Tiya Miles article, “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation: Race and the Making of a Southern House Museum”, that recently appeared in The Public Historian, volume 33, issue 4, presents an intriguing examination of the role racial perceptions can play in heritage interpretations.
Miles’ work focuses on the Chief Vann House State Historic Site in Georgia. This particular heritage site is the former residence of Chief Joseph Vann, who was a predominant plantation owner in Georgia until his family was forced to leave under the 1830s federal Indian Removal bill.
Throughout “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation” Miles describes the 1950s restoration efforts of the Vann House and highlights the ongoing tensions in interpretation viewpoints. Miles illustrates the ongoing tensions between the desire to portray a local heritage indicative of high class Georgia and the government desire to frame the House in ‘Indianness.’ These contrasting notions of focal interpretation points resulted in an interpretation that Miles describes as reflecting “the dual themes of Native American material culture and antebellum plantation culture. The home was decorated with antiques befitting a well-heeled planter family, but the attic was reserved for display of Indian artifacts such as arrowheads.” (p.29) Since no single narrative could be decided upon, the two prominent narratives were intermingled. Both the local heritage advocates and the state government believed that the House had tourism potential, but they differed greatly on what they thought the prime attraction was — Indianness or Southern plantation heritage.
The Vann House site is not unique in its struggle of historical viewpoints. History is often contested and there is always more than one way to tell the same set of events. I am interested to know how the Vann House site currently functions as a house museum, do the interpreters address the ongoing struggle of viewpoints? Miles also notes that during the 1950s no thought was given to representing the slave presence that once drove the work on the plantation. It would be interesting to see if this heritage is now represented in the House’s displays.
What are additional examples of struggles of historical interpretation coming to the forefront in heritage sites?
Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn