Milling Around and Slavery

The readings this week addressed how hard moments in American history are dealt with through public history.  The examination focused on work in postindustrial communities with The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City by Cathy Stanton and on America’s slave past with Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff of American Memory edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton.  Both of these readings are extremely pertinent in considering tomorrow’s plans for a class visit to Independence Mall in downtown Philadelphia.

I very often am thinking about mills in urban environments because I am working on a public history project in a postindustrial Philadelphia neighborhood complete with old mills (some abandoned, some burnt down, some in limbo art spaces).   In other words, I witness the issues of vacancy and abandonment politics on a regular basis, but I do not witness public history in these old mills.

I read the chapter on economic development and thought it sounded wonderful to send people to work in factories again, for the sake of cultural preservation, but it seemed like a flawed model.  Stanton even wrote, “Culture-based redevelopment strategies in themselves tend to create comparatively little direct revenue; Lowell National Historical Park, for example, employed about one hundred people…many of the people in those jobs lived outside the city itself,” (110). Stanton goes on to argue that cultural investments like public history are one piece in a larger puzzle that set the stage for moneymakers like folk festivals and real estate advertising.  This argument makes sense, and I believe her, but I am not convinced that Lowell’s model for public history is a viable one for replication as a neighborhood economic development tool because I do not see how it could work in a comparative neighborhood in another city without significant grant funding.  As much as I like to stay away from consumerist notions and public history, I wonder here, how could the Lowell Experiment be more profitable in a singular way?  If a public history project does not need to be profitable to be beneficial to an under-served community, is the ideal project a factory tour or something else entirely?

Slavery and Public History was a compilation of essays exploring the use of public history to address the complicated presentation of slavery to the public.  Particularly of interest to me was the last essay by Bruce Levine about Black Confederate soldiers because the considerations of a public historian interpreting the Civil War are so heavy.  Confronting the public with the information that blacks served in the Confederate army is hard for many to digest and understand because the dynamics of the makings of the Confederacy were complex.  What is disappointing about the article is Levine’s lack of addressing how public history can address this history.  He wrote on page 210 why it is difficult to present to the general public (slave owners refused to part with slaves, the Confederate army never granted freedom to a single black recruit, and the black-soldier law left the relationship of master-slave relatively unchanged), but he does not illustrate a clear depiction of Black Confederate soldiers in exhibition.  I wanted more specifics and examples.  Perhaps tomorrow’s class trip will yield realized conversation points.


Cathy Stanton. The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City (University of Massachusetts Press: 2006).
Horton and Horton, Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff of American Memory. (University of North Carolina: 2006).


Exhibiting Community

I have to start by noting that I was very fortunate to meet Polly McKenna-Cress during the Summer of 2013 to chat about the Philadelphia Public History Truck.  In reading her newly-published book Creating Exhibitions in tandem with Private History in Public by Tammy Gordon, I remembered one of the stories Polly shared with me.  I feel compelled to share it here.  Some of this is fuzzy at this point, but Polly spoke about being on vacation with her family one summer and stopping by an antique shop.  When her family went into the store, she noticed that most of the items within the place were for sale, but there was one table (maybe even a glass case—I can’t remember the detail!) with a sign reading, “MUSEUM.”  There are a lot of reasons why this story absolutely thrilled me, but one of the most important reasons for excitement stands with Gordon’s examination of community history.

Gordon began her book (pg. 5) impressing that “small community museums, truck stops, restaurants, bars, barbershops, schools, and churches, people create displays to tell neglected histories that matter to them.”  Mckenna-Cress’s thrift store “museum” experience is one of Gordon’s small community museums.  What is also tremendously crucial (I will remain on page 5 of Gordon’s text here) is her recognition that “…exhibits are the sites of cross-class, cross-ethnic, cross-culture conversations that can ultimately lead to social and economic changes.”  Strong language.  As the curator of a museum devoted to telling lesser known stories and connecting neighbors, I agree with this statement, but I also recognize that it is a bold one to make.   It is equally critical to impress that history exhibits are not a cure for immediate community concerns, but they can be a way, a suggestion, and an intimate, safe space for conversation.

What I also loved in Gordon’s introduction was her definition of public as a place where “anyone is welcome.”  However, this definition also begged questions.  Is history then implicitly a place where all are welcome?   Is using the term public with history redundant?

I also agreed with Gordon in noting that community curators are “not squeamish” in dealing with challenging narratives about place. In keeping with thoughts about curatorial choices, I gravitate back to Ken Yellis’s article Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars.  In Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society, Wilson placed a KKK hood in an Edwardian baby carriage in front of a photo of a Black nanny caring for two white children.  The curatorial choice here was both provocative– as in not squeamish– and definitively local.  In this sense, Wilson fulfilled what Gordon described community curators to be.

However, I did not agree that community curators are not motivated to join in scholarly dialogue on material (29).  If there is no motivation for scholarship in the work being done, how is it public history at all?  I much more think that community curators serve the pivotal role that McKenna-Cress depicts as the “advocate for subject matter,” meaning, in terms of community that we are to be authorities on history, materials, and collection while also “involving community members when dealing with sensitive or potentially controversial subject matters..” (24).

For me, the highlight of McKenna-Cress’s book was her exploration of sensory experience in exhibition.  Partly I was excited by this because I currently am considering how to serve history out of a truck with a very open mind as to what that looks, smells, tastes, sounds, and tastes like.  McKenna-Cress noted the tie between the senses of taste and smell to memory, which are particularly useful when considering exhibitions about history.  My consideration for sensory experiences in exhibitions goes beyond scholarly interests, though.  As a parent of a child on the spectrum, I am not just thinking about how museums can appeal to the senses or use the senses to feed narratives, but also how museums can be inclusive for those who find challenge in sensory experiences.  Perhaps this is the hardest goal for community curators– to include everyone in history exhibitions.

Tammy S. Gordon, Private History in Public: Exhibition and the Settings of Everyday Life (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2010).

Polly McKenna-Cress. Creating Exhibitions: Collaboration in the Planning, Development, and Design of Innovative Experiences (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2013).

Ken Yellis. Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars. Curator Vol 52, Issue 4. October 2009, 333-348.