The two readings this week both related to ideas and recent controversies surrounding public memory. Of the two, David Glassberg’s essay “Public History and the Study of Memory” was particularly interesting for what it lead me to. When he cited George Lipsitz’s work regarding the negotiation that takes place among people between their viewership of history as represented in popular culture and their own cultural/subcultural biases, it gave me something to read in the future because it relates to concepts I have been writing about and exploring i.e. who controls public memory and how popular culture influences public perception of historical events.
In Aden’s work, Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory explores the controversy and struggle surrounding the construction of the memorial The President’s House. Despite living only a few blocks away, I had not actually heard of it before this class. I was more aware of the world’s biggest Wawa that also sits not too far from the site. Aden’s work is ambitious for what it aims to say about public memory but I found it somewhat off; his discussion of other national memorials was fairly intriguing but when it came to the context for the site in relation to other landmarks the only ones that seemed significant in the area were Independence Hall and the site in North Philadelphia where Washington had stayed during the outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1793. I tried to think about the site in relation to Elfreth’s Alley, the narratives around both and their respective popularity and despite their relative proximity both seemed completely separate. I suppose it partly comes down to narrative control. In attempting to hide the history of the President’s House, only for it to be “rediscovered” around the turn of the millenia it(and those involved with the memorial project) allowed the public to have more of a role in shaping what the memorial would ultimately be. Elfreth’s Alley needed to be “saved” many times as one clipping from the collection in SCRC, but the fact that it had been continuously lived in ensured that with laws surrounding historical landmarks it could be an unchanging memorial. Because of this there wasn’t a built in history around Washington’s slaves that had been worked into a digestible, longstanding public narrative(at least at this site) like there had been for Elfreth’s Alley’s status as a quaint, aesthetic novelty.
Earlier this month, Betty Corwin, the creator of the TOFT(Theatre on Film and Tape) Archive passed away at the age of 98. While I had only personally become familiar with the TOFT archive in the past year, it actually had been a motivating factor in my current academic work. Years ago I joked with friends that I wanted to go into history so that I could have a reason to access old archival recordings of Sondheim shows. In March and April of this year that offhand joke became a reality when I was able to visit the TOFT archive to access a musical that I had been writing about for years, Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s 1998 work “Parade.” It was an interesting experience however as I learned when I was there that for accessing a taped musical or play that you can only access the work once(unless you receive permission from the donor I believe according to the agreement I signed.) This was in part due to a notorious case where a director had viewed the staging of a musical multiple times and then gone on to basically plagiarize the design, staging, and set in his own production of the work. While I understand their response due to that case, it still sets an interesting precedent for someone to have to contact a creator of a work in order to access a work in an archive. These sorts of hoops are not unheard of, but I can say it did certainly lend an extra pressure while I was viewing the work on my own visit to try to soak in as much as possible during my one allotted viewing session.
White supremacy in this country and abroad has been of increasing concern in the past few years and it seems few areas are safe from the encroaching threat. While these groups and individuals using the internet to radicalize and recruit is not surprising, some of the methods that they’ve gone about it are. As part of a larger attempt at legitimacy that has involved imitating academic style and citation, online public archives have also become a haven for their ideas. I first learned this because of my recurring research interest around Leo Frank. Individuals using pseudonyms (a frequent one being Sarah Cohen) have used archive.org to upload documents publicly available in other archives to the archive.org website such as books, Leo Frank’s passport, and any media related to the case. In doing so they are able to then shape the narrative by publishing long antisemitic essays in the section below whatever document or even video they upload.
At least this was the case until recently. Since the last time I was researching the topic in April 2019 and now the various documents have been taken down for terms of service violations. There has been no explanation beyond that but it does reflect a similar issue when white supremacists had bought up the domain names related to the case and used them to publish propaganda. After articles in The Forward and the Washington Post were published Google, who had previously had these among the first results when you googled “Leo Frank” moved them further down. Perhaps archive.org is attempting a stronger political stand, or perhaps those who hold the copyrights to these materials were alerted and put in claims to the site. Whatever it is, it is a step in the right direction.
The readings for this week are united in part by a shared question of who owns public history, as well as who is most invested in public history. Dolores Hayden’s opening which recounts and analyzes a debate between Herbert J. Gans and Ada Huxtable which, despite Hayden’s further exploration of gender, class, and ethnicity in historical preservation, still stood out to me as an incredibly succinct encapsulation of the recurring debate in public history; whether to prioritize “culture” or to attempt public history as a form of activism in preserving and recounting the lives of marginalized people. Kitch’s analysis goes somewhat further Hayden(though this is not meant as a slight toward Hayden, part of this is due to the gap in time between when the two published) than public history as activism toward also seeing how certain narratives can take over in public history, (as they have in industrial Pennsylvanian history) to erase historical political and/or class conflict in favor of a more nostalgic view of the industrial era and the physical labor involved. The legacy of coal mining in Pennsylvania and the way it is portrayed in the media as something of the past was of particular interest to me in light of the recent conflicts between coal miners and coal corporations in Kentucky, namely Harlan County. A Democratic candidate hoping to unseat Mitch McConnell recently used several men suffering from black lung disease in a campaign ad while supposedly telling them that they were filming a re-enactment of miners’ ride to Washington. This was particularly egregious due to the miner claiming that they had been told the footage was to be used to Appalshop, a non-profit local arts and education organization. I’ve included a link below about the incident.
Toward the end of my summer learning Yiddish at YIVO, I was able to spend some time with a friend researching Meir Kahane, co-founder of the Jewish Defense League, in the YIVO archive. They had plenty of material surrounding him and I was tasked by my friend with going through a folder that centered around mainstream media coverage of the controversial rabbi, with a particular focus on an incident with the JDL my friend has been researching. In the course of this I came upon a published interview with Playboy Magazine from October 1972 with Meir Kahane.
Reading through the interview in 2019 is remarkable. In it, Kahane in no uncertain terms advocates for violent resistance to fascism. When the interviewer attempts to make a comparison between the JDL and the American Nazi Party, saying that due to Kahane’s belief in political violence the only difference in their lines of logic is that Kahane “thinks that they’re wrong” and that the JDL is “right” to which Kahane replied “I can’t put it any better than that.” Considering the national conversation around political violence and defense against fascism, Kahane’s words and how they’ve been preserved makes me curious as to how similar figure and materials from our own moment may be preserved and who will or won’t be doing said preservation.
In 2019 there are no Meir Kahanes, at least not in America. There may be people similar to him politically, but there are none who publicly would be able to advocate and share these sorts of beliefs with the same national platform that he was able to. What does this change show in how anti-fascist and political speech is expressed today, and how has the Overton window shifted since 1972? These materials were collected by YIVO likely due to Meir Kahane’s strong impact on Jewish life in America. I must wonder regarding current activists and antifascists today what sort of collections will be formed in the future and what will they be comprised of? Who will collect them and how will they be looked at?
In the archive, what constitutes greater accessibility and what will this seeming abundance of archival sources mean for historians? Ian Milligan’s recent article regarding the changing and increasingly digital nature of the archives is perceptive to note that a change in training for historians and archivists is in order. Milligan also openly wonders at what increased “abundance” will mean for historical research, positing that narrowing down exact search terms may prove difficult. This is definitely a personal matter for my own research as I have to wonder what the feasibility of searching Yiddish documents in a digitized context will be. There is already groundwork for how to do so to a degree; guides that explain the different romanizations of Yiddish in the archive that can help with search terms. It will likely be similar in that regard; to search for content regarding Sholom Schwarzbard a historian will likely have to go through the same variations as before.
The notion of abundance is intriguing and even exciting but I have to wonder what the labour going into these processes of digitization will require and what it will mean for archive workers in the near future. With automation, labor concerns must be kept in mind. While the profession changing shouldn’t automatically be feared, I am wary for what it might mean in terms of “cost-cutting” for those in charge.
The safety of archival materials in digital formats is also in question. Physical materials aren’t infallible and with current climate change patterns this digitization could seem like a godsend, but I am still skeptical. The mention of geocities in the article really brought this to mind. While the internet is forever to some degree, things can still be lost and digitization is not a guarantee of future access.