Public History Blog

When we’re looking at the future of public history, one of the most visible trends to follow has to be how we as members of a larger community represent what we deem to be the most important aspects of our past. I know that sentence is incredibly generic, but what I mean is what kinds of memorials and monuments do we build? 

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about monuments that have already been built, but even tearing those down isn’t much of a financial burden on the communities they exist in. Yes, there’s often an emotional or cultural argument to make, but renting a crane and a truck usually won’t destroy a city’s budget. 

On the other hand, monuments that cities decide to construct can be quite expensive — and thus often require a greater amount of cooperation and agreement. For that reason, I think the constructive actions that we as communities make say more about how we understand our historical context than the deconstructive ones do. With that in mind, let’s look at the biggest public history monument and museum which have been built in Alabama in the last five years: The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. 

These two sites are both in Montgomery, and both were built and are managed by the Equal Justice Initiative. First, if you haven’t been to both of these sites, do so as soon as the pandemic ends. Second, I think the most powerful aspects of these two sites — and the ones most relevant to this entry — are how they connect the past horrors of slavery to the modern experiences of Black individuals. They do this in a number of ways.

First, the museum very clearly lays out the path that our society took from slavery to mass incarceration. It literally has you follow a path where the information is presented chronologically until you get to the present day. When I went, they literally had a former inmate working at the museum to tell his own story. Second, the memorial ties the history of lynching to modern day action by having a duplicate of each metal box which a county can claim if they prove that they are taking adequate steps to address Black inequity in their community. Basically, the memorial is extendable, but only on the condition of substantive action toward justice. 

This combination of historical context and modern-day activism is where public history will continue going. Gone, hopefully, are the days where history and historical artifacts are presented in a marble hall, suffocated behind glass panes, and devoid of any relation to contemporary realities. In their place, we are going to see more installations, more museums, and more historical sites which demand the audience participate, not by raising their hands or trying to answer trivia questions, but by actively self-reflecting about their roles in perpetuating systems and institutions. 

Then, — and this might be the most important part — we as public historians should call our audiences to action. Afterall, self-reflection without action isn’t worth much.

Campus History: What do we take with us?

I’m currently in my fourth year at Auburn, and in that short time there is one event in particular which stands out to me in terms of its historical significance. Two years ago, The Auburn City Council was informed that the Cullars House, a historic house built in the late 19th century at the intersection of S. College St. and Samford Ave., would soon be torn down.

For over a century this house had stood as a landmark in Auburn. In fact, the Cullars of the Cullars House were a family of builders who were responsible for much of the construction of Samford Hall after Old Main burned down. The house had not been a residence for over a decade, but even as office space it was considered by many to be an important part of Auburn’s past. Regardless, a developer in Birmingham had bought the property and wanted the lot cleared.

Dozens of citizens across Auburn started a campaign to try to save the house. There were plans to buy back the lot, to pay off the developer somehow, or to attempt to move the house elsewhere. This last option became the focus after the developer said he would only sell the property for a *lot* of money. So, the groups and individuals who wanted to save the Cullars House began to devise ways to move the house. The problems that come with moving a house that more than 100 years old are not trivial. How do you move it? Where do you move it to? What do you do with it when you put it there? Unfortunately for the residents who wanted to preserve this house, all of the answers to those questions came with hefty price tags.

I don’t remember exactly how much it would have cost to move the house, but I do know that it was over $1 million. There were debates in City Council about publicly funding the project, and I think the questions that were asked and answered in the dingy courtroom which served as council chambers two years ago speak to how we as rather intelligent primates understand the history of our surroundings.

I say that because the ultimate decision reached by the Council and most of the residents was that this house was not worth the cost to save it. Instead, people said they preferred that the City spend money on public transportation or infrastructure repairs. Even though this house was clearly historic, not enough people in the community believed it held enough value to be saved from the oblivions of time. This, I think, gets back to the title of this entry. How do we, as a collective, decide what pieces of our past to take with us? We obviously can’t keep everything; there’s only so many bookshelves, hard drives, or property lots. So, in the deluge of modern construction and production, what do we deem worthy of preservation? Furthermore, what do our answers say about our present?

Informational Interview – History across the pond

It’s been nearly a month, but I finally heard back from one of the public historians I reached out to for the informational interview. I emailed with Matt Seaver, an assistant keeper in the Irish Antiquities Division of the National Museum of Ireland.

Q: When you start putting together a body of research to tell stories, how do you go about finding the stories you want to tell?

A: Our stories in Archaeology come from talking about the national themes in our Islands past. These are broadly chronological and are driven by the surviving objects with the constraints that our historic building allows – for example the Mesolithic (our earliest time period of occupation from around 8000 BC) occupies a small area with stone lithic tools, stone axes and a preserved fish trap compared to our evidence for the Bronze Age which occupies a large area of the centre court of the museum and displays the spectacular Bronze Age gold and ceramic collections. More recently studies around the discovery of well preserved bog bodies of Bronze and Iron Age date led to an exhibition around the idea of Iron Age and Early Medieval Kingship and sacrifice. Equally our Viking Ireland gallery uses the vast collections from the Dublin excavations of the 1980’s to discuss the impact of the Vikings of our history and their transformative effect on the church and society. The Treasury contains the greatest treasures of Early medieval Ireland and charts the development of art styles and society during this time. The stories to tell are our national story – the past of the people of the island – the themes may reflect the research interests of individual curators but are vetted by a committee at a high level and must be relevant to our national story. These could hinge on concepts like the anniversary of a major event for example the Battle of Clontarf where the Irish High King Brian Boru defeated the Viking King of Dublin in 1014 or the anniversary of 1916 – the uprising which started our war of independence.  Updates to this story may come from new avenues like molecular biology and ancient DNA. The online space also allows us to develop more elaborate and larger narratives than the building will allow and that is something which we will be developing more in the coming years, particularly given the current situation with Covid-19 restrictions.

Q: After you have collected this body of research, how do you go about putting it into a cohesive narrative? What are some concerns that you have related to both of these processes?

A: Chronology is usually the hook around adding the objects around themes. We spend a lot of time obtaining C14 dates where possible or obtaining comparative dates. We have to be careful around sensitive issues; such as the display of human remains, how to communicate in ways which accommodate a pluralistic society. Narratives have to work around the audiences and the concepts must be readily explainable to an educated 14 year old in terms of literacy – our content needs to be accessible to all audiences. All of the subjects also need to be bilingual (Irish and English) so this restricts panel space, generally we can only have 200 words per panel. The art is trying to tell your story in a distilled way using as many images as possible in conjunction with the objects. The mounting and lighting of the objects is so important in order to highlight decoration, moods etc. We complement the core exhibitions with video and web content which allows the viewer/listener to dive deeper into researching a given topic.

Q: Why is it important to tell stories about the past?

A: Our multi stranded identity on this island comes directly from an understanding of the past. Archaeology shows that we are all migrants to this island and that there have been many different strands to our identity in the past. In Ireland elements our of our past are contested and it is important that the general public understand how these narratives came about. The relationship of our Island in a globalised world can be seen through our contacts outside the island in the past and allows us to accommodate change.

Ask a public historian: Elliot Spillers

Elliot Spillers is a former SGA president at the University of Alabama and a current public historian at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. When I was looking for organizations to reach out to for this post, EJI immediately came to mind since they run a museum and a memorial that tell really intricate and difficult stories. Spillers happily answered many of my questions about how they do that.

Q: Why is it important for public historians to tell stories that are complicated and difficult?

A: The United States has done very little to acknowledge and reckon with its legacy of enslavement, lynching, and racial segregation. As a result, people of color are disproportionally marginalized, disadvantaged, and mistreated. The National Memorial for Peace stands as a testimony to thousands of Black victims of racial terror lynching whose stories were almost entirely neglected for decades. Without remembrance of these victims or the broader historical experience and legacy of racial injustice in America from enslavement forward, we will not be able to address contemporary expressions of racial injustice, including police brutality and other forms of marginalization and disenfranchisement.

Hi, Dr. Gaddis, this part of the blog is mostly for you. I emailed five organizations for this project roughly a week before the deadline, and received one response before the graciously amended deadline. It was from EJI in Montgomery, and it was clearly copy-pasted from the organization’s media talking points. I would have asked for more information from them, but they didn’t respond to me until Tuesday afternoon.

I say all of that to say, this is the only decent answer I could scrape together from their response. I really wish that more organizations had responded to me because I feel like I had a genuinely good set of questions I wanted answered.

Presence of the Past; An American from Russia

For my oral history, I interviewed Natalie Beckerink, an Auburn student who grew up in various parts of the U.S. but was born in Russia. Beckerink was adopted by American parents at an early age, so I was really interested to see how she understood her place in her parents’ past.

For that reason we ended up spending more time on the questions about her relationship to her family’s history than the others. It was really interesting to hear her talk about finding a sense of community in a shared American history despite not being “genetically American” herself.

From this, I think we can make a few interesting observations about how a person’s perceived past often has a lot more to do with their worldview than it does their DNA. For instance, while Beckerink expressed an interest in finding out more about her biological parents, she was much more concerned about the history of her community and the U.S. than she was with that. Also, Russian history never even came to the conversation. If a lot of far-right-wing theories about genealogy and culture are correct, we would see people like Beckerink place a lot more emphasis on the cultures where they can trace their genealogical heritage. But we don’t see that. Instead, history as a shared understanding of the past seems to be more closely related to upbringing and cultural heritage.

Grūtas Park

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania had a lot of leftover statues of former Communist leaders. To start, most of them were taken down and placed into storage. However, in 2001, one man, Viliumas Malinauskas — a “mushroom magnate” — requested that he be given 86 of the statues. That year, he used all of the statues to build Grūtas Park, a forested park in Lithuania that, among the statues of mostly dead Communists, also contains play grounds and a gift shop.

According to an article in The Economist about Grūtas Park in 2017, Malinauskas’ goal was to save these impressive works of art from a destiny of rusting into obscurity, but to simultaneously contextualize them in a way which reflects how they are currently understood by the Lithuanian population.

“Grutus Park remains an interesting example of how statues can be recontextualized,” the article reads. “As countries grapple with their unsavoury pasts and consider the rightful place of their controversial monuments, the park offers and alternative model to museums or destruction.”

Personally, I think Grūtas Park is a really good example of how the environment surrounding any kind of monument is often reflective of the attitude that the governing body holds towards the people, ideas, or events being depicted. In other words, statues of Josef Stalin have a significantly different connotation when they are placed in a different context.

However, as good of an analog for Confederate monuments as Grūtas Park could be, there is one glaring difference. Nearly everyone in Lithuania, at least in 2001, agreed that Soviet Communism had been a bad thing for their country. Remember, these statues were not taken from pedestals to this park. Originally, they were left to deteriorate because the people through their government had chosen to no longer venerate the Stalins and Lenins of their past. Many Americans, on the other hand, are still strongly pro-Confederacy. In turn, the government that represents those people — Alabama’s for instance — has not only not removed the monuments, but it has made it legally more difficult for local municipalities to get rid of their own.

Grūtas Park is a great example of how the historical and artistic value of statues can be venerated and appreciated far from the public eye of a town square. Simultaneously, it is also an example of how reaching that point of historic and contextual appreciation cannot be achieved until a large enough governing body agrees to no longer glorify the ideas expressed in those statues.