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Historical Societies In A Hyphenated Age

Can the United States survive in an age of hyphens? Consider the innocuous comments of a traveler as recently reported in the New York Times:

“I enjoy business travel when it gives me the opportunity to visit with other cultures. Those cultures don’t have to be found in foreign lands. In the United States, there are so many different and wonderful cultural experiences you can have just traveling between Washington, Michigan and Kentucky, for example.”

Seems perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? What could be more harmless than immersing oneself in the different cultures that comprise the American stew? Now let’s put it in historical perspective: how does this person know besides not having to show his passport, that he was in the United States and that these wonderful cultural experiences are all part of a single culture called America? What connect all these places as one country?

This topic was raised by Frank Bruni in his op-ed piece “The Water Cooler Runs Dry.” Most of the column addressed his recognition  that as an almost 50-year old teaching teenagers at a college that they didn’t speak the same language. They all spoke English but the teacher spoke the language based on the metaphors of the time of his upbringing while the students spoke a language from decades later using references equally strange to him. This was the precise theme of the classic Star Trek Next Generation episode “Darmok,” which brilliantly used the ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic to forge a connection between cultures that shared concerns but used different metaphors and vocabulary to express them and therefore couldn’t understand each other. On a more academic level, David Lowenthal in The Past Is a Foreign Country addressed the same concern. The challenge facing us today is what happens when the disconnect occurs within a single country. Can a house metaphorically divided long endure?

Bruni itemized the technological changes which have rendered Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s classic admonition false. Moynihan naively asserted we were all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts. In the internet age of infinite websites and seemingly innumerable cable stations, we do all have our own news, facts, and history and are free to ignore or mock those who turn to other and therefore inferior sources of information. There are no Walter Cronkites, Ed Sullivans, or weekly shows with 25-50 million viewers then which would be 40-70 million today. Our ability to create our own cocoon led Bruni to ask “Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?” Ironically, he called this phenomena “Balkanization.” Even though we are now beginning to ignore the centennial of “the war to end all wars” which was the ultimate example of Balkanization gone awry, one wonders how many of his students would understand the reference.

Bruni bemoaned the lack of connective tissue which creates a unified whole in what Daniel Rogers, Princeton, called “the age of fracture.” This concern concludes the op-ed piece written by Jennifer Finney Boylan, Colby College, “A Common Core for All of Us.”:

“Maybe what we need is a common core for families, in which mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, all read the same book, and sit down at the table to talk about it. Having a language in common doesn’t mean that we have to agree with one other. It simply means that we — as a family, a college or a country — can engage in meaningful conversation about the life of the kind.”

One may begin to glimpse here the essential role municipal historical societies and museums have for the well-being of the country.

The challenge to the museum community and America to speak this common metaphorical core was raised in a perceptive and disturbing article by Edward Rothstein, “New Insights May Skew the Big Picture.” His opening line “Museums are born to wrestle with history” calls to mind one of the great biblical images, that of Jacob wrestling with the Lord aka the God in History before being named “Israel,” as he is born again metaphorically-speaking. For a museum, Rothstein refers to the artifacts it collects and gathers to shape a narrative, evoke a memory, and spur a reaction. In other words, they are challenged to excite the mind so we may elevate ourselves from the routine to grasp and understand the legacy which has been bequeathed to us. It is our turn now to continue the story by passing the torch to the next generation or otherwise simply to create the factoids the next generation will find dull and boring depending on how you look at it.

Rothstein harkens back to what he deems the typical American historical society founded in the 19th century. He might have made note of the American Centennial then just as the Bicentennial spurred historical interest in the 1970s. He characterizes these organizations as commemorative of a community’s origin. It was a form of a tribute to one’s own ancestors, to the founding of the community in which one now lived. Of course, time does not stand still; our “place” moves through time so our sense of place needs to be four-dimensional. This challenges the historical societies to add layers to the constantly unfolding story and to reassess the way in which older stories were told. Rothstein praises historical societies who grow with the times citing the Ohio Historical Society. The alternative is to remain frozen in time as if history came to an end when the founders or ancestors died.

Unfortunately, the changes which occurred weren’t necessarily so beneficial. Rothstein contrasts two types of historical societies

1. The Traditional – “almost mythological institutions, claiming to display the origins and themes of a society, shaping understanding with a coherent interpretation of the past;

2. The Politically Correct – “the singular replaced by the plural, coherence displaced by multiplicity.”

So just as “curiosity cabinets” defined the 18th-century approach (see William Johnson in the Mohawk Valley), the “Identity Museum” defines the 21st century so far.

Rothstein is brutal is his condemnation of museums which have gone astray as he sees it.

“A potentially important exhibition about the history of slavery and abolition in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Historical Society is marred by its simplification of information, a lack of detail and language that is meant to link 19th-century abolitionists to contemporary self-styled activists.”

Do you know of any museums that would compromise history to reach out to the younger-generation today that isn’t interested in the past? Museums need new patrons and social causes may be a way to attract them (see David Gelles, “Wooing the New Patrons”). On the other hand, perhaps this is not a compromise with the past, but a more enlightened and truer telling of it. Rothstein lauds the New-York Historical Society for its extraordinary insightful approach to history which raises questions and invites curiosity apparently without becoming a sermon on the politically correct.

The stakes are high. Rothstein writes of another exhibition:

“A major permanent exhibition, “Records of Rights,” at the National Archives in Washington chooses to introduce visitors to the nation’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights — by focusing on American failures to guarantee those rights, thus skewing the historical record.”

So at the same time as China ruthlessly represses all memory of Tiananmen Square with its Statue of Liberty symbol, our government showcases American failures. Even the Founding Fathers called America an “experiment” and would have recognized the term “work-in-progress.” Madison, after all, did include an amendment permitting change to the Constitution which was used immediately. Speaking of Madison, Tom Friedman reports that at the American University of Iraq in the semi-independent province of Kurdistan, there is an open college where Madison and Jefferson are devoured by eager students seeking to create a viable free society amidst the surrounding sectarian chaos. Apparently a Founding Father is without honor is his own capitol if you catch my metaphor.

Rothstein unleashes his most vigorous ire at the most egregious example of an Identity Museum gone awry: the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington (not New York). He considers that museum a morality play of the worst kind. One wonders if the proposed National Women’s History Museum will follow in this pattern. It’s as if museums are becoming sermons to indoctrinate us to the true path.

So what can be done?

On July 7, 2011, and March 19, 2013, Representative James P. Moran (Virginia) introduced legislation to create the National Museum of the American People, sometimes called the “Melting-Pot Museum.” He was responding to the trend towards Identity Museums on the Mall with a proposal for a museum to show that all the peoples of America contributed to America’s story. The idea originated with Sam Eskenazi, former Director of Public Information for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, who created the Coalition for the National Museum of the American People. His original sponsor for the legislation in 2008 was Maurice Hinchey, formerly of the Hudson Valley, now retired.

Moran called National Museum of the American People an antidote to the current trend in museums. By coincidence, Bill Hosley and Julia Shipley, two speakers at the “Museum as Community Hubs” conference of the Connecticut League of History Organizations, June 2, 2014, in separate sessions each used the same term, “antidote” in reference to the mission of the local historical society and museum. It’s not rocket science.

As Americans, don’t we have the right to take pride in the achievements and contributions to the country of any individual regardless of their hyphen? If America is to be a country based on We the People and not the hyphen, then we need to tell that story. If people are to identify with the place where they live and not only the hyphen with which they were born, then our historical societies and museums need to rise to the occasion and tell the stories of the all the peoples of the community.

It would be a fitting tribute to Maurice Hinchey if New York, the center for immigration to America, took the lead in supporting local history museums and historical societies chartered but not funded by the NYS Education Department to tell the story in their communities of all the American people, by all the American people, and for all the American people so that story shall not perish.

 Illustration: The Nine Nations of North America, according to Joel Garreau (courtesy random notes: geographer-at-large).

6 thoughts on “Historical Societies In A Hyphenated Age

  1. Frank Bruni’s op-ed is interesting, but I don’t entirely sympathize with him. He wrote in part, “Last week I mentioned the movie ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ Only one of the 16 students had heard of it”.

    He’s only about eight years older than me, and I was a film studies minor, and about all I’d be able to say is that I’d heard the title before and that it calls to mind humorist Patrick McManus’ They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They? That’s an author and book my late father enjoyed that I wouldn’t expect most people my own age to know, much less younger generations.

    Bruni would’ve been about four when the film was released, and perhaps only saw it after he’d graduated from high school. Why he’d expect a large percentage of people born around 1995 (including foreign students?) to have seen it by age eighteen when it wasn’t even one of the top ten grossing films in the US in 1969, I don’t know. It’s a film that, according to the IMDb, has nudity, implied sex, and a bloody shooting. As such, it’s unlikely any high school has ever used it in its curriculum. It probably doesn’t run on basic cable, isn’t on Netflix, and the DVD is inexplicably expensive.

    Perhaps Bruni shouldn’t be wasting time making and explaining pop culture allusions, and should focus on teaching his subject. A vocabulary that is largely allusion-free is likely to be a shared vocabulary. A search of Princeton’s website indicates he teaches “Food Writing.”

  2. I agree with your thesis.
    To simply highlight negative aspect of the American experience to be politically correct, ignoring our accomplishments is bad history. For ethnic and racial groups to simply deal with their accomplishments and ignoring the accomplishments and interaction with other groups does very little to describe what has happened in this country. A National Museum of the American People highlighting the many ethnic and racial groups, their interaction, their failings, and their accomplishments is necessary.

    Until we do that, the gap between our youngsters and the older generation will widen.

    Thanks again for the insightful article.

    Dick Forliano

  3. Your blog came to me at my work email and I forwarded it to my home email so I could respond more candidly. I am a local historian based in Vermont. I work at a local historical society and often contribute pieces on local history to local weekly publications. I have also worked for the National Park Service as an interpretive ranger. In addition, I have an avid interest in American history and also in living-history demonstrations. In short, I have a growing familiarity with the issues you raise.
    Here in Vermont, we are on the horns of a couple of interesting dilemmas, all having to do with historical-fact-versus-political-correctness. In every case, unwarranted assumptions, the tendency to impatiently leap to conclusions, intellectual laziness, the temptation to rewrite history from a limited perspective, and the insidious influence of infotainment to generations weaned on such, have led to the distortion of historical facts at a time in our country’s history when we need urgently to understand what actually went on.
    The first case in point is the issue of abolition in Vermont. There are many who believe what has been touted uncritically for years, i.e., that Vermont abolished slavery in Article I of our 1777 Constitution. Certainly Vermont would love to be a poster child for early (if not the first) abolition of slavery, since our governor seems bent on making us the poster child for every possible progressive cause. But those who believe Vermont abolished slavery either didn’t read past the first few words or never read it at all, preferring to accept abolition as a given. In fact, Vermont did not abolish slavery in its original Constitution! It required manumission for women when they reached 18 and for men when they reached 21. There was no penalty for keeping or trading in slaves. In the cases involving prominent citizens that went to court, the slaveowner was found not guilty, with a slap on the wrist at most. All this is being brought to light by a young African-American professor at UVM, Harvey Amani Whitfield, who gave an illuminating and balanced talk on the subject at our recent statewide History Expo. It has been a mixed bag. While slave-owning did exist, it was not a prevalent practice here in Vermont for several reasons, and individual black freedmen and -women were generally accepted as citizens in full standing within their communities. And even though some educated Vermonters of the time supported and defended runaway slaves against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, abolitionist rallies prompted a backlash in many communities.
    Second case in point: the ad hominem attacks on Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys. Ethan Allen was a committed patriot before Vermont was even Vermont. He was a populist before there were Populists. Yet the half-formed populist sentiment is now branding him as a “land-jobber,” a fraud, a myth, in short a “bad guy.” From 1761 to 1764, the governor of New Hampshire, seeing land going to waste to his west, granted over 100 towns, known as the New Hampshire Grants. Once settlers had begun to cultivation the land and function as towns, New York Province on the other side asserted a prior claim and moved, through its courts and physical force, to replace the New Hampshire Grants with New York grants to New York favorites, charging the settlers exorbitant quitrents in cash or bringing eviction actions. Ethan Allen believed he knew what he was looking at and gathered a small force of men who defended the Grants settlers when the New York authorities showed up. He also went to court, and found that the same big landlords who were evicting the Grants settlers were officers of the court and government in Albany. Again, facts need to be understood to know who and what Ethan Allen really was. At the time he was vilified by New York sympathizers. Now he is being vilified as a greedy land speculator by youthful idealists who have not read Ethan Allen’s writings and certainly not read widely among the several biographies about him and his times. The fact is that everyone was a land speculator in those days. There was no socialistic distribution of land as in Latin America and China. Socialism didn’t exist. It’s like wondering why Paul Revere didn’t just use his cell phone to announce the invasion by the British in Boston instead of riding all that way at night. As for the Allen brothers’ land holdings, their acreage paled in comparison with the many thousands of acres granted to a single landlord by the governor of New York during that period.
    A related fact that is seldom if every mentioned in connection with the Green Mountain Boys and their methods (which, by the way, never incurred a casualty) is that under New Hampshire a settler owned his parcel in fee simple. He had a deed, purchased by him. Each New Hampshire Grant constituted the germ of what we would recognize as a modern town, with school, minister, public space, and Town Meeting. New York land tenure consisted of a feudal arrangement of landlords, mainly political favorites, who retained Grants settlers as tenants-at-will, were not interested in building towns.
    I mention all this at length because what is being lost is the understanding of elementary facts. If it’s about “dead white men,” who’s interested? And that is the essential fallacy of the path we are heading down.
    Vermont is a small place, and the seminal history is still close to the surface in the way our towns are structured and operate, in the very lay of the land, the road system, town charters, Town Meeting, our very fabric. Every tax parcel can be traced back to the original proprietors. How the towns–and the state–grew to what they are today cannot afford to ignore the triumphs, failures, and lessons to be learned from those earliest times. It’s made of whole cloth.
    What it takes is the patience and willingness to be open to what was, whatever that may be, because that’s what transcends trends and momentary issues. You simply cannot sidestep history, just as the road you just drove home on does not roll up and disappear behind you.

  4. it is exciting to learn hear about the New York History Roundtable. It is so important to reestablish the link between government, tourism, business, and education. To do that as the article says it is imperative to establish a set of core values and a mission that everyone understands. I agree with Assemblyman Steven Englebright that it is important to develop a sense of place. Without that, people are unable to develop a sense of identity, not only what makes their locality unique but also what bonds connect them with their neighbors, the state, and the country.

    Hopefully the establishment of a common core curriculum will facilitate connecting national themes with local history. The schools, local historians and societies, archivists, museums, local politicians, and businesses must form coalitions to work together to carry out a common mission.

    Rich Forliano

  5. It is exciting to learn hear about the New York History Roundtable. It is so important to reestablish the link between government, tourism, business, and education. To do that as the article says it is imperative to establish a set of core values and a mission that everyone understands. I agree with Assemblyman Steven Englebright that it is important to develop a sense of place. Without that, people are unable to develop a sense of identity, not only what makes their locality unique but also what bonds connect them with their neighbors, the state, and the country.

    Hopefully the establishment of a common core curriculum will facilitate connecting national themes with local history. The schools, local historians and societies, archivists, museums, local politicians, and businesses must form coalitions to work together to carry out a common mission.

    Rich Forliano

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