Don’t Forget About Local History

I recently toured a historic Catholic church in my local area. The church has all the ingredients of a fascinating visit; a historic structure dating back to 1821, loads of artifacts and church records that provide insights into Catholicism’s westward expansion (for better or worse), and an inspiring story of grassroots preservation when the Archdiocese of St. Louis planned to demolish the church in 1958. The local community at that time did not want to see the church demolished, and for the past sixty years it has been run by a private foundation that relies on donations to stay afloat. The lone paid employee mentioned, for example, that the entire church was recently re-plastered after an elderly woman who had visited the church insisted on paying for a professional to do the job. That’s how a lot of small, local sites like this one get by.

What struck me the most during my visit, however, was a comment the employee made about local support. She stated that she was in her sixties and that all of the volunteers who assist at the site are in their eighties and nineties. The resignation in her voice when she quite honestly wondered if the site would be able to continue operating  in the next ten or twenty years was palpable. Who would step up in the future to support this historic church and continue the mission of interpreting this history?

As noted in my last post, there’s been a lot of recent soul-searching, anxiety, and discussion among historians about visitation to historic sites throughout the United States. But for the most part this discussion has focused on large institutions with a national following such as Colonial Williamsburg or the Gettysburg Battlefield. By focusing too much on the big national sites, however, we run the risk of forgetting the thousands of small historical societies and sites like this Catholic church that face much more dire circumstances moving forward.

I don’t propose to have solutions for saving this particular church, but I do think a lot of the work must start on the local level. Generally speaking, small sites are not going to show up on the top of a TripAdvisor list and will not be on the radar of someone visiting from out of town. The financial support and patronizing of the site’s resources has to start at the local level with residents who care about the history. I suspect that the particular Catholic church I visited faces some unique challenges thanks to the ongoing struggles of the Catholic religion more broadly and a changing local population that is no longer majority-catholic. Those challenges will be hard to overcome moving forward. The larger point, however, is that just about every community in America can point to some sort of historic site in their area that is going through similar challenges.

To put it simply, I’m more concerned about the future of small local history sites than I am Colonial Williamsburg. We need to keep that mind as we continue this conversation.

Cheers

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The Times Are A Changin’

Two Civil War Veterans at the 1913 Veterans Reunion at Gettysburg. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.

Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.

Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.

A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.

Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?

I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.

Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.

Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.

Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.

Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.

Cheers

Tours About Things Vs. Tours About People

I recently took a historic home tour that was very fascinating and enjoyable. The house was very nice and the furniture was ornate and fancy, classically Victorian all the way through. I suspect most people go through this home and feel very much the same way I did. At the end of the visit, however, I concluded that I hadn’t really learned anything new about the people who lived at this house.

A few years ago I wrote an essay on this website contending that many historic house tours are boring because they lack a human element. Somebody in the comments section complained about “furniture tours” and stated that a sofa has never changed the world. I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot lately.

Many museums that were constructed around the turn of the twentieth century were designed to overwhelm visitors, repeatedly hammering the idea that these places and these things possessed a reverential quality that needed to be respected by all. Jeffrey Trask even points out in Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art intentionally limited its operating hours to keep out the mass of working class residents in the city. The museum stayed closed on Sundays for many years during the Progressive Era, even though that was the single day of the week many of those working class residents had off.

I still think a lot of historic homes operate under a similar mentality. The homes are preserved with meticulous care and designed to overwhelm and awe visitors with their beauty. These places are important because they have stuff. But the longer I work in the field of public history and the more home tours I take, the more I yearn to see what’s underneath all of this beauty. An ornately furnished historic home is very difficult to interpret because the guide must fight the urge to make it exclusively a tour of “things.” This table was built by person x and cost this much money and isn’t it just beautiful? The situation is even more complicated because many visitors crave this sort of tour and will go around asking what’s original. It’s not that historic furniture is meaningless, but that too often visitors never learn why any of it matters to our understanding of history.

At the end of the day, a tour about people is always more fascinating to me than a tour about things. As I’ve previously argued, a historic home without people breathes no life.

Cheers

A Short Note on Empathy in Historical Practice

I saw this tweet about empathy in historical practice and it got me thinking. Is empathy the most important skill a historian should posses?

First off, there is the issue of defining terms. My view is that, broadly speaking, empathy is a conscious effort to place oneself in the shoes of another. Empathy is NOT the same as sympathy, but a deliberate consideration of perspectives, experiences, and life challenges that are different from my own. I don’t have to sympathize with General Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but I can empathize with the decision he faced in that moment. I don’t consider empathy a “skill” so much as a spirit or ethos that emerges from the skills one develops to become a successful historian. When we tell inclusive, accurate stories that are communicated effectively, empathy holds the potential to become a happy byproduct of the historical process. Nevertheless we must remember that empathy–like sympathy & pity–comes from a place of privilege. As a good disciple of Michel-Rolph Trouilott, I believe historians demonstrate power over the past by actively choosing what perspectives are worthy of empathy in their narratives. Historians also demonstrate privilege when determining WHO is in need of empathy. Regardless of whether a historian works in academic or public history, all should consider who in their audiences needs a lesson in empathy.

I don’t think empathy is the most important skill a historian should have, although I think they would benefit from demonstrating empathy in their own work as scholars and communicators of the past. Ultimately a spirit of empathy emerges when the “skills” of good historical work–research, interpretation, communication, evaluation, and others–are put into effective practice.

Cheers

Losing My Faith in Public Monuments

Goodbye

Earlier this month I participated in a brief discussion with public history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments. In the course of the discussion I made a frank confession: I have “lost faith” in public monuments and question their ability to be effective teaching tools about the past.

To be sure, my current views still strongly align with the arguments I made in this essay for the National Council on Public History about a year and a half ago:

Revisionism is fundamental to the historical process, including changes to public commemorative landscapes. As new documentary evidence emerges and contemporary events shape perceptions of past events, historians constantly go back into the historical record and offer new interpretations and understandings of the past. So it goes with public monuments as well. When local communities contemplate their pasts, they hold the right to alter their commemorative landscapes to reflect their shared values in the present. When the British had possession of the American colonies, they put up a statue of King George III in Manhattan. When the Americans declared their independence from the British, they tore that statue down. That’s how it works.

Local communities should be empowered to determine what they want their commemorative landscapes to look like. State laws in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina that ban local communities from taking down Confederate (or other) monuments in public places are wrong. They strip local communities of their power to create public spaces of their liking. These laws are wholly intended to shut down debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public society and reinforce the notion that these monuments are less about history or the need to stop “erasing history” so much as promoting a certain view of the past that celebrates Confederate heritage.

Public monuments, regardless of what they commemorate, are partly historical but also inherently political. These icons are reflective of a community’s shared values and what they consider worthy of a place of honor. They say as much about the present as they do the past. These important distinctions are thrown to the wayside when the debate is portrayed as a question of whether or not history is being “erased” when a public monument is removed. I can still read Jefferson’s Davis’s autobiography and learn from it even if a statue of his is removed. I can still go to a library, museum, or historical site to learn more. In reality, public monuments often have a very small role in shaping how people remember the past.

It is fair to say, however, that my views on this subject have evolved in a new direction. I would add the following arguments to my general view of public monuments:

Public monuments promote the worship of false idols. President and Congressman John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” In other words, public monuments were the work of monarchies and theocracies. They promoted the worship of false idols and were inherently undemocratic because they ran the risk of creating a cult of personality. In a society shaped by popular elections and the sharing of power, the essence of democracy was the importance of looking forward, not backwards. There is much to agree with here. Public monuments are, after all, places of honor that celebrate individuals and events. Could it be fair to say, however, that these icons run the risk of becoming symbols that distort the past, and that they unfairly demand all to worship at their altar without question?

Asking what new monuments can replace old ones currently being removed is the wrong question to ask. Some better questions to ask would be, “what can local communities and historians do to promote better historical understanding of the past? Are public monuments the best way to go about accomplishing this objective? If not, what else?” As previously argued, people learn about history through a number of different mediums: classrooms, museums, historic sites, books, the internet, etc. Historians can and should use public monuments as teaching tools, but they must also strive to assert the importance of history education across the lifespan, from early formal education to later informal experiences in public history settings. I increasingly find myself questioning whether the removal of a monument with the addition of a new one really serves any useful purpose for a society. If the spirit of history education isn’t there to reinforce the many ways people can learn about the past in a nuanced and thoughtful way, then public monuments will continue to play a confused role in the way history is understood by individuals and societies.

Cheers

Please Welcome Academic History Departments to the 21st Century

Every year the American Historical Association hosts its conference right at the beginning of January. It’s always hosted in a major city and is always very expensive to attend. The conference is huge and I have no doubts about the positive benefits of attending, particularly the networking opportunities it provides. The organization definitely caters to historians working in an academic setting, however, and the combination of high expenses and my job outside the academy has prevented me from attending their annual meeting.

There’s a longstanding tradition in academic history of interviewing potential candidates for professorships during the AHA meeting. What more or less happens is that history PhDs who are on the verge of finishing their degree begin looking for job opportunities in the academy and are instructed to attend the AHA to do face-to-face interviews with history departments. Sometimes the interviews take place in what’s called the “cattle call,” which I assume is a large room with tables set up throughout where prospective candidates can meet their interviewers, but sometimes they take place in areas such as hotel rooms, which seems like a recipe for discomfort at the least and sexual/mental abuse of the prospective candidate at the worst. The prospective candidates have no guarantees that they’ll leave the conference with a job offer. Many end up leaving empty-handed and thousands of dollars poorer than they were before the conference.

When I was in grad school a few years ago I was appointed by the history department to be the student representative on a search committee tasked with hiring a tenure-track professor of digital humanities and history. We did the right thing from the very beginning. One or two professors asked about meeting the top candidates at the next AHA meeting, but the rest of the committee quickly shot down that idea. We began by sorting through roughly 50 applications and picking our top six candidates. From there we decided that it would be best to interview those six candidates individually through a Skype call so that these candidates would not have to travel to AHA to do what we could do in thirty minutes with a video conference call. When we whittled the list down to two candidates, the university paid for those finalists to travel on separate days to campus for a tour and a face-to-face interview with the search committee. From there the rest was, as they say, history.

The option we went with was arguably better for the department and for those who applied for this opening. Video conferencing enabled the search committee to stay on campus and conduct their interviews in a timely fashion. For prospective candidates, their time and money was saved. For the two finalists, their travel expenses were covered by the university, who should have covered them anyway because the institution was in need of a highly talented historian to join the department in the first place.

I suppose this long-standing tradition of forcing people to go to AHA for a job interview continues in part out of habit and in part because it gets people to AHA, which helps justify the expense of putting together this annual conference. To be sure, some prospective candidates are perfectly willing to attend AHA and have the means to do so, and it could very well be most convenient for both parties to hold their interview at AHA under some circumstances. But history departments looking to hire should not force prospective candidates to attend AHA for their interview, nor should they defray the costs of conducting a job search to those looking for jobs, particularly when they are recent PhD grads in a poor position to take on those costs. This practice should be discouraged by both AHA and history departments around the United States. Some of us in public history were very vocal last year about the continued posting of unpaid internships and job postings without salary information on public history jobs pages. Through those efforts we were able to get several organizations to discontinue the former and strongly discourage the latter. The time has now come to push for an end to mandatory AHA job interviews someday.

To these antiquated history departments I welcome them to join the rest of the working world who use modern technology to conduct interviews and hire qualified candidates for jobs. Welcome to the 21st Century!

Cheers

When Nostalgia Overwhelms History

Photo Credit: Singapore Management University: https://www.smu.edu.sg/perspectives/2017/09/29/nostalgia-makes-us-more-patient

I am a member of a Facebook group called “St. Louis, Missouri: History, Landmarks and Photos.” As the title suggests, it’s a fun community where people can share pictures, thoughts, and reflections on the city’s history.

Or so I thought.

Someone recently shared a photo of a blackface performance from the 1920s in Webster Groves, a well-to-do area just outside the St. Louis city limits. After all, the photo is historic and it depicts something that is a part of St. Louis history, whether we like it or not. One would think the photo meets the standards of this group. But alas, the commenters had a firestorm. Why is this outrageous photo being shared?! Why do we have be exposed to this painful history? Why do we have to talk about the bad parts of St. Louis history? As one critical commenter later stated, “Sorry, I joined this group for history and vintage photos, architecture and STL neighborhoods – NOT for any ‘enlightened exchange’ [about the political aspects of history.]” The photo was quickly removed by administrators. 

Listen, I get it. We don’t always have to harp on the bad parts of history and for the most part this group is one of the few positives experiences I get from using Facebook these days. But when the controversial aspects of history are removed from the overall story, it is better to simply call the group “St. Louis, Missouri: Landmarks and Photos.” If you enjoy looking at old photos but not studying the people, culture, and context of the time in which the photos were taken, you are engaging in nostalgia, not history.

One might wonder why people interested in a Facebook group such as this one wouldn’t want to learn more about the larger context of the city’s history, but I would contend that many of the blackface photo’s critics were precisely not interested in learning about or having a discussion about history. They are there to practice nostalgia. They are there to talk about their personal childhood experiences and re-live the good old days before the neighborhood went into “decline.” They want to see fancy old homes and neighborhoods but don’t want to discuss the humans who built them or the humans who live in those areas today. To talk about the experiences of, say, an African American who endured the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial discrimination during the “good old days” is nothing but a distraction and an effort to make the past political. Anything outside of mainstream history is a controversy. Please leave out the enlightened exchanges!

(I also note that the some of the same critics who objected to one blackface photo on a social media page because it was “painful” were demanding a few years ago that the St. Louis Confederate Monument remain in Forest Park “because it’s history.”)

This experience reinforced the importance of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 2000 book The Presence of the Past. After surveying 1,500 people the authors concluded that the foundation for historical understanding starts with the personal. As they discuss in the introduction, “people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future.” The challenge for historians, therefore, lies in working with their many publics to demonstrate how fitting personal experiences into a larger context–using an entire body of evidence to make an informed interpretation about the past–is how history is created.

The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has been a double-edged sword for historical understanding. On the one hand, people now have an almost limitless access to information. The contents of the past–letters, diaries, newspaper articles, historical photos–can be found with great abundance in places like the above Facebook group. On the other hand, are we really learning anything new? What do people do with the knowledge they acquire at these places? Do they go to the local library to check out a book about St. Louis history, or does the information contained in a particular post evaporate as soon as the viewer logs off of Facebook? The internet can be a place of knowledge accumulation, but it can also be a place that is quite the opposite. I suppose this is all to say that I hope historians and public historians will someday collaborate to research and publish a new edition of The Presence of the Past for the digital era.

Cheers