Making a Public Historian: The Contract

This year for my course on the Practice of Public History we’ve introduced Master Classes, which have given our students the opportunity to learn directly from some of the best practitioners in the field.  But because I want to make sure that my folks understand that public historians practice their craft in a dizzying variety of contexts, often far away from museums and historic sites, our presenters this term have been documentarians, broadcasters, and authors: Ric Burns, Susan Swain, and Tony Horwitz, so far.  The best Master Classes, of course, are those in which everyone learns, including the instructor, and ours have borne out the truth of that statement, as Ric, Susan, and Tony have augmented our reading, thinking, and discussions in considerable ways.  That’s especially true because this semester we set ourselves the collective task of constructing a more effective vocabulary for talking about and explaining just what public history is and, more to the point, how it should be done.

One of the most striking concepts to emerge from our Master Classes has been that of the contract that exists between public historians and their audiences.  We had spent weeks talking around it, with the occasional rhetorical dive into the duty of the public historian to historical truth.  We read James Sheehan’s principles of historical practice and Rolph Truoillot’s exploration of “pastness” and the importance of narrative, along with various descriptions of connecting theory to practice in books like the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums and others.  We’ve had a number of conversations about the unspoken promise that public historians make with their guests, at a museum or historic site or even through a website, about the underlying integrity of their information and interpretation.  And I’ve shared one (or six) too many stories of my own experience about learning to be a public historian from some of the best in the business, a tutelage that always impressed on me the signal importance of “getting it right,” and then learning how to make that education engaging, even entertaining.

But words like “duty” and “promise” can be pretty vague, which is why I was struck by the succinct and subtle power of the word “contract” and how it applies to a public historian, as described by Ric Burns during his Master Class last week. Ric, as one of America’s premier documentarians, explained the intellectual framework that guides his craft and that should apply to everyone in the “guild” of historical storytellers, all of us in the business of explaining the past to the present.  Ric has an implied contract with his audiences that every scene he puts on the screen, every talking head he puts in front of their eyes, and every fact that supports his narrative are true to historical method.  Given the extraordinary, even visceral power of the medium of film to inform and persuade about our historical memory, Ric recognizes and is shaped by the tremendous responsibility that imposes on us to, first and foremost, do no harm in mishaping that perspective for others, and to further ensure that it accurately adds to our understanding of people who can longer speak for themselves.  It’s a contract between him and the audience that what they see will be historically correct, insofar as he is able to deploy every resource to ensure it.  It’s a high standard, but one that separates the historical documentarian and author from the narrative filmmaker and the novelist, who can invent.  We cannot invent, but only fill in the gaps of what we don’t know with the most informed and authentic of imaginations.  We can evoke, but not create.  Moreover, there is considerable power in breaking that contract, crossing that invisible yet critical line, because — as Colleen Dilenscheider reminds us — mission, integrity, and reputation are our greatest, but most delicate, assets, and once lost, for our guests and donors, almost impossible to regain.

Susan Swain reinforced this notion in her Master Class on Tuesday by explaining the seriousness with which the entire team at C-SPAN — which really should be called the Public History Channel, given the nature and scope of their historical programming, from a series like Landmark Cases to highlighting small museums and artifact collections on their famous traveling buses.  C-SPAN’s rigorously mission-based approach to all projects depends on fairness, transparency, a commitment to not distort any viewpoint, and a devotion to public involvement (not a bad rubric for the practice of a public historian).  And that demands accountability, from staff as well as audiences, to hold them to their core mission, because, again, any departure from it — even by a camera operator — could undermine confidence in the entire venture, and invite erosion of support.

These two complementary examples, which reinforce our readings and discussions, have made a considerable impression on me as both an academic historian who works on loyalists in the American Revolution and as a public historian who attempts to help heritage sites develop survival strategies.  And I hope it has helped sharpen the focus of my students — all of whom are in the midst of writing their own contracts as an assignment.  But it is on the side of accountability that has the broader utility of the contract, whenever any of us sees a historical program or visits a heritage site.  How do they represent the contract? How much are they willing to bend its terms, or ignore them altogether?  Is “accurate-ish” an acceptable standard for an institution ostensibly committed to helping the future learn from the past or is everything up for grabs, including historical standards, when faced with declining revenue?  Or, upon breaking the contract, in furtherance of whatever other goals, should the words “history” and “heritage” be revoked, or at least put into inverted commas, when applied, or misapplied, to an organization?  That is a question for audiences to ask, and a valuable one at that.  And that, perhaps, is what makes, and breaks, a public historian.


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, Hydrodocone (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.

My 2015 End-of-Year Heritage Giving Recommendations

2015 has been a curious year for heritage institutions, one that has generated fundamental questions about what they do and how they do it. We have seen the spectacular, the exciting, the innovative, the bizarre, and the inscrutable (sometimes all wrapped into one), which have sparked necessary and long overdue discussions of the ways in which we preserve the past–including, importantly, debates over whose pasts are worth preserving. And I don’t mean that as part of some tiresome, pseudo-intellectual conversation about the construction of multiple memories, but, rather, an intense consideration of the point where it really matters, when money changes hands and real-world decisions are made over the present and future of buildings, landscapes, and people. Moreover, thanks to the IMLS, we have a much better idea of just how many history-related organizations there are (an eye-watering 19,000 of them) and the wide variety of forms they take, from house museums and “living history” farms and local historical societies to podcasts (Ben Franklin’s World and the Bowery Boys are my faves) and Instagram feeds. We also know that the vast majority of them increasingly face demands to do more with less as donors change the way they make financial commitments, looking more to organizations that have a clear, relevant mission and can be relied on to stick to it, as well as preferring targeted projects, including those highlighted on sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, to general fund contributions.

I know this because one of the things I do is counsel donors, large and small, about heritage sites that are worth their investment and those that are toxic. The hundreds of millions of dollars regularly contributed or granted to such organizations are an enormous part of public history–the business side–and it is rarely taught, but the business of public history is critical to a proper understanding of the ways and means of practicing it. Of course, the primary returns one expects from investing in a heritage organization cannot be counted in a monthly P & L report. Once the mission statements of our very particular kind of non-profits become a thinly disguised collective synecdoche for customers and profit margins, then the game, as Belarius says, is up. At that point self-preservation, even on the institutional level, replaces historic preservation. But the ability and capacity to deliver the intangible returns that are, and should be, at the core of every heritage organization’s raison d’être certainly can be gleaned from P & L reports and the like. Consequently, a close examination of the business side of the field helps us shed light on one of the biggest questions raised in 2015 about heritage organizations and, therefore, heritage fundraising: are there just too many of them? Of course, as my experience in academic history, public history, and politics (both my successes and, often more so, my failures) tells me, that’s a question only the market can answer (Lenin got one thing right: people vote with their feet, or maybe with their debit cards these days).

In any case, as I sit here in unexpectedly balmy New England, in the glow of our lovely Christmas tree, listening to our dog’s oddly comforting snores, and being reminded by everyone from Charity Navigator to each of my alma maters that December is the biggest giving month of the year, I figure it’s time for me to create my annual list of heritage institutions worth your consideration (every year I put together a private version of it for a set of high donors and occasionally make parts of it public — think of it as a  Morningstar report for public history). This is, unsurprisingly, weighted to the Northeast and doesn’t claim to be comprehensive. And it includes sites to which my family has donated in 2015 or made 2016 commitments (denoted with an asterisk). There are only two other points for your consideration. First, as part of my ongoing effort to build a better language for the practice of public history, I take a broad church approach to what that term means. Public history can reflect a genre (tennis) or a trade (boatbuilding) or a concept (civic education) or another sort of idea (civil liberty), as much as it is about bricks and mortar (or, maybe, wattle and daub). That is largely, I suspect, a reflection of the factors that are shaping donor behavior, as they become increasingly wary of institutions that stress “experiences” over missions. Consequently, the below organizations are crystal clear when it comes to what they’re all about, which can make the difference in how many zeros a Development officer adds after a number on a pledge sheet. Second, it would be less than candid of me to suggest that absence from this list is nothing more than that. For some, absence is simply a matter of practicality — I visit, crunch the numbers (I have created a collection of metrics that probably would bore anyone this side of Bill James), evaluate the marketing and programming, and analyze the mission and mechanics of dozens of organizations every year, but I can’t get to them all, and making a recommendation based on insufficient data, and therefore inadequate evidence, would be irresponsible (I do, however, include an organization that I have not visited this year, but those reasons are clearly set out below). For others, I have a list of institutions to explicitly avoid that is part of my yearly private memo to heritage philanthropists, although I’ve hardly held my tongue, publicly, about organizations that I think donors should avoid and others about which I’m beginning to worry.

But this is the season for good cheer and, having just read “A Christmas Carol” with my family, I think I can manage to keep Christmas in my heart for at least another few days. Maybe I can even last until Twelfth Night. So on with the show, in no particular order.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Charlottesville, Virginia). Yes, a behemoth to kick-off the list. Monticello has–like the other two members of “The Big Three” (Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg)–changed considerably under relatively new leadership. Leslie Bowman, who succeeded the courtly Dan Jordan on the mountain top in 2008, vastly expanded and enhanced the scope and depth of programming, reorganized internally, and has begun to recreate important parts of the Monticello community. The result has been a transformed visitor experience, both onsite and on-line, and enhanced scholarly endeavors (the new Mont Alto center is being put to fantastic use by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, a first-rate scholar) to inform them. From a variety of digital history apps and MOOCs and teacher education programs to an array of family-friendly experience packages, Bowman has done it, with the help of heritage all-stars like Gary Sandling (the single best practicing public historian in America, IMHO), without sacrificing the institution’s integrity or threatening its sustainability. That’s saying quite something given that Monticello’s guest acquisition costs are among the highest of any heritage site on the Atlantic seaboard (its donor acquisition numbers are much better, though). But one could ignore all that and still recommend Monticello for what it’s doing to, in an important sense, resurrect the enslaved women and men for whom that place was home, every bit as much as it was for Jefferson and his free family. And it’s not just the ongoing reconstruction of Mulberry Row, or the rooms reinterpreted to focus on the Hemingses and others who breathed life into them, or the apps built to project their memories into new media. That’s all part of it, of course. But the main thing is the courage to not only tell, but to honestly and earnestly embrace, their story, which is the single most important job facing historians of early America today, academic or public. As one of those historians, and one who has, moreover, taught the subject at the University of Virginia and recreated the lived experience of members of Jefferson’s extended family (his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, and his enslaved valet, Martin Hemings) for first-person interpretation elsewhere, I know how difficult it is, but also how crucial it is to get it right. That’s why I think that whomever Monticello hires to fill its position of Public Historian for Slavery and African American Life will be in one of the toughest jobs in the business. It has also the potential to be among its most influential. Either way, that kind of commitment flies in the face of anyone who believes that visitor numbers and TripAdvisor reviews and surviving quarterly Board meetings represent the kind of success for which we collectively reach. As I have written about the splendid crew at Plimoth Plantation, Monticello’s path forward appears to be better history and more of it. That’s the kind of investment to make anyone sleep well who wants to go to bed knowing that their contributions will ensure that future generations learn what they absolutely need to know from our past.

Royall House and Slave Quarters (Medford, Massachusetts). From slavery in the south to slavery in the north, the Royall House and Slave Quarters represents what might well be the new breed of heritage sites: those that, with apologies to W.W., recognize the unique verse they each can contribute to the powerful play that is American public history and are committed to shouting that verse from the rooftops. I have encountered few more impressive heritage sites this year, as the staff and Board of this one are clear about their mission and aggressively pursue it, whether in a house tour or on Facebook. Somewhat similar in degree to the splendid Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, the concept infuses an entire site that both housed Royalls and quartered slaves, and projects from there into a vision that seeks to inform debate and controversy on related subjects wherever they may be found–from Ferguson, Missouri, to Harvard Yard. From a more practical standpoint, a little will go a long way at this site. The core interpretation is more than sound, some terrific archaeology has been conducted, and the mansion house is a Georgian jewel, but physically the site is, well, challenged, given its extensive preservation needs and the fact that its location is less than guest-friendly (It’s perfect for Road Scholar and similar groups, though). So your contribution, of whatever amount, will not only be well spent by an informed leadership, but also of immediate use.

Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, Massachusetts). This place makes me smile just thinking about it. As I’ve written before, Plimoth is the place to watch for what’s coming next in public history. It’s quite possibly the most dynamic site on the East Coast, with a clear, relevant mission and the right people in place to execute it.

IYRS School of Boatbuilding & Restoration* (Newport, Rhode Island). This entry on the list doesn’t represent as dramatic a change of gears as one might think. No, IYRS students and faculty wear no funny clothes and should not be confused with interpreters, and no guest will be asked for an entrance fee (you can watch them at work for free). Yet they are as public in their history and as active in their practice, and preservation and promotion, of our heritage as anyone who wears breeches and a waistcoat, or a petticoat and mob cap. A visit to their workshop, and to the massive historic yacht Coronet, which is being restored next door, is a must for any visitor to Newport who is interested in proper living history, and a donation, moreover, will further contribute to its sustainability by assisting students to carry those skills into the workforce or on to their own businesses.

Golden Ball Tavern Museum (Weston, Massachusetts). A work-in-progress, but one on the ladder of the new breed of house museums, the Golden Ball Tavern might be the most important heritage site you’ve never heard of, and the story it has to tell is another of those muted historical voices that need to be understood today if Americans–and, it must be said, Canadians–are to understand who were are, or at least who we might have been. Although the Royall House and Slave Quarters has its claim to part of the tale, the Golden Ball is set to become the epicenter for exploring the loyalist experience in Massachusetts, if not all of Revolutionary America. It’s all here — spies, patriot mobs, Paul Revere’s ire, an outspoken devotion to the rights guaranteed by the British constitution, and a boatload of unanswered questions about why and how Isaac Jones and his loyalist family, free and enslaved, successfully navigated the turbulent waters of the War for Independence and the Early Republic. Part of the fun of the Golden Ball is that neither Jones, a publican and Congregationalist, born and raised in Weston, and his immediate family don’t fit into the orthodox characterization of loyalists, suggesting, if not demanding, that our definition of that term is long overdue for refinement. Another part of the fun is the house and grounds, which have barely been touched in 350 years, having remained in the Jones family until it became a museum in the 1960s. Given that the staff and Board of the Golden Ball are just at the beginning of developing a new strategic plan for the site, and reorganizing a tremendous collection of manuscripts and decorative arts to better understand its residents, the sky is the limit. If there was a futures market for heritage sites, this would be my bonus buy. Any venture philanthropists out there? Oh, and did I mention that the Joneses are Henry David Thoreau’s family? The Golden Ball’s future, given the many different avenues its interpretation and development can take, and the dedication of its leadership, is as bright and promising as any heritage organization in New England. Moreover, its terrific Executive Director, Joan Bines, literally wrote the best book out there on colonial American language with her splendid Words They Lived By, so you know it’s on solid interpretive ground.

The Robbins House (Concord, Massachusetts). None of the sites on this list has a purely local history. Each is part of a broader narrative that is still emerging as we reshape and redefine and redetermine those pasts that now require preservation and projection. The Robbins House in Concord might be small, but it packs a wallop of an interpretive punch. On the one hand, this former home to generations of free African Americans is another side of the same interpretive coin told about the Minute Men nearby at the Old North Bridge, while, on the other hand, it is an extension of the arc that could begin on the Newport wharves or at the Royall House and Slave Quarters. Moreover, this organization is interesting because of its organizational structure: it truly is a community effort of the best sort, one in which the people of Concord appear to be determining what of their history deserves to be preserved and how. Given their historical track record, I’d bet that past performance is a reliable indicator of future returns.

Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Jamestown, Virginia). If telling the story of the Scrooby Separatists and Wampanoag at Plimoth is a challenge akin to throwing down a gauntlet, preserving the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America is a slap in the face. It’s tough to find, sandwiched as it is between the National Park Service and the James River (one has to actually go through the NPS Visitor Center just to get there), and almost impossible for uninformed potential guests to distinguish from the reconstructed Jamestown Fort next door. Consequently, visitorship is anemic and operating costs–as an active archaeological site, with all the staff, conservation, and interpretive expenses it requires–are high. And given that the actual Plymouth site (and Salem, and Boston, and…) is underneath almost 400 years of continuous habitation, Jamestown is all the more important for what we can learn from its remains and the ongoing search for more of them. The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, charged with managing the site and keeping the digs and stories going, is relatively new, assuming responsibility when Preservation Virginia and Colonial Williamsburg went their separate ways, after their five-year attempt to jointly oversee the site. But failure for this site is hardly an option. Fortunately, the Foundation is in good hands, with America’s premier historian of Jamestown, Jim Horn, now running the show, with Bill Kelso and a splendid team of archaeologists plumbing the fort’s depths (although it’s unfortunate that the magnificent Bly Straube wasn’t retained), and Lisa Fischer, who established Colonial Williamsburg’s innovative Digital History Center, exploring the potential for digital archaeology projects and  other outreach. The fact that Jamestown also represents the introduction of slavery into North America cannot be gainsaid. Consequently, this site is worth a closer look for your year-end contribution.

The Old State House (Boston, MA). Under the guidance of the visionary Nat Sheidley, The Bostonian Society is jumping headfirst into presenting engaging, informative, and–it can’t be overlooked–entertaining experiences for guests on Boston’s Freedom Trail. There are many heritage gems on the Trail, of course, such as the King’s Chapel (enthusiastic guides who deserve your support) and Old South Meeting House* (best use of static interpretation I’ve seen), and they would all benefit from greater cooperation to leverage their resources, but the team at the Old State House is breathing a new energy into interpreting the height of the revolutionary crisis in Boston. With nice price points and a rather strong donor efficiency rating, as well as a wide variety of interpretive options and programming to connect with diverse constituencies, the Bostonian Society is more than a safe bet for your philanthropic dollar.

Newport Historical Society (Newport, Rhode Island). While Boston has the Old State House to lead the interpretive way, Newport’s heritage is in splendid hands with the Newport Historical Society. The NHS has embarked on a range of interesting and engaging programming, with a variety of interpretive techniques, from costumed interpreters in the middle of its historic streets to programs in its impressive collection of colonial era structures, to tell Newport’s important history (the story of religious freedom alone is worth the price of admission), often in partnership with the tremendous Rhode Island Historical Society (which is doing interesting work of its own). And don’t take my word for it. You can gauge for yourself the infectious enthusiasm of the staff and leadership of the NHS as they leave no interpretive stone unturned to tell the stories that beg to be told on that end of Aquidneck Island. Just check out their website and see videos of past events and what’s next. I can practically guarantee that you’ll be sorry for missing what’s past and checking in regularly to find out what’s next. In fact, the NHS might leave every other heritage organization in the Northeast question why they close during the winter months and heritage tourists wondering why Newport isn’t on their list of places to return to every year.

Right Honorable Mentions

Whitney Plantation (Wallace, Louisiana). While this is the only site on the list that I have not visited, I do know Louisiana quite well. I went to law school in New Orleans and was a senior aide to one of its United States Senators for several quite formative and eventful years. I’ve also studied this site from afar, so I know both the boldness and necessity of a “plantation museum” solely focused on the experience of enslaved peoples. The sheer existence of this significant heritage site is worth one’s financial support. After all, while it might not take a sledgehammer to open a walnut, slavery in the American experience is no walnut, so I’m all for the interpretive sledgehammer that Whitney Plantation appears to be.

Menokin Foundation (Warsaw, Virginia). One for donors interested in preservation methods for our built environment, Menokin is certainly the most innovative and interesting of such sites. Forget about the Lees and Tayloes when thinking about this organization. The excitement here is all about the act of preservation and serves as a fascinating metaphor, and ongoing exercise, for what it might mean for protecting and interpreting less tangible reminders of our pasts.


Other 2015 Highlights

The International Tennis Hall of Fame* (Newport, RI).

Gilbert Stuart Birthplace & Museum (Middletown, RI).

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate (Dorchester, MA).

Concord Museum* (Concord, MA).

Lexington Historical Society* (Buckman Tavern, Hancock-Clarke House, and Munroe Tavern in Lexington, MA).

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House* (Concord, MA).

Thomas Cole National Historic Site (Catskill, NY).

The Valentine (Richmond, VA).

All Dressed Up, With Everywhere To Go: Plimoth Plantation and the Future of Public History

A month or so ago, a friend of mine and I sat on the front porch of Concord’s Colonial Inn, our regular place of refreshment, and talked about the reasons behind the steady decline of large, recreated public history sites like Historic Deerfield, Old Sturbridge Village, and Colonial Williamsburg. A pioneering public historian who established the program at the College of William & Mary that educated many of their former leaders, he posited that the age of such sites as viable heritage attractions was simply over. Whatever success they once enjoyed was part of post-World War II trends in tourism that have disappeared with the passing of the generations that followed them. Economic downturns and poor management have contributed to the general drop in visitation for many of the sites–even the precipitous collapse of at least one of them as a legitimate non-profit heritage institution–but, all things considered, they are part of an era in the history of public history that has just run its course. Essentially, he argued, they were not much different from a television show that continues on long after it should have been canceled, kept alive by sentiment for what was, rather than appreciation for what is. Any sustainable future they could have, therefore, might be based on that sentiment, as relics of 20th-century attempts to capture an idealized, nationalistic past — a sort of “Nick at Nite” for American heritage.

At first, I subscribed to his theory. After all, I know few people whose insights on both the thought and practice of public history I respect more, and I’ve had a front-row seat for the decline, if not fall, of more than one site. Moreover, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the number of smaller, more manageable sites and organizations that I’ve lately encountered — such as the Golden Ball Tavern, the Royall House and Slave Quarters, and Old State House in Massachusetts, and the Newport and Rhode Island Historical Societies — with smart, energetic leadership and engaged trustees that allow them to be nimble enough to adjust to changing times. Consequently, it made complete sense to me as a coherent declension theory, coupled with the rise of small sites that might provide a new model for public history, especially if they collaborate and leverage resources, even as they more aggressively target their individual efforts. And so, with that in mind, I went off to write my syllabus for my spring course on the practice of public history.

Then I visited Plimoth Plantation and, promptly on my return, ripped up my syllabus.

IMG_0062What I found in Plimoth was an institution worthy not only of emulation, but of admiration. Buffeted by the same, seemingly inexorable forces that are turning other heritage sites into caricatures, Plimoth Plantation’s burdens might actually be greater than those of other such sites, because whatever benefits they might enjoy of being within Boston’s tourism “halo” (roughly the area within which a family could make a comfortable day or weekend trip), the so-called Pilgrims (Plymouth’s, er, Plimoth’s Puritan Separatists) are hardly a marketing director’s dream. Longfellow’s romanticism aside, it’s not for nothing that H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism generally as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” and historian Bruce Daniels, in his counterpoint to the characterization, summarized as “a synonym for the dour, the joyless, the repressed.” That’s hardly, on its face, the recipe for a weekend of family fun. (Hey, kids! It’s a beautiful day. Forget Fenway Park. Let’s go to Plimoth for some fasting and prayer!)  Then there are the Separatists’ relations with the Wampanoag. Again, not a happy ending for anybody, regardless of how much one has bought into American Thanksgiving myths. Further sinking Plimoth into interpretive difficulties, or so it might seem, is its adherence to (what many sites get very wrong) strict first-person costumed interpretation at the reconstructed village site and (what other sites totally ignore) the representation of Native Americans as a living culture at the Wampanoag site. And then there’s the challenge of managing all that with a small staff and a tight budget. On the face of it, a potential donor would not be blamed for passing on the opportunity to send Plimoth a check.

Yet that donor would be missing a rare opportunity to be part of something very special — for there is real magic going on at Plimoth Plantation. True to the Puritan spirit, it is not the magic of endless wonder. Leave that to Disney, which does it well, and those heritage sites looking for a quick fix rather than a sustainable model. Rather, at today’s Plimoth, one can witness an alchemy created by blending a hefty dose of experience, a couple dollops of cleverness, and–the secret ingredient–more than a few refreshing drops of sheer boldness.

Understanding the challenges that face them as well as, if not better than, anyone, Plimoth’s leadership, which includes the indefatigable Richard Pickering (a product of my friend’s William & Mary program), has done what other sites would (and do, believe me) consider unthinkable: they have run into the fire. By that I mean that Plimoth’s answer to the question of sustainability, even growth, is better history and more of it, not less. It’s a greater commitment to its mission, not an about-face from it. The existing programming has been strengthened to place both the Puritan Separatist and Native American experiences on more firm ground with a greater focus on interpretive technique and historical background. In fact, the orientation film and signage, found to be either inaccurate or otherwise unhelpful in communicating the reality of the Plimoth experience, have been removed. Plimoth has introduced new programming to more effectively engage visitors–with creative projects like “America’s First Test Kitchen,” third-person interpreters in modern clothes, and an expansion of the Native American dimension of their shared and troubled history with the Puritans–that provide a greater range of meaningful connections, all towards the goal that the best guest experience is based on solid history that prompts fresh questions instead of stale answers. Even its planned ventures into the deployment of technology might set a new standard for the field, yet still be clearly driven by the mission and a firm commitment to getting the past right so that the present can learn from it.

That’s not easy to do, of course. It requires leaders who offer a clear vision and a staff with the intelligence and drive to implement it. It also demands a Board that recognizes the potential of both and the awareness that such strategies take years to implement and evaluate — and then allows the staff to get on with it without tinkering every three months. Fortunately, even magically, Plimoth seems to have all these things. I’ve seen it myself, on the worst possible day for heritage sites, one cold and damp, complete with the occasional downpour. Yet I saw guests who couldn’t be pried from a modern cooking demonstration of 17th-century cuisine in a chilly, colonial cabin and children fascinated by a Wampanoag long house and the centuries-old stories told within it. I also found keen, young staff members who have bought into what could be called “the new Plimoth adventure” with as much knowledge about the Puritans and their world as I encounter among anyone walking across Harvard Yard.

That’s all well and good, even inspiring, you might well say, but it’s nothing to get dewy-eyed about if, like all the rest, the balance sheet is, well, unbalanced. As my friends and colleagues know, however, I’m one of the few people on the planet whose eyes might tear up over a sound profit and loss report at a heritage site. And Plimoth’s is that. Whereas just a few years ago, the tale of its 990 was not one to read before bedtime, today it is much improved. The institution is breaking even (without endowment mischief or a single ghost tour), which is more than can be said for most sites and, frankly, near the goal (after all, it’s a non-profit, not a Starbucks). Paid visitorship is about 300,000 a year, nearly half of Colonial Williamsburg’s actual (rather than mathematically modified) attendance in 2013, and Plimoth has a fraction of CW’s staff and financial resources (it certainly says something about the price and value points of Plimoth’s tickets). Even the gift shops–perhaps the most ill-managed potential generator of revenue at heritage sites–are producing profits after a thoughtful reorganization.

There are, of course, potential cracks. The staff is way too small to keep up such a pace as their leaders have set for them. And the place has serious infrastructure needs, such as a proper research library. Moreover, with so many balls in the air, any number of them could be dropped. But with the infectious enthusiasm of converts, they inspire nothing but confidence that they’ll achieve their goals. At least, if they’re going to run into the walls built for them by the business of public history, they’re going to run into them at full speed. In any case, they are already succeeding in creating an energy that can’t be found at most heritage sites these days, engaging guests about those quite particular Puritans and Wampanoag alike in ways that generate excitement about the future and faith that what we can learn there can help us effect that future, especially when it comes to the nature of religious freedom and an appreciation of different cultures and how not to resolve disputes between them. Any place that can create that much excitement for tomorrow, while responsibly focusing on the lives of dour people who have been dead for 400 years, well, that’s some magic, and I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be part of it.

So potential donors should keep out that check book and get a pen. As for me, I have a syllabus to rewrite.





BOOK REVIEW: A Call to Arms — the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums

Take it from me, it’s not easy being a change agent, especially in cozy, sleepy fields that prefer comfortable stasis over anything that hints of transformation.  It’s hardly a recipe for popularity.  Moreover, screaming from the virtual rooftops that change in a particular area is not only important, but that failure to change could be fatal, has the tendency to draw the sort of visceral, reactionary rhetorical fire usually reserved for tax collectors in April or bad drivers during rush hour.  But heritage organizations in general, and historic house museums in particular, are in the midst of just such a crisis, one that might well determine the fate of those who seek to preserve our past.  A recent Institute for Museum and Library Services study found that there are more than 35,000 cultural institutions in the United States, more than half of which (55.5%) are related, in some way, to history, from your local historical society to behemoths like George Washington’s Mount Vernon.  Those organizations, however, account for only 18% of the total funding collected by cultural institutions.  If one removes the revenues generated by the “big three” sites—Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Colonial Williamsburg—from that equation, the rest of the 19,000 organizations are left to split up the remaining 8% of the funding pie, and that pie is shrinking as the primary sources of heritage revenue, from visitors and donors, shift their priorities.  No matter how one slices up the numbers, it is clear that the status quo is unsustainable.  So historic house museums—“the sleepiest corner of the museum world”—are in dire need of a wake-up call, or perhaps even a collective electrical cardioversion.

Enter Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s new Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, a book that is precisely what the doctor ordered for a patient on life support.  Although the authors describe it as “equal part manifesto, guidebook, and laboratory of ideas,” the work, to shift metaphors, is really a call to arms, a rallying cry for those who deeply care about carving out a future for our history.  Tellingly, neither Vagnone nor Ryan are the products of a Public History or Museum Studies program.  Vagnone, the director of a distinguished list of cultural non-profits, and Ryan, an Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UNC Charlotte, have academic backgrounds in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning that inform their experience as heritage professionals.  But that’s the key to the fresh perspective provided by their Anarchist’s Guide and its undeniable strength— like Alice tumbling into a rabbit hole, the fundamental difference in their perspective on the often insular and odd world of historic house museums is from the outside looking in, just like the visitors on whom such sites so heavily depend.

Consequently, the book is aggressively (and refreshingly) empirical, with little room for, or patience with, abstract theory.  In a brisk 263 pages that includes several useful appendices, its main chapters are organized around “Markings” that shape the operations of every historic house museum (or, in Anarchist’s parlance, HHMs): Community, Communications, [Visitor] Experience, Collections/Environment, and Shelter.  The authors then break down each Marking into practical components, drawing on a legion of relevant, informed observers to set up problems as “Rants,” followed by supporting “Evidence,” and concluding with a “Therefore” of possible solutions.  For example, one Rant criticizes the “ubiquitous” use of costumed interpreters at sites, the Evidence further illustrates why it’s problematic (because it creates an automatic distance between interpreter and guest, when inclusion and connection is what’s needed), while Therefore lays out a new way of looking at the method (strongly suggesting that HHMs think twice before whipping out yet another Gilded Age maid’s outfit).  By organizing the book in such a way, Vagnone and Ryan concisely cover a great deal of ground, from the changing demographics of museum visitors, to their expectations, to the ways in which museums are arranged to render their experience more meaningful.  In doing so, the authors consistently reinforce their underlying themes of inclusion, engagement, and provocation as the Holy Trinity of revitalizing a moribund field, and that stand in direct opposition to the predominant mindset of exclusion, distance, and rigid didacticism that pervades and undermines many of today’s HHMs.  But another important theme is utility; the authors clearly do not intend for the book to merely appear on syllabi, but to be a toolkit for practitioners, so the takeaway points from each Marking is summarized in a rather handy appendix that includes an evaluation chart that should be used by every HHM to kickstart a discussion about its present and future—even whether it has one.

And that’s where this book will ruffle more than a few feathers.  Vagnone and Ryan might be many things, but faint of heart is not one of them.  Cultural executives invested in the status quo will, I suspect, strenuously, even vociferously, disagree with their no-holds-barred approach to ostensibly sacred subjects, such as interpretation and collections management—the subject of some of the Anarchist’s most biting, and trenchant, observations (the “Narcissism of Details” and the description of the mythical “room-setting fairy” that seems to visit all HHMs in the dead of night are especially memorable).  There is plenty in the book with which historic preservationists, curators, and education directors can and will disagree, as it is packed with crisp critiques of dominant, outdated methodologies in a wide range of practice areas.  But that is part of the Anarchist’s goal: Wake up calls must be loud and clear.  Throughout the book runs a leitmotif of frustration with those who insist on ignoring the realities that might well, and probably should, spell the end of many HHMs, so the time for comforting ambiguity is long passed.  It is in that sense that Vagnone and Ryan are the most constructive anarchists that one will ever encounter.  They have, they admit, primarily set out to start a discussion, to establish an environment of questions and questioning, for HHM staff and guests, complete with an alternative vocabulary of acronyms and terms of art, that seeks to destroy the existing paradigm in order to create a new, more productive and sustainable—and flexible—way of thinking about how and why we preserve the past, from its physical survivals to its ephemeral, and flawed, memories.  They also include a splendid toolkit of activities that will help any HHM, or heritage site, conduct its own research to encourage and underpin reform and innovation.

Such an ambitious book is not without its effective shortcomings, although to dwell on them would miss the point.  Some readers might get lost in its occasionally complex new vocabulary, such as acronyms like “N.U.D.E.” (Non-linear, Unorthodox, Dactylic, Experimental) to inform improved docent communications, especially when docents are increasingly hard to recruit, but the language is not glib; the terminology is informed and thoughtfully shaped, with no illusions about its implications.  Other readers might find a bit discursive, and therefore easy to dismiss, the authors’ tendency to reach into the Fine Arts or other areas for examples that support their arguments, but, again, Vagnone and Ryan are clearly most interested in what works, wherever it might be found, not what’s convenient.  For me, the book’s weakness, if a weakness it can be called, is its inattention to important aspects of the business end of HHM stewardship, such as Board relations, fundraising, member management, or other insights into more mundane, but crucial, budgetary matters, even though a useful, if all too brief, discussion of funding for historic preservation is included. But those are hardly fatal flaws and merely suggest there is reason to hope for a second volume.

In the end, the Anarchist’s greatest contribution might lie beyond HHMs, for it certainly contemplates the broader field of public history.  Certainly every HHM should use the book to begin a frank review of its own circumstances by asking the questions it poses, even if the answer is “no,” and initiating activities it recommends. (Interestingly, Vagnone and Ryan might put a whole cohort of consultants out of business given its presentation of do-it-yourself strategic planning.)  Agree with it or not, the Anarchist’s approach should at least inform the perspective of every student and practitioner in the heritage industry, especially when it comes to full-frontal contact with the messiness of the past and the nature of effective engagement with the present.  In that sense, the authors have perhaps succeeded beyond their ambitions and therefore a great deal of credit is due to them.  After all, Harvard, an institution that practically defines the entrenched establishment, has chosen to use the Anarchist’s Guide as the basis of its new foray into Public History.  However, by presenting new ideas that challenge the fundamental perspective of others, the Anarchist’s Guide invites criticism, if not confrontation.  But, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, while there is no progress without change, all change must begin in the mind.  It is not overstating the situation to opine that Vagnone and Ryan, in the Anarchist’s Guide, have launched a important campaign for change that might well determine the future of the past by starting a discussion that is long overdue.  And in that fight, I am not only pleased to applaud them, I am happy to join them.  But hold on tight, because the Anarchist’s Guide will send you—and your nearest HHM—on a bumpy ride, if you’re lucky.

“Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck”: Halloween and Colonial Williamsburg’s Historical Collision

“If there is one firm guiding and restraining word which should be passed on to those who will be responsible for the restoration in the future, that one word is integrity. A departure from truth here and there will inevitably produce a cumulative deterioration of authenticity and consequent loss of public confidence. Loyalty demands that this principle of integrity be adhered to.”  –  The Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, A Briefe & True Report Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (April 1941).

Because Colonial Williamsburg is so rapidly, even spectacularly, spiraling out of the field of historic sites, and into a new, self-defined realm of history-themed leisure destinations, it was quickly getting beyond my interest as both an academic and a public historian. But I’m beginning to reverse that trend in my thinking given that CW has taken on a fresh role, one with vibrant utility and a seemingly endless production of content for current and burgeoning public historians: As the most glaring cautionary tale of modern times for museums and historic sites.  But yet another piece about the latest Tidewater foolishness–whether the collapse of CW’s commitment to any real educational endeavor, or the fact that it apparently now employs more speechwriters than historians of 18th-century Virginia–would be a waste of anyone’s time. Life is too short. It’s more important to use CW’s almost daily foibles as examples of what historic sites that strive for donor confidence, brand development and protection, and historical legitimacy should not do. In that sense, CW is providing a quite valuable service to the rest of us. So we can let the ice rink and the massive pirate M&M now standing in the Visitor’s Center speak for themselves (perhaps literally, if the M&M talks, which wouldn’t surprise me at this point).

However, when the President and CEO of CW, or maybe his senior speechwriter (a real first for any historic site I’ve ever heard of), or a junior speechwriter, decides to tout the “critical” importance of “[h]istorical authenticity” in a local newspaper–and then proceeds to not only get that history wrong but to defend it, then attention must be paid. Yes, I suppose that CW’s new Halloween programming scratches some Jungian itch, and I appreciate the writer of the piece, whoever it was, for tapping Wake Forest’s terrific Eric Wilson, a respected professor of English whose speciality is the connection of literature and psychology, for his take on Jung. But perhaps he or she should have included the title of one of Wilson’s most illuminating explorations of Jung, which seems more apt to CW’s current situation — Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.

Since the piece brings up a few specific things to defend, as “[f]anciful programming” that “draws nonetheless from a dark chapter in Williamsburg’s past,” let’s take one or two examples of this commitment to historical authenticity out for a spin, shall we? How about, “the actual trial and hangings of Blackbeard’s pirate crew here [in Williamsburg]”? As Hampton Roads’ Daily Press covered just last year, a new book by historian Kevin Duffus, based on a mountain of solid research, reveals that much we had assumed about the fate of Blackbeard’s crew was wrong.  Some of Blackbeard’s crew were held in Williamsburg’s original gaol (only traces of which still exist — the current building is almost entirely a reconstruction), but the Vice-Admiralty Court where they were tried was most likely held in Hampton, where those few who were sentenced to death were hanged and buried, not in Williamsburg. This one might be open to interpretation of the few remaining documents, even if most historians now discount the story that CW seems committed to telling for Halloween and beyond, so let’s call it a foul ball, rather than a swinging strike. Either way, it’s hardly fact and shouldn’t be scored as a hit in the historical box score.

Much more glaring is the upcoming Halloween programming in a town that never experienced it as it is presented this year. Forget “ancient Celtic traditions” (questionable) or imperative Jungian yearnings (laughable), it’s just not true, regardless of one’s interpretation of 18th-century Williamsburg, of an English, Episcopalian town culturally gripped by Enlightenment ideals, in which most inhabitants scorned anything approaching the supernatural. From the period there is only one recorded “ghost story”–that of the mysterious ringing bells of William & Mary’s Wren Building. But the best source for an understanding of Halloween, which apparently neither Mr. Reiss nor his team of speechwriters bothered to read, is CW’s own take on it: A nicely comprehensive and accessible article in the now-defunct but once quite good Colonial Williamsburg Journal, written by historian Mary Miley Theobald, author of the splendid Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, also published by CW. Her assessment could not be more clear:

Colonial Americans didn’t celebrate Halloween. They didn’t have jack-o’-lanterns either, or trick or treat, or costumes, or candy as we know it.   

Does that mean CW should ignore the modern practice of Halloween? Of course not. It is fun. Guests do like it. Moreover, there are plenty of autumnal, harvest activities in which colonial Virginians did engage that could be both engaging and authentic for guests as part of programming. And shifting the telling of ghost stories on dark nights around roaring fires, which was a Christmas tradition, up two months does not hurt anyone. Similarly, there were real trials of properly nasty people who were duly executed on Williamsburg’s gallows, and their bodies dumped into the nearby ravine, around which to build “spooky” programming.  But even the relatively modern, and wonderfully charming, Christmas programming that has long been beloved by generations of guests has not, at least to my knowledge, been subject to audacious claims of faux 18th-century authenticity, augmented by appeals to subconscious psychological needs (“[N]ow more than ever”? Really?) as accompanies the latest attempt to cover CW’s disengagement with history.

When the board brought on the new regime, I kept an open mind and was crossing my fingers for better things for CW and, more to the point, the fine interpreters and tradespersons and other staff who work there every day. In any case, it doesn’t do to make up one’s mind about things or people too quickly, if at all. But, having literally written the book on the place, I have a soft spot for those whose loyalty is, as CW’s founding visionary, the Rev. Goodwin, had hoped, to the broad view of the institution’s future and, as a public historian, critical, in a constructive sense, of the ways in which it impacts our understanding of the past–even if that impact becomes a negative one. The practice of history, public or academic, is not a popularity contest. So perhaps Mr. Reiss and his team should be true to the reality of their situation and, for that, rely even more heavily on Prof. Wilson. After all, CW is almost entirely the construction of a place that never actually existed, rather than the painstaking reconstruction of one at a particular point in its history. Architecturally speaking, it’s a best-guess mishmash of buildings from different periods and places, some built where others were, some where they were not, some to reflect other parts of the Chesapeake, with beautiful, ornamental gardens where there were actually once stables, cow pens, and pigsties. So no one from the 1700s, should they magically return today, would fully recognize the place. In that sense, if CW’s board is going to allow the new leadership to persist in publicly painting their new approach in the colors of historical legitimacy, perhaps they are being more true to the authentic nature of the place than they know. If so, Wilson’s latest book gives them a mission statement worthy of their apparent vision for it: Keep It Fake.

What Would Henry Clay Do?: History, Partisanship, and the Election of the Speaker of the House

In much of the coverage over the confusion now engulfing the House Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, history–as is often the case–has been cast aside, even when it might do some real good in helping the majority party get itself together.  Or, at the very least, remind Members of the House why their positions exist at all, and therefore what sort of leadership they should seek. After all, they’ve been at this thing since Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was elected the first Speaker in 1789, so it should not seem as if it’s a novel question.  Yet, for some reason, it does.

Perhaps that’s because the way in which both chambers of Congress are supposed to do their business–or, more to the point, the people’s business–has changed dramatically over the last century or so.  The question of “What Would Henry Clay Do?” is, in an important sense, a moot one, as the Congress in which he served as the first Speaker of any real influence, beginning in 1811, doesn’t exist anymore. That’s mostly due to the fact that the Constitution is pretty silent about how Congress should work, stating nothing more than that “the House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” [Art. I, sec. 2, cl. 5]  That’s it.  Everything else–the Majority leader, Minority leader, committee structure, committee membership, whose bills get considered and when, etc.–are, in a very real sense, parliamentary fictions, and relatively recent ones at that, created mostly in the 20th century to embed the two-party system in American political life.  The Speaker doesn’t even have to be a Member of the House of Representatives, didn’t serve on a committee of the House until 1858, and he or she certainly doesn’t have to be a product of a partisan system created to, essentially, perpetuate that system.

Harkening back to Henry Clay, or any of the “Founders” or other celebrated historical leaders, wouldn’t do any good to the vast majority of today’s politicians or pundits, who otherwise spend their time fawning over their august political ancestors in print, online, and on television.  That’s mainly because they really don’t know that much about them and, therefore, what guidance America’s historical experience might practically provide. Just look at one of the current candidates for Speaker, Daniel Webster (no, not that one), of Florida, who proposes new rules to return political power to the broader House membership–at least of his own party.  But new rules wouldn’t be necessary if they just got rid of the existing ones that concentrated that power in the first place.  It’s not like he’d be throwing out valued traditions that will one day form the basis of a smash-hit Broadway musical–the rules were created not that long ago, barely a century has passed in the case of the most pernicious ones.  Either way, Clay’s declaration that the role of the Speaker is “to remain cool and unshaken amidst all the storms of debate, carefully guarding the preservation of the permanent laws and rules of the House from being sacrificed to temporary passions, prejudices, or interests,” is awfully nice for elected officials and candidates to repeat, and splendidly gripping for anyone to hear, but that idea–of using cool, unshaken reason to combat passionate, interested prejudice–is just not part of American life anymore, if it ever was, this side of old episodes of The West Wing.

For, in the first analysis, while America’s political leaders have always touted reasoned deliberation as the key to a functioning democracy–an ideological relic of the pre-1776 British Atlantic world–that’s not actually how the American body politic has perceived itself.  The “blocking minority” of the majority party in the House, the so-called Tea Party fundamentalists, really are the practical, if not necessarily ideological, heirs of the first Patriots, Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their independence-minded colleagues of the Continental Congress.  Could the American Revolution have been avoided if men of cool minds and sound reasoning decided to negotiate and compromise rather than, full of passion and interest, resort to intransigence and insist on independence as the only path to secure freedom?  Of course.  Until then, the British people–including those on this side of the Atlantic–were the freest people in the world and, had not the French Revolution scared the living bejesus out of most reformers, thereby delaying for a bit–but only for a bit–the expansion of that freedom, the worst thing that would have happened is that America would have, over time, essentially become Canada.  And that’s not such a bad thing.  It’s not like the “American Revolution” was a real fight between liberty and tyranny.  George III was far from the demagogue he appears on Schoolhouse Rock and, constitutionally, couldn’t have caused such mischief even if he had wanted to.  Far from it, but that’s what Jefferson, Adams, and Thomas Paine, and others sincerely (for the most part) believed, and they acted on that principle, standing on ground made firm by their own colonial American pride and an increasingly virulent British imperial prejudice.

What does that have to do with Henry Clay and the current kerfuffle over the Speaker of the House?  Not a damn thing.  And that’s my point.  The chamber is no longer that of Henry Clay, no more than the Senate–which was directly elected by the state legislatures, not the voters, until 1913–is that of the other Daniel Webster.  They both of have been transformed beyond recognition by relatively recent rules and practices, heartily endorsed by the likes of Woodrow Wilson, designed to acquire and keep political power, developed as the parties themselves became the institutional behemoths that we recognize today, which the first Founders and Framers–almost each and every one of them–thought was the foremost threat to liberty. (Ironically, the first of the major rule changes were in reaction to congressmen who wanted to use the House’s power of the purse to shut down post-Civil War federal policies with which a vocal minority disagreed.)  That threat was enshrined in America’s governing practices by nothing more than internal congressional rules and the result–of these various attempts to strengthen partisanship but address a blocking minority–is a national legislature that can charitably described as a dysfunctional basketcase.

So what’s needed to address the trouble facing Congress is neither fundamental nor is it complicated.  But it might require something of a revolution, in terms of a return to what once was.  (As an aside, just consider how different the body might be if they repealed the law, passed in 1911, that capped the size of the House at 435 voting Members–again, not part of the Constitution–and, instead, allowed representation to grow, as the Framers intended, as the country grew, instead of effectively shrinking it with every decennial reapportionment?)  If the current Members of the House revere the Founders so terribly much, maybe they need to start showing it by returning the functioning of the House to the one the Founders created, one in which the Speaker was not the head of a party, but the non-partisan overseer of the people’s work.  Then Republicans and Democrats might join together in a vote for someone amounting to a consensus leader–and John Boehner can finally go home and get some sleep.

NOTE: Anyone interested in learning more about the remarkable Henry Clay should join me on Thursday, at 3:00 pm, at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate for a timely conversation with historian Harlow Giles Unger about his new biography — Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman.  You can register for the event here.

Beyond the Suspension of Disbelief: James Getty and the Power of the First-Person Interpreter

Last week I gave a talk to Museum Studies students at my school about the perceived and actual differences between academic and public historians as a way of introducing my course in the spring, The Practice of Public History. During my talk, to a fantastic group, I covered a wide range of topics and ideas, partly driven by my impressions of the implications of recent reports that revealed history-related institutions make up more than half of all museums, yet account for less than a fifth of the total financial resources devoted to cultural and heritage organizations.  I also talked about the importance of evaluating programs and establishing a clear definition of success that included a discussion about fitting different modes of interpretation (first-person costumed, third-person, tech-driven, etc.) to one’s ostensible purpose.  That’s because when done well, first-person interpretation, complete with buckled shoes and frilly shirts, can be a powerful tool of public history, reaching and impacting more people, and shaping their understanding of the past, than might ever read the books written by Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Pauline Maier, and Jack Greene (my own mentor), combined.  Conversely, when done poorly, when the facts aren’t straight and the persona is off, it can create enormous damage to an observer’s historical consciousness, and drive more dismissal of the tactic, even of the entire field, by “proper” historians, whether they lecture in an august classroom or muse in a comfortable armchair.


The example I used of first-person interpretation at its best was Bill Barker, who portrays one of the more difficult–because tremendously complicated–historical figures, Thomas Jefferson, at Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, and elsewhere.  As I know quite well, having once been his neighbor and chief annoyance at CW (which almost resulted in the burning down of an historic structure, but that’s a different story), Bill is not only an expert on his subject on a level at, or even greater than, many Jefferson historians of my acquaintance, he also knows what that ill-defined, undifferentiated mass we call the “public” expects from him as Jefferson, complexities and all.  And he does a tremendously good job of bridging the exceptionally problematic gap between Jeffersonian fiction and fact, which is saying quite something because there is quite a bit of the former and nowhere near enough of the latter when it comes to the tall Virginia redhead.  Bill knows his craft and the impact it has on his audience, whether they have met him for the first or hundredth time, and he takes that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.  That’s because he is fully aware of the trust he assumes whenever he takes on the persona of Jefferson; he has the power to inspire and engage, but along with that comes the potential to disappoint and derail.

homeimageI wasn’t thinking of Bill, though, when I actually got up to talk last week.  I was thinking about another interpreter of an American president, one perhaps not as well-traveled as Bill, but one just as professional and every bit as influential, and who I, sitting there in a Harvard lecture hall, had just been informed by my niece had passed away at the age of 83: James Getty.  For almost 40 years, Getty portrayed Abraham Lincoln in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for much of that time at his studio on Steinwehr Avenue, “A. Lincoln’s Place.”  And it was there, on the evening of September 27, 1978, that an eight-year-old from Baltimore, who before then had spent more time on horseback than in a library, became an historian.  To avoid the risk of turning this post into a maudlin personal memoir (“too late,” you might say), I’ll just relate that my parents and grandparents, wanting to nurture my nascent interest in the past, arranged a “private audience” for me with Getty as Mr. Lincoln.  And for a time, I was enthralled by his kindness and his knowledge.  For an hour or so, 1978 turned into 1863 and there was no one IMG_0008else in the world but me and the 16th President of the United States, with my family playing the role of an indulgent audience to what must have seemed an odd discussion between a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy in a striped shirt and a tall man with a black beard and a stovepipe hat.  I was never the same after that evening.  I devoured works on Lincoln and the Civil War, returned countless times to Gettysburg and other battlefields, and then moved on to study the American Revolution and the ideas behind what happened “Four score and seven years” before my ostensible meeting with Mr. Lincoln.  I also continued to carry with me the tremendous gift that he had given me, of being able to suspend one’s disbelief to become, even briefly, a time traveler, and thereby, as an historian, better grasp the perspective of people I’ll never really know but can attempt to understand on their own terms, as people in their own world, one much different, in many but not all ways, from our own.

And that, in a nutshell, is the power of the first-person interpreter, and also the responsibility that accompanies it should a public history groupprogram developer or individual interpreter choose to take on such a role.  The clothes do not make the historical man or woman.  As I became more educated about Lincoln, I became more impressed over time with what I remembered about James Getty’s portrayal and how much he got right.  I also recognized what I do not remember: Whether his boots were the right cut or his buttons the right size.  What was more important, and just as Bill Barker accomplishes as Jefferson every day, James Getty created an authentic historical moment as Lincoln, even for one otherwise unremarkable little boy.

In that sense, costumed portrayals, whether as a famous or forgotten person of the past, come with a high cost in terms of education and training about both the subject and, critically, the ethics of it.  I personally tutored CW’s James Madison (the splendid Bryan Austin) for several grueling months before we let him interact with guests, because we knew what could happen when the first-person experience goes awry, in turning off guests or, worse, miseducating them about the past.  And that is perhaps more important today, when candidates and pontificators increasingly attempt to use history as a tool to further their own political or ideological causes.  The people, therefore, need to be forearmed with their own knowledge about the past, if, for no other reason, to use as a shield against those who would attempt to take advantage of ignorance to influence behavior.

And, on a much more personal note, had not James Getty accepted his calling with such alacrity and integrity, Harvard Yard would be home to one fewer historian today, which would be a shame, indeed.

Blurring Rockefeller’s Vision: Is Colonial Williamsburg Risking a Future That Can Learn From the Past?

This was going to be a quick post comparing two historic sites in Keene, New Hampshire, about an important building that has been turned into a Mexican restaurant (the shrimp tacos were terrific) and a well-funded, well-interpreted, and entirely forgettable building just a few blocks away that could tomorrow disappear without a trace and no one would notice.  Moreover, I strenuously try to avoid writing about Colonial Williamsburg (CW) given my intimate association with the place and ongoing relationships with the people who were and are there.  But the CW that I remember, and to which I owe so much, seems increasingly to be a part of the history of heritage tourism, so much is the place changing under its new leadership.  Whether those changes are for good or ill are impossible for me to say.  As Jefferson might put it, those matters might be best left for “the mists of time” to reveal.  I mean, one can roll one’s eyes at the introduction of pirate ghosts in new Halloween programming as wrongheaded, since Blackbeard’s pirates had little to do with Williamsburg and the city’s colonial denizens did not recognize October 31 as anything but the night before November 1 (and the nearby Mariner’s Museum, where it’s mission-appropriate, already does the pirate thing with panache).  But if the details of history are to be shaved a bit to boost short-term ticket sales, then that’s an interpretive choice with which one can politely disagree.  In any case, there’s no avoiding the fact that everything CW does now is worth watching by public and academic historians (I still don’t get the difference between the two) because, like it or not, it has become an object lesson in how to remake, or reimagine, a financially struggling historic site.  And a massive one at that.  So under a gargantuan microscope it goes.

The most important changes, in my opinion, are not really those involving the costumed interpretations on the streets or in the buildings.  As my compatriots here in Boston have learned, I have strong opinions on such things but, in the end, guests will vote with their credit and debit cards on them, regardless of how much folks like me grumble about their content, and then scholars can glean lessons from them.  It’s the decisions that are not so visible and have a greater long-term potential impact that beg for more targeted comment.  I recently wrote about CW’s decision to end its 72-year relationship with the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, a place fairly described by one of America’s finest historians as “one of the crown jewels of the American historical profession” — news that still baffles me and my colleagues in that profession.  And this morning, in a much less straightforward move, word arrived in my e-mail inbox that, if true, might deal yet another blow to CW’s mission “That the Future May Learn from the Past”: The potential departure of the Vice President in charge of the division of Productions, Publications and Learning Ventures (PPLV), the rumored end to future Electronic Field Trips, and a possible directive that PPLV–the fine folks behind CW’s most valuable education programs–wrap up all existing projects.  Merely the thought of all that leaves one with scarcely a word to say.  Well, almost.

In 1930, the Rev. W. A. R. Goodwin, the leading architect of Williamsburg’s restoration, reflected on the purpose of the place and the reasons for spending so much of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s money on it during the Great Depression.  Rockefeller, of course, had long been aware of the importance of preserving America’s past.  One could spend an entire summer visiting wonderful places across the northeast, such as Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, that would have disappeared long ago had it not been for Rockefeller largesse.  But in Williamsburg, the team of Goodwin and Rockefeller had something more active in mind — not preservation, but restoration, and not just the restoration of an entire colonial capital, but that of a state of mind.  Yes, that vision was infused with an almost nauseating, to modern sensibilities, notion of American exceptionalism, and flavored with hefty doses of hero worship for the “great men” of the founding era.  It was intended to infuse guests with a new understanding of patriotism and “a deeper love for their native land.”  But their scope also proved capacious enough to leave room for later CW leaders to also restore, along with the buildings, the experience of those mostly left out of the historical record, whom also built the American nation, women and men, free and enslaved, as part of a fascinating trajectory that one could map along with changes in American society.

Either way, the core of Rockefeller’s original goal was education and, through it, inspiration.  The team of Rockefeller and Goodwin looked to a future in which “Modern windows will open on vistas stretching through the distance into the past.”  And those vistas were opened and expanded as technology advanced, whether to the academic community through the William & Mary Quarterly, to guests through tours and programs based on firm scholarship, to schoolchildren through the terrific Electronic Field Trips, and, most recently, through the innovations of CW’s Digital History Center, which reconstructed the Revolutionary City of 1776, allowing online visitors to “walk” through a nifty Virtual Williamsburg, based on the latest architectural, archaeological, and historical research, without leaving their homes.  Generations of CW leaders and interpreters held on to that original vision of inspiration through education and have allowed ever more expansive audiences to stretch “through the distance into the past” and connect that past to their present.

But, seen in a certain light, that commitment could seem at risk.  The spin from CW will likely be that any moves involving education programs are part of a major and much-needed reorganization, which would be wrapped around just enough truth to be excusable.  And they could add that their commitment to education remains strong.  After all, haven’t they just committed to new online learning programs for teachers?  Furthermore, EFTs were expensive productions and ever tightening public school budgets meant that fewer of them could afford to participate in the program.  In short, EFTs won Emmy awards but lost money, and with belts tightening across CW, like it or not, tough decisions have to be made about what programs can be kept and what can be sacrificed.

The main concern, though, is not the reality but the perception of such changes, coming on the heels of decisions like the separation from the Omohundro Institute.  They raise legitimate questions of whether CW, or any similarly situated institution, has lost its way in favor of improving its bottom line as quickly as possible.  It’s just as likely, as a good friend of mine at CW nicely and accurately put it this morning, that the boatloads of intellect and imagination possessed by the people at PPLV can be harnessed to help guide whatever reorganization results, and leave them with a streamlined, but much more effective, mission.  That’s a worthwhile set of questions for any, even every, historic site.  I consistently argue to sites and the people who run them that fiscal stability, organizational effectiveness, community engagement, and a commitment to a relevant, clearly identified mission are not mutually exclusive.  Or at least they don’t have to be.

In any case, the issues swirling around Colonial Williamsburg could make it the highest rated reality show in public history, something the producers at the Travel Channel should scramble for, given where it is on a new story arc and the plot lines that are developing in front of observers.  Let’s just hope the resolution isn’t that of a declension narrative, especially for Rockefeller’s vision: Inspiration of the present through education about the past strikes me as a pretty good reason to get up in the morning, every morning.