There remains much scholarly work to do when it comes to assessing the educational value of historical markers at public history sites. What do people take away from these markers? Do they even read them? What is an appropriate text length for a given marker, and how does the interpretive text writer balance the need to communicate historical content and nuanced interpretation while maintaining textual brevity? When markers accompany a controversial monument, statue, memorial, or other icon, do they ultimately provide an enhanced understanding of a given topic, or is it all a big waste of time? There are no easy answers and ultimately I have a love/hate relationship with the way most historical markers interpret history and provide educational value to viewers.
It’s been a really nice day today here in St. Louis, so I decided to take a stroll to nearby St. Charles, Missouri, to take a walk and look at a popular Lewis and Clark statue with accompanying historical markers. Downtown St. Charles is one of my favorite spots in the St. Louis area. Nestled along the Missouri River and not far from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the area offers numerous historic homes, museums, and markers that cover a range of local and state history. While there is a lack of historical materials interpreting the experiences of the area’s indigenous peoples, particularly the Missouri and Osage Indian tribes, I really like the fact that the sites in downtown St. Charles cover a wide historical time period ranging from early white European settlement and the 1804 Lewis and Clark voyage through St. Charles to the development of a railroad infrastructure and population boom in the last half of the nineteenth century. I took a few pictures while I was there:
Here are two pictures of the Lewis and Clark monument. The monument features William Clark (left), Meriwether Lewis (right), and Lewis’s Newfoundland dog “Seaman” (center).
The two historical markers for this monument leave much to be desired, in my opinion.
A number of questions arise in this first marker. The first and most important question is why does this topic matter? We learn that the Corps of Discovery is led by Lewis and Clark (and perhaps Seaman?), but we don’t learn why this expedition was organized, who organized it, why it came to St. Charles, or why we should care that any of this happened in the first place. Moreover, while the “brave men” of the Corps get an acknowledgement of their service, no mention is given to the enslaved labor that helped with the expedition, particularly Clark’s slave York. This marker seems primarily focused with acknowledging the various individuals and groups who worked to have the monument erected in the first place in 2003. The monument is very nice, but so far its educational value is rather dubious to me.
This second marker is nice but likewise lacks sufficient detail, in my opinion. We learn that the Corps of Discovery was here in May 1804 and that a ball was held for the expedition team while they were in town, but we still don’t know the purpose of this expedition except for a vague allusion to travels towards an “unknown West” (unknown to white Europeans, that is) and “great discoveries” they make on the trip, whatever those may be.
I don’t aim to denigrate anyone who may have worked on these marker texts. Rather, I aim to point out just how difficult it is to write historical marker texts that are educational, nuanced, and brief all at the same time. The work of putting these texts together is some of the most difficult work in public history.
What do you think? Would you change the text of these markers? How so?