Harvesting the romance of the past

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Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance, and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation.

Growing up as an American Indian boy in Oklahoma, I struggled every April 22nd with “89er Day,” an elementary school mini-holiday that celebrated the 1889 opening of central Oklahoma to white settlement. We school kids were expected to dash across the playground and stake out “homesteads,” being careful to watch out for “wild Indians.” As the day wore on, we had “chuck wagon” lunches, sing-alongs, and square dances. The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 marked the formal end of tribal reservations in Oklahoma, itself a Choctaw word meaning “[place of the] red people.” This was the romance of the past as it played out across innumerable schools in the Oklahoma of the mid-1950s.

This 1899 poster for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show suggests that Cody also “harnessed the romance of the past” throughout his career. Courtesy LOC

This 1899 poster for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show suggests that Cody also “harnessed the romance of the past” throughout his career. Photo credit:  Library of Congress

Patricia Mooney-Melvin, in her 1991 article on “Harnessing the Romance of the Past: Preservation, Tourism, and History,” writes about a different sort of historical romance, using another kind of misremembered history as an example. As she describes, an elderly woman and young girl visit the Buffalo Bill Cody museum where the woman confuses Cody and Theodore Roosevelt. Taking place at a historic site, this story emphasizes both the enthusiasm of the heritage tourist and the need for a high level of historical accuracy at those sites.

The field of heritage tourism was relatively young when Mooney-Melvin wrote her article, and there were far-reaching questions about the extent to which the “expert” historian should be involved. Mooney-Melvin argues for historians to “infiltrate the tourism industry” so that some of the problems of presentation and interpretation are ameliorated or mitigated. Thus, the historian ensures historical accuracy while at the same time the interpreter at the site has the opportunity to turn that material into something to entertain the visitor.

While Mooney-Melvin was concerned about “harnessing the romance of the past,” my concern is that we are mainly “harvesting” the romance of the past by focusing on extracting as much profit as possible from our heritage sites. According to a study conducted by Mandala Research (2009), cultural and heritage tourists generally take more leisure trips than non-cultural/heritage travelers, prefer them to be “educational,” spend more money, and travel further. Visiting historic sites and attending historical re-enactments topped the list of the most popular cultural and heritage activities. Knowing this, site managers and regional groups can at times be more interested in making money on a place than teaching about it.

One solution for Mooney-Melvin was having a trained interpreter who’s been guided by a historian present. But today, a cultural heritage tourist is just as likely to get information through a smart phone, tablet, or other electronic medium as they are from a historian or trained interpreter. The electronically informed visitor can get a sterilized picture of the past based only on bare “facts” devoid of historical context or can never interact with the “real” site at all. Current thinking argues for “packaging” multiple areas for cultural and heritage tourism travel, increasing the likelihood that a customer will choose to spend time (and money) where they can get more “bang for the buck” (though not necessarily that they will learn more from it). If the historic information from the multiple sites is integrated into a strong information package, then this approach to regional or topical heritage can be beneficial.  Poorly integrated information, however, can lead to what amounts to a haphazard rendering of heritage trivia.

Indeed, the National Park Service provides self-guided tours of destinations chosen along a common theme, such as “Places Reflecting America’s Diverse Cultures” or “Preserve America Communities.” For example, travelers to Baltimore have access to information on 43 different places of interest, which increases the likelihood that the visitor will stay in the area and spend money. In this way, an invisible expert contextualizes the history beyond a single site, providing a programmatic approach to various “histories” and helping the visitor better understand the ways the histories are interconnected.

The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site interprets the site of a Southern Cheyenne Village attacked by General Custer. Courtesy, Joe Watkins

The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site interprets the site of a Southern Cheyenne Village attacked by General Custer. Photo credit: Joe Watkins

To be sure, as cultural and heritage tourism has grown, the inclusion of places of importance to under-represented groups has led to the rise of multiple voices and multiple stories that illustrate multiple histories. One such example, the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, offers many personal interpretations from American Indians of a well-recorded event. While these voices and perspectives are still a vast minority of the histories being presented, they are at least being given the opportunity to be heard in a way that was nearly absent in Mooney-Melvin’s time. Our national consciousness concerning the contributions of under-represented American communities to the fabric of American heritage continues to grow, and we will continue to add sites reflective and representative of those contributions.

The enduring legacy of the National Historic Preservation Act is the depth of connections between places that mark the shared and private heritage of American communities of the past with those contemporary communities that protect and revere them. Without the NHPA, many locations would have fallen under the blade of the bulldozer or the wrecking ball, reduced to unmarked rubble in community landfills. Internet access has created the possibility of “virtual” tourism, free from mosquitoes and sunburn, but it is important for us to weave together the human face with machine intellect to create a joyful experience for those who get off the couch and into the open air. Tourists and travelers should be entertained enough that they will absorb the multitude of interpretations about events that shaped America’s history, but it is imperative that the information they leave with sufficiently portrays the importance of our mission–to protect the cultural markers of our singular histories in order to preserve the bricks that are the foundation of our shared heritage.

~ Joe Watkins, Chief, Tribal Relations and American Cultures, National Park Service, WASO

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