I just got the new issue of The Public Historian and I was impressed by one particular article, “Mapping the Boosterist Imaginary: Colonial Williamsburg, Historical Tourism, and the Construction of Managerial Memory,” by James S. Miller of UW-Whitewater.
Miller looks at the commercialized development of historic sites in the 1920s and 30s (ex. Colonial Williamsburg or Greenfield Village) and the way history is portrayed there, and argues that this was a new kind of public history, a kind of ‘managerial memory’ that both glorified and required the presence of a new type of expert manager. Development, for these characters, like the Rev. WAR Goodwin (what a symbolic name!), a Williamsburg booster, was not at all antithetical to historical preservation/restoration, and in fact required it.
“Organized around an overdetermined, even fetishized notion of historical ‘restoration,’ this new model…not only reshaped the ways modern Americans were encouraged to think about the place of history within the corporate-commercial landscape, but it also served to reimagine the mass-marketing heritage site itself as a kind of stage for the exhibition and enactment of new forms of professional expertise.” (55)
So this is one of the beginnings of the ‘heritage’ movement, and of historical tourism. Ford’s interest in this (though not discussed in the article much) is no accident: the way to follow the footsteps of the pilgrims was in your car, “the inevitable culmination of this same ‘pioneer’ tradition.” (72)
But Miller is careful to, and indeed is thesis requires, complicate the question of history, public memory and development. The seemingly relentless pace of ‘development’ may make folks long for the past, but the kind of past they long for is portrayed in sites created by the same kind of development (74), such as the idyllic living history village. Very interesting , especially addressing the question of what is a useable past, and especially in complicating the story about how capitalism destroys history: it creates a facsimile in its place. This article could be a critical gloss on a George Saunders story.
This issue of PH also included a discussion and rebuttal of the previous issue’s forum on presidential libraries, which I’ll admit didn’t do much for me when I read it, given my lack of expertise around doing history in the federal government. In this issue, though, the writers respond to each other and argue and are generally a bit more lively: and lo, I’m starting to understand why these debates on governance and administration of presidential libraries are compelling and interesting to historian. Imagine what would happen if they got these folks on the phone together and put up a podcast–everybody talking about presidential libraries!*
I do have a few things that bothered me about this issue:
I really can’t stand the typeface they use. It’s old-fashioned and hard to read, not to mention too small. I do like the display type on the cover though. I’m also confused why the cover has an image from a museum display reviewed briefly inside rather than a neat map from the lead article about St Louis’ riverfront restoration.
Fulltext articles are not online for the current issue, though back issues are on jstor. Totally understandable. But! the table of contents for the current issue, with abstracts, is, in fact online, but is not on the NCPH page, but on the UC Press page. Since the journal only comes out 4 times a year, it would be great to put up the ToC where you don’t have to click through to find it.
I’m also a bit sad that there was only one review of a public history website. So much fascinating history stuff is being done on the web, and the major public history journal would be a great place to discuss it–though I understand there are space limitations. How about more web reviews on the NCPH’s website?
Anyway, it’s obvious that reading this issue was interesting and energizing for me, so kudos to you all.
*Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the personal interactions really made me more interested in the whole important issue.