Public History Interpretation and the Search for a “Useable Past”

Just before the turn of the new year the Society for U.S. Intellectual History published my review of Jeffrey Trask’s 2012 publication, Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era. I enjoyed the book and highly recommend it for people involved with museum studies and public history. You can read the full review here, but with this post I want to briefly expand upon two points I made in the review.

One of the most important takeaways from Things American is that the “useable past” museum practitioners and public historians put on display for their audiences is highly selective. I mention in the review that “the search for a useable past is simultaneously an act of historical and omission” that is highly political. Since places like art museums must necessarily select a limited number of historical works for public display, understanding what gets left out is just as significant as what gets selected for display in telling us about the theories, assumptions, and politics of those curating these works.

Various leaders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era all successfully conveyed the stuff of history to their audiences, but their constructed “useable pasts” starkly contrasted over a period of roughly fifty years. The Metropolitan’s Gilded Age leaders feared industrial capitalism’s technological advances, which helped produce what they considered extravagant works of Victorian-style art. To them Victorian culture represented a loss of public taste, the severing of the link between art and labor, and the decadence of industrialization and urbanization. The Gilded Age leaders responded with a conservative course of action that aimed to highlight a distant past marked by notable handcrafted works of Classical and European art. In privileging these works, the Gilded Age leaders built an honorific temple of fine art that aimed to restore their vision of good public taste and reinforce the Metropolitan’s status as a leader in the making of cultural capital in New York City.

The Metropolitan’s Progressive Era leaders also sought control of the city’s public taste and cultural capital, but they did so in a radically different fashion, embracing industrial capitalism as an opportunity to display artwork and decorative pieces that would inspire people of all classes to create tasteful home environments and prepare for modern living in the twentieth century. Equally important, these leaders privileged works of American art in an effort to establish new art traditions in the United States. Rather than displaying works of Classical or European creation, the Progressive Era leaders chose colonial-style artwork from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to convey their own messages about their belief in a progressive American aesthetic.

Scholars’ ongoing efforts to historicize museum practices and public historical interpretations reflect another important takeaway from Things American. For fields of study and practice that rely so much on historical interpretation to educate their audiences, there remains a stunningly small number of self-reflective studies dedicated to analyzing changes in interpretive practices at museums, national parks, historical societies, etc. since the late nineteenth century (I mention some recent studies in the book review). More of these studies, I think, can do much to inform the practices of those in the field by highlighting crucial debates about the philosophical and educational roles of public history in historical context. For us today I think it’s easy to look at our current “shared authority” paradigm and think that we (from roughly the 1980s on) are the first group of practitioners to seriously consider the need to make our interpretations welcoming, inclusive, and relevant to our audiences. Yet studies like Trask’s show us that many of the ideas we talk about when we discuss “engagement” today–public programming, educational programs with schools, public lectures, and traveling exhibits, just to name a few–are old hat, dating back to at least 1900. In this sense we may see “shared authority” as an evolutionary process still highly informed by past practices rather than a revolutionary process that breaks completely from that past.

It will also be interesting to see if these future histories of public history and museum studies will be undertaken by practicing public historians and museum practitioners or if they are done by academic scholars outside the field. I think one reason why many museums, national parks, and other related sites don’t have their own historical study is that public historians themselves are not always in a position to dedicate a substantial amount of time to such a project. At the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site we had an independent historical consultant who wrote a roughly 100-page 260-page history of the site’s transition to a national park in 1993, while another “historic structures report” that focused mostly on architectural history was published in 1999. These are valuable resources for the park, but neither study does much analysis of the park’s short or long-range interpretive plans or how they’ve changed over time. That study still needs to be written.


Interpreting Indiana’s 1907 Eugenics Law

Growing up, I didn’t really learn much about the Progressive movement in the United States or about the history of the Era itself (1890s-1918, although those dates are up for debate). With the exception of World War I itself, many schools nowadays simply pass over this time period and its social, cultural, and political conflicts. Who remembers talking about the 1890s or 1900s in their high school history class? As a student teacher, I was only allowed to talk about World War I, with a brief mention of women getting the right to vote.

What I did learn about the Progressive Era in high school was fairly rudimentary. Industrialization had led to rapid economic change and development throughout the United States; Progressives emerged to protest the widening gap between rich and poor and the staggering amount of corruption that stained the business and political landscape at the time. Progressives called for the end of monopolies, the enactment of labor laws that protected workers (particularly children) and a more efficient system of governance that was better suited to the needs of a rapidly changing society. Regarding the latter, I like how William Leuchtenburg defined Progressivism (Wikipedia liked his definition too):

The Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of positive government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.

I have been learning more about the Progressive Era through my study of the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic, and am now working hard to try and learn more about this fascinating time period. I’ve also noticed that many people today continue to call themselves “Progressive.” It would be safe to say that the theories of progress, efficiency, and reform have continued to play a vital role in shaping the personal ideologies of many people today. However, those that call themselves “Progressive” today may want to proceed with caution and avoid using the term too freely. While many of the goals of Progressives at the turn of the 20th century were admirable [yes, child labor laws are good, most food and drug regulations are good, and I’m glad monopolies are illegal], there was a dark side to Progressivism as well. The consequences of this dark side were felt the deepest in Indiana, which prided itself on being one of the most Progressive states in the Union at the time.

In 1907, Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly signed a law making forced and involuntary sterilizations legal in Indiana, the first of its kind in the United States. Following the dictates of progress, efficiency, and reform, the 1907 Eugenics Law reflected the views of many Progressives who believed that such a law was in the best interests of society as a whole and, equally as important, the person who was deemed unfit to procreate. Alexander Johnson, Indiana’s secretary of the Board of State Charities in 1889 [note the title], rationalized in his memoirs that “Generation after generation many of the families to which these defective people belonged had been paupers, in or out of the asylum; their total number and the proportion of feeble minded among them steadily increasing as time went on.”

The law reads as follows. Emphasis is mine:

Whereas, Heredity plays a most important part in the trans-
mission of crime, idiocy and imbecility;

Penal Institutions—Surgical Operations.
Therefore, Be it enacted by the general assembly of the State of Indiana, That on and after the passage of this act it shall be compulsory for each and every institution in the state, entrusted with the care of confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles, to appoint upon its staff, in addition to the regular institutional physician, two (2) skilled surgeons of recognized ability, whose duty it shall be, in conjunction with the chief physician of the institution, to examine the mental and physical condition of such inmates as are recommended by the institutional physician and board of managers. If, in the judgment of this committee of experts and the board of managers, procreation is inadvisable and there is no probability of improvement of the mental condition of the inmate, it shall be lawful for the surgeons to perform such operation for the prevention of procreation as shall be decided safest and most effective. But this operation shall not be performed except in cases that have been pronounced unimprovable: Provided, That in no case shall the consultation fee be more than three ($3.00) dollars to each expert, to be paid out of the funds appropriated for the maintenance of such institution.

The Indiana Historical Bureau is in charge of all historic markers in Indiana, and in 2007 they erected a historic marker to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of this law. The marker stands on Senate Avenue, just west of the Indiana State House. I was out and about in downtown Indianapolis today and took these photos of the marker:

The front side:

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

And the back:

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

You can read more about this marker here. Roughly 2,000 people were sterilized under the 1907 law. Progressivism as a whole is not completely right or wrong, but a topic like eugenics complicates how we define “progress” and what it means to use the power of government to enact social change.

Public history is extremely tough. Public historians must take complex historical topics that are often controversial and painful and interpret them for a public audience of all ages, races, sexes, etc. Each side of this marker is composed of roughly 365 characters, the equivalent of roughly two and a half tweets. That’s all the IHB gets! Keeping that in mind, I think IHB did a great job of summarizing this troubling topic. Even more remarkable (pun intended), of all the historic markers in Indiana, this one is in an extremely prominent location. Thousands of people walk daily along Senate avenue, including state employees, state legislators, and the governor. It took a lot of courage to get this marker erected, and kudos should be given to IHB and any other organization or individual involved in the project.

Do you think the marker is well done? If you were in charge of writing the text for the 1907 Eugenics Law, would you do anything differently, and if so, what?