Archives and Public History: a Visit to Paley

Archives cause me some issues. I truly struggle thinking about archives as public history institutions, at least not in their current iteration. We defined public history as history done outside the world of academia. While institutes such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and City Archives are technically outside academia, they are certainly not public friendly. In fact, these institutions seem to be so unfriendly to outside use that they make for pretty uncomfortable experiences to average Joe. However, since most universities classify archiving under their public history programs, I digress.

I found the discussion at the end of our tour to be intriguing. The idea of activist archiving reminded me of the film The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye. In the film, Dunye searches for “the watermelon woman” that she saw in an old film. On her search, she delves into archives (specifically a fictitious lesbian archive known as CLIT) to find the actress. The film is an interesting commentary on the erase of narratives by previous archivists and historians a like. Dunye creates her own historical narrative in archives because it simple did not exist. To this day, there is still minimal historical archiving of LGBTQ black women. Here lies the issue of archiving. There is always a preference or a bias (whether inherent or intentional) that affects the choices made in archives. The tumultuous past (and present in most cases) of race relations and sexuality narratives resulted in the erasure of Dunye’s identity from archiving. Also, historical terminology, employed by archives and past societies alike, misplace identities under vague terms or complete medical misdiagnoses.

I can see the idea of activist archiving provide valuable contribution to historical narratives by providing an opportunity to local groups to document themselves. Here, we can see the relation between the “novice” and the “expert” bloom. Communities are the “experts” of their own pasts and have the authority to tell their own stories. They are aware of their own history and know it should be preserved. I believe the information garnered from these communities provides the “raw” material for archivists and historians a like. Archivists can assist the community in detailing their data in its “raw” form. Historians, who Miller says don’t like crossing institutional boundaries (which I think is completely not true), can then “cook” the data.

Philadelphia’s current form of archiving is suffering from a PR-problem. They institutions have made themselves unapproachable. This is something I say from personal experience. Dealing with HSP felt like a nightmare and I am an academic (or someone who hoity-toity types think should be “doing” history). Something I touched on in my practitioner profile rings true here:

Kathleen McLean touches on this haughtiness in her essay “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations” briefly. She writes: “And she [a gift writer with a doctorate] was intimidated by museums. ‘I don’t know the rules. I know there’s a code of behavior, but it eludes me.’

I think as long as this code of behavior and perceived superiority is in place, archives will not be enjoyed by the public, and ergo will not be “public history” institutions in my opinion. In fact, half of the reason I am interested in public history, and archiving in particular, is because I would love to break down these barriers.


The Problem with Preservation

The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia works to “actively promote the appreciation, protection, and appropriate use and development of the Philadelphia region’s historic buildings, communities and landscapes.” I was intrigued by the question posed by Professor Bruggeman at the end of our discussion with Patrick Grossi. How does one balance between the preservation of important historic sites, encourage redevelopment, and avoid indulging in the glorification of a white-washed past? Preservation is a complex problem. Freeman Tilden said the “protection and preservation of the physical memorials of our natural and historic origins is primary, of course.”

But, what if these natural and historic wonders only tell a small percentage of the story?

In a way, I feel that this week’s discussion goes hand-in-hand with last week’s visit to Eastern State Penitentiary. At one point, the Penitentiary entered the National registry of historic places in 1965 (while it was still an active prison). Eastern State’s preservation is a testament to themes discussed in Amy Tyson’s work. How does one preserve the nature of a site, but also create an inclusive experience for all those who visit or engage with the area. As developers gobble up area in developing communities, such as Fishtown and NoLibs, the history of these areas is erased. The history of these areas ranges from the 18th-century farmland to 21st-century urban sprawl.

How can cities avoid the complete obliteration of historic and authentic structures worth saving? They can move towards “adaptive reuse” programs. Adaptive reuse encourages the redevelopment of existing structures to accommodate new use. Adaptive reuse allows for the integral structure to remain while encouraging new development.

But, where do you draw the line?

Being particularly invested in the “Save Jewelers Row” campaign last year at Hidden City Philadelphia (I’m an intern there) has allowed me to really weigh on the options between demolition, redevelopment, preservation, or reuse. When discussing the Jewelers Row campaign, I have encountered various opinions ranging from “yes, save it,” to “no, it’s not worth it.” The most compelling argument to come from my interactions with the Jewelers Row problem is that idea that: “just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s worth saving.” Now, this may be true in some cases. However, I believe we can again return to Tilden to explain this issue: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” Grossi discussed his roundabout way to his position at the Preservation Alliance, but in reality, he is working one-in-the-same. Interpretative engagement with audiences (be it visitors, patrons, or clients) can foster understanding about why it is important to preserve sites.

How can we move forward?

Well, we can work to help those understand that certain areas are deserving of preservation. It is also important to understand that redevelopment is not the worst thing in the world in some instances as well. Balance is hard to find, but it is necessary to preserve our past.