Interpreting the History of Nuclear Technology at Public History Sites

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In his 2012 publication, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener visited Cold War-related historical sites throughout the United States, analyzing the ways this history is interpreted within a public history setting. Wiener came away largely disappointed with his findings. He argues that far too many sites misunderstand, distort, diminish, and omit Cold War history from their interpretive missions, even though these sites are dedicated to educating the public about this history.

Emblematic of these interpretive issues is the Hanford B Reactor site in Southeastern Washington state. The reactor (which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008) was the first full-size weapons-grade plutonium production plant in the world and remained in operation until 1987, producing plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons for more than forty years. Wiener writes an entire chapter in How We Forgot the Cold War about his tour of Hanford and concludes that the site’s interpretive leaders have conveniently ignored its history. Rather than explaining the causes, context, and consequences of developing nuclear technology during World War II and its continued production during the Cold War, Wiener’s tour leaders focused on reassuring visitors of the site’s safety and promoting the federal government’s ongoing efforts to clean up radioactive waste around the site. The human consequences of nuclear technology–which include thousands of Hanford workers and residents who have acquired various (and often fatal) cancers because of radiation exposure from the plant–are left out of the narrative.

When President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act in December, seven new national park sites were established and placed under the control of the National Park Service. One of those seven parks is the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a three-state unit that includes historical sites in New Mexico, Tennessee, and the Hanford B Reactor in Washington.

As the Park Service begins organizing its long-range interpretive plans for Manhattan Project, it’s my hope that the human element of this important story gains prominence. In my opinion science centers, technology museums, and other related sites often struggle to move their interpretations beyond technical descriptions of historical objects, biographies of great inventors, and quantitative facts devoid of context (just look at the local Hanford government’s webpage about the reactor for an example). Less often do visitors learn about the lived experience of technological innovation and how developments in science, technology, and engineering shaped Americans’ day-to-day lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

While the federal government should continue discussing cleanup efforts at places like Hanford, more focus on the daily health struggles of Hanford residents allows for new interpretive opportunities that demonstrate the harmful consequences of nuclear technology during World War II and the Cold War Era. Given that Hanford’s history is still recent, perhaps public historians can explore ways to use oral history as a tool for learning more about these stories. As Hanford native Trisha Pritikin warns in her essay on the National Park Service takeover of the reactor, “The legacy of the Manhattan Project is not represented solely by the atomic science. It is also reflected in its destructive effects on the human body . . . the human toll of this project remains a story that must not be silenced or ignored.”



Looking for Resources on Oral History

When the doctors told my Grandfather in early June that they hoped to extend his life an additional two months, I immediately thought about conducting an oral history interview with him, even going so far as to get a verbal agreement from him to conduct the interview at his house once he got out of the hospital. Although I knew a lot about my Grandpa and his life experiences, there were parts of his early life that I wanted to know more about and I knew there was a lot of interest from other family members in documenting and preserving his story. My idea came too late, however, and as I outlined in my last post, we lost Grandpa on Thursday, June 12.

I really, really regret that my family and I were unable to get Grandpa’s story before he passed. We should have taken steps to get his story long before this point in time, especially after he was first diagnosed with cancer in 2012. I’m also frustrated because my knowledge of oral history is rather limited even though I’m a professional public historian. I received a little bit of training in oral history while a history graduate student at IUPUI and could probably do a decent informal oral history interview with a family member, but I don’t really have the skills to conduct a professional oral history project.

On the one hand, oral history seems to be a pretty straightforward process. I believe oral historians do a significant public service by giving a voice to those whose experiences may not get into the history books or recognized by the rest of society. Oral historians act as facilitators by empowering the people they interview with tools, context, and questions to help them recall important details of their life and tell their stories. On the other hand, oral history presents its own unique challenges when it comes to accessibility and preservation over time. As Cleveland State University history professor Mark Souther asserts, good oral history projects that engage a wide audience are easily discoverable, interactive, and reusable. Even if I had been able to conduct an oral history with my Grandfather, what equipment would I have used and how would I have preserved this document so as to encourage accessibility and interaction in the future for both family members and other interested parties? I’m afraid I don’t know.

What do you consider to be the best resources for learning more about oral history? If you know of any books, articles, webpages, or anything else that you deem relevant, please let me know in the comments below. I hope to be in a position to someday conduct oral histories of other family members and potentially engage in oral history projects in a professional capacity.


Sharing Authority is More Difficult Than You Think

Michael Frisch’s advocacy of oral history as a tool for breaking down institutional barriers in history represented an important paradigm shift within the fields of public history and museum studies in the 1990s. Twenty years later, the concept of “shared authority” is now regularly taught in public history programs around the world and embraced by many cultural institutions seeking to highlight multiple historical perspectives. Rather than solely relying on the expertise of trained professionals to interpret and represent all voices of the past in public spaces, cultural institutions such as museums, historical societies, community centers, and libraries now actively seek the input of local community members in a shared endeavor towards interpreting the past. Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello goes farther by tying shared authority in museums to promoting social justice causes and stronger communities in the present.

This need to share cultural authority is particularly acute in the United States, where public funding for cultural institutions is rapidly drying up. According to Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, editors of Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, “the country’s growing ethnic diversity and its economic crises have pushed museum leaders to recognize that the field’s traditional business models need to be revamped. Instead of taking public support for granted, museums are desperate to prove their worth to outside partners, voices, and interpretations” (11). Indeed, if cultural institutions are receiving public funding for their endeavors, shouldn’t the stories they tell reflect the communities of the people who contribute their tax dollars to these institutions?

I am an advocate for sharing authority and believe that history is best viewed through multiple perspectives. Recent examples of sharing historical authority are abound. City Lore’s City of Memory allows residents of New York City to contribute their own stories and memories onto a community map. From 2006-2009, the Minnesota Historical Society hosted an annual “Greatest Generation” festival that included an annual film competition; this competition included the opportunity for community members to create ten-minute films about friends and loved ones they knew who witnessed and participated in World War II. Even places like the Indianapolis Children’s Museum have embraced sharing authority. “The Power of Children” exhibit at the Children’s Museum encourages students to learn about the stories of extraordinary children in history and then write comments sharing their own views on racism, intolerance, sexism, and social equality. These comments are then posted on a wall for others to see in the museum.

Sharing authority is an important step forward for public historians and their work with public audiences. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to take a couple steps back and proceed with caution before jumping onto the “shared authority” bandwagon without considering the ramifications of what exactly it means to be “sharing authority.” The term, in my opinion, has become so dominant in scholarly discourse as to become a buzzword in the same way that words like “curation,” “preservation,” and “digital humanities” are sometimes bandied about without unpacking the actual meanings we attempt to convey when we use these words.

What factors should we consider when we talk about sharing authority? I propose the following considerations:

Collecting Stories: This factor is probably the most obvious when considering the term “shared authority.” “Collecting stories” can include oral histories, the creation of spaces within cultural institutions for people to write comments, comment boxes on cultural institution websites and blogs, or asking indigenous people and other groups to collaborate with a museum in creating historical exhibits.

Gathering Funds: As public funds for cultural institutions dwindle, institutional leaderships increasingly rely on private corporations and individuals to help subsidize the cost of creating exhibits, websites, public programs, and conducting oral histories. Robert Post’s fine book Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History points out that corporate donors to the Smithsonian over the past fifteen years have sometimes tied their funding for exhibits to demands that their company be interpreted in a positive light. Post points out, for example, that Trans World Airlines (TWA)–in one final push to stay afloat financially before later declaring bankruptcy a third and final time–donated funds to finance the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary celebration exhibit in Washington, D.C. TWA donated its funds to the Smithsonian’s “Corporate Partners Program,” and, according to Post, the final exhibit included an “adventuresome infomercial” promoting a positive interpretation of TWA’s history (x).

In this instance TWA expected the Smithsonian to “share authority” in interpreting their own history. This tenuous relationship raises serious questions about the practice of giving positive interpretations to the highest bidder. It also demands that we consider the interests of those donating funds to cultural institutions. How might donors ask for cultural authority in interpreting their own vision of the past, and what stories are they looking to promote? We should always consider the potential tension between sharing authority with underrepresented/impoverished groups and asking for funds from private donors who may have their own conception of interpretive history. Look no further than Kenneth E. Behring for an example of a philanthropist with his own goals of historical accuracy. Behring donated money to the Smithsonian in the early 2000s while also demanding that multicultural history be removed from the National Museum of American History in favor of a “real” American History that promoted American democracy and a narrative of “progress.”

Providing Access: Once the stories are collected, how do public historians go about sharing and providing access to these stories? Simply putting stories online does not mean that everyone will have access to those stories. Jean-Pierre Morin of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada reminded us at the NCPH 2014 Annual Meeting that many indigenous tribes in Canada do not have ready access to the internet. When internet is available, it’s usually at the speed of a dial-up connection. (I also agree with Jennifer Guiliano, who argues that public history and digital history are not interchangeable terms). We should always consider how to best provide access to the stories we tell. I personally am a huge fan of the Philadelphia Public History Truck, which travels to communities around the city and offers residents the chance to share their own historical artifacts and stories at the truck.

Do Public Historians have the authority to share the stories of disaffected cultural groups? As Teresa Bergman points out, sharing historical authority has its limits. How do we maintain a sense of historical professionalism and a dedication to accurate history while promoting inclusiveness? Who gets to make the final decision in what gets included in the final draft of an exhibit, project, program, or website? Are museums, historical societies, and libraries truly for everyone, or should certain perspectives (such as the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War) fade over time and get left behind? Who owns history, and who gets to speak on behalf of the past?

“Sharing authority” means doing more than collecting stories and exposing historical silences. It also means working with donors who may have their own interpretive agendas, providing access to the stuff of history both on and offline, and working to ensure that the public stories being told are truly reflective of the communities that are doing the storytelling.