My first post as a regular contributor for Muster is now up. With this essay I wanted to take a look at the question of whether or not erecting monuments to the “heroes” of Reconstruction would do anything to improve understanding of the era. I also discussed some of the work taking place at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site to educate teachers in the St. Louis area about Reconstruction. Enjoy!
There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”
To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.
In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?
I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:
I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.
So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.
To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.
Is President Donald Trump like Andrew Jackson?
Wait, maybe he’s more like Andrew Johnson.
Or King George III.
Or Aaron Burr.
Or Abraham Lincoln.
Or Jefferson Davis.
Or Horace Greeley.
Or Ulysses S. Grant.
Or Huey Long.
Or Benito Mussolini.
Or George Patton.
Or George Wallace.
Or Barry Goldwater.
Or Richard Nixon.
Or Ronald Reagan.
Or Hugo Chavez.
Over the past week historians have been debating the merits of using historical analogy to educate lay audiences about the messy circumstances of our current political moment. Moshik Temkin started the discussion with an op-ed in the New York Times decrying the “historian as pundit” persona that, as can be seen above, has gotten attention within the online realm (not all of those essays were written by historians, but you get the point). Temkin expresses worries about “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies,” which in turn simplifies, trivializes, and downplays the significance of both past and present-day events. Conversely, many historians on my Twitter feed reacted negatively to Temkin’s piece, arguing that we must meet people where they are and that analogy provides opportunities for historians to demonstrate changes and continuities in American history.
Is there room to argue that both sides of this argument are a little bit right and a little bit wrong? I think so.
I do not agree with Temkin when he suggests historians should avoid appearances on TV and “quick-take notes” in a news article. Nor do I agree with the argument that we should leave analogy solely to the non-historian pundits. There are limitations to both TV and newspaper articles since they offer only small tidbits and soundbites for expressing a particular viewpoint, but they do offer historians an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the past in shaping the present. For example, my friend and fellow public historian Will Stoutamire contributed some wonderful insights into this article on the history of Arizona’s Confederate monuments. Last I heard that particular article had been viewed something like 70,000 times over the past month. Not bad! Likewise, I agree with Julian Zelizer when he argues that:
Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture.
At the same time, however, is Temkin incorrect when he suggests that we should be wary of poor historical analogies? Is he wrong when he asserts that we should remind our audiences that a similar event or person from the past does not lead to a similar outcome in the present? Can we conclude that some of the above historical analogies are trite and unhelpful? Are there better questions we can ask about the past and how it has shaped the present? Is their room to sometimes discuss the past on its own terms without resorting to comparisons with the present? I was struck by a recent article from a senior English major who, in discussing national politics in the classroom, warned that “if authors are only worth reading insofar as they inform modern phenomena, then the entire English canon is of mere antiquarian interest and can be summarily dismissed.” If you insert ‘history’ for the word ‘English,’ do we run into the same problem by downplaying huge swaths of history that don’t have an explicit relevance to current politics?
A huge shortcoming of this entire discussion, of course, is that public historians and the work they do are completely left out of the conversation. Here’s the thing. Public historians work in small spaces all the time; spaces that are more often then not much smaller than the ones academics use. We don’t get sixty minutes for lecture, 400 pages to write a book, or even a New York Times opinion piece. We get ten minute introductions, tweets, short Facebook posts, museum exhibits that are often viewed for ten seconds or less, and other educational programming of short duration. Both Temkin and his critics leave this important work out of their discussion.
So here’s a strong middle ground from which to argue. Historians should always strive to meet people where they are in their learning journey. They ought to embrace opportunities to give talks, speak on news shows, be quoted in a newspaper article, or write op-eds for a media outlet with a large platform. At the same time, they ought to use historical analogies responsibly and within the context of highlighting the importance of studying history. The past itself is interesting on its own terms, and sometimes it’s okay to discuss it without resorting to a comparison with Donald Trump. And perhaps academic historians can learn a thing or two from public historians about conveying complex historical subjects into clear, accessible interpretations of the past to a wide range of audiences.
The National Council on Public History published an essay of mine about monument removals at National Statuary Hall on their History@Work blog earlier this week. Regular readers will see familiar arguments that I’ve been making about the role of historical iconography for quite a while on this blog, but in the essay I wanted to focus specifically on what I think is a great example of a dynamic, ever-changing commemorative landscape that has been modified quite often. By exploring changes at National Statuary Hall, I hope to complicate the idea that monument removal automatically constitutes “erasing history.” I also hope to demonstrate that Americans have been removing monuments ever since their country’s founding, and that such removals are actually a natural byproduct of a society’s changing values and evolving understanding of its history.
Please give the essay a read if you get the chance. Although I have written a lot on this particular topic, I believe this is probably the strongest, most definitive argument on where I stand on this issue. So far I’ve gotten largely positive feedback and even the popular historian and blogger John Fea featured it on his website.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Graham and Nicholas K. Johnson for reading a draft of the essay before it went online. Thank you!
I wrote an essay for the American Association for State and Local History about doing educational programs with fourth graders and what we as public historians can learn from such experiences. Check it out here and let me know what you think!
Earlier this month I was in northwest Arkansas for a conference and had an opportunity to visit a number of history museums while there. Those site visits included the Daisy Air Gun Museum, the Rogers Historical Museum, and the Walmart Museum (yes, they have one). I found each site charming and the people who work at these sites extremely friendly. Everyone made me feel welcomed and were glad to have me as a visitor. On the whole I enjoyed my experiences at these places.
I am a critical viewer of museum exhibits, however, much in the same way that a musician is a critical viewer of other musicians or a filmmaker critically views rival cinema. My training in museum and historical methods ensures that I can never go back to looking at museums and public history sites as objective storehouses of artifacts and disinterested facts. I view every aspect from aesthetics to text markers to guided tours in an effort to see what larger interpretive messages these places hope to convey to their viewers. Although each site covers a wide time period that in some cases goes back to the late nineteenth century, they all had a similar interpretive centerpiece at the heart of their expererince: nostalgia for the 1950s.
Nostalgia is an inherently conservative emotion in my view. It smooths over the rough edges of history’s complexities and often focuses inward on our idealized personal memories of life experiences. Nobody looks back at a bad life memory in a nostalgic way. Nostalgia doesn’t convey how things were but how we wish they were and how we wish them to be. It tries to recreate an image of a past world that can never be recreated in the present, and the inability to bring this past world alive in the present intensifies our desire to bring it back against all odds. And above all else, we use nostalgia to reclaim our innocence – to return to a time when fear and insecurity didn’t exist and when things were simpler (at least in our minds). As Alan Jay Levinovitz argues in Aeon, “it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection.” Nostalgia is wistful thinking about a state of perfection that never existed. And it often sells within the context of museums.
The 1950s are a particularly unique time period shrouded in more nostalgia than any other era in recent history. Each museum I visited covered different aspects of this nostalgia. Men worked hard and had jobs to support the family; women stayed home and tended to the domestic sphere; children went to school and behaved like good little boys and girls; local law enforcement always had residents’ best interests at hand; everyone went to church and prayed to the same Christian God; racial, labor, or any other form of social strife was non-existent; everyone knew their place in society and happily accepted that place without reservation. We might call this interpretive phenomenon “Andy Griffith History.”
At one of the aforementioned sites I overheard a woman ask a museum employee why there were no exhibits on the contributions of African Americans or any other minority group to the life of the people in northwest Arkansas. The employee said that “well, we don’t have any exhibits on that topic unfortunately and the town of Rogers was a Sundown town in the 1950s.” A person visiting these sites without any sort of background in the history of the Civil Rights Movement would not realize that Walmart’s growth as a company occurred as Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus supported racial segregation of public schools and the Little Rock Nine crisis occurred. Nor would many people without prior knowledge look at the Walmart museum and learn that labor conflicts have occurred frequently throughout the company’s history. The pull of nostalgia only allows for a innocent view of the period devoid of any social conflict.
I suspect that 1950s nostalgia draws people to these places because the period has been so mythologized in popular culture and many (white) people alive today remember the era in fond terms. I do wonder, however, if this approach will continue to work over the next twenty or thirty years and if places that rely on nostalgia this way will have staying power in the long run. Again, I found a certain charm in these museums, and there were certainly good aspects of the 1950s that we should remember and celebrate. We should always heed Levinovitz’s advice, however, and avoid believing that any past era was perfect. That sort of thinking is bad for history and probably bad for determining contemporary policy too.
One of the last things I did in 2016 involved taking a short trip to New Orleans, Louisiana, to visit a good friend of mine and explore some of the historical sites in the area. The trip was wonderful and I also enjoyed the eighty-degree temperature outside, a nice contrast to winter in the Midwest.
About three years ago I had the opportunity to visit the National World War I museum in Kansas City. The National World War II museum just so happens to be located in New Orleans, and we made a point of spending nearly an entire day visiting the site. I came away from the World War II museum impressed with some aspects and less impressed with others. I’ve been thinking about the similarities and differences of my experiences at both museums since the trip, and what follows are some rough thoughts on those experiences.
One of the major aspects of the World War II museum is its use of technology throughout the museum. Upon arriving at the museum, visitors have the option of obtaining a “Dog Tag” card that looks like a credit card. Computer stations throughout the museum have a spot where you can put your card on a scanner, upon which the computer shows a short video of a World War II solider who is assigned to your card. Five stations throughout the museum tell a different aspect of your soldier’s experiences before, during, and after the war (if they survived it). Notwithstanding the difficulty of finding some of the computer stations (I missed two of them) and the lack of available computers (I don’t think I’ve been to a museum that was so busy and people were almost always hounded around the computers), I though the activity was thoughtful and educational. My “Dog Tag” had the story of four-star General Benjamin O. Davis, who happens to be an extremely important and heroic figure in U.S. military history. Elsewhere there was an interactive activity about the USS Tang, a ship that sunk thirty-three enemy ships during the war, that was immersive and interesting. Visitors were assigned to a station within a recreated model of the Tang and given a specific duty on the ship to complete during a mission.
Other uses of technology in the World War II museum were not as successful, in my opinion. The museum was full of videos throughout the exhibits, all of which had sound. The sounds from each of the videos often bled into each other, creating a wall of cacophonous sound that distracted from the exhibit text and artifacts in a given area. Equally frustrating was how the walkways throughout the exhibits were not large enough to isolate video-watchers from the rest of the crowd. People would stop to watch the videos and block the walkways for other museum-goers, creating cramped hallways and little breathing room to maneuver through the museum. The World War I museum, by contrast, doesn’t utilize as much digital technology in its exhibits but uses its resources in ways that are more user-friendly. Videos about the political situation in the 1910s, the coming of World War I, and the United States’ decision to enter the war are isolated from the rest of the museum exhibits, allowing visitors who want to see the videos the freedom to do so while not distracting from others who want to visit the museum’s other exhibits. While the World War I museum doesn’t offer a “Dog Tag”-type activity for visitors, it did offer one interactive activity in which visitors created their own propaganda posters using graphics and artwork from posters used in various countries at the time.
The other noticeable aspect of both museums is the role of politics in their interpretive exhibits. The World War I museum does a masterful job in both its exhibits and videos of analyzing the political conditions that existed in Europe before the coming of the Great War. Topics such as nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and entangling alliances are explained with clarity and precision without sacrificing complexity. Equally important, the World War I museum places particular interpretive emphasis on conditions in Europe, not the United States. I believe this distinction is really important. While the museum is tasked with educating visitors about the American role in war, the staff at the museum astutely understand that this role must be fit within a larger story that spends several years in Germany, England, France, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and the rest of Europe before the U.S. became a leading actor. The museum’s splitting into two sections between the years of 1914-1916 and 1917-1918 (when the U.S. entered the war) reinforces the importance of not focusing on the war’s history through too strong of an American lens.
The World War II museum, however, struggles to address the equally messy politics of that conflict. The exhibits throughout the museum barely touch political matters beyond the interactions between politicians and generals with regards to military strategy and tactics. A film narrated by the actor Tom Hanks does acknowledge that the U.S. faced two growing enemies in fascist Europe and imperial Japan, but doesn’t explain how these two forces came to be. Visitors are told, for example, that the Nazi party ruled Germany through the ideological lens of hatred and Aryan racial purity, but doesn’t explain how the Nazi party appealed to a wide swath of German voters or point out that Hitler was democratically elected. Likewise, Japan is portrayed as a militaristic, land- and -resource-hungry empire bent on conquering all of Asia, but why Japan held these ambitions and how they gained such power in the first place is left unexplained.
Another contrast of equal interest is the use of patriotic themes through these museums. The World War I museum takes a somber, reflective tone throughout its exhibits. The most notable example is the Paul Sunderland Glass Bridge. Underneath the bridge lies 9,000 poppy flowers in a field. Each flower represents 1,000 deaths during World War I, symbolizing the nine million people worldwide (not just Americans) who died in that conflict. No such display is exhibited in the World War II museum, and while the Tom Hanks film points out that 65 million people worldwide died in World War II, it becomes evident in the film and surrounding exhibits that the 400,000-plus Americans who died during the war will get particular attention in the interpretive programs. Nothing demonstrated this fact more than a musical program in one of the World War II museum’s buildings. Three women in 1940s-style dresses–one red, one white, and one blue–sang patriotic songs for roughly thirty minutes, including the songs of each military branch and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” During Greenwood’s song the women pulled out a U.S. flag, which in turn led to rancorous applause among the museum’s visitors. This exercise isn’t necessarily wrong or out of place at a museum of American history, but I can’t help but feel like such a display would feel unusual at the World War I museum. Likewise, similar exercises would feel awkward in a German museum like the Jewish Museum, Berlin, or the German Historical Museum, both of which I visited in 2015, where such open displays of patriotism and nationalism are fraught with their own difficulties and historical baggage. The musical program reinforces the history of World War II as a “Good War” in American memory, as historian John Bodnar explains in his 2010 book on the topic. U.S. involvement in World War II was good, of course, but the story is more complicated than singing a Lee Greenwood song.
In sum, the interpretive focus of the World War I Museum is a warning in the dangers of excessive nationalist sentiment and an elegiac meditation on the destructiveness of war, particularly one in which modern technology further amplifies the killing. Conversely, the interpretive focus of the World War II Museum is openly nationalist, Ameri-centric, and a borderline glorification of war. The World War I museum explains the causes of the war, its effect on world affairs, and the consequences of an inadequate peace treaty that helped foster another tragic world war just a few decades later. The World War II museum only mentions the causes of the war in passing through a video. While it does highlight the bloodshed of the war, particularly the blood shed by American soldiers, it struggles to tie in the conflict with other global affairs and chooses to stop at the war itself. The messy politics of the Cold War are put to the side in favor of a simple narrative of American progress and freedom.
I enjoyed both museums and believe that everyone would benefit from visiting both, but I believe that the World War I museum is superior in its interpretive programming and educational themes. It remains one of the best museums I have ever visited.
Public historians who work in interpretation and education often find themselves in a uniquely different setting from that of a classroom history teacher. A classroom teacher typically has at least sixteen weeks to learn about his or her students and to build a relationship with them. The teacher typically works with those students from sixty to ninety minutes per classroom session, and the really good ones blend a range of pedagogical techniques throughout the semester that simultaneously foster teamwork, historical empathy, a better understanding of historical content for a given time period, enhanced reading, writing, and research skills, and a heightened appreciation of the importance of history in our daily lives.
Public historians share many of these same goals when working with their many publics, but the amount of time we have to communicate with them is much shorter. In my work with the National Park Service I typically get one ten-minute introductory talk to build a relationship with visitors of all different backgrounds and spark an interest in history within them. My interpretive narrative changes and evolves with each group I work with in the hope that I can meet people where they are on their own journey through history. In the public history world you must quickly learn how to work in small time spaces like mine. Moreover, you never know who will walk through that door to visit your site on a given day, which is simultaneously exciting and nerve-racking.
Those who work the front lines with their many publics are often trained to study historical content, put together an interpretive program based on a knowledge of that content, focus on exposing “multiple perspectives” to the past through the eyes of various historical actors and, if possible, make connections to present-day circumstances. These objectives are noble and challenging, especially because the historical content we interpret and the present-day connections we make are inherently political. If you work in public history long enough, you will run into a visitor who will object to the historical content you share, your intent to go beyond the historical perspective of White Anglo Saxon men, and the connections you make between the past and the present. These interactions can be difficult and emotionally draining. The recent news of increasingly hostile anti-immigrant comments from visitors to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City is but one example of tour guides experiencing a great deal of challenging visitor feedback about their interpretive stories and the messy politics of the present.
We are trained to understand the past but less often trained to deal with the present. While public historians should be prepared for confrontational visitors, how to work with these visitors to turn heated confrontations into meaningful interactions that promote learning and understanding is often left unsaid. What follows are a few simple tips that I’ve employed in my own interactions with confrontational visitors over the years.
Respectfully challenge visitors to further explain and defend their claims.
The purpose of education in my view is to encourage learning, which I broadly define as a change in thinking about and understanding of the world through experience, study, and interaction. When I experience a confrontational visitor, my first desire is to turn the interaction into a learning opportunity through dialogue. Public historians need to be well-versed in historical content and methods, but they also need to be effective conversationalists. Good public history practice is as much about being a respectful, attentive listener to visitor feedback as it is about effectively communicating historical content. When public historians demonstrate their willingness to listen, they establish trust with visitors and open the door for respectful interactions. They might also learn something from a visitor during the process!
When a visitor says something I might disagree with, I try to respectfully challenge that claim by encouraging the visitor to keep talking rather than telling them outright that they’re wrong. I like to use the following prompts:
“Tell me more.”
“What sources did you rely on to make that conclusion?”
“Where did you hear that claim? I’ve heard a few different viewpoints on this topic.”
“I want to better understand your perspective. What you do mean when you say…”
“There’s been a lot of debate about this topic. Have you read [enter a relevant work of scholarship] before? It might offer a different perspective worth considering.”
“Thanks for sharing your perspective. What made you interested in this topic?”
Each of these prompts challenges visitors to defend their position while also encouraging them to continue sharing their perspective with someone who’s willing to respectfully listen to them. I particularly like “tell me more” and “what sources did you rely on” because they put the onus on the visitor to explain and defend themselves. After listening and providing a few prompts to get the visitor talking, you then put yourself in a position to share your perspective and use your historical knowledge to direct the visitor towards resources they can use to learn more after the interaction has taken place. None of this is rocket science, but these prompts have been my best tools for challenging confrontational visitors.
Different circumstances require different sorts of responses from public historians.
While public historians should always strive to encourage visitor feedback and constructive dialogue, there are times when the best option is to stop the conversation and let it go. Some visitors will simply refuse to listen to you or give you the respect you deserve as an educator and scholar. Your emotions, self-respect, and dignity come first, and sometimes saying “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” is the only path forward.
There are other times where clearing up misinformation and historical inaccuracies stated by visitors requires a response more forceful than a dialogic method. For example, a visitor once argued to me that Abraham Lincoln was a slaveholder. It was necessary, in my view, to simply state right off the bat that such a claim is inaccurate and to explain that Lincoln lived in free states his entire adult life save for his time in Washington, D.C. I felt like we needed to be on the same page on this matter before engaging in a dialogue about Lincoln’s political views towards slavery.
So, in sum, each individual interaction with a visitor has unique circumstances attached to it. Public historians must determine on an individual basis how they’ll respond to the confrontational visitor, whether that be through dialogue, a more assertive approach that corrects inaccurate information, or a decision that the conversation is too heated and should be ended.
Never put labels on visitors. Challenge what they say and do rather than making claims about who they are.
The social commentator Jay Smooth says it best in the below video when he argues that if you hope to get through to a person and give yourself a chance to change their perspective, it’s more effective to focus on what they say then making claims about who they are. We don’t know the personal lives of our visitors or how their life experiences have shaped their particular perspective of the world. When the focus is on speculating about someone’s motives or putting labels on that person, the conversation turns into name-calling and the potential for a genuine learning opportunity is lost. Furthermore, your ability to hold someone accountable for their views becomes much tougher when you focus on names instead of words and actions. In my own work I often encounter visitors who believe the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. The easy response would be to call out the person’s incorrect view and accuse them of being a neo-Confederate. A more productive response would challenge that person using the above prompts to ask them how they came to that conclusion. Rather that saying that the person is a neo-Confederate, I can respectuflly state, using my knowledge of historical scholarship and contemporary debate, that what they’re arguing sounds like something a neo-Confederate might say.
What do you think? What strategies and technique do you utilize for working with confrontational visitors?
There’s a lot of buzz within the public history and museum fields about Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s new book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. I’d been waiting for a while to have a chance to read the book, and I finally got around to it this week. Overall the book aims to challenge standard practices at historic house museums in regards to interpretation, education, and preservation at these places, and it will definitely provoke new conversations within the field about how and why historic house museums are important for understanding and appreciating the past.
I finished Anarchist’s Guide feeling underwhelmed. While I found the book’s appendices useful for researching visitor feedback and evaluating a given site’s standard practices, I felt like most of Anarchist’s Guide’s conclusions were neither revolutionary, radical, nor original. I might expand upon these thoughts in a future blog post. Nevertheless, I do agree with one central argument made by Vagnone and Ryan that should be repeated to all house museum professionals, however: historic house museums are first and foremost about the people, past AND present, who occupy the house’s space. As Vagnone argues, “the breath of a house is the living that takes place within it, not the structure or its contents” (21). Hear! Hear!
With the National Park Service–at least among those of us who work at historic homes–there is a running joke about the dreaded “furniture tour.” You arrive for the tour and the guide that accompanies the group room-by-room focuses almost exclusively on the furniture pieces of the room and the minute details of each piece that no one will remember when the tour concludes: what year this chair was produced, what state this table came from, how thankful we tourists should be for the good museum professionals who’ve preserved all this furniture for us today. What often goes missing from these tours is the humanity of it all. Why is any of this furniture important? Who are the people who owned this furniture, and why did they buy it? What is so important about this house and why should we continue preserving it? Why should we care about this place today?
To be sure, there is an important place for material culture analyses at historic homes. A gifted interpreter can take a historic artifact and tell nuanced stories about the people who owned it and that artifact’s cultural, economic, and political history. Who built this artifact? Why was this artifact valuable at the time and why did the owner purchase it in the first place? What can this artifact tell us about the times in which its owner lived? When historical artifacts act as tools towards the end goal of better understanding and appreciating the past and the people who lived in it, visitors leave with a better sense of empathy and the humanity of the past. Conversely, tours end up becoming boring and stale when historical artifacts become ends within themselves, reinforcing the idea that the study of history is primarily one of rote memorization and filling the “empty” minds of visitors with dates and facts.
The situation at my own workplace is somewhat unique in regard to historic artifacts. At the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site we have no original furniture inside the historic White Haven estate. While the structure itself is still mostly original today, the lack of original furniture disappoints some visitors. This feeling is understandable, and by no means do I consider such a sentiment misplaced or silly. We all visit historic homes partly because we are curious to see what they look like inside, and at first blush an empty room is nothing to be too excited about. But I take pains to point out to visitors that the National Park Service didn’t choose to preserve this particular house because it was old or because of the way it was designed, but because of the people who lived in it. The house, to paraphrase Vagnone, breathes life because of the people who were there during its 170-year existence as a private residence and the people who still visit it as a National Historic Site today. If the house and its original structural elements were to be completely destroyed tomorrow, the National Park Service would continue to oversee the site and tell the stories of the people who lived there, even if there was nothing original to actually see. But if people stopped coming to the site and the house became an empty hole of nothing beyond a historic structure, what would be the point of the NPS staying to preserve the site? It wouldn’t matter if each room had an abundance of historic artifacts – no one would be there to see it.
A historic house without any people in it breathes no life. Anyone who holds a leadership position at a historic house museum ought to remember that when designing interpretive programs or explaining to stakeholders why their particular site is important and worth preserving.