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.