSG because you simply cannot predict who is going to come through the door for your tours. What do you do when you have a group of five adults and five children, three of which are under age 12? How would you make this tour inclusive for both the adults and children? Do you focus on addressing the groups as if they were all adults and simply sprinkle a few questions that you address to the children to make it more inclusive, or do you compose a completely separate program largely geared around the children? Since I have a ten-minute limit for giving my interpretations, should I cut out important historical context related to Grant’s life and the history of his family so that I can focus on asking more questions and providing definitions for complex topics like slavery on tours with many children? Is there a good way to delicately talk about slavery and secession to groups with children under twelve? Tilden’s principle of inclusive children’s tours seems to fall short when attempting to wrestle with these interpretive challenges because the answer oftentimes cannot be whittled down to “do a separate program for the best results.”

I am curious to hear from other public historians, museum practitioners, and educators about their own experiences working with children under twelve in an interpretive setting. I’d also like to find relevant scholarship that addresses these questions. A search of the database for the National Council on Public History’s quarterly publication The Public Historian on JSTOR unfortunately yielded no results for any scholarship about working with children. Larry Beck and Ted Cable’s 2002 publication Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture dedicates an entire chapter to “interpreting throughout the lifespan,” including children, teenagers, and seniors, but I found that chapter remarkably unhelpful to me; the authors focus exclusively on providing ideas for introducing kids to nature without any mention of the need to connect kids to history and culture. I find those omissions indicative of just how difficult it is for interpreters to make history (especially if it’s intangible history) relevant and accessible to young audiences.

Every audience I work with is unique and presents an interpretive challenge for me. Although I have experience working with children under twelve, I believe I still have a lot of work to do before I can get to a point where I feel comfortable working with groups that are mixed-age or mostly composed of children under age twelve.


[Addendum: I should add that one book I find quite helpful when comes to museum education and educational theories is Deborah L. Perry’s What Makes Learning Fun? Principles for the Design of Intrinsically Motivating Museum Exhibits. I highly recommend purchasing it.]

NCPH and International Public History

During the National Council on Public History’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, I had an opportunity to engage in several fruitful conversations about international public history with Salem State University history professor Matthew Barlow and Nick Johnson, a good friend and former classmate of mine from IUPUI who will soon be leaving for a year of public history studies in Berlin, Germany. Out of those conversations came an essay from me about the potential benefits of international collaboration in public history and some questions about what exactly it means to “internationalize” public history. That essay was finally posted on NCPH’s History@Work blog today. You can access it here.

As always, thank you to everyone for taking time out of your busy schedules to read my musings, questions, arguments, and essays about history.


History Is There Whether or Not You Choose to Acknowledge It

Photo Credit: Dan Martin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Photo Credit: Dan Martin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I am probably the only St. Louis resident in his 20s who nerds out by regularly watching the PBS television show “Donnybrook.” I love watching the show because it’s the only program in the area for residents to hear an informed discussion about local political issues, of which I take a great interest.

The July 31 broadcast of “Donnybrook” brought about an interesting debate about a political cartoon that was included in an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the largest newspaper in St. Louis. The Post-Dispatch used the op-ed in question to advocate for the election of a new Democratic candidate to replace Charlie Dooley, the incumbent candidate for St. Louis County Executive. The political cartoon included in the op-ed, which is pictured above, shows Dooley at his desk with a sign that reads “The Buck Stops Here,” with the word “here” crossed out.

The political cartoon aimed to make a point about financial mismanagement in the Dooley administration, but many residents took issue with the juxtaposition of Dooley, who is black, with the slogan “The Buck Stops.” The word “buck” has many different connotations in American English and can refer to a form of currency, a male deer, or a person’s name. But another connotation refers to a racial slur that was used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to refer to African American males who “absolutely refused to bend to the law of white authority and were irredeemably violent, rude, and lecherous.” A “black buck” was often labeled as someone intellectually inferior to white people, prone to fits of wild emotion, and possessed with uncontrollable sexual desires for white women.

Of course, the term “the buck stops here” also refers to a slogan made famous by President Harry S. Truman, the only U.S. President from Missouri. Some of the panelists on “Donnybrook” along with local residents argued that the political cartoon referred to Truman’s use of the term without any intention of alluding to the racial slur. I agree that the term within the context of the political cartoon refers to Truman’s use of “the buck stops here,” but it’s also evident to me that the staff at the Post-Dispatch were clearly ignorant of the messy historical connection between African American males and the use of the term “buck.” I don’t believe they posted the cartoon out of malicious racism, but they displayed a degree of insensitivity and historical ignorance by posting the cartoon without comment or clarification once the controversy ensued. Not everyone thinks the Post-Dispatch did anything wrong, however. One caller to “Donnybrook” succinctly explained her defense of the Post-Dispatch by arguing that “I didn’t know ‘buck’ was a racial slur. I interpreted the political cartoon as referring to Truman’s use of the term and I don’t think anyone should be offended by the cartoon.”


Throughout our lives we make deliberate choices about the things we want to educate ourselves about. Since we can’t know everything about everything, we also make deliberate choices about the things we remain ignorant about. We choose our ignorances and live with the consequences of those choices. I am not very good at or interested in mathematics, and the decision to not pursue a career with an emphasis in mathematics means that I am largely ignorant about engineering, accounting, quantum physics, and a whole slew of things I could and should know more about. I’ve also sacrificed some of my future potential earnings in bypassing this sort of career. So it goes.

Other people choose to ignore history. They don’t find it interesting or relevant to their lives, so they deliberately choose to stay ignorant of the past. One can choose this path if they are so inclined, but the reality is that history is with us whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. It never leaves.

The words and symbols we use to communicate with each other are loaded with historical meanings that are enmeshed in the very fabric of their existence. Whether or not we choose to educate ourselves about the historical and racial connotations of the word “buck,” the history of that term will remain a fundamental part of its meaning and definition, even if the term changes over time. Similarly, whether or not we choose to educate ourselves about the messy history of a symbol like the Confederate flag, the history of that flag as a symbol of slavery, oppression, and opposition to Civil Rights will never go away. When a high school senior petitions her school to reinstate a Confederate soldier named “Rebel Man” as the school’s mascot and argues that “the mascot we had might be a racist figure or represent slavery to some people, but to us it does not personify that in any way,” that person fails to realize that the history of the Confederacy doesn’t go away because you choose to dismiss that history or assign your own meaning to it. History is larger than any one individual and their emotions or ignorances.

Why is history important to us all? Because it’s there lurking inside all of us whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.