Monday, April 29, 2013

A thought about the preservation of historic sites.

Partners in Preservation is holding a contest to choose a historical site for a preservation grant in the Washington Metropolitan Area. The candidates include a church, a synagogue and a cathedral, a store, a theater and a pet cemetery. Some are very old, others not so old. Some are of national importance, others have local supporters. I wonder how you choose which to support (other by Internet voting, which doesn't seem very rational to me).

Over the weekend I saw a discussion on American History TV titled "Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites". The discussion focused on such sites as Jefferson's Monticello, James Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland and James Madison's Montpelier. In each case, the building occupied by the former President had been the initial target for preservation, and now attention is being expanded to consider how the slave population that lived at the plantation might be represented at the site, how their lives might be interpreted, and indeed how the president as plantation owner lived at the plantation and how the plantation worked.

It seems to me that the organizations in charge of the sites got it right in that the first priority should be to stabilize the existing major building and remove the later modifications and additions that detract from its functions of showing how a founding father lived. I also agree that showing the homes in the broader perspective makes sense, and I empathize with those who want to see the lives of the plantation slaves commemorated.

Of course, those who take on the responsibility of maintaining a historic site have to make the choices of what to preserve, what to restore, what to interpret and ho to interpret it. There are people interested in how buildings were constructed and others interested in how plantations functioned and the technology that they used; thus some sites can quite legitimately emphasize those aspects of their site work.

I am glad that the plantations and homes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe have been preserved.

My own preference would be to see these used to help Americans understand American history and the story of the United States. Of course we have the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial as monuments to these men, monuments that justly celebrate the cultural understanding of their roles as founding fathers.

When we look at the history of the country we should recognize the faults as well as the successes of that history. The concentration of wealth and power (Washington may have been the wealthiest man in America of his time, and our richest president), the exploitation of slave labor, the removal of Indians for the benefit of well connected European immigrants are all part of the history of America.

Note too that our views of history change. The history of 18th and 19th century America will be told differently in a century or two than it is today. Thus if Mount Vernon and Monticello are to continue teaching history in future centuries, they will have to be differently managed and presented in the future than they are today.

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