Personalizing Traditional History

Family, voice, sense of place, and time travel.  According to Benjamin Filene, these are the core themes in history created by non professionals, all of which are driven by a personal and emotional approach to the past.  Filene’s recent Public Historian article, “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us,” grapples with the development, validity, and spread of history created by persons outside of the formal history profession.

The struggle to quantify what constitutes ‘real’ or ‘good’ history is nothing new.  Public history as a field faced considerable from traditional academia during its rise to acceptance.  Genealogists are often scoffed at by academic historians and local historians are over looked.  Filene does not ignore the professional/outside divide in the history field.  Rather, he suggestions that both parties could learn from each others strengths.  Granted, suggesting two segregated sects work together is a lot easier said than done.

Public history that doesn’t reach the public isn’t very good public history.  Similarly, it wouldn’t hurt more traditional historians to try new avenues of disseminating their research.  History practitioners outside of the formal field have interpretation and display techniques that could easily be adapted to public history.  Focusing on individual stories, using clear language, providing specific examples instead of broad themes, and relating history to present events are all approaches which can assist in interpretation. Some museums have already begun adapting new methods of interpretation.  This often means changing their exhibit style to be more personal and emotional and less telling an overarching story of a historical event.

Academic and professional history can be emotionally compelling.  However, this typically isn’t the aim of professional history or something that is considered a top priority in presentation.  But, when people identify and can relate to history they show greater interest and are more likely to actively participate.  Historians of all shapes and sizes need to look at how they are reaching the public and begin to draw on interpretation and outreach work done by those outside of their immediate circle.

Chief Vann House: Conflicted Interpretation and Restoration

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