- The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City
Cathy Stanton’s book offers historians a novel approach to the practice of their craft. In looking at the exhibits and programs of the Lowell National Historical Park, she studies the actors along with their message. As someone involved with these activities for some thirty years, often as a direct participant, I found her account intriguing. Stanton writes as a leftist ethnographer interacting with people at all levels of the Park Service in Lowell, as well as with representatives of the community’s effort to promote itself through its history in what she calls its postindustrial phase. She chronicles the use of its novel (but also typical) industrial history, cooperation among ethnic groups, and coordinated support by and for the local business elite.
Stanton’s interpretation relies heavily on two types of tours, “The Run [End Page 226] of the Mill” boat and walking tour, and “A Walking Tour of the Acre,” traditionally one of Lowell’s poorest neighborhoods. She also considers a special tour by Peter Aucella, former head of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission and later assistant superintendent for the park. In both positions, as well as when an aide to the late Senator Paul Tsongas, Aucella marshaled federal dollars to support redevelopment efforts. And thus arise the primary sources of tension in Stanton’s account: Can the heritage industry serve two bosses, public history and economic development? She also points to further sources of difficulty: the backgrounds of the principal actors, left-leaning historians hobbled by their own status as success-seeking members of the postindustrial economy, and their conflict with locals claiming authority through residence.
Stanton’s primary finding is that—because of their unwillingness to question their own place in the new economy, because of the locals’ desire for a positive image of their predecessors, and because of the developers’ goals of economic resurgence—Lowell’s historians give only its pre–Civil War history a radical interpretation. They are unable to bring the same critical voice to the more recent past, let alone current events. Stanton marshals substantial evidence for her assertions: Tours leave visitors with the impression that Lowell symbolizes an American success story of progress, better working conditions, diminished strife, and higher standards of living.
She identifies this view both with Lowell’s public historians and with the locals whose families have made a progression as Euro-American immigrants who in comparatively recent times left blue-collar jobs for professional careers. Their success leads them to gloss over or ignore a countervailing story that would portray recent and current conditions as a new cycle in an old story which has seen little if any linear progression. Recent immigrants in Lowell, primarily Cambodians, work in low-paying, boring jobs, and witness growing separation between classes. Facing economic segregation and political exclusion, they lack the unified voice of “progress” adopted by the Euro-Americans now dominant in both groups of Lowell’s interpreters.
Stanton pays little attention to the permanent exhibit in the Boott Cotton Mill. She does note, however, that its original concluding interpretive space celebrated eight then-current businesses in the city. From the start a jarring presence, given the rest of the exhibit’s critical approach to U.S. industrial development, this space took on new meaning as one after another of the enterprises it celebrated failed, most notably Wang Computers, the savior of the city in the 1980s, and the Prince Spaghetti Factory, a major employer that was purchased and closed by a rival.
And here we come to some issues with this otherwise intriguing tale. How did such a celebration gain a place in this critique of industrial capitalism? Presumably via the influence of the locals and developers working to devise and market a “progressive” image to attract further development. [End Page 227] The means are not clarified here, however. I should also note that in my years of experience in sending working-class college students to, and talking with teachers about...