A vexing issue
15 August 2017 – James F. Brooks
Editor’s note: We publish TPH editor James F. Brooks’s introduction to the August 2017 issue of The Public Historian. The entire issue is available online to National Council on Public History members.
At first glance, a collection of essays that range from Jesuit Mission historic sites to faux Indian statuary to Liberty ships and war museums seem impossible to arrange in a conceptual matrix—at once evidence of the great range of public history engagements and, simultaneously, a scattershot deployment of their substance. Yet one uniting theme does emerge from this issue—the vexing instability of how we align interpretation with the shifting ground of economics and politics in our profession.
In our lead article, “A Tale of Two Missions: Common Pasts/Divergent Futures at Transnational Historic Sites,” Debora Ryan and Emily Stokes-Rees provide a long-view comparative history of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons (Wendats) in Midland, Ontario, and Skä•noñh–Great Law of Peace Center (Haudenosaunee), associated with Sainte-Marie de Gannentaha in Syracuse, New York. Each has roots deep in seventeenth-century French imperial enterprises and the mission machinery of Catholicism that fostered entry into the fur networks of the St. Lawrence region. Each historic site was born of Depression-era research, the 1960s expansion in national-heritage travel tourism, and, at least initially, aimed to celebrate the “first” European presence in their respective locales. Each experienced periods of interpretive introspection in the 1980s, including attempts to recruit Native perspectives to the narrative and “invert the gaze,” experienced visitor pushback, and wrestled with the business side of operations dependent upon visitor fees and public funding. As the authors explain, “Historically, both were places of contact between Europeans and Native peoples, and in many ways, this is still true today. Perhaps more importantly, both institutions are places that inform public perceptions about indigenousness.” Yet while current interpretation demonstrates real progress away from nostalgia for “French Forts” and “settler days,” both sites grapple with the reality that history is as much about the present as it is the past, a present in which funding, visitor expectations, and tribal participation are seldom in happy alignment.
Madeline Bourque Kearin brings us a very different public perception of indigenousness in the figure of Chief Kisco, a statue located in the center of the village of Mount Kisco, New York. Rather than critique the invented tradition of the statue itself—one of many identical statues cast at the turn of the twentieth century by the J. L. Mott Company of New York City and in wide circulation representing local legends—she weaves an extraordinary analysis of how the statue served as “a piece of temperance propaganda with nativist undertones that tapped directly into the class, religious, and ethnic divisions running through the turn-of-the-century village.” Just how an image of an indigenous “leader” came to act as a rallying symbol for white, middle-class Protestants anxious about the increasing numbers of working-class Irish Catholic immigrants is just one part of her story, however. The Chief Kisco statue, and all it ironically represented as a symbol for white moralism, became one of many such symbols subject to a fiery critique from Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca archaeologist, ethnographer, and folklorist who “reasserted the humanity and persistence of Native Americans in defiance of dehumanizing tropes and narratives of decline.” As a fourth-generation resident of the village, Kearin demonstrates a form of autoethnography that brings the ironies of commemoration to inform the still-unfolding immigrant history of her hometown, which now includes thousands of Latin Americans, who themselves puzzle at the meaning of the statue of Christopher Columbus erected in 1992, directly opposite Chief Kisco.
Philip R. Byrd’s “The Continuous Existence of Historic Ship Museums” will please readers who attended the 2016 NCPH conference in Baltimore—if you, like me, spent much time strolling the decks and chatting with the crew of the SS John W. Brown. While I found the business-side backstory of the vessel’s mission fascinating, I didn’t learn during those two hours that the ship is at the edge of an interpretation crisis. Byrd argues that “the current approach to historical interpretation, which emphasizes a fixed period of historical significance, makes it difficult for historic ship museums to remain part of public memory, as well as to attract visitors and revenue streams,” since the National Park Service interpretive guidelines require National Register sites to conform to the period they are meant to represent (in the ship’s case, 1925–49). Byrd argues that we ought to see the period of significance “as a starting point for interpretation” and that “historic sites often put too much collective pressure on historic integrity, narrowly understood.” The maintenance, operation, and educational mission of the SS John W. Brown requires a much more flexible, and diachronic, approach, since the students who experience overnights and the volunteers who serve as voyage crews, as well as the conventional tour visitors, are constituents and producers of history. This critique applies, not only to SS John W. Brown but to other such vessels, like the USS Olympia, and aligns well with the “life-cycle” approaches now represented at leading-edge historic house museums (see our special issue on the topic, “Open House: Reimagining the Historic House Museum,” The Public Historian 37, no. 2, May 2015).
We conclude with a painful example of the vexing challenges facing national museums today with Anna Muller and Daniel Logemann’s Report from the Field that looks at the just-opened Second World War Museum in Gdańsk, Poland. Conceived in one economic and political moment (2008, under Prime Minister Donald Tusk) with global context and civilian suffering at the interpretive core, but opened in another, with a new nationalist and populist government in power. Much of the original staff was fired within the first few weeks of the museum’s life. The political climate in Poland has changed dramatically, and members of the populist-rightist-nationalist Law and Justice Party object deeply to the museum’s approach and want to take control over the institution to change its content. They want a museum that focuses solely on the Polish experience, with primacy given to the heroism of Polish soldiers who resisted the Germans. New leadership has promised to make changes that might present a more nationalistic interpretation of this fraught history.
Finally, we want to thank Professor Jacki Thompson Rand for two years’ service as our book reviews editor at The Public Historian, and especially for how she brought her public history graduate students into our conversations around digital history. We likewise welcome David D. Vail, assistant professor of environmental and agricultural history at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, as our new colleague in the reviews department. His research focuses on the history of aerial pesticide application, health, and food production in North America’s grasslands. He teaches environmental and agricultural history, the history of science and technology, the American West, and public history, a range of expertise that we know will serve the journal superbly.
~ James F. Brooks is editor of The Public Historian and professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.