Intro to Public History Week 11: Locating Difficult Pasts

Intro to Public History

On the bookshelf:
Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment
Jill Ogline, '"Creating Dissonance for the Visitor": The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy' in The Public Historian 26:3 (2004)

Dissonance, the theme of the week, defined by Merriam-Webster:


a : lack of agreement; especially : inconsistency between the beliefs one holds or between one's actions and one's beliefs compare cognitive dissonance
b : an instance of such inconsistency or disagreement
: a mingling of discordant sounds; especially : a clashing or unresolved musical interval or chord

Examples: dissonance in a sentence

It’s hard for me to write about creating dissonance between visitor and subject matter this week because of the sense of dissonance, incongruity, surrealism suffusing my own reality at the moment. This week, Donald J. Trump won the electoral vote and will now be the President-Elect of the United States. It is surreal to even type that sentence; it feels like a joke; it is unimaginable to me that the country that I call home and that professes to uphold the values of equality, democracy, and virtue could elect a man who embodies the antithesis of those things.

We’ve had several discussions about whether this election shows that historians have failed the nation, and though I wish it weren’t true, it feels somewhat that way. Are all of the Civil War battlefields that celebrate Confederates to blame? What about the Smithsonian exhibits and textbooks that refer to enslaved people as “workers”? And the NPS sites that gloss over difficult histories to provide a G-rated version of the past? I believe these approaches are cowardly and an affront to critical thinking skills, a concession to jingoistic rhetoric that equates inquiry with treason.

In The Lowell Experiment, Cathy Stanton investigates the complicated history of one such an NPS site, the Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts. Tracing the development of the public history movement in tandem with the evolution of interpretation at the Park, Stanton investigates its efforts at “cultural-led regeneration” (once considered groundbreaking). Lowell’s history is particularly interesting in several respects. The exploitative textile industry that put it on the map is still mostly intact, though it has relocated to more impoverished nations. Additionally, a large Cambodian-American community currently resides in Lowell where Irish, Polish, and Greek immigrants once lived. The story of immigrant labor and hard living is told at the historic site as if it were in the past, when it is plainly visible that it is still a reality for many people in the city. Park workers have struggled with how to present the past as a lesson for the present, partially due to their own discomfort at addressing the subject.

Similarly, in “‘Creating Dissonance for the Viewer:’ The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy,” Jill Ogline reports on the controversy surrounding plans to expand the Liberty Bell complex onto the former site of George Washington’s slave quarters. The very idea of interpreting such a jarring juxtaposition has proven apoplectic for NPS representatives. Per Ogline, at this site, “dissonance is viewed as a threat to maintaining smooth operations. In an environment so focused on ensuring comfort physical, intellectual, and emotional an upset visitor is a sign of failure” (55).

I don’t know if there is a lesson I can take from these readings to assuage my own sense of dissonance. I suppose, if I can pull anything out of it, I can definitively state that dissonance and discomfort are prime motivators for change and reflection. While I still have a lot of trepidation about the future of the country and the history profession, I take heart in the “subversive” Lowell tour guide who brought up the subject of the continuing injustice of the textile industry- even if it was bookended with “Just something to think about!” There are people out there willing to do the hard work of addressing historical relevance. Maybe I can be one of them.