Several weeks ago, a group of admittedly self-proclaimed radical public historians, led by NHS Executive Director Ruth Taylor, descended upon the Colony House in Newport to dispel a rumor that is growing like a pernicious weed through certain quarters of the field: History is dead and the heritage sites that depend on it are dying. It’s a rationale being deployed by some of the largest and oldest living history sites in America to justify dramatic changes in their programming to chase revenue from other, hopefully younger, sources, such as the coveted, yet elusive, Millennials whom, the thinking goes, are searching high and low for the next unique background for a strikingly similar, and similarly anodyne, series of ghost tours, craft beer tastings, modern art installations, and weddings (lots and lots of weddings). Millennials want leisure experiences, they say, like spa treatments and wine pairings, not challenging engagement with the people, events, and ideas that continue to shape our collective lives. They want resolution, not conflict. History is dead, these wishful trailblazers declare, and the only way to save heritage spaces is to kill them and their archaic missions.
It’s a topic that our panel of radicals — Old Salem’s Frank Vagnone (co-author of The Anarchists’ Guide to Historic House Museums), the American Association of State and Local History’s Bob Beatty, the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Morgan Grefe, History Communicator extraordinaire Kevin Levin, and myself, with a special appearance by Plimoth Plantation’s Tom Begley — were eager to tackle, perhaps because, for all of our claims to radicalism, and record of causing trouble in the museum world in several time zones, we were uniform, even resolute, in response: to channel Faulkner’s fictional attorney Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” In other words, history — especially a public history that actively seeks to connect the past to the present in ways that shape the future, and a preservation ethos that rehabilitates stories as much as buildings — is alive and well, even amongst Millennials. As one of the panelists pointed out, just follow the money. Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Hamilton: The Musical wouldn’t have reached their current astronomical heights of popularity if history is dead. “Hidden Figures” and “Hacksaw Ridge” wouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards, and grossed a combined $219 million at the box office, if history is dead.
More to the point is the evidence provided by the institutions that appear to be at greatest risk if history was headed to the morgue. Closer to home, the mansions managed by the Preservation Society of Newport County reported welcoming an astonishing one million guests last year. Plimoth Plantation — a prime candidate for extreme unction if there was one, with its dozens of costumed interpreters, a complex narrative that blends religion, Native Americans, and a core of Protestant extremists, and a 90-minute drive from the nearest metro area — is not only holding onto its historical audiences, it’s growing new ones, while maintaining a respectable balance sheet for donors and trustees.
So what’s the deal? Why are some sites losing guests and dollars, jettisoning boatloads of human capital in the process, while seemingly similarly situated ones are looking forward to a sustainable future? In the end, we concluded that the issue isn’t about history being dead, it’s about history being deadly boring. From Hamilton to Plimoth, success clearly appears to lie in a consistently strong yet diverse helping of mission-driven historical programming designed to educate and entertain, connecting audiences — even Millennials — in ways that are natural, that taste and feel real because they are. But that requires a level of deep immersion in a historical past that draws heavily on academic resources of all kinds in order to get the details right, even the ones guests don’t see. The important thing is the scope and nature of a 360-degree guest experience, one that’s not bland or artificial, and than can carry the serious ideas and conflicts that are going on in the heads of Americans and other visitors, regardless of marketing demographic, if for no other reason than because that is the only way through them. Immersive public history doesn’t work unless the past we present gets at the big stuff. As my experience from Disney to Colonial Williamsburg consistently reminds me, engagement doesn’t work unless it gets at the core of a human condition that wrestles with the challenges we continue to face, whether over race, religion, gender identity, or other distinctions that artificially divide history into one that’s yours and one that’s mine.
But it can’t be fantasy. That line can’t be crossed, even if, in the end, all we are really trying to do is tell a story and draw others into its pages. Do that and, as we radicals discussed during and beyond the panel, your site will not just lose money, it will lose much more — it will lose credibility, which, for a heritage site, is the ball game. Entertaining, provocative programming will convince your guests to come back to your site, but your reputation is what will get them there in the first place.
So Faulkner’s over-quoted phrase can continue to have real meaning for us as public historians, who see the past as vibrant and alive, with an important role to play in our daily lives, as it swirls all around us. Because, in the final analysis of the Newport radicals, people don’t hate history, they just hate history done badly by people who don’t seem to care much about it.
Dr. Taylor Stoermer, Visiting Curator of Public History at the Newport Historical Society, Faculty Fellow and Adjunct Professor at Roger Williams University, and author of the forthcoming Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman and Littlefield).