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.