What lessons can we learn from the NPS’s President’s House?

With the start of 2011 comes the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – the War Between the States, the War of the Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression, the War for Southern Independence, the Freedom War. All of these names have appeared in history text books. The version of the war I studied in school is different than the version you studied. What you learned about the causes of the Civil War depends on the decade and the state in which you were educated.

Ever since the South lost the war, Southerners have been writing revisionist histories, trying to claim the Civil War was fought over states rights, tariffs, or taxes. These stories continue to be told today…I  read an article just last week that stated that Abraham Lincoln was so hated that all the Southern states seceded upon his election. They imply that Lincoln was so polarizing a figure that we fought a war over him! James W. Loewen’s “Five myths about why the South seceded” from The Washington Post gives a good overview of the revisionist theories and why they are false.

What the revisionist historians are trying to cover up, of course, was that the Civil War was really fought for one single reason, and that reason was slavery.

Over the past decade, much scholarship has gone into proving these revisionist theories wrong, and we observe the 150th anniversary of the War with a more transparent and honest approach than has existed before. One place this is visible is at the new National Park Service exhibit “The President’s House” in Philadelphia. For a look at the new exhibit, you can visit the Park Service site here.

Problems existed from the beginning. The new interpretative space is built on the site of the original President’s house, but was required to be an outdoor space, accessible 24/7. This requirement severely limited the type of interpretation the Park could present. Additionally, the development team had the tall task of telling a variety of stories: life in colonial and early Federal Philadelphia; the Presidencies of Washington and Adams, who lived in the house before the capital moved to Washington; what the archeology of the home site told us about the past. But they also had to confront the fact that George Washington — one of the men who fought for our independence –  was a slave holder. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but the archeological remains on the site showed slave tunnels, and the interpretation needed to address it. So many restrictions; so many stories; so many goals…this project was burdened heavily before it even began.

The finished interpretative site was reviewed by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times in December, and his article contains what is, in my opinion, a frank discussion about whether the final interpretation of so many varied themes at The President’s House was successful. He felt it was not, an opinion that several in Philadelphia took issue with (Critique of The President’s House was Off-Base). Further follow-up and discussion on the topic from Rothstein is here  — To Each His Own Museum, as Identity Goes on Display.

My blog isn’t the place to discuss who is right and who is wrong in the battle of opinions over The President’s House. Plus, I haven’t seen the exhibit, so I have no personal opinion to add. However, what I take from these articles, and from The President’s House project, is a warning other museums should hede. Most of you aren’t operating on the scale of the National Park Service, and your exhibits won’t be reviewed by The New York Times. But if you are a site dealing with colonial, Federal, or antebellum history, you are probably dealing with finding an appropriate, sensitive, and honest way to tell the story of slavery. And even if your museum does not relate to slavery, you undoubtedly have wrestled with trying to combine multiple stories and histories into one cohesive display.

Here is my take on what happened at The President’s House: there were too many players, too many stories, and a loss of vision. The situation reminds me of the old adage: “A camel is a horse built by a committee.” The President’s House is a camel. Sometimes, when you are so busy trying to please everyone, you end up with an exhibit that accomplishes nothing. I think that was the point Rothstein was trying to make.

It’s bound to happen again and again as we put together exhibits and materials for the Civil War anniversary. Slavery is a hard story for museums to tell, because it is an ugly splotch on our country’s proud history. The President’s House deserves credit because it valiantly tried to tell the stories of Philadelphia, of Washington and Adams, of archeology, and of Washington’s slaves. Although the result may be somewhat muddled – a camel – at least they tried to be transparent and honest about the paradox of a slave-owning Founding Father. This is a step forward.

As you wrestle with similar issues in your own exhibit designs, focus in on the story you want to tell – don’t try to take on too much. Keep your focus on that story as you work. Be sure that the final result is something that tells an accurate and compelling story. Don’t build a camel, build a horse.

 

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About marketearlyamerica

I am a non-profit marketing expert with over 11 years in the field and experience with multiple organizations. I have a passion for historic America and hope to help the folks running our historic homes and living history museums to make the money and attract the attention they need to care for and restore these national gems.
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