In the course of writing a public history textbook, advising museums (and, occasionally, a fictional mouse), putting together syllabi for next year, and all-too-often railing against the demise of a venerable institution, it can become an occupational hazard to lose an appreciation of the humanity of the people of the past who are at the heart of it all, whom we are supposed to work to remember, to attempt to understand, and from whose experiences glean some lessons that matter in the present. Too often curatorial enthusiasm or interpretative malpractice can remove the living and breathing spirit of those who gave meaning to objects and ideas, until they because matters of cloistered connoisseurship or, worse, empty entertainment. And while we public historians, inevitably caught up in the bewildering inanity of our post-factual modern world — such as the daily madness of a president who doesn’t seem to have read the Constitution, much less respect it, or the indecorous implosion of once-vaunted heritage organizations, or constructing academic conference papers on abstruse topics that only a handful of other people will ever read — try to find new, effective ways, through efforts such as History Space, to project and protect that past, the men and women, free and enslaved, who made it, and who inspired many of us to spend a career in pursuit of their worlds in the first place, can quickly and easily become nothing more than content for exhibits, tours, costumed history programs, or daily Tweets. In the end, instead, the stories that once captivated us become twisted into shades of what they really were, and our work has done more harm than good to their memory, thereby violating our implicit vocational charge.
How many of us have that unruly file of notes that contains all of the stories we promise ourselves that we’ll get to just as soon as this evaluation, or chapter, or article, or recommendation is done? How many times have we heard our friends and colleagues tell us “You MUST write that!” after a few pints at the local loosen our tongues enough for us to switch from debating tired paradigms to telling timeless tales, ones made all the more powerful because their facts are not alternative? And why does that file constantly invite us to leaf through its pages when another committee appointment or donor meeting makes us wonder just what those years in graduate school were for because, mostly, those stories speak to us in ways that we find difficult to explain, although we revel — and are renewed — in the telling?
For me, that has always been the best part of being a public historian, as an educator and as a practitioner. If, as Denise Meringolo has trenchantly pointed out, to be a public historian is to be a builder, especially of a relationship among educators, practitioners, and, of course, audiences, than the product of that relationship lies in the nexus of scholarship, interpretation, and imagination, and which begets further inquiry. Whenever I think of the stories in my file, I think of that relationship, of how best to tell those stories in ways that maintain our unwritten contract of authenticity and accuracy (not necessarily the same things), while ensuring a level of engagement with others. It represents, in my view, the best of the work I’ve done at every public history stop on my C.V., from Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg to Newport and Plimoth Plantation–the programs that result from the relationships of teams of skilled people in the present trying to tell powerful, even instructive stories about people in the past, about those who cannot speak for themselves.
Top in my folder is the story of Ryland Randolph and Aggy, a tale at least as compelling as that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but one largely unknown and still mysterious. It all started while I was writing my dissertation on Virginia loyalists, which revolves around that “great cousinry,” the Randolph clan (of which, only incidentally, I am one). Many of them joined the patriot movement, but more of them did not, choosing to fight to remain British or to stay out of the contest until it was all over and the smoke cleared. Much of my argument to explain the choices they made, or left unmade, during the crisis period centers on political culture, and a dominant shift from sense to sensibility. That required a level of prosopographical analysis that bordered, it must be said, on the manic, as I (quite literally) mapped out the relevant individuals and traced their social relationships and cultural influences.
That led me to Ryland.
Ryland Randolph, the master of the family seat of Turkey Island on the James River, was an eccentric member of an eccentric family. Almost nothing but the barest of geneological facts was known of him (Thanks, Gerald Cowden). Born about 1734, the son of Richard Randolph and Jane Bolling, and therefore a descendant of Rebecca Rolfe (the story of Ryland’s portrait of “Pocahontas,” which hung in the main hall at Turkey Island, is another one in my file), he, like many of his brothers and cousins, went to school in England, attended Trinity Hall at Cambridge and Middle Temple in the 1750s, went on a tour of the American northeast and Canada in the 1760s, traveled back to England, and then returned to Virginia in 1770 to live, seemingly alone amongst his enslaved community, on his vast plantation. He was described by a contemporary as “a fine classical scholar, a master of the French and Italian languages, an eloquent speaker and most accomplished gentleman.” He died, unmarried, in 1784. As far as the history books were concerned, that was pretty much all there was to Ryland Randolph, and all that remains above ground of him, given that the house at Turkey Island is today nothing but lumps and bumps in the landscape near the family graveyard, is an obelisk that he erected to mark “The Great Fresh” of 1771 and honor his parents, but even that is now eroding and buried in the middle of a forest that the Virginia Tidewater’s tick population defends like their last bastion. A fitting metaphor for Ryland — only the quite serious need venture closer to the core. In the end, his story for most of the last 200 years was just another one of those tired, ubiquitous tales of the Virginia privileged class, who only existed to enjoy their privileges.
But there was one book that had one tantalizing mention of him that suggested his story was something else. Phil Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint, the seminal work on the lived experience of enslaved men and women in the Chesapeake and Carolinas, suggested in a footnote that an enslaved woman named Aggy might have lived in the manor house at Turkey Island as Ryland’s wife, along with their two children, Sylvia and Philip Alexander, and were set free by Ryland in his will, with provision that they leave Virginia for England, where funds were deposited for their welfare. But the will was challenged by his brother and, it seemed, the provisions not enforced.
Of course, that begged the situation of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and the other “open and notorious” interracial associations that were obvious to observers throughout late colonial Virginia. As “no uncommon spectacle,” in the words of Thomas Gwatkin, they were, quite literally, unremarkable. Yet Ryland appeared to have taken the extra steps, given Virginia’s legal and economic constraints to manumission, to ensure the security and liberty of his family, unlike so many of his contemporaries. Ryland, then, at least to me, seemed to have deserved a closer look.
And, as every historian worth her or his salt knows, you start seeing things just when you begin to look for them, and not a moment before. Ryland was not just Jefferson’s cousin, he was his close friend. It was with Ryland whom Jefferson would often stay on his trips between Charlottesville and Williamsburg. It was Ryland whom Jefferson consulted about architecture and landscaping. It was Ryland from whom Jefferson borrowed books and ideas, and suggested that others do the same. It was Ryland whom Jefferson asked to draft the first rendering of the Virginia State Capitol (now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society). As for Ryland himself, he rebuilt the main house at Turkey Island in a style that gave it the nickname “The Bird Cage.” He reveled in his library and his own mixed race ancestry. And he adopted as his motto, Fari Quae Sentiet — “To Say What One One Feels” (from Horace). And he did, indeed, do just that in his will in 1785, when he not only gave Aggy and her children their freedom, but also left her all of his “household furniture of every kind including gold and silver” and arranged for their transport to England, along with a trust fund of £3000 (the modern equivalent of almost $500,000), to be administered for them by close friends of his in London (one of them a senior member of the British Treasury).
His brother, Richard, however, strongly opposed the will. He encouraged its executors to refuse to serve and he challenged it in court. Richard claimed that the generosity to Aggy showed that Ryland was not of sound mind and, something closer to the Henrico County Court justices’ hearts and minds, Ryland owed money to Richard that must be accounted for first. Of course, Richard had no proof of those debts, but the justices would certainly take his word for it, as a matter among gentlemen. And they did, declaring the will void and granting administration of Ryland’s estate to Richard.
That’s where things stood when I got to Colonial Williamsburg and the story I told to my partner in program development, Bill Weldon, one night at our favorite watering hole (I should have had my mail delivered to Second Street). I was hired by then-Vice President Jim Horn to ensure sound scholarship as the foundation of public programming, and it was his charge to Bill, as creative director, and me to develop new programming that would push our guests’ boundaries and challenge conventional notions of the Revolutionary generation that made America. So one of my first thoughts was of Ryland and Aggy, and its interpretative potential gripped Bill’s imagination as much as it did mine. But how could we effectively tell that story?
As with the very best in public history programming, success begins and ends with human capital. At the time, Bill and I were reconfiguring the entire “Revolutionary Community” to more accurately reflect, in the people whom our interpreters portrayed, those who were actually there during the years of the Revolution, and more authentic social and racial demographics. Out went figures such as Robert Carter Nicholas, who left Williamsburg in 1776, and composite personas, and in came James Madison, Martha Jefferson, Martin Hemings, and Barber Caesar. And in a remarkably gifted young interpreter — Mary Hardy Carter — we had someone with the capacity and interest to properly build Ryland’s Aggy. It did not matter to us that not much was known about many of these individuals (NOT characters. We refused to use that term to describe people who once lived. Cinderella is a character. Aggy was a person). What did matter was that we knew their relevance, and the power of the stories they could tell, which would generate new scholarship from the research and creative work needed to authentically explore and represent their lives, as a product of that relationship among public history educator, practitioner, and audience. Through that process, we could recover the historical Aggy on her own terms, and learn more about her world.
We were also fortunate to have at that time embarked on a new partnership with Karin Wulf at the College of William & Mary (when CW was still an Omohundro Institute partner), in an innovative project that she and I developed to examine gender in Early America through an explicit connection between American Studies students and CW Actor-Interpreters. Students were charged with working with our interpreters to develop the history and historiography around the historical figures we wanted them to portray. So we had teams of graduate and undergraduate students “adopt” an interpreter and her portrayal as their major class project. And one of them had Mary and Aggy.
It was a tremendously exciting moment for us all, as public and academic historians, as we watched Aggy emerge from the historical ether. That was largely due to the indefatigable research of Alex Finley, a talented — and inspired — William & Mary graduate student, who discovered documents long hidden in Virginia court records. The work of her and her team, combined with my own continued research (and that of my splendid intern, Jenna Simpson), painted a new picture — or, rather, restored a lost portrait — of Aggy that not only led to an effective individual portrayal, but a powerful program, “His Natural Wife,” to tell the story of a remarkable woman.
Through that work we developed new scholarship on both Aggy and on the nature of interracial relationships in early America. At the beginning of the process, the story ended as one expected it might, with the Virginia gentry preserving their ancient hegemony over those who would rebel against it. At the end, and ongoing, we see a much different Virginia, one in which a woman could fight for her rights — and win. That’s a Virginia much more complicated, much more contingent, and much more interesting and diverse than you’ll get out of most books and historical sites.
Aggy did not let Richard’s challenge stand. She fought back, partnering with a neighbor, lawyer Robert Pleasants, to claim her rights under Ryland’s will and demand that Richard produce evidence of Ryland’s supposed debts to him. Richard countered, offering to grant her and her children freedom in his own will if they did not make any claims under Ryland’s, but Aggy refused. She petitioned the various Virginia courts, suing Richard and his successors for unlawful imprisonment, as she was oppressed by them “in more than a common degree” and possessed an “absolute right to freedom.” It took 16 years after the death of Ryland, but Richard never provided the evidence of debts and Aggy’s tenacity won out: On August 18, 1801, Aggy, “who obtained her freedom by suit in your Court,” appeared before the clerk of the Henrico County Court and obtained her legal liberty.
That, however, is where the story ends — for now. What happened to her and her children is, as yet, unknown. There is evidence that Ryland succeeded in setting up the trust for them in London, but not what became of it. Nevertheless, through the synergy created by the relationships at the heart of public history, we know more about the period and its people. And we have new questions. For example, did Aggy’s difficulties with Richard influence Jefferson’s choices about Sally Hemings and their children?
This is one of the stories in my file. It’s also a reminder of the power of public history as a partnership of the sort that History Space is trying to teach, grow, and show. I’m also looking forward to building the process into my forthcoming Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman & Littlefield for the AASLH) and my public history courses at Johns Hopkins, and, of course, continuing with my efforts at the Newport Historical Society. But, on some days, like today’s rainy one in Providence, some stories just need to be told. And Aggy’s would wait no more.
Many well-meaning journalists covering Colonial Williamsburg’s latest troubles have bought into CEO Mitchell Reiss’s narrative that “history is dead,” therefore — so his reasoning goes — CW’s problems are part of a general trend among museums (from art to living history) that he must heroically combat, rather than ones of its, or his and his board’s, own making. In the absence of other readily available data, the journalists have tended to rely on 2014 articles and 2012 reports as proof of a field in trouble (see NPR’s Sarah McCammon’s otherwise fine piece as an example). Of those commentators without a financial stake in the current establishment, only Peter Galuzska in the Washington Post has gotten it completely wrong (I’m not sure how cutting African American programs but adding a shooting range, a skating rink, an inflatable octopus, and craft beer tastings are opening CW “up to a more diverse America”– the Wall Street Journal nailed this one). But we in the field know that things have changed in the last three years, given the efforts of many practitioners to better understand the business of public history, religiously reading “Know Your Own Bone” (check out Colleen’s terrific new resource website) and following along with Ruth Taylor (Newport Historical Society), Frank Vagnone (Old Salem), Richard Pickering (Plimoth Plantation), Gary Sandling (Monticello), and Kat Imhoff (Montpelier) as they move their institutions, and the field, forward. And, more to the point, the data actually is there, if you know where to look.
So it’s more instructive and useful to examine the matter in terms of metrics, rather than empty — and largely unprovable — assertions about motivations behind visitation numbers and donation levels. Let’s look at how CW compares with similarly situated institutions based solely on the data, and what it really means. To me, as I prepare students to work in public history and advise major donors (and solicit them), a most useful figure is fundraising efficiency. It’s a nicely simple indicator, and terrific as a diagnostic measure: How much money does it cost an institution to convince a donor to give them $1? The implications are clear, and accurate. Institutions that donors do not know or, worse, in which they do not have much trust, take more convincing, which costs money. Or, when donors have given up on your institution, you have to find new donors, which also costs money. Institutions that have a clear mission and an institutional culture that projects it, build donor confidence, along with a solid brand, thereby making the donation pitch much less expensive, all things considered. Based on its most recent IRS I-990, how does CW stack up against its peers and the field as a whole?
The average for museums across the country is 14 cents to raise every $1. It costs Mount Vernon 17 cents, Monticello 9 cents, Montpelier 9 cents, Strawberry Banke 8 cents, Plimoth Plantation 7 cents, and the American Civil War Center at Tredegar just 2 cents.
It costs CW 24 cents to raise every $1. Among American museums, only Mystic Seaport‘s 25 cents is higher. That also means that a quarter of every dollar donated to CW goes to raise the next dollar, not to programming or anything else.
It’s directly a measure of what we call donor confidence, a precious commodity. Once gained, it’s something to defend at almost any cost. Once lost, it’s almost impossible to get back, and, sorry Reiss, doing things like siphoning tens of millions of dollars from the non-profit endowment to mask for-profit losses isn’t going to help much with that. Keep in mind, the massive financial losses in the hotels, golf courses, and other for-profit properties have little to nothing to do with the work on the Foundation side, even if the Foundation is bearing the brunt of covering those losses (they even fired the director of conservation and effectively shuttered the research library — pretty tough to run a history site without those folks, although a current staffer tweeted that those cuts were merely “unfortunate.” One suspects he enjoys continuing to collect a paycheck.). For example, the Foundation had to rent the Kimball Theater, essentially from itself, for all programs (and without a discount from the normal rate). That’s one way to use non-profit money to underwrite a for-profit venture. Again, look at the data — the Foundation, strictly speaking, has always been able to cover its own costs. The eye-popping deficits have been caused by the for-profit ventures. But mix them together and, suddenly, it’s an issue for the entire museum field? Um, no. The problem is less that CW’s historical audience stopped going, it’s that the ones who were going stopped sleeping in its expensive hotels.
That leads us to look at CW’s “Working Capital” number. That’s how long, based on existing assets and current trends, a museum can last. CW’s number is now 6.6 years (less than the eight that’s been reported). Several years ago it was twice that.
How does CW stack up against the sector in other categories? Take a look for yourself by digging through Charity Navigator.
The problem is not general. It is not the public history or museum field. It is just CW — and its leaders.
The threat facing the Queen Mary is a serious issue with which, ultimately, every museum or other site with major physical resources has to grapple. Maritime museums of all sorts — from the Queen Mary to Fall River’s Battleship Cove or Mystic Seaport — are like zoos in that way: the first responsibility is to the care and preservation of the reason(s) they exist at all (check out the AASLH’s guide to Interpreting Naval History at Museums and Historic Sites). That alone is a tremendously expensive effort, and while certain things can be deferred, they cannot be avoided and will only become more expensive to fix. As someone who once ran a site with a few dozen historic buildings, some dating to the 1600s, maintaining them (to the point of spending winter mornings shoveling snow off 18th-century roofs), let alone interpreting them, was a daunting task. How can you completely fulfill every site’s implicit core mission — not just to protect, but to project — when you can’t let anyone experience the space because it’s dangerous to the structure and to the guests, and you simply don’t have the money?
As funding sources decline, and schemes to find more become more wild and ineffectual in their desperation, when does the answer become “let it go”? More and more sites will face the question that the Queen Mary — a unique, immersive site that has a special place in my heart and where my Disney connection began — now must answer. Communities have done, and are doing to do, what they can, but the need is quickly outstripping their capacity. The differences among Long Beach to Fall River to smaller towns are in degree, not in kind. In the end, while we talk a great deal about succession plans in museum and public history leadership, and sustainability of programming and human capital, must we now include a new discussion about decommissioning with dignity, responsibly and thoughtfully turning experience into memory and history?
And, keep in mind, this has already begun. Does anyone remember Johnsonville, an Old Sturbridge-type (meaning totally fictional but with period buildings shipped in from other areas) Victorian “living history” village in Connecticut that closed more than 15 years ago? They have already been decommissioned, the site is abandoned, and its caretakers are selling historic resources to anyone with cash. Other sites are taking different tacks, but are no less transformational. Old Sturbridge itself, for a site that is losing $1 million a year per its last 990, is shifting its scarce resources to creating a charter school. Colonial Williamsburg, now hemorrhaging guests, has dropped all pretensions to the history education vision that created the place, and inspired Walt Disney himself, to embrace “theme-based interpretation” that promotes, as the Wall Street Journal just promoted, hotels, golf, fine dining, and craft beer (the new motto, according to the WSJ, should be “Give me luxury or give me death!”): Its idea of a Women’s History Month program is a group of patriot men, talking about women, which basically happens every day ending in a “y”. As for many of the rest, the unique stories they can tell are being buried underneath an increasingly anodyne and banal series of cookie-cutter programming. Bold, original programming, except at places like Plimoth Plantation, appears to have largely evaporated. Perhaps, as has been suggested elsewhere, it is simply that an era in the history of heritage tourism — that of the large-scale living history museum — is over, a relic of post-World War II prosperity, highways, and a love-affair with car trips. At least some places, such as Historic Deerfield, seem to be resolutely holding on to their integrity, keeping within their financial compass to focus intently on mission-related efforts, to their credit. But for many others, is there a pandemic of the same sort of “mission rot” that the Queen Mary more seriously and directly faces in its hull deterioration, but leads, nevertheless, to the same metaphorical end: a sinking ship that can never sail again?
In any case, it’s a situation that’s certainly calls for a new chapter for my upcoming book, and might require a serious re-read of The Anarchists’ Guide.
Several weeks ago, a group of admittedly self-proclaimed radical public historians, led by NHS Executive Director Ruth Taylor, descended upon the Colony House in Newport to dispel a rumor that is growing like a pernicious weed through certain quarters of the field: History is dead and the heritage sites that depend on it are dying. It’s a rationale being deployed by some of the largest and oldest living history sites in America to justify dramatic changes in their programming to chase revenue from other, hopefully younger, sources, such as the coveted, yet elusive, Millennials whom, the thinking goes, are searching high and low for the next unique background for a strikingly similar, and similarly anodyne, series of ghost tours, craft beer tastings, modern art installations, and weddings (lots and lots of weddings). Millennials want leisure experiences, they say, like spa treatments and wine pairings, not challenging engagement with the people, events, and ideas that continue to shape our collective lives. They want resolution, not conflict. History is dead, these wishful trailblazers declare, and the only way to save heritage spaces is to kill them and their archaic missions.
It’s a topic that our panel of radicals — Old Salem’s Frank Vagnone (co-author of The Anarchists’ Guide to Historic House Museums), the American Association of State and Local History’s Bob Beatty, the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Morgan Grefe, History Communicator extraordinaire Kevin Levin, and myself, with a special appearance by Plimoth Plantation’s Tom Begley — were eager to tackle, perhaps because, for all of our claims to radicalism, and record of causing trouble in the museum world in several time zones, we were uniform, even resolute, in response: to channel Faulkner’s fictional attorney Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” In other words, history — especially a public history that actively seeks to connect the past to the present in ways that shape the future, and a preservation ethos that rehabilitates stories as much as buildings — is alive and well, even amongst Millennials. As one of the panelists pointed out, just follow the money. Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Hamilton: The Musical wouldn’t have reached their current astronomical heights of popularity if history is dead. “Hidden Figures” and “Hacksaw Ridge” wouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards, and grossed a combined $219 million at the box office, if history is dead.
More to the point is the evidence provided by the institutions that appear to be at greatest risk if history was headed to the morgue. Closer to home, the mansions managed by the Preservation Society of Newport County reported welcoming an astonishing one million guests last year. Plimoth Plantation — a prime candidate for extreme unction if there was one, with its dozens of costumed interpreters, a complex narrative that blends religion, Native Americans, and a core of Protestant extremists, and a 90-minute drive from the nearest metro area — is not only holding onto its historical audiences, it’s growing new ones, while maintaining a respectable balance sheet for donors and trustees.
So what’s the deal? Why are some sites losing guests and dollars, jettisoning boatloads of human capital in the process, while seemingly similarly situated ones are looking forward to a sustainable future? In the end, we concluded that the issue isn’t about history being dead, it’s about history being deadly boring. From Hamilton to Plimoth, success clearly appears to lie in a consistently strong yet diverse helping of mission-driven historical programming designed to educate and entertain, connecting audiences — even Millennials — in ways that are natural, that taste and feel real because they are. But that requires a level of deep immersion in a historical past that draws heavily on academic resources of all kinds in order to get the details right, even the ones guests don’t see. The important thing is the scope and nature of a 360-degree guest experience, one that’s not bland or artificial, and than can carry the serious ideas and conflicts that are going on in the heads of Americans and other visitors, regardless of marketing demographic, if for no other reason than because that is the only way through them. Immersive public history doesn’t work unless the past we present gets at the big stuff. As my experience from Disney to Colonial Williamsburg consistently reminds me, engagement doesn’t work unless it gets at the core of a human condition that wrestles with the challenges we continue to face, whether over race, religion, gender identity, or other distinctions that artificially divide history into one that’s yours and one that’s mine.
But it can’t be fantasy. That line can’t be crossed, even if, in the end, all we are really trying to do is tell a story and draw others into its pages. Do that and, as we radicals discussed during and beyond the panel, your site will not just lose money, it will lose much more — it will lose credibility, which, for a heritage site, is the ball game. Entertaining, provocative programming will convince your guests to come back to your site, but your reputation is what will get them there in the first place.
So Faulkner’s over-quoted phrase can continue to have real meaning for us as public historians, who see the past as vibrant and alive, with an important role to play in our daily lives, as it swirls all around us. Because, in the final analysis of the Newport radicals, people don’t hate history, they just hate history done badly by people who don’t seem to care much about it.
Dr. Taylor Stoermer, Visiting Curator of Public History at the Newport Historical Society, Faculty Fellow and Adjunct Professor at Roger Williams University, and author of the forthcoming Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman and Littlefield).
This is a guest post by journalist Brian Hubert (follow him on Twitter @briguyhubert), an avocational specialist in transportation history, who just visited southern New England to look into the different ways in which public history is practiced here. This is his impression of a visit to several sites in Fall River, Massachusetts, offering military, technological, social, and dark history, in places that use the power of space in strikingly different, but similarly influential ways, when it comes to understanding the elements of a successful guest experience.
A recent trip to Fall River, Massachusetts shows the power of space in historic sites.
A career in public history can lead one down some unexpected paths. Unlike a traditional academic career, focused so intently on classrooms and publications, public history is, indeed, everywhere, and can assume almost any creative or intellectual form. It has taken me from Colonial Williamsburg to C-SPAN to the Hudson Valley and on to Harvard, the Kennedy Institute, and Newport. It has also put me on a plane to Orlando, on my way to, of all places, Walt Disney World, and all it has to offer for the practicing public historian, which, as it turns out, is quite a bit.
This particular adventure started when the editor of my forthcoming textbook on the practice of public history — Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman & Littlefield for the AASLH) — strongly suggested, in a way that only editors seem to be able to carry off, that I include more in my book about the history of public history. I was pointedly planning to avoid the topic, except for some broad historical commentary on public historians of the 18th and 19th centuries, and escape any emphasis on theory — given the little interest and less patience I have with that particular topic. But a textbook worth the time and money of any student or practitioner, I was reminded, however focused on the practical dimensions of the field, should tell the whole story of that field, which includes such essential backstories. So added to my research and writing schedule were two new chapters, starting with the history of public history. And who would I run into as I began it but the man behind the mouse: Walt Disney.
It’s not that he, or his specter, at least, wasn’t inevitably lurking in the background of that history. “Disneyfication” has long been a pejorative in the field, meaning essentially the commodification, simplification, and even misdirection of cultural heritage for profit. It had a particularly negative resonance among veteran staff at Colonial Williamsburg, who sneered at what appeared to be the Walt Disney Company’s overt rejection of any responsibility for authenticity and accuracy in pursuit of whatever sentimental or narrative entertainment value that might earn a buck for the multimedia behemoth. The recent past has given us attempts by the Disney Company, under Michael Eisner’s guidance, to establish a Civil War theme park in Northern Virginia and a cringeworthy twist on the tale of Pocahontas in the eponymous animated feature. Throw in movies and television adaptions such as the stories of Esther Forbes’ fictional, but beloved, Johnny Tremain and an all-too unhistorical take on the very real Davy Crockett (a broadcast that nevertheless generated a massive nationwide phenomenon that makes the current “Hamilton” fad look like the merest blip on America’s cultural radar screen), and Disney’s reputation for being the enemy of public history, of doing more harm than good, appears to be well-deserved. So what, you may well ask, am I doing on this plane?
In short, I blame Neal Gabler, a terrific biographer now penning a life of Edward M. Kennedy, about which we have been exchanging thoughts and ideas. Our discussions led me to his splendid book on Walt Disney and more than a few things I didn’t know about that complicated American visionary. One was his deep appreciation of America’s past and its importance to our national identity — an issue that has been contested, and condemned, in more than one academic conference session. More interestingly, however, was his connection to the thrust of my book: the seminal, and reciprocal, role he played in the the modern practice of public history. When he first considered the potential of imbedded, immersive experiences, and the business that made it possible, as well as the point of it all, Disney turned first to those sites that were then on the cutting edge, most notably Colonial Williamsburg. Disney and his wife registered their first visit there in 1944. As his activity and interest increased, especially when Disneyland was coming to the fore of his efforts in the 1950s, he returned to CW and added Old Sturbridge Village and other sites to his research itinerary, shaping and reshaping his view of the importance of people and place as key elements in telling a story that could transport anyone to another context, whether fictional or historical, leaving their modern views behind to embrace the possibilities inherent in fully engaged interactions with live interpretation and, of course, the built environment. He refined that with more visits in the 1960s as he moved to expanding that view while he and his “Imagineers” developed Disney World. In 2017, it is likely that more people this year will gain their core understanding of American history and identity from a visit to a Disney theme park, a movie, or another media source than will ever read all of Bernard Bailyn’s books combined.
The favor, if you will, was returned as cultural heritage sites like CW adopted and profited from the practices that Disney developed, for better and worse. So the relationship has definitely become one in dire need of therapy, which is why I’m here — to learn, with the help of the Walt Disney Company, to renew the dialogue, if not stage an intervention. As a group of my Harvard graduate students taught me with a clever project last year, Walt Disney World is a great public history site, whether we like or not, so here I am (Using Frozen‘s hereditary monarchy model for an extra credit question recently had nothing to do with it. Really.). It’s sure to be a wild ride, so I hope you come along for it.
Second historian to the right, and straight on ’til morning.
[NOTE: Reposted with minor edits from last month’s Medium]
Museum Hack has covered the basics of the Pokémon GO phenonomen so well for museums and heritage sites that I hardly need to go into it here. There are, of course, the obvious spikes in visitorship and attention from that coveted cohort, Gen Y, going across our square footage, searching high and low for the virtual invaders that have many heritage pros giddy over the fad (“Look, there are YOUNG PEOPLE in our parking lot! And they’re LOOKING. AT. US.”). This is especially true for the legion of small sites and museums that are desperately striving for increased visitation (See for yourself: there seems to be a proportional relationship between budget troubles and Pokémon GO promotion). For those sites, almost any warm (and hopefully entrance-fee-paying) body will do, as guest numbers is the name of many a P & L game. But, as the always-informative Colleen Dilenschneider has reminded us, there is a tremendous difference between fads and trends — and cultural professionals better recognize the distinction. It is not one without a difference. And Pokémon GO fits the perfect definition of a fad.
Some museums quickly took stands against it, most notably the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which made it perfectly clear that playing the game within its walls was a violation of its inarguably important mission.
“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” Andrew Hollinger, the museum’s communications director, told The Post. “We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game.”
Other heritage sites either followed suit or are decorously ignoring Pokémon GO altogether, sticking quietly and resolutely to the pursuit of their missions, which I have applauded. After all, Nintendo, the shares of which are soaring, didn’t ask anyone if they wanted the augmented reality beasties populating their site, any more than it intends to share its profits with them. Other cultural organizations, however, have made a thoughtful calculation that welcoming the players is neither inconsistent with their mission, nor does it get in the way of their current audiences or strategic plan, and it helps boost the bottom line a bit without costing anything, which is what every Trustee likes to hear. Either way, at least they thought about it. To the horror of many a donor, though, other cultural organizations have not been so circumspect, diverting existing resources from mission-oriented activities (if they are so lucky as to be mission-oriented in the first place) to a less dignified grab for the seemingly ubiquitous game players.
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be drawn from the current craze that heritage pros at sites and organizations, large and small, might want to keep in mind.
First, stabilizing existing core audiences and building new ones are the keys to sustainability. And that generally means having a clear, relevant, and distinguishable mission that can be deployed by staff with some flexibility. Add some systems thinking to that, such as integrated marketing and development, and, voila!, you have the basis for a long-term community. Moreover, such missions attract and keep members, who often — or at least should — turn into higher-level donors (it really does work that way). So beware of embracing a fad without thinking of its impact on the audiences you already have and the perception it creates for those you want to build.
Second, what attracts guests to many heritage sites in the first place is not necessarily the same thing that attracts them to zoos or aquariums or even to an art museum. Staring at a battlefield landscape is really not the same thing as staring at a Van Gogh or a snow leopard. For the most part, heritage sites thrive on the powerful “sense of place” conjured in the imagination by standing in the space where something occurred, or where someone ostensibly remarkable lived and worked. Unless a site’s leadership starts throwing pirates or ghosts into the scene, that sense of place tends to keep heritage visitation numbers relatively steady, depending on whatever else is going on in the global economy (Ever been to the UK? Go. Now.). Heritage sites walk the thinnest of tight ropes, on which they constantly face an exceptionally delicate balance between retaining — or even sentimentally reconstructing —whatever remains of the past in the present, and attempting to creatively communicate it. That authenticity is an imperative form of content that once lost can almost never be regained.
Third, mission and content might get many people to visit a heritage site once, but the quality and nature of their experience is what will bring them back, whether the experience is hands-on or minds-on. And that experience had better be all about guest engagement, with staff or amongst each other, and clearly tied to the mission (so they don’t just go down the street for the same thing next time). The more immersive that experience, and the more relevant its connection to the present, the better, as the more senses one can engage, the greater the opportunity to unleash the lived experiences of the past.
Those things — mission and audience, sense of place, guest experience — provide the foundations of sustainability for a heritage site in the 21st century. Simply put, they drive visitation, donations, and visibility, which allow us to keep doing our work, which is to actively engage the public with the lessons the past has to offer.
But what does that have to do what Pokémon GO? Well, almost nothing. And that’s my point. Responsible heritage pros need to ask some key questions about those foundations when it comes to fads. Core, or historical, audiences are those that regularly visit heritage sites and organizations. Yes, they are aging. But we can’t forget about them, making assumptions that their numbers, however dwindling, won’t just completely disappear. How does something like Pokémon GO impact them and their experience?
Even more cloudy is the impact on the new audiences we hope to build, mostly comprised of Millennials (we Xers are always left out of the equation) and those who are coming after them (who are mostly playing the game). There is no silver bullet for securing their support, any more than there is for any other affinity audience, regardless of age or ethnicity. The argument that one just needs to get them through the door, in any way that “works”, from an augmented reality game to a beer tasting, and the magic of a place will suddenly and immediately be revealed, and they will somehow transform into long-term supporters that your development staff can move up the giving ladder, is a chimera. There is no reliable evidence, whatsoever, to support it. But that doesn’t mean Pokémon GO doesn’t matter. What is your museum or heritage site doing to transition any episodic guest, such as a Pokémon GO player, into one that is actually going to pay any attention to the reason you’re there at all, and transition them into members of your greater community? Is it, perhaps, by turning them on to other ways that you’re already trying use technology to engage guests, ways that actually connect to your content and mission?
Having almost literally run over three Pokémon GO players the other day when I was driving on College Hill, I won’t touch on their impact on the sense of place. That’s pretty obvious. But there will always be wanderers at our heritage sites, many of whom don’t have any more notion of why they’re there than that an adult told them they should go, which will always be a heavy tip on one side of the delicate balance.
That brings me to perhaps the most important question that heritage pros could ask of the Pokémon GO fad, and, therefore, the lessons that can be learned: what does it tell us about the kind of experience that younger guests don’t just want, but expect? Not a lot that’s new, actually. It’s more of a glaring confirmation of how technology is imbedded in their lives. Smart phones, and all the bells and smells they virtually produce, are part of the lived experience of digital natives, almost as much as the Geneva Bible was to the Puritans, so we have to make sure that is factored into the immersive experiences we want to create, and not as simplistic add-ons, but as an organic part of them. So ask yourself how such technology fits into either your overall strategic plan or your tactical toolkit.
Otherwise, Pokémon GO is neither new nor revolutionary for museums and heritage sites. Nor is it permanent. It is more of a wake-up call for us to look around us and ask how it impacts how to make sure our space will still be around when today’s players are looking for places to visit 20 years from now, when they have children enthralled by the latest fad.
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.
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.