Gut Check Time for Historic Preservation?

History has become a problem. Or, rather, our collective history has splintered into a number of problems that have transformed the word, so deeply have historical legacies seeped into prismatic dimensions of American life. Those legacies are not merely, or perhaps any longer, the purview of seemingly cloistered academics stretching for relevance on a broader stage, but the business of us all, so nearly have the implications raised by our oft-misshapen memories impacted what amounts to our shared experience, creating a truly public history, full of contested perceptions and incompatible priorities.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than on our college campuses, from Harvard Law School’s rejection of its crest because of its implied endorsement of the institution that enslaved the men and women who made possible the wealth that established the school, to Stanford’s new guidelines for naming streets and buildings, starting first with any that reference the “mixed legacy” of Junipero Serra (mixed is putting it mildly, since the Catholic Church made him a saint), to Amherst College casting aside its unofficial mascot, “Lord Jeff,” because of Jeffrey Amherst’s likely employment of germ warfare against Native Americans in the eighteenth century. The entire basis of the powerful and pertinent #BlackLivesMatter movement rests on the ways in which America’s past has been remembered and projected and, worse, buried. With all due apologies to the esteemed Andrew Bacevich, this is the real “History That Matters” — and it is very public, indeed. All this while, paradoxically, a clever musical that celebrates the same elite white men who are largely responsible for that history, regardless of casting choices, is gripping America’s modern cultural elites.  Add to that the fans of television programs (good, such as Underground, and bad, like Turn, and indifferent, such as Downtown Abbey), movies, books, and the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into heritage tourism every year, and public interest in history–or at least entertainment based, however loosely, on it–has rarely been higher. Nevertheless, we seem to be doing more than holding a candle to our historical shames; we are shining a spotlight on them and do not like what we see, even as we hum “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”

So it might be time for a gut check of sorts for Americans to sort out our heritage priorities. What should be castigated? What should be celebrated? What should be preserved? And what should be, both figuratively and literally, cast aside? In the end, what is modern historic preservation all about when we think of it in terms of events and ideas, as well as structures and landscapes?

This is the right time for such a discussion as the decisions might soon be made for us, whether we like it or not (and not just because I’m teaching a course on it over the Summer Semester). “America’s Best Idea” has created one of America’s worst headaches in a $12 billion backlog of maintenance at our National Parks, and might result in widespread privatization–or worse–within the next ten years as that number becomes only more intractable. But with a crumbling domestic infrastructure, who is to say that Joshua Tree National Park deserves scarce discretionary government funding more than, say, Flint, Michigan? And what about those sites that represent a person, an event, or an idea — the very importance of which, such as Minute Man National Historical Park, draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year in search of both the sense of place and the sensibility of it, the story that it has to tell us, thereby placing even greater budgetary pressure on already limited resources that groups like Minute Man NHP’s Friends work, with widely varying degrees of success, to alleviate?

Those are, strictly speaking, the public places, which directly depend on tax dollars to preserve. There are also the thousands of other heritage sites that indirectly depend on public trust through their non-profit status, and therefore also possess a public responsibility for the privilege of not paying taxes, all in support of a mission to protect something of importance to our heritage. To ask whether there are too many of them misses the point, for there are as many of them as our heritage priorities will support–and there are more heritage sites than there are McDonalds, which suggests that our collective appetite for history is strong. They need help, too, although the crisis facing them is not as clear cut. The fortunes of small organizations, like the splendid Alden House in Duxbury, Massachusetts, largely ebb and flow based on the knowledge and sweat equity built by boards, staff, and members. They don’t require legions of consultants they can’t afford, anyway, but targeted advice to help them raise necessary funds and effectively deploy them, especially those outside of major urban centers and those that have trouble conveying both the sense and sensibility of relevance (they can start by picking up the Anarchists’ Guide and ask questions of themselves).

But what works for Plimoth Plantation or the Newport Historical Society or Drayton Hall will not work for the Royall House and Slave Quarters or the Golden Ball Tavern Museum or the terrific Menokin Foundation (check out its new website). In the first place, heritage sites have less in common than one might think, and not just in terms of the obvious things, like money or visibility or accessibility. They are also strikingly different in purpose, governance, and ambition (take the Alden House, the narrative of which was already more or less written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) — and therefore require different survival strategies. In any case, they each must be considered on their own terms to determine what, if anything, ails them and the proper diagnosis for treating them.

It is in that diversity that our collective challenge lies. Given the nature of what might be considered a new public history, historic preservation cannot just mean buildings or battlefields, however “hallowed” they might be. As my students are teaching me, it must be an ongoing community conversation about just what we intend to preserve, one that will focus our priorities and actively shape our memory, not as something stuck in the past, but as an active, engaging process of defining our commitments and informing our resolve. So perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda is right after all — we should be asking “Who Tells Your Story?”, although it’s also time to start coming up with some answers.

A Not-So Bleak Midwinter: Old Sturbridge Village and the Power of the People

As Divine Providence — or, in this case, my doctor and the fine folks in Sports Medicine at Spaulding Rehab — have sentenced me to several days of physical inactivity and a few sessions with my new best friend, Hydrodocon (Lesson: friends do not let *older* friends try to jump large horses over tall obstacles), I figure I could use the little coherence I retain to summon up a productive blog post. Of course, I could spend it railing against the latest Colonial Williamsburg crime against its donors (You have to admit, they keep setting new and interesting standards. I mean, having the Marquis de la Fayette directly solicit contributions almost 200 years after his death puts a whole new spin on “The Future Should Earn From the Past”), but I’ll leave that as a bottomless pit of fodder for discussion with my students as we proceed through the semester. I could also go into the ongoing saga that is the joint attempt of me and my terrific TA to come up with ways to productively use Zoom to promote in-class interaction, or continue to plan for our Public History Master Classes, with folks like Ric Burns and Tony Horwitz, which are coming up. Or I can wonder how a talk I timed at 45 minutes to give last Sunday for the Friends of Minute Man National Park (who are doing terrific things, by the way) wasn’t over at the 90-minute mark. But, instead, before it fades farther into my personal past, I wanted to share my observations about a visit to Old Sturbridge Village (OSV), just a few weeks ago.

Now you might well say, with no little legitimacy, that it’s not fair for me to hit a heritage site during the so-called “slow” season. Especially these days when almost all I can do when I see such sites is calculate donor and guest efficiency ratings, from parking to signage to guest services to site maintenance to, well, you know the drill. My students certainly do at this point. I keep thinking about mission, experience, and sustainability, almost in that order. Of course, it doesn’t make for the most magical time for my wife or our dog, but, in the end, if a donor — whether of one’s time, in visiting, or of one’s money, as a member or higher contributor — loses confidence in a site’s ability to achieve its mission, then the game is, more or less, up. Moreover, despite a lower level of programming, it’s not like we were charged a seasonal rate for the experience, so why not? If they’re not giving guests a break for their slow season, why should I give them a break? We’re paying the same price whether we were there in July or January (I think). What’s more, I’ve been a bit unfair to OSV in the past, judging it more by its not very pretty 990s than by the total experience. So I thought we’d take the plunge.

As my own students are putting together their site evaluations for our class, I’ll reveal a bit of my own process. I first looked at the online presence of OSV, including its social media feeds and mobile optimization, to find out what I could about the guest experience — how easy it is to find the prices, the programming schedules, a rationale for visiting at all — and the institutional history, mission, and vision of the place. In other words, to answer the questions of why we should visit, how we will find it, how much it will cost, and what should we find when we get there? And once I got through all that, and tasked Bring Fido to help us find a pet-friendly hostelry, it was off to the races. But I must admit, having done my usual homework, that I was not brimming with enthusiasm when we stepped out of the car and made the short trek into the Visitor Center.

I won’t bore you with the play-by-play of all the evaluations that I did in my head, and notes I took on my iPhone, over the course of our visit. Suffice to say that OSV is a quirky place, a town that never really existed, literally constructed out of buildings and materials from across the northeast to roughly represent Jacksonian New England. In a bow to modern interpretive methods, it was nice to see, both onsite and online, the stirrings of a master narrative: to represent a typical Massachusetts village in 1838, as America’s version of the industrial revolution and stirrings of Manifest Destiny were beginning to transform almost every aspect of society. But that is a nicely coherent guide that should serve them well in developing programming, marketing, and targeting audiences. The tickets appear to be set at a nice price point, especially with the addition of an optional free extra day and the chance to take the price off the cost of basic membership. It shows confidence in the experience, which was largely self-guided through the buildings bedecked with explanatory panels that generally supported the narrative, although the number of missed opportunities grew as we encountered one silent, roped-off room after another, some of which tried very hard to (like at the Parsonage) assign a fictional role to a building the architecture of which was telling a much different, and perhaps more interesting, story, while others completely ignored the historical elements of the buildings (such as the textile exhibit, which was devoid of any real discussion of the people who gave life to both the house and the materials). And a few attempts at soundscapes or using Guide By Cell recordings fell flat. Regardless, one understands what OSV is trying to do, even if the guest experience, when left to one’s own devices, is uneven and a little narrative development, to tie together the whole site and its components and means, would go quite a long way.

On the ground and, I strongly suspect, in the Board Room, OSV has some serious issues to address, as the 990s and media coverage of a new charter school suggest. And there are the obvious problems, like material culture exhibits on glass and other objects that are eye-wateringly out of date. A considerable amount of deferred maintenance is glaringly apparent and the wretched “tavern” buffet was not one I intend to ever revisit. We also appeared, as paying guests, to have been in the minority of visitors, since most others we encountered wore member stickers. However, as I continuously counsel sites to use the “off-season” not as a chance to take a break, but as an opportunity to develop closer ties to core audiences (members and the local community), I can hardly see in that anything more than a trend for OSV to examine in terms of effective ways to address seasonal visitation patterns. But these are hardly hidden horrors and, for the most part, are not cheap to fix. I suspect that OSV’s leadership is keenly aware of the weaknesses and looking for the necessary funding to strengthen them.

But as quirky as OSV is as a, let’s face it, entirely fictional heritage site, and as clear as its shortcomings, it was not long before we encountered OSV’s greatest strength, its real power: its people. From the ticket booth and gift shop staff to the costumed interpreters and the tradespersons, I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered such a uniformly polite and, I can’t think of a better way to put it, genteel set of people — and I’m from the Chesapeake. Everyone had a smile — even when it was cold and about to rain — and a generous greeting, whether they were recommending (delicious) cookies or pointing out directions. Whatever emphasis they have placed on guest services as a key point of creating a positive experience, it has worked. Or maybe they just happen to hire the nicest people in New England.

Perhaps more important, though, as a reflection of the institution’s strength — its sustainability, the ways in which donors can rely on it to maintain and build quality programs — was in the quality of its interpreters and tradespersons. I maintain that is the single most important investment that a heritage organization can make: hire talented people, train them well, support them with good leadership and clear direction, then let them fly and watch the real magic happen. Granted there were rather few interpreters about when we were there, and they all appeared to be doing several different jobs on any given day. In fact, on Sunday, what must have been the hardest working woman in the public history world led four of the five programs we attended — and each required a different interpretive method. But they were all solid, engaging, accessible to a range of audiences, and supportive of the narrative (except perhaps for the shaky first-person program, which, in her defense, is the trickiest of all methods, but her “In the Moment” program on nineteenth-century fashions was stellar).

We were also fortunate enough to have been there for a talented artist’s program, who explained the nineteenth-century rage for profiles and created one — with striking speed — for any and all who wanted to sit (her Not-Quite-In-The-Moment persona [she was and wasn’t in 1838], which usually would have annoyed me, actually worked for the program, or at least it worked for her and the guests, so what difference does the rest make?). Then, of course, there was the Tinsmith, proving the universal point about the enduring value of supporting Historic Trades, preserving artisanal crafts while engaging guests in the process (Just perfect for discussing and demonstrating changes brought on by American industrialization, by the way). But, as in everything, it’s the unexpected that makes the greatest impression and OSV was no exception: a program about logging, of all things, in early America had me hooked for half-an-hour, learning about such things as how to turn a tree into a beam for a house frame. It was terrific, and I can barely handle a hammer without hurting myself. There are few higher compliments that I can pay to an interpreter than that she or he knows her or his stuff, and can communicate it without being pedantic or, worse, boring–all of OSV’s interpreters and tradespersons I encountered fit the best of that bill.

In the end, all of this is about gaining and maintaining donor and visitor confidence that what you see (the mission, the message) is what you’ll get (in the experience). That often comes down to one question: would you come back? Having already given a dollar (or $56, in OSV’s case, and that was before we hit the splendid gift shop), would you give another to them to help them keep doing what they’re doing or, hopefully, do more? My answer is a resounding YES. There’s lots of potential at OSV, telling the story of an oft-neglected yet critical moment in the making of America, and I have high hopes that they’ll hone the narrative, help it inform the programming, support the interpreters and other frontline staff, tighten the ancillary activities, and build an audience-base strong enough to serve as a foundation for growth —  all without a pirate or a musket range in sight. We’ll certainly be back and hope to see you there.