Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Stories We Tell and the Stories We Don't

Should public historians tell the stories our audiences want to hear? Or the stories that we believe they need to know?
Dr. John Brockenbrough's House, 1201 Clay Street, Richmond
Library of Congress.

The question itself contains inherent flaws. In determining what stories our audiences want to hear, we go a long way toward defining the very makeup of those audiences.

Some might say we should just "present the facts." Of course, public historians always have to choose which facts to tell, why they matter, and which facts we leave out. We must decide which stories about a given place are powerful, relevant, and worthy of the telling.

A friend of mine recently asked: how far must a historical site like Gettysburg go in presenting the story of slavery. Should the interpretive markers on Little Round Top explain the significance of the institution of slavery and its relevance to the war?

I'm conflicted in my answer. The power of a historic site is the power of place. Little Round Top's draws more than a million people a year because they can stand there and imagine the chaos and fury of a battle with supreme stakes, see in their mind the lines of troops, picture the air filled with deadly missiles, and smoke rising from the hill like a smoldering volcano. An evocative scene stirs emotions. Little Round Top is not the place for interpretive markers delving into the complex backstory, causes, and legacy of the Civil War.

And yet, we cannot fully appreciate the importance of Little Round Top's story without connecting it to the larger causes and legacies of the war. What's more, our historic sites have been selectively chosen over time, robbing us of the ability to experience the power of place at other meaningful sites. For more than a century, we've preserved battlefields and the houses of the wealthy and powerful. The plantation fields and structures have gone away, removed deliberately or through neglect. Likewise, the slave pens and jails have disappeared from the modern landscape. Few places remain where one can stand and imagine the historical scene of a slave coffle marching south in chains.

The stories of enslaved people were largely silenced too. We can learn thousands of soldiers' stories through the diaries, letters, memoirs, regimental histories, newspaper articles, speeches, monuments, and pension records they left. Comparatively, there are few records as rich to tell the story of enslaved people. We have a few hundred slave narratives. Slave owners used enforced illiteracy as a tool of control. Federal and State governments did not approve funds for the erection of monuments to slaves. We have private foundations that pump money into battlefield preservation, but seem less concerned for the preservation of slave quarters.

The result is a lack of important perspectives at public history sites.

This weekend I toured the Confederate White House in Richmond. I've visited twice before, but not in the last decade. On this trip, I noted that the house itself had hardly changed. The period rooms remained almost exactly as I remembered them from my last trip in 2005. The stories I heard changed. In the entrance hall, our guide presented us with a signed pass for the enslaved butler, Henry. He described how this pass represented the total control that white society sought to exert over Henry's life. Then he described how Henry used the commotion of a fire in the basement one day in 1864 as a diversion to make a daring escape.

The Dining Room remained set for a council of war held in the spring of 1862, as rebel military leaders contemplated the defense of Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. Our guide reflected on the enslaved servants who came and went from the room during the meeting. What did they overhear? Was it safe to discuss this information freely in front of these potential enemies?

Even with the updated storylines, I wondered at the decisions made long ago in interpreting and furnishing this historic home. Here in a house built in 1818, the central story revolved around a brief four years of its history, and around only one of the many families who called it home.

I wondered about the original builder of the home, and what the surrounding city looked like in 1818 when this home went up in an elite section that included neighbors like John Marshall. I wanted to hear about pre-war Richmond, and how the war drastically altered life here. And I was intensely curious to know the home's postwar story. Seized by the United States government, the mansion became headquarters for the First Military District during Reconstruction. The stories of this house during that tumultuous period could fill a vacuum of public knowledge on the subject.

I left the tour wondering if the decision to restore the entire house to such a specific period robbed it of a chance to tell a broader, more complete story of the American Civil War.

At every site, there are the stories public historians choose to tell and the stories we choose to ignore. Each site has valid reasons for these decisions, and for continuing to operate based on assumptions made by past leaders in past eras. Funding, resources, logistics, and often the limits of historical evidence available, all contribute to the central narratives chosen.

Yet, it is worth taking the time occasionally to step back and question the assumptions underlying our most basic interpretive decisions.

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