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).