University of Massachusetts Press

Public History in Historical Perspective

Marla Miller

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

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Public History in Historical Perspective

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Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America

Susan Reynolds Williams

Author, collector, and historian Alice Morse Earle (1851–1911) was among the most important and prolific writers of her day. Between 1890 and 1904, she produced seventeen books as well as numerous articles, pamphlets, and speeches about the life, manners, customs, and material culture of colonial New England. Earle’s work coincided with a surge of interest in early American history, genealogy, and antique collecting, and more than a century after the publication of her first book, her contributions still resonate with readers interested in the nation’s colonial past. An intensely private woman, Earle lived in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and four children and conducted much of her research either by mail or at the newly established Long Island Historical Society. She began writing on the eve of her fortieth birthday, and the impressive body of scholarship she generated over the next fifteen years stimulated new interest in early American social customs, domestic routines, foodways, clothing, and childrearing patterns. Written in a style calculated to appeal to a wide readership, Earle’s richly illustrated books recorded the intimate details of what she described as colonial “home life.” These works reflected her belief that women had played a key historical role, helping to nurture communities by constructing households that both served and shaped their families. It was a vision that spoke eloquently to her contemporaries, who were busily creating exhibitions of early American life in museums, staging historical pageants and other forms of patriotic celebration, and furnishing their own domestic interiors.

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Born in the U.S.A.

Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory

edited by Seth Bruggeman

Scores of birthplace monuments and historic childhood homes dot the American landscape. These special places, many dating to the early years of the last century, have enshrined nativity alongside patriotism and valor among the key pillars of the nation’s popular historical imagination. The essays in this volume suggest that the way Americans have celebrated famous births reflects evolving expectations of citizenship as well as a willingness to edit the past when those hopes go unfulfilled. The contributors also demonstrate that the reinvention of origin myths at birthplace monuments still factors in American political culture and the search for meaning in an ever-shifting global order. Beyond asking why it is that Americans care about birthplaces and how they choose which ones to commemorate, Born in the U.S.A. offers insights from historians, curators, interpretive specialists, and others whose experience speaks directly to the challenges of managing historical sites. Each essay points to new ways of telling old stories at these mainstays of American memory. The case of the modern house museum receives special attention in a provocative concluding essay by Patricia West. In addition to West and the editor, contributors include Christine Arato, Dan Currie, Keith A. Erekson, David Glassberg, Anna Thompson Hajdik, Zachary J. Lechner, Paul Lewis, Hilary Iris Lowe, Cynthia Miller, Laura Lawfer Orr, Robert Paynter, Angela Phelps, and Paul Reber.

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Everybody's History

Indiana's Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President's Past

Keith A. Erekson

Revered by the public, respected by scholars, and imitated by politicians, Abraham Lincoln remains influential more than two hundred years after his birth. His memory has inspired books, monuments, and museums and also sparked controversies, rivalries, and forgeries. That so many people have been interested in Lincoln for so long makes him an ideal subject for exploring why history matters to ordinary Americans as well as to academic specialists. In Everybody’s History, Keith A. Erekson focuses on the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society—an organization composed of lawyers, historians, collectors, genealogists, teachers, college presidents, and newspaper editors—who joined together during the 1920s and 1930s to recover a part of Lincoln’s life his biographers had long ignored: the years from age seven to twenty-one when he lived on the Indiana frontier. Participants in the “Lincoln Inquiry,” as it was commonly known, researched old records, interviewed aging witnesses, hosted pageants, built a historical village, and presented their findings in public and in print. Along the way they defended their methods and findings against competitors in the fields of public history and civic commemoration, and rescued some of Indiana’s own history by correcting a forgotten chapter of Lincoln’s. Everybody’s History traces the development of popular interest in Lincoln to uncover the story of an extensive network of nonprofessional historians who contested old authorities and advanced new interpretations. In so doing, the book invites all who are interested in the past to see history as both vital to public life and meaningful to everybody.

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From Storefront to Monument

Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement

Andrea A. Burns

Today well over two hundred museums focusing on African American history and culture can be found throughout the United States and Canada. Many of these institutions trace their roots to the 1960s and 1970s, when the struggle for racial equality inspired a movement within the black community to make the history and culture of African America more “public.” This book tells the story of four of these groundbreaking museums: the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago (founded in 1961); the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit (1965); the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C. (1967); and the African American Museum of Philadelphia (1976). Andrea A. Burns shows how the founders of these institutions, many of whom had ties to the Black Power movement, sought to provide African Americans with a meaningful alternative to the misrepresentation or utter neglect of black history found in standard textbooks and most public history sites. Through the recovery and interpretation of artifacts, documents, and stories drawn from African American experience, they encouraged the embrace of a distinctly black identity and promoted new methods of interaction between the museum and the local community. Over time, the black museum movement induced mainstream institutions to integrate African American history and culture into their own exhibits and educational programs. This often controversial process has culminated in the creation of a National Museum of African American History and Culture, now scheduled to open in the nation’s capital in 2015.

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"History Is Bunk"

Assembling the Past at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village

Jessie Swigger

In 1916 a clearly agitated Henry Ford famously proclaimed that “history is more or less bunk.” Thirteen years later, however, he opened the outdoor history museum Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. It was written history’s focus on politicians and military heroes that was bunk, he explained. Greenfield Village would correct this error by celebrating farmers and inventors. The village eventually included a replica of Thomas Edison’s New Jersey Menlo Park Laboratory, the Wright brothers’ cycle shop and home from Dayton, Ohio, and Ford’s own Michigan birthplace. But not all of the structures were associated with famous men. Craft and artisan shops, a Cotswold cottage from England, and two brick slave cabins also populated the village landscape. Ford mixed replicas, preserved buildings, and whole-cloth constructions that together celebrated his personal worldview. Greenfield Village was immediately popular. But that only ensured that the history it portrayed would be interpreted not only by Ford but also by throngs of visitors and the guides and publicity materials they encountered. After Ford’s death in 1947, administrators altered the village in response to shifts in the museum profession at large, demographic changes in the Detroit metropolitan area, and the demands of their customers. Jessie Swigger analyzes the dialogue between museum administrators and their audiences by considering the many contexts that have shaped Greenfield Village. The result is a book that simultaneously provides the most complete extant history of the site and an intimate look at how the past is assembled and constructed at history museums.

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A Living Exhibition

The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum

William S. Walker

Since its founding in 1846 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” the Smithsonian Institution has been an important feature of the American cultural landscape. In A Living Exhibition, William S. Walker examines the tangled history of cultural exhibition at the Smithsonian from its early years to the chartering of the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989. He tracks the transformation of the institution from its original ideal as a “universal museum” intended to present the totality of human experience to the variegated museum and research complex of today. Walker pays particular attention to the half century following World War II, when the Smithsonian significantly expanded. Focusing on its exhibitions of cultural history, cultural anthropology, and folk life, he places the Smithsonian within the larger context of Cold War America and the social movements of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Organized chronologically, the book uses the lens of the Smithsonian’s changing exhibitions to show how institutional decisions become intertwined with broader public debates about pluralism, multiculturalism, and decolonization. Yet if a trend toward more culturally specific museums and exhibitions characterized the postwar history of the institution, its leaders and curators did not abandon the vision of the universal museum. Instead, Walker shows, even as the Smithsonian evolved into an extensive complex of museums, galleries, and research centers, it continued to negotiate the imperatives of cultural convergence as well as divergence, embodying both a desire to put everything together and a need to take it all apart.

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Memories of Buenos Aires

Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina

edited with an introduction by Max Page epilogue by Ilan Stavans

In the 1970s, Argentina was the leader in the “Dirty War,” a violent campaign by authoritarian South American regimes to repress left-wing groups and any others who were deemed subversive. Over the course of a decade, Argentina’s military rulers tortured and murdered upwards of 30,000 citizens. Even today, after thirty years of democratic rule, the horror of that time continues to roil Argentine society. Argentina has also been in the vanguard in determining how to preserve sites of torture, how to remember the “disappeared,” and how to reflect on the causes of the Dirty War. Across the capital city of Buenos Aires are hundreds of grassroots memorials to the victims, documenting the scope of the state’s reign of terror. Although many books have been written about this era in Argentina’s history, the original Spanish-language edition of Memories of Buenos Aires was the first to identify and interpret all of these sites. It was published by the human rights organization Memoria Abierta, which used interviews with survivors to help unearth that painful history. This translation brings this important work to an English-speaking audience, offering a comprehensive guidebook to clandestine sites of horror as well as innovative sites of memory. The book divides the 48 districts of the city into 9 sectors, and then proceeds neighborhood-by-neighborhood to offer descriptions of 202 known “sites of state terrorism” and 38 additional places where people were illegally detained, tortured, and killed by the government.

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Museums, Monuments, and National Parks

Toward a New Genealogy of Public History

Denise D. Meringolo

The rapid expansion of the field of public history since the 1970s has led many to believe that it is a relatively new profession. In this book, Denise D. Meringolo shows that the roots of public history actually reach back to the nineteenth century, when the federal government entered into the work of collecting and preserving the nation’s natural and cultural resources. Scientists conducting research and gathering specimens became key figures in a broader effort to protect and interpret the nation’s landscape. Their collaboration with entrepreneurs, academics, curators, and bureaucrats alike helped pave the way for other governmental initiatives, from the Smithsonian Institution to the parks and monuments today managed by the National Park Service. All of these developments included interpretive activities that shaped public understanding of the past. Yet it was not until the emergence of the education-oriented National Park Service history program in the 1920s and 1930s that public history found an institutional home that grounded professional practice simultaneously in the values of the emerging discipline and in government service. Even thereafter, tensions between administrators in Washington and practitioners on the ground at National Parks, monuments, and museums continued to define and redefine the scope and substance of the field. The process of definition persists to this day, according to Meringolo, as public historians establish a growing presence in major universities throughout the United States and abroad.

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Remembering the Forgotten War

The Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War

Michael Van Wagenen

On February 2, 1848, representatives of the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ending hostilities between the two countries and ceding over one-half million square miles of land to the northern victors. In Mexico, this defeat has gradually moved from the periphery of dishonor to the forefront of national consciousness. In the United States, the war has taken an opposite trajectory, falling from its once-celebrated prominence into the shadowy margins of forgetfulness and denial. Why is the U.S.–Mexican War so clearly etched in the minds of Mexicans and so easily overlooked by Americans? This book investigates that issue through a transnational, comparative analysis of how the tools of collective memory—books, popular culture, historic sites, heritage groups, commemorations, and museums—have shaped the war’s multifaceted meaning in the 160 years since it ended. Michael Van Wagenen explores how regional, ethnic, and religious differences influence Americans and Mexicans in their choices of what to remember and what to forget. He further documents what happens when competing memories clash in a quest for dominance and control. In the end, Remembering the Forgotten War addresses the deeper question of how remembrance of the U.S.–Mexican War has influenced the complex relationship between these former enemies now turned friends. It thus provides a new lens through which to view today’s cross-border rivalries, resentments, and diplomatic pitfalls.

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Remembering the Revolution

Memory, History, and Nation-Making from Independence to the Civil War

edited by Michael McDonnell, Clare Corbould, Frances Clarke, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage

In today’s United States, the legacy of the American Revolution looms large. From presidential speeches to bestselling biographies, from conservative politics to school pageants, everybody knows something about the Revolution. Yet what was a messy, protracted, divisive, and destructive war has calcified into a glorified founding moment of the American nation. Disparate events with equally diverse participants have been reduced to a few key scenes and characters, presided over by well-meaning and wise old men. Recollections of the Revolution did not always take today’s form. In this lively collection of essays, historians and literary scholars consider how the first three generations of American citizens interpreted their nation’s origins. The volume introduces readers to a host of individuals and groups both well known and obscure, from Molly Pitcher and “forgotten father” John Dickinson to African American Baptists in Georgia and antebellum pacifists. They show how the memory of the Revolution became politicized early in the nation’s history, as different interests sought to harness its meaning for their own ends. No single faction succeeded, and at the outbreak of the Civil War the American people remained divided over how to remember the Revolution.

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