- Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument
Bruggeman’s “public history of a national monument” evolved out of his research for an administrative history of the George Washington Birthplace National Monument (gewa) that was published by the National Park Service (nps) in 2006. Bruggeman was given unfettered access to the site’s nps records, which are significant in American history as representative of the hagiography of Washington and of the interpretive problems with which the nps struggles around the country. Prior to 1930, the nps focused on preserving the nation’s natural resources. Assumption of responsibility for the George Washington Birthplace brought with it a host of headaches that the nps had never anticipated, such as issues of “memory, ownership of the past, and the wonderfully slippery meaning of authenticity” (6), which are frequently the subject of debate at public history sites. The saga surrounding the creation and operation of the place where Washington lived until he was three offers an opportunity to explore the kind of fundamental questions with which public historians wrestle on a regular basis.
The National Monument at the center of Bruggeman’s study had an inauspicious beginning. Shortly after the conclusion of the War of 1812, George Washington Parke Custis, Washington’s step-grandson and self-appointed keeper and promoter of his memory, set sail in his schooner for the site on the Virginia peninsula known as the Northern Neck, where Washington was born in 1732. Since the house was destroyed by fire in 1799, all that remained on the site when Custis arrived in 1815 or 1816 were the ruins of a chimney. After piling up several bricks, Custis deposited a stone on top of them proclaiming, “Here The 11th of February, 1732, (Old Style,) George Washington Was Born” (26). Although archaeologists later concluded that Custis missed the mark with the placement of his stone, his action imbued the site with a sense of importance that still resonates.
gewa has been a revered, yet controversial site since the nps assumed ownership in 1930. Bruggeman chronicles the resulting “decade upon decade of commemorative recalibration,” each layer invoking “the ideological exigencies of its time” (51). Thus, Bruggeman offers a case study of the site’s evolution and the changes in its interpretive focus, as well as a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the nps. Among his conclusions is the notion that the nps plays a more important [End Page 469] role than any other organization in “shaping how our nation’s history is understood” (6).
The gewa site exemplifies how the nps can be both a leader and a follower in setting standards of interpretation; Bruggeman does not shy away from offering a candid assessment of the agency’s efforts. An early attempt at developing a “living history” component at gewa represents both the nps’ forward thinking and its inability to move beyond the social constraints of the time.
Bruggeman’s exploration of the flexuous nature of history as it is revealed for public consumption makes a fine addition to the memory studies and public-history canon. It also offers great insight into the policies, practices, and politics of the government agency that stands as the guardian of many commemorative sites in the United States.