Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why History Does Matter at House Museums?

An article picked up yesterday by the Chicago Sun-Times points out one of the troubling facts about house museums and historic sites in general in the U.S.--that very few acknowledge the existence of slavery. Although the article focuses on plantation houses that are open to the public in South Carolina, historic sites in the North are just as bad at acknowledging slave contributions to their history. Tours of Independence Hall don't tend to mention that many signers had slaves waiting on them as they argued the finer points of the constitution.

In the article, the curator of the Lane House is quoted as saying, "It's just awkward" because "there's very little good you can say about it [slavery]." But I don't necessarily go to historic sites to hear about "the good" and I don't believe most historic tourists do either. In fact, the author of the article, Kristin Collins, implies that plantations and historic sites that do a good job interpreting the history of slavery see more visitors than sites that ignore it.

Collins points out that "talk of slaves takes a back seat to discussions of architecture, furnishings and gardens" at historic house museums.

Why does it matter whether historic sites and museums attempt to interpret slavery? In a now famous series of surveys that the late Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen wrote about in their 1998 book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, the authors found that Americans care very much about the past and trust the stories that museums tell. “Americans put more trust in history museums and historic sites than in any other sources for exploring the past... [museums gave] visitors a sense of immediacy—of personal participation—that [they] associated with eyewitnesses; they evoked the intimacy of family gatherings; and they encouraged an interaction with primary sources that reminded respondents of independent research” (105). The problem with not telling the story of slavery at historic sites in the North and the South is that we just might think it didn't happen. History isn't only about architecture, furnishings, and gardens.