“As I settle in a place, the place settles me.” Juhani Pallasmma, Forum Journal (Spring 2015)
More than fifteen months ago, my colleague at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Tom Mayes, embarked on a journey. For six months, he lived at the American Academy in Rome researching and thinking about one of the most central tenets of our profession: Why Do Old Places Matter? He wanted to tease out the reasons both easy to grasp and far reaching in order to allow preservationists to create a more complete picture of why we work to save places. In those fifteen months, I feel as if I’ve traveled alongside him, literally as part of my work at the National Trust, and intellectually in trying to answer and embrace the question in my own way.
Wilder Homestead Hill, South Dakota. Photo credit: Michelle McClellan
The summer before last, I found myself driving around the back roads of DeSmet, South Dakota, with people I barely knew but with whom I felt a kinship based on our mutual devotion to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books. We periodically stopped the car, got out, and gazed in rapt attention at….the prairie. Occasionally a fence line or post marked the spot, but sometimes our destination had been determined by the odometer, and there was nothing on the landscape to distinguish that spot from any other. Nevertheless, we oohed and ahhed in appreciation because this place had been the homestead claim of one or another of the people Wilder described in her books. By being there, right there, we hoped we just might move through time. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: The May issue of The Public Historian will explore the future of historic house museums. Historic houses are struggling to survive in the 21st century, but as Bill Adair and Laura Koloski describe, some are experimenting with strategies that are making old houses new again.-Lisa Junkin Lopez, guest editor
Martha McDonald performing “The Lost Garden” at The Woodlands. Photo credit: Ryan Collerd
We think we can all agree on two things: we love historic house museums, and we want them to have a future. That is where consensus in the field starts and stops. Although rumors of their demise are indeed premature, there is no question that house museums are in crisis, in desperate need of new audiences, new leadership, new sources of support, and most urgently, new purpose. We believe all of these needs can be met and that we are moving towards clarity about how this might be achieved, not through grand policy agreements but mostly through small-scale experiments at individual sites that are proving to be highly effective. The down side–sometimes these interventions can be highly disruptive and highly nerve-wracking.
In our work as public historians in the Philadelphia area, we have witnessed one fundamental element at all successful house museums–willingness to change and change big. The change isn’t formulaic. One size definitely doesn’t fit all. Each site has unique content, a unique neighborhood, a unique historical context, unique stories, unique collections, unique staff. But we have seen some COMMONALITIES among these changes, all of which have played out in DIFFERENT ways. Continue reading →
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ship Pendant Victoria and Albert
Editor’s note: This piece is part one of a special online section accompanying issue 37(2) of The Public Historian, guest edited by Lisa Junkin Lopez, which focuses on the future of historic house museums. The contributions in this section highlight the voices of artists who engage with historic house museums as sites of research, exhibition, and social practice. In this piece, Rebecca Keller takes us on a wild ride in the form of a fictional professional association’s newsletter, envisioning a provocative future where technology plays a starring role in visitors’ experiences of the past.
Banners telling the stories of particular El Paso buildings were the first iteration of the Museo Urbano project. Photo credit: Bruce Berman
Hardball history that places historians at the center of politics, advocacy, and activism can be a difficult journey, but it can also be inspiring. My introduction to public history coincided with the 2006 unveiling of a controversial downtown revitalization plan in the city of El Paso, Texas. The plan included the demolition of more than thirty acres of El Segundo Barrio, a historic and predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood.
I was twenty-two and a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso. I learned about the downtown plan in a political science class, where everyone was given a brochure and a map of the area slated for construction. In place of churches and homes were shopping malls and parking lots. The woman giving us the presentation also mentioned that residents who could not afford new tax increases would need to be relocated. I was not the only student that had questions about the plan, the residents, and the process. The same semester I was also taking a Mexican-American History class taught by Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva. Her class incorporated the rich history of the area. Ironically, I had Dr. Leyva’s class right before the political science class. Continue reading →
“You know who has money to help you.” I responded to this truth by listing three millionaires from whom I would not accept funding for Museo Urbano, the public history project housed in the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The response hit hard. “You know you’re walking the high road, but you don’t have any shoes on.” I smiled at the image, but inside my heart sank.
Funding has been one of the most difficult challenges in my career as a public historian. It is an issue that I have grappled with since my days as a student activist in the 1970s. How do we fund social justice initiatives while still maintaining our sense of ethics and responsibility? Whose money is acceptable and whose is not? Continue reading →
Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit: David Rotenstein
Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.
Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values. Continue reading →
As well as trying to convey a sense of these enslaved workers as people, the team of graduate students working on the “Slavery at South Carolina College” website also sought to connect this history to the physical landscape. Harnessing the power of place to tell the story of slavery, we emphasized the built environment of the historic college. The antebellum section of the campus, referred to today as the Horseshoe because of its shape, survives as the historic heart of the modern university. But the most important reason to emphasize the built environment is that slaves physically constructed it. Continue reading →
In 2007 Atlanta journalist Nathan McCall’s novel Them was published. The book is a fictionalized account of a very real Atlanta neighborhood–the Old Fourth Ward–undergoing gentrification. The neighborhood is a place where civil rights historic landmarks jockey for attention and dollars among hip bars and restaurants. A recent historic preservation battle exposed tensions that pit adapting old buildings for new uses versus tearing them down for new developments. Continue reading →
James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the nineteenth-century home of the 20th President, is located in Mentor, Ohio. Photo credit: Andy Curtiss
Currently, public history educators are discussing whether their graduate students should be required to write master’s theses. Although some students (including myself) at times bemoan the thesis as impractical and suggest a public history project or portfolio as an alternative, I found my thesis experience to be integral to my development as a public historian. My research inspired me to reach out to scholars and professionals whose work paralleled my own. It has also opened new doors as I transition out of academia and into a career interpreting the past for public audiences.
My thesis research grew out of my experience volunteering and working as a seasonal interpretive ranger at James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the late nineteenth-century Ohio home of the 20th President. I set out to write about the evolution of the historic landscape of the site, and I wanted to integrate my interest in historic site interpretation into my work, especially because a graduate course on this topic would not be offered during my two years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). When I heard about the site’s plans to write a new long-range interpretive plan in early 2013, I asked to participate in the process. Continue reading →