Preserving Community

The skylines of once historic residential areas are becoming increasingly dotted with sleek condos. Cities like Portland Oregon, which are experiencing a rapid growth in population due to people moving to the city, are being hit hard by this trend. There seems to be constant construction of these modern, “affordable” apartments which are targeted at the young professionals crowd. Many people are fighting this trend with historic preservation projects. Historic preservation does however, have a long history and has created its own problems that public historians and planners are still combating today.

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Construction of a new apartment building at 3360 Southeast Division St. in Portland Oregon. Source: Equilibrium Engineers

Historic preservation in the U.S. may find its roots with Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller Jr., but the way in which we think of historic preservation today is best traced back to 1960’s when preservation projects were popping up as a direct response to “urban renewal” of the FDR administration. In Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace describes how the “growth coalitions”, with federal money, tore out what they saw as “slums and ‘blighted’ areas, replacing them with the corporate command and control centers the new multinational economy required” (Wallace, 186). Vox produced a great video about the way that these “urban renewal” projects, specifically the building the the interstate highway system, disproportionately affected black and other minority communities; because at the times, middle class white families were all too happy to move to the suburbs and commute into the city for work.

The preservationists of the 1960’s sought not to create exact replicas of the way that towns and cities used to be, like Rockefeller did with Colonial Williamsburg, but instead to bring them into modern times. Wallace quotes Ada Louise Huxtable, who says that the job of preservationists is to incorporate historic buildings into the city’s “living mainstream”, rather than into “sterile isolation” (Wallace, 189).

What preservationists call “reuse” or “adaptive-use” projects, are currently the most popular type of historic preservation projects. Thomas Cauvin, in his book Public History, describes adaptive-use projects as “preserv[ing] aspects that convey the structure’s historic, cultural, or architectural values while making compatible reuse of the property possible” (Cauvin, 57). This can be an old dealership building converted into retail space for locally owned businesses, or an out of use brewery converted into apartments.

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The Eldridge building at 1325 W. 1st St. in Spokane Washington. Source: Wells & Company

The problem with the early preservation efforts is that they created what Wallace calls “golden ghettos” (Wallace, 192). Lower income inhabitants are pushed out of their homes either because they are bought out, or because their rent becomes so high that they can no longer afford their homes. This primarily affects minority groups, and leaves these newly restored buildings to be bought up by white, upper-middle class individuals. This has created a divide between historic preservationists and minority groups.

The problem that preservationists need to confront now is in bridging the gap that has been created by historic preservation efforts. Historic preservation should not just benefit investors and developers, but low income and disadvantaged groups. Wallace says that preservationists should be working to ally with other groups that are seeking “large-scale social change” (Wallace, 209). Projects like the St. Paul brewery turned apartments is an example of this; the 247 units have income limits so that local artists have a decent and safe place to live. The goal of historic preservation projects should be not just to maintain historical aesthetics, but to restore communities that were fractured by the “urban renewal” movement and to incite social reforms. Preservation should not force people out of their homes, but bolster community. Preservation should be for the betterment of not just the elite, but of everyone.

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Changing the Definition of the Museum Experience.

For years museums have had a rigid idea of what their purpose is and how they should display their collections. The museum model has for a long time been to statically display artifacts behind glass. Singer-songwriter Regina Spektor puts it well in her song All the Rowboats, when she says she looks on woefully at violins encased in “glass coffins” that have “forgotten how to sing”. In this environment the artifacts lose their context and are quickly passed over by museum visitors. There is a disconnect between the visitor and the history that the museum is trying to convey. In his book Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace addresses a study that finds that people do not go to museums for two main reasons: Because they find them irrelevant and/or intimidating. Public historians are tackling these two problems by fostering interactivity through technology to bring the past and present together, and to show how they create the future.  

The problem of visitor disconnect is being approached by museums in several different ways. Some, like the National Civil Rights Museum, are taking a more traditional approach by exhibiting a 1950s segregated bus with a mannequin in the driver’s seat that tells boarding visitors to “go to the back” of the bus (Wallace). Others are utilizing technology that is already in the pockets of a majority of visitors: Cell Phones. The Seattle Art Museum is introducing guided cell phone tours to its visitors. Rather than museums dealing with expensive and cumbersome in house equipment, visitors can dial a phone number to listen to a tour. Others still are redefining the definition of the exhibit space. In his book, Public History, Thomas Cauvin talks about museums drawing new boundaries for their exhibits through their social media presence. Museum Twitter accounts are keeping followers up to date on event and exhibits. The benefit to this is the constant presence in follows feeds. People don’t have to view individual museums websites to keep up with what is going on. People are no longer even required to physically attend a museum to interact with the exhibits. This is, as Wallace says, challenging the idea of what “success” is for museums and their exhibits. Some public historians might resist this technology, but many are embracing it. Anna Harbine, head archivist of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, encourages researchers to utilize the archives vast digital collection before visiting the physical archives. Technology is breathing new life into materials that would otherwise remain locked within their refrigerator homes that are the archives.

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Perhaps the epitome of technological innovation utilized by museums to address the visitor disconnect, is the podcast. The podcasts is a single solution to many of the problems that museums are facing. Podcasts’ content is accessible and by its nature prepares listeners to learn. Archived audio materials are being rediscovered through the medium of the podcast. Recordings that would have once gone unheard, are being curated for a wide audience. Podcasts also address the problem of conveying a message to museum visitors. Wallace points out that the environment of the museum is not an ideal place to teach people. People are not ready to learn or address controversial topics while standing over an exhibit. The podcast however, provides an informal and approachable medium that invites people to think about and put exhibits into perspective.

The changing terrain of the museum may seem unorthodox to some. The Met having 2.46 million twitter followers may seem strange and the Smithsonian having almost 500,000 YouTube subscribers might be surprising. Technology is, however, bringing history to the public like never before. It is challenging and changing the role that museums play in the consumption of history. Technology is making museums and the history that they house accessible and is bringing that history into the context of today.

How Do We Remember History?

History is something often thought to be over and dead. It is romanticized, it is whitewashed and it is remembered only through rose colored glasses. However, it is the responsibility of historians to preserve the whole of history. It is their responsibility to preserve not only the memories of the founders of this country, but the lives and struggles of all of those that have lived here. An idealized, patriotist historical interpretation does injustice not only to the reality of marginalized groups, but perpetuates class and racial inequalities to this day. Perhaps one of the biggest injustices committed by historians is addressed by Mike Wallace in his book Mickey Mouse History. He acknowledges that history must be interpreted, and by the nature of this it is subject to editing. It is, however, the intentional editing out of marginalized groups that creates an unrepresentative interpretation of reality and perpetuates “class dominance”. This same injustice is seen being defended by the Curator of the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home. After visiting the historic site, Dr. Larry Cebula wrote a letter the the Curator of the museum informing on the historical inaccuracies of the tour and the almost complete exclusion of the history of the slaves that lived on the property. The Curator responded to the letter and defended of the tour’s lack of historical diversity. The disagreement between these historians is summed up well in a question asked in an Inlander article about one of the founders of Spokane, Wa.: “Is removing a name an act of healing, or an act of forgetting?”

Wallace talks about the history of heritage museums and the kinds of ideals that they represented. The two big examples that he gave in his book were the Greenfield Village built by Henry Ford, and Colonial Williamsburg, built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Both of these museum towns were built by wealthy beneficiaries and pioneers in the capitalist system, but called back to very different ideas. Ford’s Greenfield Village celebrated the everyman; It idealized the past while still looking forward to the future. Rockefeller’s Colonial Williamsburg, however, was a monument to the elite. Both towns on the surface seemed to represent a different, encompassing view of history; yet like many similar museums, excluded all traces of slavery from their interpretations. Wallace points out that nearly half the population of the 18th century Williamsburg were black slaves. It wasn’t until well into the 1970’s that Colonial Williamsburg included the history of black slaves living alongside white residents. At that time, however, they still failed to represent the reality of the relationship between blacks and whites.

The exclusion of the reality of slavery is not just a problem of the 1970’s. To this day historians are excluding and selectively interpreting slavery. The Curator of the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home thinly defends slavery’s exclusion from the home’s tour in her response to Dr. Cebula. The Curator starts off with several inflammatory remarks on slavery and then includes an unprofessional aside about ancient Greek slavery practices. The Curator then concludes her defence by saying that it is for the sake of the school children that tour the house. She claims that she has witnessed black school children teased during trips to the museum. She asks then that Dr. Cebula refrain from “bringing into the 21st century all this negativism”.

The question from the Inlander should be asked again: “Is removing a name an act of healing, or an act of forgetting?” Does removing slavery from public history make history more accessible? Is it unwarranted and unwanted negativity when we should be fostering healing and acceptance? No, it absolutely is not. Removing slavery from memory does only to polish the tarnished names of history’s elite. Removing slavery from memory does injustice to the marginalized and erases the struggles that black men and women have faced throughout the entirety of this county’s history. Ignoring slavery and promoting elitist idealism perpetuates class and racial inequalities. It is the utmost responsibility of historians preserve and interpret history for what it was. Not to romanticize or to whitewash.