Public History and the Difference Between “Can” and “May” in Storytelling

In The Lowell Experiment, historian Cathy Stanton explores the ways in which public historians at Lowell National Historic Park (NHP) have engaged with their work and what factors have limited those engagements, beginning with an explanation of the historical perspectives adopted at the Park. There, the story presented does two things: It asserts a direct, familial relationship between the viewers and the viewed; and it gives that relationship a linear, progressively positive spin. It is from that first point, however, that one of the great conflicts of Stanton’s analysis emerges. Lowell NHP is about the viewers through the viewed in a way that ironically never connects the two groups’ shared capitalist contexts. Early Lowellites’ hard work has been rewarded with rising status and entrance into American society for their descendants!… despite that such an outcome for Lowell is contestable, including by visitors themselves (180-182). But local people believe that story, which prevents public historians from straying into territory that might suggest, for lack of better phrasing, that ‘history is not over’ after all.

Consequently, the only acceptably “radical” histories are those addressing topics unlikely to threaten locals’ post-industrial-hardship, post-history worldview. Nineteenth and twentieth-century capitalisms remain disconnected as NHP rangers avoid discussing present-day local business practices (65-66) or Cambodian immigrants’ impoverishment (58; 72-73; 202). Compounding that handicap is the employment issue, too. Telling label-pushing, radical stories is an employment risk and NHP employees accordingly censored presentations for fear of troubling the waters above too much. In her epilogue, however, Stanton proposes these conclusions no longer apply to Lowell NHP. Their 2005 exhibit on globalization presented her with a story that does engage the public critically through the past, suggesting that there are new “Lowell girls” elsewhere in the world laboring for the descendants of old Lowell (230-232).  

If conditions changed to allow for such introspection in the Lowell situation though, then I think the meat of her thesis still holds, as those conclusions were true at least of pre-2005 Lowell NHP and could easily be true again. The public historian’s position, fixed between the represented—the locals, the descendants of the studied, etc.—on one hand and employers on the other, necessarily forces a constant need to ask, “Not what story can but may I tell?” And certainly Elfreth’s Alley shows us that problem, too. An honest account of ethnic Elthreth’s Alley, for example, might not be compatible with the Alley’s currents, not because they are bourgeois but because the radical, nineteenth-century story we could tell would force them to see how people like their own un-American ancestors became American: By languishing in industrial settings long enough to lose ethnic distinctions, become white, move away from ethnic enclaves, accordingly lose their social-safety-networks, take white-collar jobs that haven’t actually reduced work hours, and progressively become more right-wing. For modern immigrants too, still undergoing the same process of de-ethnicization and (self?-)gaslighting, that story might be too much. Ted’s position thus seems much more understandable. There are stories he can tell; he just may not be able to sell them.

The Alienation of Historians from History Labor

            In The Wages of History, Amy Tyson explores a little-discussed element of history work: the reality of history work as work. Focusing upon the experiences of workers at Fort Snelling, a restored fort and historical center in Minnesota, Tyson explores the various ways in which the work environment and its maxims, corporate culture, and economic stressors shaped both workers’ performances and history portrayals (1-9). Historical interpreters at Fort Snelling were imagined as service employees tasked with providing visitors management’s vision of an “authentic” Fort Snelling experience. Emphasizing authenticity deliberately limited interpreters to management’s sanitized, uncontroversial models (148-151), punishing deviation by tying workplace success to fealty thereto, along with the (false) validation of customer satisfaction. And so if success lacked or (workers’) complaints of conditions sounded, management would simply hire new interpreters (116-125). Thus, job security lacked even for the veteran or committed workers, as the tragically comical “Stroopsisukey” song showed (75-79), ultimately pitting workers against each other in the quest to demonstrate worth via “proof” that one’s labor was more “authentic” than another’s—more alienated from a personal/communal sense of humanity, that is.

            Minju Bae’s “Under One Roof” shows the same worker-labor alienation, deliberately echoing Tyson’s focus in analyzing the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. As Bae shows, the Museum deliberately underpays its predominantly part-time educators and resists educators’ own interpretations of material to keep control of the narrative, reducing “history” to whatever management wants underpaid, easily replaced workers to read (Bae 17). Moreover, the Museum’s treatment hardly does its lower class immigrant narrative any modern due diligence, spurring gentrification in the wake of its success by using workers from the lower class box themselves out (13-14)—or outright relocating poor residents to make room for exhibits (3)! Thus, Bae shows clearly that the threat Tyson discusses—profit-centered, corporate-style public history—is destructive both to its workers and to the history it purports to tell.

            These discussions of the need for worker/union solidarity and criticisms of an alienating, anti-personal (and thus anti-personnel!) corporate culture all fit Ted’s situation well. He is exploited labor, as his predecessors undoubtedly were also, restricted in interpretation in large part to whatever his superiors—and the residents—deem comfortable. Where Ted differs from his Fort Snelling or the Tenement Museum worker counterparts, it is in that he is one man. He is alone excluding his informal volunteers, themselves incomparable to other museums’ workers because of their impermanency.

            So what do we do with Bae and Tyson’s warnings, given they are already realities at Elfreth’s Alley? I struggle to see a positive way forward to end Ted’s exploitation as resident spokesperson/pseudo-lawyer/tour-guide. We can suggest plans to revitalize the Elfreth’s Alley Museum but maybe that only furthers gentrification, something perhaps only the Museum’s failure could undo—but neither of those options helps Ted! Save selling the E.A.A. on some other, non-profit-based success model, I otherwise cannot see how to generate enough sympathy for Ted among board-members that they increase his pay to match his overextension or hire another full-time staffer. Our efforts feel banal.

Memory-making to keep the Old Town as current

In Beyond Preservation, Andrew Hurley suggests a new approach for historic preservation in urban environments that circumvents many of the problems he has seen in earlier projects. Describing the primary problems, he explains that memory-making in urban environments more often than not comes at the expense of the residents. These projects frequently convert location into time-frozen phenomena and attractions that emphasize moneymaking, often because it is the effort of individuals from outside of a neighborhood and because there has been little to no collaboration with the neighborhood’s residents. As a result, development in this area can begin to go out of the residents’ hands, now increasingly redirected towards outside interests and thereby towards harmful processes such as gentrification. These projects, thus disconnected from the residents, effectively override any claims that residents could make to their own living space as a result, consequently destabilizing the neighborhood (Hurley 53-54).

            But Hurley suggests that this is unnecessary. Instead, he offers a collaborative approach that stresses a mindset of collaboration between memory-maker and residents, wherein the needs and interests of the residents are not only significant but paramount in directing the project. Memory-making in an urban environment needs to meet a need of the community itself; it must cooperate with the community’s sense of self (95-96) and cannot just be about moneymaking lest that help push the needle towards gentrification (118). To these ends, however, the project must have clear and effective partners within a neighborhood with whom to work, as shown with the Restoration Group example Hurley provides (91-92). It is one thing to want to work with residents and to reach out to them but it is quite another to find an organized voice or, if necessary, create it.

            What this means in the case of Elfeith’s Alley would seem to be clear. Our actions on Elfeith’s Alley must involve the residents. We cannot just imagine the memory of the Museum however we wish. As much as I said in my first post that we should do what we can get away with, certainly residents’ feelings are a necessary bound to that.

       And yet, what Hurley’s advice means for us in the case of Elfreth’s Alley is also not clear. We have already determined that the Alley is heavily gentrified, as our news articles from the Data Dumps showed. Properties frequently go for sale at prohibitive prices, forcing us to ask, “For whom in this neighborhood is this Museum even for?” To an extent, we already have an answer: “People who have moved here to watch bystanders walk by”, as we determined in earlier weeks. And the Museum itself helps freeze the Alley into that mold by sensationalizing the Alley as a place of continual change. The National Register document for Elfreth’s Alley shows that the Alley’s architecture and changing nature has been its important draws—not its residents (2-5). And so if the current residents’ presence is the result of gentrification anyway, does that disqualify their opinions? And if so, then whose interests must we mind instead?

Leaning into History for the Sake of an Alien Past

In his “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars”, Ken Yellis delivers a thoughtful analysis on the meaning and the consequences of historical reflection on what is ultimately an “alien past” (345). Museums offer narratives, specifically the narratives chosen by those who establish, fund, or run the museums. What this means in practice is that, however multidimensional the narrative is, it is still one-dimensional insofar as it is someone or some groups’ narrative—imagining—of history. As such, “history wars” result as others contest the narratives promulgated about the alien past, which in the case of museums often takes the form of the museum staff versus laymen—or other academics—with their own histories of the past (333-337). But as Yellis awaits the next series of history wars, the lesson which he seems to take away from the earlier conflicts is one of doubling down on narratives. Museums must not palatize history because palatization comes at the expense of the history highlighted for discussion—at the expense of the particular kind of history that we have constructed out of the past (342).

Thus, we should not try to lean away from these conflicts over the past but toward them instead. Rather than try to smooth over conflict by producing appreciable histories—histories unlikely to stoke conflict; histories likely to seem similar to the “present”—we should endeavor to produce histories that are what they are in the fashion that we imagine them, rather than what would be easy for others—the greater whole—to understand. Why? Because their unfamiliarity to the observer of the present, and to equally unfamiliar observer of the future, will itself spur the desire to understand these histories, this version of a once-again alien past, in observers. And so while Yellis does not come right out and say it, he seems to suggest that the history wars are less of a problem for museums than they are a sort of guide to saving museums as a medium for historical storytelling (343-346).

            What I find encouraging here is that leaning into narrative rather than stressing appreciability is itself a solution, encouragement that I take to our Elfrith’s Alley engagements, too. What if the Elfrith’s Alley Museum’s problems are in part the result of a too-familiar narrative? It shows us a Philadelphia in the late 1700’s, which while different from our contemporary world is nevertheless thematically comprehensible: A living space where some early white Christian Americans lived. But after Dr. Bruggerman showed me a book that taught me about a former owner of the Museum building, an Israelite/Jew named Jacob Cohen, I could not help but wonder if embracing the alien past as a now alien Jewish past, one with which most Americans as non-Jews could not relate, would not help the museum. At the worst, introducing this element widens the Museum’s audience. At best, however, it makes the Museum “controverted” enough to demand attention from people who understand the Alley a different way—and that’s a win (Yellis, 340).

Movement and Memory

Roger Aden’s Upon the Ruins of Liberty uses the backdrop of the construction of the President’s House installation by the NPS in Philadelphia to discuss the relationship between visitors and place. Aden channels his focus throughout this discussion with a methodology of “persons-with/in-places” (14), an approach that reveals meaning-making as a collaborative process between visitors and places. Initially, the President’s House site would have been used to trumpet a narrative of American liberty. With the revelation that President Washington kept nine household slaves on-site and acted to keep them enslaved, however, the President’s House began to take on new meaning for the conceptual architects, historians, public community-at-large, and other agents involved with imagining what the site should be. After the slavery revelations, the site could thus offer a new meaning of its own, and visitors likewise had new readings for it, a complimentary relationship which saw the liberty narrative replaced with one centralizing slavery.

With Aden’s narrative in mind, David Glassberg’s article, “America Lieux de mémoire”, offers a good explanation of how the locale of a site can visit specific readings and interpretations upon it by proximate association. Stereotypical Americans exist between spaces; they understand themselves as either ancestrally or professionally divorced from one space and toward another, an attitude that underwrites the positive vision of American national history and life with its immigrant legacies. But Glassberg’s depiction of how memory-work occurs suggests those movement-narratives neither reckon with the many people who never move from a place nor, particularly important for Aden, explain the consequences of movement to and therefore on a place. As Americans move from one space to another, they effectively cede control of that space, its narratives, and their legacies to those who come after. Subsequently, privately interested associations can determine what means what, and as the government has become more reliant on private interests to perform memory-work, that has a significant impact (Glassberg, 65-67; 72-77).

But then movement is also crucial to Aden’s setting. Philadelphia transformed from a white city into a largely black one via processes of black migration and subsequent “white flight.” Without those demographic movements, and thus without a black Philadelphia that both could read down and could be read onto the President’s House with its own resonate and personal legacy of slavery, I think it much less certain a slavery-focused reinterpretation would have occurred. It was African-Americans’ proximity to the President’s House in the 21st-century that gave them in particular the necessary social capital to affect how the locale would visit specific interpretations on this site—a reckoning still lacking in much of the US wherever African-Americans are (functionally) absent. Thus, the President’s House shows two things: That one can read “down” from Philadelphia onto individual places, my previous focus; And, even more crucially I think, that movement can create different Philadelphias at different times that might push for different readings of the same place. Looking at movement in Philadelphia may help us understand what social capital is available as we try to recreate Elfreth’s Alley.

Place in the Cultural Landscape: Where to find it and what it means

Carolyn Kitch’s book, Pennsylvania in Public Memory, explores how industrial memory is handled in the state of Pennsylvania as “public memory”: Memory which serves a function for the public. More closely, she offers that public memory is often expressed through “heritage culture”, or an approach to historical memory in personal and cultural terms. Thus, Kitch specifically searches for the subjectivity in heritage storytelling. While not averse to it, she bypasses the quest for abstract, impersonal truths divorced from the local landscapes in which they occurred because she wants to find the meanings preservers have built as they reseat those histories back into their relevant landscapes. Accordingly, she avoids treating heritage history as “misinformation” (Kitch 6); it is meaningful because of how it is told and to whom it is told. The preserved story tells another story, as Kitch finds in places like Revonah and Oil City: industrial histories are the histories of families, who they are and “who we once were” (115-117; 167).

All of that fits well into what Hayden’s Power of Place refers to as “built environments:” The defined places and spaces in which cultures rest and whence cultures draw inspiration. Place, Hayden explains, is an important category because of that reflecting-relationship with culture. Items such as buildings, mills, or factories that exist in places speak to long-term relationships between people with space, such that space becomes essential to understanding those people even when they are not physically in that space. Or, as Hayden points out, even when the place itself no longer exists. So too the industrial factory “place” persists in the built environments of Kitch’s work, where myriad Pennsylvanianers continue to live in a world defined by places that either once existed and/or for which the prescribed actions have changed as industries closed.

The question for the Elfreth’s Alley Museum then is how and where to position the place of Elfreth’s Alley. Do we “read down” from Philadelphia into the Alley, as some museums of Kitch’s narratives do with Pennsylvania, thereby seating the Alley within Philadelphia’s heritage? Or “read up” from the Alley into Philadelphia as a place essential to the “built environment” of the space that emerged as Philadelphia (Hayden 18-20)? “Should we read with respect to Philadelphia at all? How ‘big’ is Elfreth’s Alley and how big do we dare make it?”, I wonder—and I think the answer to that lattermost question is, “As big as we can get away with.”

Looking to Hayden, Elfreth’s Alley has importance as a place as we, its observers and creators, grant it. The geography of Elfreth’s Alley is still up in the air; what its space represents or could represents is something we can decide. That means that we still need to approach the Alley as a built environment unto itself, though. It has the power to encompass many meanings within its space, as Lefebvre might point out (Hayden 41), but only if we can see how best and most legitimately to expand it without crossing into “misinformation” (Kitch 6).